Crime in mass media


By Masud Khabeki

like any other society the people in Pakistan are fascinated with crime and justice stories appeared in media. From films, books, newspapers, magazines, television broadcasts, to everyday conversations, we are constantly engaged in crime “talk”. The mass media play an important role in the construction of criminality and the criminal justice system. The public’s perception of victims, criminals, deviants, and law enforcement officials is largely determined by their portrayal in the mass media. Research indicates that the majority of public knowledge about crime and justice is derived from the media. Therefore, it is imperative to examine the effects that the mass media have on attitudes toward crime and justice. As the modern media landscape is filled with reports on crime, from dedicated sections in local newspapers to TV shows. According to a study, mass media serves as the primary source of information about crime for up to 95% of the general public. The academic analysis of crime in popular culture and mass media has been concerned with the effects on the viewers, the manner in which these stories are presented and how that can have an impact on our perceptions about crime. How can these images shape our views, attitudes, and actions?

It is agreed that majority of the people come to know about crime or criminal activity through the mass media news-papers, television, books or films. This is because the general public has little first hand-hand knowledge about crime or the criminal justice system unless they are victims or perpetrators. Newspapers and television coverage of crime stories influenced people’s knowledge about crime and may enhance their fear of becoming a victim. Media coverage in itself may affect people’s behavior women and the elderly for example are often scared to walk the streets at night for fear of being raped or mugged, and parents may be frightened to let their children out of the house alone through fear of kidnapping, sexual assault or murder. In reality of course, the chance of such events happening is very small, and fears emerge from high profile media coverage.

Again, media seems to be selective even in reporting crime or portraying the criminal activity because of the reasons only known to them. The selectivity of events by the media means that a very unrepresentative picture of crime may be given by the media. From all the possible new stories about crime, the media can only select a small number. This selection will depend on decisions as to whether or not such stories are newsworthy. What makes a story newsworthy is likely to be its novelty or dramatic elements. Thus, cases reported in newspapers are likely to be unusual or have elements capable of providing drama or titillation. Most researchers would appear to agree for example, that sexual and violent crimes, which play on the public’s fear, are more likely to be reported than more common kinds of crime such as theft or vandalism. In addition, these kinds of crime are selectively reported with an over-emphasis on, for example, serial killers or rapists. Many have argued that the reporting of rape tends to focus on the ‘sex fiend’ who attacks women in public placeswhereas in reality women are more likely to be raped in private places, by people they know.

In recent times we have a witnessed a surge in crime news coverage in the newspaper medium, which often faces fewer constraints with respect to space and time compared to other formats (television), thereby enabling more stories to be generated. Despite the fact that certain crimes are considerably more common (e.g., property crimes), violent crimes are covered much more frequently. Even still, not all violent crimes receive equal coverage. In fact, stories that are deemed sensational are not reported on the same across the board. One of the many contributing factors that determine whether or not a case receives media attention is the newsworthiness of its victims. According to the researchers, these individuals were the youngest and oldest age groups, women, of high socioeconomic status, and killed by strangers. The high levels of television news consumption and newspapers readership about criminal activities have resulted in increased fear of victimization and crime. Likewise, the white-collar crime has witnessed a very low coverage as it is difficult to portray the effects on the victims of this type of crime, even the reports failed to identify the real victims who have been targeted by the sophisticated crime.

More recently in Pakistan “action news” formats, driven by enhanced live broadcast technologies and consultant recommendations designed to improve ratings, changed the nature of television news, a shift from public affairs journalism about politics, issues, and government toward an emphasis on profitable live, breaking news from the scene of the crime. The type includes the coverage of adulteration, fake brands, quacksalver and false pretenses etc. Although the crime rate is falling as far as the acts of terrorism are concerned, but most people didn’t perceive it that way. Newspaper reports also tend to simplify crime stories, providing little by way of extended analysis. News reports about crimes are necessarily abbreviated accounts of events, focusing on those aspects considered likely to attract the public’s attention. This is also the case when the criminal statistics are reported. Although these are complex documents requiring careful interpretation, reports in the media tend to focus on simple question about whether some kinds of crime have risen or fallen.

The media may also set in train what is called a moral panic about a particular kind of crime. This happens where a spectacular incident or series of incidents, for example a riot, a series of child sexual abuse cases, or someone being killed by joyriders, alerts the public to a particular problem. The media may effectively create a new form of crime. Once the public has been alerted, there may be a tendency for more of these crimes to be reported both to the police and by the media, as they have now been identified as newsworthy. This gives the impression that there has been an increase in these crimes, which may be far from truth. Following this the media may then report comments of police, judges, and academic experts in an attempt to further explore this new problem. Often the problem was not newit has simply not been seen as newsworthy before. Thus, for example, rising rates of crime by young offenders are often seen as a symptom of declining standards of education or discipline, the increase in permissiveness, the decline in family and community or the effects of popular entertainment.


Masud Khabeki is adjunct professor criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi.