The Portrayal of Criminals


The relationship between the media and crime is complicated to say the least. Although crime is bound to happen whether or not the media choose to report it, what we can say for certain is that the media controls the portrayal of these crimes and offenders.

The media holds an unrivalled power over us and the ultimate narrative. Our perceptions are at the mercy of what the media want it to be. The question is, how are our attitudes towards crime molded by the media, and what are the ultimate consequences of this?

One thing the media does very well in its reporting of crime  is cast what sociologist, Stan Cohen, calls the “folk devil”. The “folk devil” is often at the centre of the narrative that the media constructs, and they are designed to be the big villain at the centre of crime reporting, leaving consumers living in fear of the criminal that the media has chosen to cast. According to Cohen, these aforementioned “folk devils” are often part of a particular social group that we are supposed to fear. When Cohen performed his study in the 1970s, he found that these “folk devils” were often part of a popular, yet violent, youth subculture at the time: “mods and rockers”.

Apparently, when the media report on the deviant behaviour of  these fearsome “folk devils”, this leads to a “moral panic”, which is a state of frenzy and intense fear amongst the public. This “moral panic”, which occurs as a result of the media sensationalising and embellishing reports of crime, is argued by sociologists to be something that goes beyond overly enthusiastic storytelling. It’s argued that these “moral panics” in crime reporting are actually intentionally manufactured by the media in order to detract the public’s attention from something more sinister. Stuart Hall, for example, argues that the “moral panic” surrounding muggers in the 1970s’ (specifically focusing on the race of the offenders) was something the media heavily exaggerated in order to draw attention away from government corruption.

If you want to question how applicable this theory is almost 50 years later, look no further than the reports of knife crime in London. A week doesn’t go by where I don’t scroll past headlines detailing the latest “bloodbath” in London. Each breaking news story is seemingly more graphic, involves more casualties and constantly reinforces this idea that nowhere in London is safe from teenagers lurking in dark corners to senselessly stab you. Although there is an evident problem surrounding knife crime and young people, it’s equally as evident that the media, in their reporting of this, are attempting to generate a “moral panic”. Whilst “mods and rockers” were cast as the “folk devils” at the centre of this moral crisis in the 1970s’, this time around it’s troubled teenagers. All of whom are embroiled in gangs from the age of 11 and would murder each other based solely on their postcode or – as argued in recent reports – with no reason at all. They are seen as unpredictable, illogical actors who are violent for the sake of being violent. This in turn reinforces this notion of constant danger for Londoners.

Yet, if there is a moral panic, surely there is something deeper the media is trying to detract attention from. But what is it that they are trying so desperately hard to distract us from? As well as the clear disaster that is Brexit and the Pandora’s Box of issues that come from that, if we dig a bit deeper we can find ourselves questioning why young people are in a position where they rely on knife crime in the first place? Under the Tory government, support for young people in all areas has been cut. Between 2010 and 2015 CAHMS, which focuses on the mental health of young people, saw its spending fall by £50mn, and although pledges have been made to increase spending over the last few years, there are still countless young people left stranded on waiting lists, missing out on vital mental health services. Could this be why they are turning to crime? Where is the money pledged to CAHMS actually going? These are all questions we should be asking, but instead we are swept up in this media frenzy of a knife crime epidemic, all the while funding for the police force has steadily decreased.

The media seems to conveniently overlook these factors in favour of reinforcing this idea of senseless, uncontrollable violence.  They have rarely placed criminals in context, and created a myth that society is absolved from blame. But this is not true. The root causes of crime are often social failings, and are related to poverty and welfare. Rather than attempting to blindside us from the issue, they should be leading the way for the public to acknowledge these factors and, from there, help to fight for real institutional change. This will provide a stepping stone towards finding a real solution to this problem rather than exaggerating the issue itself.


Wessex Scene Editor // meme queen // fan of chocolate digestives // @colombochar on Twitter.

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