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Media Representations Of Violence Essay Research Paper

Media Representations Of Violence Essay, Research Paper

The article “Violence to a T” (Ogg 1997, p. 3) is typical of the style and content of crime news reporting found in the mass media. That is, most crime news stories reported in the media misrepresent the “crime problem” by focussing only on certain types of crimes. Those crimes are usually bizarre or unusual events, such as murder or kidnapping. This focus presents the public with the image that the majority of crime involves personal violence. Added to this, the style of presentation adopted by the media serves to enhance the nature of the crime in the readers mind, reinforcing the theme than most crime is violent in nature. Moreover, the article “Violence to a T”, like many other crime news stories, is presented without any discussion of possible causes.

In contrast to the media’s assessment and representation of crime, the field of criminology offers a wider examination of crime. It also attempts to account for why crimes occur through the application of various theories aimed at uncovering the cause of crime. Two such theories are classical theory and strain theory. When each theory is applied to a crime its strengths and weaknesses can be examined. The theory most appropriate to the particular crime can then be used to properly explain the underlying causes for criminal behaviour.

The crimes reported in the article “Violence to a T” continues a common theme in the media’s assessment and representation of crime as consisting mainly of violent events. For example, the crimes referred to in the article are mainly of a violent nature, such as murder, robbery, kidnapping and assault. The tendency to promote violent themes has been found in studies of other media sources around the world. In particular, a study by Williams and Dickinson (1993) investigated the crime news content of newspapers across the United Kingdom. They found that 64.5 percent of crime news stories involved personal violence (p. 40). In contrast, official figures show that violent crimes only account for six percent of the total number of crimes (p. 40.).

Moreover, this preoccupation the media has for crimes of violence is not restricted to the print medium. The electronic media has also added to the perception that crime is violent. In particular, a study conducted by Barak (1994) found that eighty seven percent of television crime involved violence in the form of murder, robbery, kidnapping and aggravated assault (p. 136). Again, the official figures held by the FBI show that only ten percent of crimes were committed against the person (p. 136). It appears the media only focusses on crimes of an unusual and violent nature so that it will grab the readers’ attention and sell their product (Daly 1995, p. 16). Indeed, the violent crime stories do grab the readers’ attention and have a significant influence on their perception of crime in society (ibid. pp. 11-12).

Recent studies have shown that the media do have an important influence on the public perception of crime. For example, a study by Surette (cited in Daly 1995, pp. 11 – 12) in 1992 showed that some individuals were more susceptible to media influences than others, especially for events perceived to be outside the person’s own experience. Additionally, an investigation conducted by Booth (cited in Williams & Dickinson 1993, p. 36) suggests that certain styles of reporting serve to enhance the messages the media is conveying to its readers. In particular, increasing the salience of a headline or attaching a photograph adds to the influence of the report. This last point is especially relevant to the “Violence to a T” article, where both salience – using a large font for the headline – and the use of a photograph have been utilised to add to the story’s impact on the reader.

In contrast to the media’s assessment and representation of crime, the criminological study of crime presents a view that is based on an examination of the official figures, without specific focus on one crime at the expense of others. Additionally, unlike the journalists, who presents the crimes without examining their underlying causes, criminologist’s investigate the circumstances surrounding the crime and attempt to identify possible causes for the occurrence of crime. In their attempt to discover the possible causes for crime criminologist’s usually adopt a particular theoretical perspective. Two of the main criminological theories are classical theory, and strain theory.

Classical theory originated during the middle period of the eighteenth century, and marked the end of the feudal system of law administration (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 57; White & Haines 1996, pp. 21-22). The fundamental principal of this theory was based on the belief that people freely choose what they do and are responsible for the consequences of their behaviour (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 57). Additionally, these choices were seen to be the result of an individual making a rational decision regarding what they considered to be appropriate behaviour. Each person is seen to have an equal capacity to reason and make these rational decisions (White & Haines 1996, p. 27). More importantly, the individual is seen to make decisions based on reasons of self-interest (ibid. p. 26). Therefore, rational choices would be ones where the individual would benefit the most.

In its application, the premise of classical theory that individual members of the 5T gang acted purely out of self-interest is supported by the articles description of the members as “…driving flash cars and dripping in gold…”. In addition, the view that people became members of the 5T gang to make “easy money” gives further weight to the argument asserting that the self-interested nature of the gang members influenced them to commit crime.

However, classical theory seems to weaken in its application to this crime when it comes to an explanation beyond reasons based on self-interest. That is, according to classical theory, criminal behaviour is believed to result where an individual makes a rational decision to do wrong, after weighing up the advantages and disadvantages (White & Haines 1996, p. 28). Given the criminal justice systems’ use of punishment, based on the pleasure-pain principle to deter criminal behaviour (White & Haines 1996, p. 28), together with the fact that many members of the gang have already been caught, criminal activity continues to occur, seemingly without restraint. There appears to be underlying causes that classical theory is inadequately equipped to uncover.

Conversely, strain theory expands the analysis to include a study of the factors that may have influenced members of the 5T to commit crime. Before beginning that analysis, it must be recognised that at the basic level both classical theory and strain theory agree that there is a general consensus of values within society. From the classical perspective this consensus takes the form of a social contract, where members of a society agree upon the basic rights of individuals to be free from interference from other individuals or the state (White & Haines 1996, p. 27). Similarly, strain theory suggests there is a general consensus or agreement of the values and norms in society (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 111).

However, the similarities between the two theories disappear when the focus on the crime changes to an analysis of causation. At this point strain theory provides possible answers for the cause of the continuing crime problem portrayed in the article. In particular, strain theory suggests the cause of crime is outside the control of the individual and is essentially a social phenomenon (White & Haines 1996, p. 59). The social forces that impact on individuals and provoke them into behaving in a criminal manner relate to blocked opportunities (White & Haines 1996, p. 60). That is, society holds out the same goals to all its members, but not everyone is equally equipped with the means to attain these goals (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 111). As a result, the unequal distribution of opportunities causes a strain within society that leads to criminal behaviour. This explanation of the cause of crime is particularly useful in the analysis of the crimes portrayed in the article about the 5T gang.

There are a number aspects of strain theory that are especially relevant in explaining why members of the 5T gang continue to commit crime, regardless of the deterrence effect of criminal prosecution. Firstly, criminal behaviour is the result of strain caused by blocked opportunities, where not every person in society possesses the resources to achieve socially defined goals. That is, society holds out certain goals as socially desirable. In this case, material wealth is the socially desirable goal, evidenced by the gang members’ aspirations to own “flash” cars and gold. The means by which most of society’s members achieve these goals is through acceptable avenues, such as work. However, if an individual does not have acceptable means available them, they may resort to alternative means, such as crime (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 112).

Second, and also related to blocked opportunities, social disorganisation results in the discarding of cultural norms and values that would normally prevent deviant or criminal behaviour. The discarding of cultural norms and values occurs where the is conflict between the norms and values of immigrant cultures with the more dominant norms and values of mainstream society (White & Haines 1996, pp. 64-65). This is particularly relevant to an analysis of the 5T gang. The members of the gang are predominantly Vietnamese youths who are forced to cope within a society dominated by the values and norms based on the capitalist ideal of wealth accumulation. Without the means to achieve these ideals the members of the gang resort to criminal behaviour as an alternative to acceptable means. In addition, social disorganisation is compounded by inequalities related to unemployment, poverty, lack of education and language barriers, which may also contribute further to blocking access to the desired goals (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 111).

Lastly, the formation of a gang creates a subculture where the values and norms of that gang promote criminal behaviour as an acceptable means by which goals can be achieved. The perpetuation of criminal norms is achieved through a process that Sutherland and Cressy have identified as differential association (cited in White & Haines, 1996, p. 68). Basically, differential association refers to the learning of criminal techniques, and the internalisation of criminal motives and attitudes, together with definitions favourable to the violation of law. Upon examining the picture the media paints in the article on the 5T, it is clear that there is a strong criminal theme to the norms and values held by the group. Moreover, the easy money and acquisition of material wealth, in the form of cars and gold, afforded by virtue of criminal activities enhances the definitions favourable to law violation.

Although strain theory has been particularly useful in the analysis of crime causation with specific reference to the article concerning the 5T gang, it does not offer a comprehensive analysis of the total crime problem. That is, it is mainly focussed on “working class” or “blue collar” crime, while “white collar” and corporate crimes, such as fraud and environmental destruction go virtually unnoticed (Adler, Mueller & Laufer 1995, p. 115; White & Haines 1996, p. 71). It may well be the case that if the crime under consideration related more to the later a classical approach may have been more relevant.

To conclude, media representations of crime misrepresent the nature of crime and suggest that the majority of crimes contain violence in some form. In reality, violent events account for only a small proportion of the total number of crimes. However, the public perception of crime is significantly influenced by the content and style of crime news reporting. As a result, many people may gain the impression that crime, and violence in particular, is on the increase.

In contrast to the media’s misrepresentation of crime, criminological analysis has offered a different view. Initially, it has shown that violent crime is not a significant feature of the total picture of crime. In addition, the criminological study of crime from varying theoretical perspectives has revealed possible explanations for why crime occurs. However, the strength of the theory being used is influenced by the nature of the crime under examination. For example, in the analysis of the 5T article, strain theory was more suited to explaining the underlying causes, while classical theory was somewhat limited because of its narrow focus on the issue of free will and individual choices. Alternatively, if the crime was of a different nature, such as corporate fraud, a classical approach may have been more appropriate.


Adler, F., Mueller, G.O.W., & Laufer, W.S. 1995, Criminology, McGraw-Hill: New York.

Barak, G. 1994, Between the Waves: Mass-Mediated Themes of Crime and Justice’, Social Justice, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 133-147.

Daly, K. 1995, Celebrated Crime Cases and the Public’s Imagination: From Bad Press to Bad Policy?’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, pp. 6-22.

Ogg, M. 1997, Violence to a T’, Daily Telegraph, 14 April, p. 3.

White, R. & Haines, F. 1996, Crime and Criminology: An Introduction, Oxford University Press: Melbourne.

Williams, P. & Dickinson, J. 1993, Fear of Crime: Read all About It? The Relationship Between Newspaper Crime Reporting and Fear of Crime’, British Journal of Criminology, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 33-56.