Mediatizing Law and Order

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The following essay was published in Crime, Media, and Culture in the Spring of 2007.

Mediatizing law and order:

Applying Cottle’s architecture of communicative frames to the social construction of crime and justice

Whether one is studying the interactions between ‘law and order’ or between ‘crime and
justice’, one should also at the same time be studying the social construction of these
phenomena as they are mediated through mass communications and popular culture:
‘Understanding the construction of newsmaking requires an examination of the conscious
and unconscious processes involved in the mass dissemination of symbolic consumer
goods’ (Barak, 1994: 3). In this Research Note, I argue that exploring these complex

social relations lies within the framing of the public articulation of what is meant by ‘law’,
‘order’, ‘crime’, and ‘justice’. More specifically, I contend that a very promising avenue
for unraveling the social construction of ‘law and order’ or of ‘crime and justice’ may be
found within Simon Cottle’s (2006) ‘communicative architecture of television news’.

As David Altheide (1987) pointed out 20 years ago in his analysis of US and UK
television coverage of terrorism, there are basic distinctions between ‘event-type’ frames
associated with regular evening news broadcasts and the ‘topic-type’ frames associated
with interviews and documentary presentations. For example, the former tend to focus
on visuals and the aftermath and tactics of terrorism, while the latter are more likely
to include materials about purposes, goals, and rationales. This is certainly no less the
case today, whether we are talking about the coverage of terrorism in the Middle East,
Southeast Asia, Europe, or North America. At the same time, in the contemporary world of
globalism a mixture of event and topic as well as other frames for representing ‘terrorism’
or ‘counterterrorism’, can be discerned (Altheide, 2006; Kavoori and Fraley, 2006).

For example, Cottle (2006) examined television news programming in six countries –
Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Singapore, and South Africa – in
the two-week period between 13–26 September 2004. His rather large sample of televized
news programs comprised 27 television channels, 4 international satellite providers, 56
different news programs, and 560 broadcast news programs. The sample itself consisted of
1662 terror-related news items, 17.2 percent of the total news sample of 9662 broadcast
news items gathered during the sample timeframe. And, while his study period was not

CRIME MEDIA CULTURE © 2007 SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi.

representative of the changing dynamics and major events characterizing the war on terror
over an extended period of time, it did, nevertheless, capture the systematic deployment
of communicative frames by television news broadcasts. It also illuminated how these
narrative frames conditioned and impacted the coverage of terrorism globally.

Cottle (2006: 21) set out to explore the way in which established media forms

‘mediatize’ or ‘shape, facilitate, and condition the communication of conflicts’. I am
suggesting in this piece why I think it is a good idea for students of crime, media, and
culture to pursue the more systematic study of the deployment and reception of the full
array of communicative frames used in the public domain to reproduce as well as to
resist the ideological, mythical, and political constructions of ‘law and order’, ‘crime and
justice’, or ‘war and peace’. There have been few studies that have sought to examine
how different media, genres, and formats enact the public display and deliberation of
opposing interests in times of war, insurgency, and terror. Cottle’s analysis provides a
very useful heuristic and theoretical model for sorting out the complexities involved in
the social construction and reproduction of mass-mediated notions of what should and
should not be a ‘crime’ and what should or should not constitute ‘justice’, and how both

of these are also framed in relation to a mass articulation of legal order and/or social
conflict (Mander, 1999).

Accordingly, it is argued here that the various communicative modes or frames of
visual and auditory expression that are institutionalizing the mass distribution of images
and narrative texts on crime and justice need to be fully examined and accounted for
by criminologists and others. In other words, analyses of the frames and genres that
are constantly reconstructing people’s perceptions of crime and justice, as well as their
understandings of the ways in which these perceptions are differentially ‘opened’ or
‘closed’ to the insertion of alternative meanings and articulations of law and justice, can
help provide a means or a praxis for those wishing to engage with the mass media over
the social construction of what constitutes crime and justice, or law and order. In the rest of
this Research Note, I will do three things: (1) provide an overview of Cottle’s communicative
architecture of television journalism; (2) share some preliminary thoughts about the
application of Cottle’s mediatized analysis of terrorism to the study of representing, in
various modes or genres of primarily news communication, issues of law and order, or of
crime and justice; and (3) discuss a few of the potential implications for mediatizing the
study of crime, media, and culture.


Cottle (2006) contends that there are a number of ‘communicative frames’ routinely
structuring the presentation and elaboration of conventional news stories, which are
fundamental to television journalism. He has empirically demonstrated that these frames
have become ‘naturalized’ over time and have been virtually, if not universally, deployed
by television journalists around the world. However, the main contention is that his

‘communicative architecture of television news’ exhibits a complexity that has yet to be
recognized and properly assessed by researchers. This myopia to the complexity of mass
communication has undermined our dialectical appreciation of the circulation of conflicting

ideas generally, as well as our understanding, criminologically, of the mediatized ‘wars’ on

crime, drugs, and other social problems particularly (see also Kappeler et al., 1996;
Potter and Kappeler, 1998).

Cottle identifies a number of conventionally deployed communicative frames used by
television news/journalism, oriented toward either ‘conflict’ or ‘consensus’ (see Figure 1).
Narrative frames of social confl ict include: dominant, contest, contention, campaigning, and
expose/investigative. While each of these frames routinely structures the communication
of conflicts in different ways, they all do so in terms of propositions, claims, counterclaims,

and arguments. Narrative frames of social consensus include: community service,
collective interests, cultural recognition, and mythic tales. In contrast to the confl ictual
frames, these consensual frames are based more on ‘cultural display’ than on ‘analytic
deliberation’. Unlike the conflict-driven and analytical frames, the consensus frames tend
to work as a more ‘expressive’ mode of communication, moving from the semiotic to the
symbolic and mythic.

Finally, rounding out or completing Cottle’s communicative architecture of television
news/journalism are two archetypal news frames: reporting and reportage. Both of these
frames, though quite different in structure, add considerably to the complexity of the
mediatization of representation in general, or of law and order in particular, because each
form can variously draw upon both analytic/propositional and aesthetic/expressive (or
deliberative and display) modes of communication. Consistent with the daily production
cycles of television news, the classic or stock reporting frame functions in terms of
information conveyance and surveillance of current events. This mode of communication
delivers the cold hard facts; at best, these thin news accounts of events are typically without

context, background, explanation or competing definitions and accounts. Reporting
frames, as Cottle (2006) explains, privilege ‘an epiphenomenal and disaggregated view of
reality in which violent events and reactions, rather than underlying conditions, possible
causes, or motivations, become the focal point’ (p. 25).

By contrast, the reportage frame ‘represents a relatively elaborative and often powerful
frame for the exploration of conflicts and their origins, dynamics, and impact’ (Cottle,
2006: 34). This frame serves to provide the means for generating a deeper understanding,
as it allows for ‘thicker’ rather than ‘thinner’ news reports. Reportage frames, given their
affinity with documentary modes (Nichols, 1991), and unlike reporting frames, provide
rich descriptions of reality, invariably moving the story treatment from ‘what is’ to ‘what
ought to be’. The point is that by employing film and other visuals as well as personal
testimonies, for example, reportage frames position themselves as well as viewers in the
place or virtual space of ‘bearing witness’, moving beyond the more dualistic frames of fact
and fi ction, and into emotional realms of human identifi cation (see also Nassar, 2005).


Comparatively speaking, in the USA, the televized nightly newscasts are about law and
disorder from an almost exclusively dominant and consensual reporting frame (Gans,
1980; Tunnell, 1992). The episodic news magazine shows like Sixty Minutes or Dateline
NBC focus more on the tensions between law and order as they tend to engage in an
array of other unevenly distributed frames, both consensual and conflictual. And, the
documentary, niche-oriented cable stations like Arts & Entertainment, The History Channel,
and Court TV portray the realities of both law and order or crime and justice from more
contextually based and historically driven representations, even if these are still framed
predominantly within a mainstream constitutional articulation (Barak, 2004).

The point being that when it comes to media studies of crime and justice, researchers,
scholars, and the public alike need to take into account the different news frames and
framing of law and order, crime and justice, violence and non-violence, war and peace,
and so on. In addition, these diverse non-fiction journalistic frames need to be incorporated
with fi ctional frames as well. By examining how these overlapping frames infl uence public
perceptions and/or expectations about, for example, the type of evidence jurors demand
for a conviction (or an acquittal) in different types of criminal (e.g. rape, murder, arson)
cases based on whether they watch prime-time television programs like Sixty Minutes and
20/20, or docudramas like CSI and Law and Order, or don’t watch any of these, we can
begin to assess the impact of these different frames on the evolving and relative character
of ‘reasonable doubt’ for different types of crime (Shelton, Kim, and Barak, 2007).

In the rest of this section, I will briefly discuss the news frames of televized journalism
as well as some of the associated interests and affiliated groups of each of Cottle’s frames
as these relate to shaping, facilitating, and conditioning communications on crime and
justice or law and order news. What follows is still conceptually speculative. Nevertheless,
my impressions of law and order or of crime and justice news representations seem to
parallel the same kinds of mediatized representations found by Cottle in his study of the
global war on terror, especially in terms of the relative distribution of the representative
frames of communication.

First, there are the two most predominant modes of communicative framing, namely,
the news-controlled ‘classic’ reporting frame with its mission ‘to inform’ in an ostensibly
detached, objective, and accurate representation, and the dominating frame, referring
to news stories that are clearly defined by a single external news source, usually derived
from some authority or officialdom, and less likely derivative of some challenger or other
groups within the social hierarchy. In the case of the reporting frame, reporters and
news editors are relatively independent to report on crime or on the administration of
criminal justice as they freely decide what is newsworthy. However, in the case of law
and order or crime and justice news it is typically the dominant frame, established by the
FBI, the Uniform Crime Report, and/or the various state and federal departments of law
enforcement and justice administration, for example, that casts its elite shadow over the
liberal democratic reporting frame. In combination, these two communicative frames
present law and order or crime and justice representations that are highly consensual or
one-dimensional in nature.

Second, in terms of the prevalence of crime and justice representations, there are the
conflictual news narratives framed around contests and contentions. In the framing of
contests, these adversarial stories are typically structured by a binary opposition with
both sides given approximately equal weight or representation. More complex is the
contention framing of crime and justice stories that involve an increased array of voices
or perspectives that can be articulated simultaneously. For example, in such high-profi le
crimes as the assault and rape of the Central Park jogger or the trial of O. J. Simpson for
double murder, the news stories were typically framed over time not only as contests
over guilt and innocence, but also as contentions over the more nuanced and qualifying

engagements of different interests and identities that expressed themselves in these
legal cases. These stories typically pitted the social causes of alleviating class, gender,
and racial/ethnic injustices against each other. As Lynn Chancer (2005) and others have
demonstrated, both contest and contention frames allow for all kinds of commentary
and criticism from legal experts, journalistic pundits, and social activists. They offer up a
diversity of voices, including alternative ones, that may challenge or usurp, for example,
the dominant ideology of ‘equal justice for all’.

Third, as is often discussed on the Sunday morning news magazine roundtables on
ABC, NBC, and CBS in the USA, the remaining two conflictual frames, expose/investigation
and campaigning are comparatively rarer frames today than in years past. For example, it
is commonly acknowledged by news people, political pundits, and academics alike, that
there has been a loss or a decline in the usage of the expose/ investigative frame that
once conformed to the idealized liberal democratic role of journalism as public watchdog.

In other words, the self-proclaimed champion of the Fourth Estate, epitomized by the
headier days of Watergate and Iran Contragate has more recently become a kin to a
journalistically ‘light’, sedate, and relatively safe newsmaking. Even in an era bombarded
with all of the illegal activities and corruptions found on Wall Street and in the Bush II
Administration post-9/11, investigative journalistic news seems to have ‘no legs’ at all. As
for campaigning or political frames, whether calling for law and order in general or for
getting tough on street criminals and other law violators in particular, there was in 1968
beginning with Richard Nixon’s campaign for President and continuing virtually every four
years up until the 2000 and 2004 elections, a clear effort on the part of both major
political parties to be hard on indexed crimes.

There has been only one exception to this presidential election rule, and that was post-
Watergate, when Jimmy Carter came out tough in his first State of the Union address
against white-collar and suite crime. Of course, campaigning frames on law and order
were essentially absent from the past two elections, as street crime continued to decline
for 9 and 13 years respectively even though corporate crime and corruption were soaring in
epidemic proportions. Moreover, in the context of the overriding articulation of the ‘global
war on terrorism’, the old proverbial ‘war on crime’ frame has taken a back seat to the
new ‘war on terror’ frame. As President George W. Bush is so fond of saying, ‘terrorism
is no simple case of law enforcement and crime fighting, this is serious business …’ (Press
Conference, 21 August 2006).

Fourth, regarding the consensual frames – community service, collective interests,
cultural recognition, and mythic tales – all seem to be relatively scarce. And yet, it is these
frames that seem to work their way back almost unconsciously through both confl ictual
and consensual modes of communication. Cultural recognition, for example, can facilitate
cultural conflict, identity politics, and cultures of difference leading toward extreme
nationalism, ethnocentricity, or cultural homogeneity, on the one hand, and it can display
and endorse various views of multicultural diversity, tolerance, and understanding, on
the other hand. Moreover, just as the war on terror readily draws lines between ‘Us’ and
‘Them’ and threatens to further marginalize minority groups already distanced as Other
within imagined international communities, the same can be said of the war on crime
and its marginalization of the Other at home; both express the dynamics of inclusion and

Certainly, the mythic frame that circulates subliminally, if not more directly, as a subtext
of crime and justice news is perpetuated by a number of myths or misconceptions which,
despite their falsity, help establish a credible, dramatic, socially constructed representation
of perceived realities about crime and criminal justice (Kappeler et al., 1996; Bohm and
Walker, 2006). These mythic frames are not, in fact, about imparting knowledge or new
information. On the contrary, they are about drawing upon or reaching into the cultural
reservoirs of all communities, and coming up with emotionally charged and symbolic
displays of preexistent values, narratives, and fears.

As for consensual frames of community service and collective interests, these also go
beyond the classic news reporting frames. In the community service frames, news media
explicitly advise audiences on what new information is about, for example, what crime and
cyberspace mean, and how might they manifest in the theft of their identities, and what
they should do or not to prevent themselves from becoming victimized. These news frames
are advisory or service oriented and lend themselves to pedagogy. Collective news frames,
among the most rare of frames, do not simply report and advise on new forms of crime
and law enforcement. Rather, they ‘elaborate and visualize collective interests through their
identification of “common interest” subject matter, often embodying and/or prescribing
shared communal values or sentiments’ (Cottle, 2006: 31). While these are generally ‘feel
good’ human interest stories that transcend, at least temporarily, geopolitical divisions, they
may also be employed in the name of fighting environmental crime or in pursuing social and
economic justice for all.


What I have argued is that the study of media, crime, justice, and culture could be more
inclusive, holistic, and integrative in its foci, and that the time has come to develop more
culturally and materially nuanced accounts of the representations of law and order, or
of crime and justice. This is not a particularly new argument. In an age of globalization
and satellite communication, however, it has become even more relevant as the blending
of genres and frames becomes virtual and as crime and justice, law and order, become
increasingly a cultural hybridization of materiality and hyperreality (Arrigo, 1996).

Nevertheless, as Cottle’s (2006) communicative architecture reveals, we have to date given

scant attention to ‘exactly how mediatization is enacted in and through the media’s available
communicative forms’ (p. 44).

Twenty years ago next year, in a Justice Quarterly article, using the insights of Stan
Cohen, Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and others, and in accordance with a
Gramscian approach to hegemony and class struggle, I introduced the concept and

practice of ‘newsmaking criminology’ (Barak, 1988); referring to the ‘processes whereby
criminologists use mass communication for the purposes of interpreting, informing and
altering the images of crime and justice, crime and punishment, and criminals and victims’
(Barak, 2001: 190). Six years later in an edited volume devoted to studies in newsmaking
criminology, Stuart Henry (1994) elaborated on four styles of newsmaking criminology,
namely the criminologist as ‘expert’, ‘journalist’, ‘subject’, and ‘educative provocateur’. In
the same reader, Cecil Greek (1994) asked whether or not newsmaking criminology was
even possible. His answer was as follows:

My experience and that of others leads me to conclude that trying to use the media
to bring the findings of criminological research to a larger audience and enlighten the
public is a more difficult task than originally envisioned. It requires an understanding
of how the media operate, knowledge of how to communicate successfully in a
variety of formats and circumstances, and advance preparation. (p. 280)

Greek is essentially correct. I know from both my own attempts as well as the failed
and successful attempts by many colleagues. Success, when it comes, usually does so
because the newsmaking criminologist has a thorough understanding and appreciation
for the particular format, frame, or genre and the associated workings of each. Thus, one
implication, at least with respect to newsmaking criminology, is to make sure that one is
using the appropriate discourse or style of newsmaking for the particular kind or mode of
communication. Cottle’s communicative architecture provides one means for developing
and applying such classifications of framing to the mass representations of law and order,
or of crime and justice.

Allow me to briefly discuss two other implications. The first has to do with the new
‘cultural criminology’ project and with a programme of research identified by O’Brien et al.
(2005) in a recently published article in this journal. Analyzing the fi lm Chicago (2002) in
relation to the representations of the seductions of crime (Katz, 1988), the authors make
a strong case for using the lens of cultural criminology not only for connecting the phenomenal

foreground of criminal acts to their material background, but also for connecting that
same foreground to specific features of its cultural background. Such an approach, they
argue, would help elucidate the ‘social circulation of important cultural motifs that help to
make sense of why certain kinds of emotional and sensual features might be attended to
in accounts of the commission of crimes’ (O’Brien et al., 2005: 243).

Moreover, I believe that an agenda of ‘cultural synthesis’, of connecting, for example,
the rich accounts of the subcultural experiences of adrenaline rushes, pleasure and panic,
fear and excitement, rage and humiliation, with the mass-mediated representations of
contemporary crime and justice, will be greatly assisted by incorporating an appreciation
for both the ‘unique’ and yet ‘overlapping’ frames of mass communication. It could help
us establish, for example, whether or not the framing or defining of law and order, or
of crime and justice, are reflective of dominant or alternative ideas and values. Or, more
specifically, how law and order, crime and justice, are articulated, for example, as nation-
state and/or international illegalities/violations. Or whether or not, and, if so, how these
frames of representation include or exclude notions of social harms, analogous injuries, or
crimes against humanity.


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