Media and Crime
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Last updated 30 Jul 2018
Let's start by exploring whether media might be a cause of crime.
The hypodermic syringe model of media influence suggests that the audience receives media messages and is directly and passively influenced by them, rather than actively engaging with them. Although the theory is dated (from the 1930s, influenced by studies of the impact of Nazi propaganda in Germany) there is some evidence to support the idea. This evidence relates specifically to the potential influence of the media on children in relation to violent behaviour.
A classic psychological study: Bandura's Bobo Doll experiment. The experiment involved children playing with a "bobo doll". Those who had watched adults violently attack the doll copied the behaviour, which Bandura claimed shows that violence is learned behaviour. If his conclusions are correct, then children exposed to violent images in the media might learn that such behaviour is normal and act out the scenes in real life.
There have been real‐life incidents of children committing very violent crimes after having watched very violent media. The most well‐known case in the UK was the murder of Jamie Bulger. Jamie Bulger was a two‐year‐old boy who was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten‐year‐old boys; prior to the crime, they had apparently watched one of the Child's Play series of horror films. While other cases (like the Columbine High School massacre) have sparked debate about the possible influence of the media ‐ the killers had been listening to violent song lyrics by Marylin Manson ‐ there is little question about the influence in the Jamie Bulger case. There is also the suggestion that media violence leads to desensitisation, meaning people become less shocked by violence and therefore more likely to employ it themselves.
Therefore, some argue that the increase in violent media images together with increased access to such images might have had an impact on overall levels of violent crime.
Evaluating the Media as A Cause of Crime
While watching violent media images might have influenced some violent crimes, it is clear that thousands watch these programmes or play these video games without going on to commit criminal violence. Therefore, while it might influence people's behaviour, it cannot be the sole cause of the crimes.
Some argue that, far from people being desensitised by violent media, they are sensitised by it. If people see the horrific consequences of violent behaviour, they are less likely to act in a violent way.
Pluralist and post‐modern sociologists argue that modern audiences are much more active than those portrayed by the hypodermic syringe model. They suggest that audiences choose what to watch and how they wish to engage with it.
There have been lots of methodological criticisms of Bandura's study. Some argue that the children merely learnt how to play with the doll, and they were aware that it was a harmless activity. There was no reason to assume they would behave in similar ways outside the laboratory and with anything other than a doll.
The Media and Deviancy Amplification
While the media might not cause crime, interactionists like Stan Cohen argue that it amplifies it through the process of labelling and creating folk devils and moral panics.
Deviancy amplification as a process contributing to some criminality seems very convincing. Unquestionably, people in Birmingham or Manchester would not have rioted on those particular nights in 2011 were it not for the media coverage of events in London. The same could be said of "creepy clowns" in 2016. Whatever reason the original creepy clowns might have had for dressing and behaving as they did, most only joined in because they had seen reports of previous incidents in the media.
However, while the media might "advertise" particular forms of deviant behaviour, it seems less credible that media reporting might encourage otherwise law‐abiding citizens to commit crimes. In the example of the 2011 riots, the vast majority of the rioters processed by the criminal justice system had previous convictions. In other words, while the media might have given them the idea to loot or vandalise on that evening, it did not make them deviant: they were already criminals.