Mass Media and the Social Construction of Crime

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Mass Media and the Social Construction of Crime:
A Critique and Implications for the Future
Presented at the Annual Meetings of the ASC, San Francisco, Nov. 2010*
Published as Media and Crime in the Routledge Handbook of Critical Criminology, 2012, edited by Walter DeKeseredy & Molly Dragiewicz.



             “In multi-mediated worlds, where signs, codes and symbols constantly loop, merge and intertwine in an endless stream of simulations and (re) presentations, crime and criminal justice are fundamentally mediatised phenomena” (Greer 2010: 8). Similarly, to the extent that virtually all-human experience today is inseparable from mediatized experience, Chris Greer (2010: 5) acknowledges that a critical investigation of media and crime “could, in theory, relate to anything and everything in the late modern world,” yet he wisely reigns in the field when he critically defines “media criminology” as “the complex and constantly shifting intersections between crime, criminalization and control, on the one hand, and media, mediatisation and representation on the other.” This reigned in territory of critical examination is still enormous and relatively unexplored. 

            Writing a short overview of the critical literature on media and crime, for example, begs the question, “which medium, which crime?” In response to the first half of this question, there are fundamentally three mediated spheres of mass (or niche) communication that interact with crime: (1) entertainment, (2) news, and (3) online. Each of these spheres may be subdivided into a myriad of media sub-spheres, including but not limited to books, films, radio, television, and the Internet. Each of these sub-spheres of mediation and crime representation, in turn, may be further subdivided into different styles of discourse and crime construction. In response to the second half of the question, these media could interact with a near inexhaustible number of crimes as well as with an array of crime control activities, including but not limited to those customs and practices of law enforcement and criminal justice.

When it comes to actual media coverage and/or representation of crime, there have been essentially two kinds: (1) the more frequent inclusion of some type of felony or street crime often involving an act of violence and (2) the less common insertion of white-collar offenses involving some type of public or private trust violation that usually concentrates its focus on individuals and their victims in contrast to societal institutions or social organizations and their victims. Not surprisingly, these mediated relations of delivering and receiving crime and justice “information” are also reflected in the limited scholarly research, academic analyses, and critical literature on media and crime. To date, most of the documented work on the social construction of mediated crime and crime control has been restricted to those media spheres of entertainment and news; by comparison, a virtual “blackout” has been the case when it comes to the media sphere of online.

Accordingly, as a preview of what an integrated criminology and critical media studies might pursue in the future, it ought to expand its multi-disciplinary knowledge bases across the full spectrum of the sub-genres and styles of entertainment and news media. Perhaps, more importantly, critical media studies of crime should also turn its attention to the examination of the online media sphere within the context of the social construction of crime across all three mediated spheres of mass communication. As the newest and most advanced forms of technological communication--online wireless interaction, social networking, and the Internet--penetrate ever more deeply into the cultural representation and social construction of human consciousness, the dearth of research in this sphere of mass mediation of conforming and nonconforming behavior beckons and embodies the freshest territory for exploring the social relations and interactions of crime and media. 

For example, one barely explored and underdeveloped area involves the emergence of what some have labeled pro-abuse cyberspace male peer support groups associated with certain types of shared pornography (Dekeseredy & Olsson, 2011; Kendall, 2003).To date, no causal relations have been articulated or discerned, and more importantly, no ordering has been established between engaging in abusive sexual behavior of women and viewing these types of pornography. Some researchers, however, have speculated about an increasing number of men who are sharing and consuming derogatory, denigrating, racist, and sexist pornographic materials online as “part of a broader subculture of sexual deviance that legitimizes various forms of deviant sexuality” (Stack, Wasserman & Kern, 2004, 85). 

  Paradoxically, there exists on the one hand, the diversity of media genres and sub-genres to be studied by criminologists, each contributing to the processes of producing, distributing, and consuming that which constitutes the social construction of crime and crime control and, on the other hand, the emergence and development of the critical inquiry of media, crime, justice, and social control. The dynamic byproduct of this social relationship—sites of mediation and inquiries of mediation—has yielded over the past forty years a fragmented body of mediated knowledge scattered across several disciplines including sociology, education, political science, psychology, media and cultural studies, and, of course, criminology. Lacking in both breadth and depth, the study of media and crime has nonetheless been slowly but surely expanding its knowledge base and its conceptual, theoretical, and methodological approaches.

The rest of this chapter is divided up into six sections: (1) framing media, society, and criminology; (2) news representation and the social construction of crime; (3) crime, entertainment, and the postmodern imagination; (4) media, crime, and social control; (5) mediatized crime and crime control—direct and indirect effects; and  (6) a research agenda for critical media studies and crime. 


            Throughout history the various forms of mediated communication have always reflected an apparent massive interest in crime, criminals, punishment, and justice. In other words, over time print, sound, visual, and new media alike have always depended on responsive audiences (or “ratings”). Through the processes of mass communication, these popular media have also made significant contributions, for better and worse, to the social construction of crime and justice.

At the same time, for example, the media have contradictorily mystified and demystified crime and justice. In addition, the media in reflecting the status quo (as well as in its capacity to lead, follow, or resist social change) have not only facilitated the targeting of certain offenders, such as junkies, sex offenders, the poor, or immigrants, but they have also omitted or given a relative “free pass” to other offenders, such as the habitually law violating Fortune 500 corporations, or those Wall Street bankers, insurers and stockbrokers who engaged in derivative ponzi schemes and subprime mortgaging, or private security contractors who have thieved, raped, and killed. The representations of the former are typically portrayed as dangerous offenders who threaten the well being of otherwise lawful societies. The representations of the latter are less frequent and less scrutinized. They are obtainable as anomalies, exceptions, or glitches in the normative order—that is, some times “shit happens”—in any case, these offenders and their offenses are not to be taken seriously or treated as real crime or with any thought given to the systemic negative consequences for the well being of the rest of society (Barak, 1994; Potter and Kappeler, 1998; Bohm and Walker, 2006; Surette, 2007; Marsh and Melville, 2009; Stevens, 2010).

When it comes to the historical study of media, crime, and deviance construction as well as societal reaction to, the concept of “moral panic” or the “situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular group that is claimed to be responsible for the condition” (Bonn, 2010: 5), has greatly influenced the studying of social problems, crime, media, and collective behavior, going so far as to become part of journalistic and political discourse alike (Altheide, 2009). Coined by Jock Young in 1971 and elaborated upon by Stanley Cohen (1972: 9) in Folk Devils and Moral Panics a year later, this classic work explained that a moral panic had occurred when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values or interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; [and] the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians or other right-thinking people.” While these intense, media-fuelled bursts of collective concern have typically distorted the danger or threat posed by the targeted groups and have directed public outrage against those particular “others” that are successfully labeled or identified by various claimsmakers vis-à-vis the mass media as evil, it still remains to be analyzed how exactly new media has impacted or influenced the contemporary formation of post-modern folk devils and moral panics.

            Like the study of crime and criminology, the study of communication and media requires a diversification of theoretical, methodological, and epistemological approaches. In terms of media criminology, the criminology side of the house is much more developed than the media side of the house. Furthermore, the development of an integrated and interactive investigation of media and criminology is the least advanced. With respect to understanding mass media and in terms of enabling the expansion of media criminology, the range of mediated analyses and perspectives that should find a place at the table of crime and media studies are broad and eclectic These span several traditional disciplines, areas of study, and even the universe of cyberspace (Gibson, 1984).

            Those social science orientations to media studies that have proven useful or that can be applied to crime and justice studies include but are not limited to the importance of the public sphere and role of media: in shaping individual consciousness, culture, and society (McLuhan, 1964), in a network of institutions, social relations, and ideas (Gramsci, 1971), in democratic intercourse (Habermas, 1991), in the semiotic communication process (Hall, 1980), in hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1981), in manufacturing the consent of the powerful (Herman and Chomsky, 1988), and in the rapid expansion of information technology (Castells, 1997). Taken as a whole, one-by-one or integrated, the insights from McLuhan, Gramsci, Habermas, Hall, Baudrillard, Herman and Chomsky, and Castells on the structure, role, and importance of media in everyday life as well as on the various forms of media and the particular relationships between media and society, provide for a multi-dimensional framing of the study of media and crime.


            Understanding news representation and the social construction of newsmaking requires an examination of the conscious and unconscious processes involved in the mass dissemination of symbolic consumer goods. These commodities of news production and the images of social reality that they invoke are inseparable from their cultural histories. Moreover, mediated characterizations of crime and criminal justice, of criminals and social control, projected in news presentations are representations themselves of culturally shared visions accessed through commonly unfolding historical narratives, in which average people and most journalists come to know crime and justice in developed societies. In other words, crime and justice stories produced by news media for mass consumption reflect and reveal much about those societies’ views of themselves, “good” and “bad.”

In brief, these “crime news” stories are not objective or value-neutral. Regardless of the prominent theoretical orientation to media studies—Durkheimian, Marxian, or feminist—there is agreement that although crime and justice representations are highly selective and unrepresentative of their subject matter, they are viewed as essential for unraveling the relationships between crime, control, justice, and social order because these news stories respectively reproduce moral boundaries, legitimate law and order, and reinforce gender stereotypes—all of which help to reify unequal power relations as well as inequality throughout society. Nevertheless, within and without the news business there are also all kinds of sources and values that shape the processes of newsmaking in general and newsmaking criminology in particular. 

            Herbert Gans (1980: 284) in his classic study of the national news in the United States and by way of his examination of the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, and Newsweek and Time magazine, argued that “news is about the economic, political, social, and cultural hierarchies” and that reporting focuses “on those at or near the top of the hierarchies and on those, particularly at the bottom, who threaten them, to an audience, most of whom are located in the vast middle range between top and bottom.” He defined news as “information which is transmitted from sources to audiences, with journalists—who are both employees of bureaucratic commercial organizations and members of a profession—summarizing, refining, and altering what becomes available to them from sources in order to make the information suitable for their audiences” (Gans, 1980: 80). Conceptually, Gans (1980: 52) divided news stories into two types. Those stories about “disorder news” that report threats to all kinds of order as well as the measures taken to restore order, and those stories about “routine activities” that are normative and usually pose no direct threats. Despite their differences, both types of newsmaking help to reproduce the dominant social order.

            Within disorder news, Gans identified four subcategories distinguishing between natural, technological, social, and moral disorder. Mediated crime and justice tends to focus its reporting primarily on external activities that threaten public peace and private security, typically involving physical violence to persons and/or property—social disorder—and secondarily on reported transgressions of laws and mores which do not necessarily or which may and may not endanger the social order, such as many of the activities associated with “victimless criminality”—moral disorder. The fundamental distinction between these types of disorder stories being the value of intentionality or culpability that can be attached to those who may be violating the social or moral orders.

            Other media theorists from the UK such as Steve Chibnall (1977) and, more recently, Yvonne Jewkes (2004) have more specifically mapped out the news values that not only shape the reporting of crime, but that also help to locate those values within the larger practices of journalism. For Chibnall, these included: immediacy, dramatization, personalization, simplification, titillation, conventionalism, structured access, and novelty. Jewkes has updated and expanded on those professional news imperatives identified by Chibnall. Her list also includes threshold, predictability, individualism, risk, sex, celebrity, proximity, violence, spectacle and graphic imagery, and children. These journalistic values that increasingly rely over time on visual imagery with respect to film/ video and print, have also served as a primary devise for defining normative and deviant behavior, identity, and reality, yielding a picture that often makes it difficult, if not impossible, to clearly distinguish between the perception, reaction, and production of crime and justice. In the process of news crime construction, whatever the distinctions, crime and crime control represents order through constituting an active discourse that “provide people with preferred versions and visions of social order, on the basis of which they take action” (Ericson, Baranek, and Chan, 1991: 239).

            At the end of the newsmaking day, the mediated construction of crime and justice becomes the socially constructed reality when in reality this is the socially constructed subjective reality. According to Surette (2007), there are four stages in the social construction of crime and five contemporary crime-and-justice frames that provide fully developed socially constructed templates that allow claims and claims makers to succeed in making their representations of crime and justice stick to the media overload of information. Stage one consists of “the physical world” enveloped by conditions, events, and properties that establish the boundaries or background in which the other stages must frame their interactions. Stage two consists of the “competing social constructions” or differing descriptions of the physical world of crime and justice offered up by various claims makers.

It is at stage three, “media as social construction competition arena” in which Surette (2007: 35, 40) argues that the media play their most powerful role filtering out competing constructions, typically favoring those positions that “are dramatic, sponsored by powerful groups, and are related to preestablished cultural themes” or to the five prevailing crime-and-justice frames described by Theodore Sasson in Crime Talk (1995):  “faulty system,” “blocked opportunities,” “social breakdown,” “racist system,” and “violent media.” In newsmaking practice, moreover, not all claims and claims makers are equal. For example, the claims and claims makers from law enforcement and criminal justice usually have more influence as both experts on crime and justice and as sources of information for reported crime and crime control stories. In a similar fashion, crime news reporters are more open to those already existing claims and to those claims makers who can connect their interests to those same claims or crime-and-justice news frames.

            Briefly, Sasson (1995: 13-17) has identified the causes, policies, and symbols associated with each of the mediated dominant frames or themes of crime and justice. The “faulty system” thematic argues that crime stems from criminal justice leniency and inefficiency. Its policy is to “get tough” and “tighten up.” Symbols have included “handcuffed police” and “revolving door justice.” The “blocked opportunities” thematic argues that crime stems from poverty and inequality. Its policy calls for addressing the “root causes” by creating jobs, community development, and reducing poverty. Symbols have included “dead-end, low paying jobs” and high unemployment rates. The “social breakdown” thematic argues that crime stems from family and community breakdown. Its policy calls for citizen involvement and community efficacy/policing. Symbols include “family values” and “take back the streets.” The “racist system” argues that the problem of crime stems from a criminal justice system that operates in a discriminatory fashion. Its policy calls for greater sensitivity to racial justice and to the empowerment of those groups discriminated against. Symbols include “profiling” and “differential application” of the criminal law. Finally, the “violent media” thematic argues that crime, particularly violent crime, stems from the amount of extreme violence in the mass media. Its policy calls for more governmental regulation of the production and distribution of violent imagery. Its symbols include “life imitating art” and “copycat crimes.”

            Stage four represents the emergence of dominant news themes or the “winning social construction” that often drives, if not, determines criminal justice and crime control policies, trumping empirically based or driven policies. According to Surette (2007: 36), those “social policies supported by the public and the solutions forwarded by the policy makers are tied to the successful construction[s]. For crime and justice, the socially constructed reality will define the conditions, trends, and factors accepted as the causes of crime, the behaviors that are seen as criminal, and the criminal justice policies accepted as reasonable and likely to be successful.”


            Within the cultural forms of the media-crime nexus, a formally defined range of examination would include the crime novel and comic book, film and television drama, documentaries, reality programming, video gaming, and public service announcements. Moreover, in the hyperrealities of the 21st century, the blurring of nonfiction or news and fiction or entertainment as well as the overlapping worlds of hybrid infotainment and reality TV, for example, make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between these media and to separate out where the narratives of crime and justice of one end and the narratives of the others begin. Nevertheless, in this section an attempt will be made to capture some of the old and new themes of entertainment mediated representations of crime and justice.

            Before turning to a sampling of those themes, reference is made to the findings from a longitudinal and comprehensive qualitative and quanitative study of film, television, and the British press, which located its discussion in the changing content and context of crime and justice news and entertainment between 1945 and 1991. Overall, what Reiner, Livingstone, and Allen (2001) found was that both fictional and nonfictional representations of offenders had changed little over time, while the representations of victims had moved for the most part from the margins to the centers of narrative discourse. Mediated representations had also become less considerate of structural influences on criminality and more condemnatory of individual sources of criminality. Finally, although the majority of narratives had continued to work to legitimize the criminal justice system or points of view, there had also been a shifting of discourse, echoing the developments of “risk society,” to demystify authority and law, to change the conceptualizations of criminal justice from the sacred to the secular, and to displace moral certainties with pragmatism and contingency. 

            Regardless of the changing discourses in mediated crime and justice, in the fictional and nonfictional entertainment spheres of television soap operas and documentaries, respectively, the representations of “good” and “evil,” “nonviolent” and “violent,” “in control” and “out of control,” typically distort the images of perpetrators, victims, criminal justice, and criminal punishment. In the case of criminal harm, depictions are primarily of individuals rather than of organizations or institutions. Though criminal victimization may be located at home, it is usually represented in the street, and rarely viewed from the executive suite. In the process, myths and stereotypes about various types of violent “offenders” and “nonoffenders” are projected onto large and small screens alike (Barak, 2003).

            When it comes to fictional accounts of gender and violence, for example, Hollywood films “are expert at providing illusion of reality, no matter how fantastic the story, they are an important source of our mythology about family violence” (Frus, 2001: 227). What “Documenting Domestic Violence in American Films” demonstrates is the portrayal of women in American cinema operating according to age old myths, such as batterers are not like ordinary men, women who are abused are asking for it, beatings leave no permanent scars, women can leave their batterers, and so on and so forth. In the mediums of film and literature more generally, criminal violence is often put to use through shifting mythic and ideological imperatives, in the service of constructing audience awareness and a worldview sympathetic to extreme individualism and free enterprise. These themes are not so much the product of a manufactured consensus as they are the product of reflexivity, reification, and reproduction, grounded in an integrating political economy and a dynamically developing collective unconscious (Barak, 2003).

            In the contemporary period of postmodern review of crime and cinema, historical materialism and psychoanalysis often share discursive theoretical favor. These critical examinations focus on the primacy and valorization of bloodletting within existing signs, codes, and representational practices. Accordingly, postmodern analyses have yielded at least two basic themes. First, that within an evolving narrative of violence, a flattening of affect has occurred within the presentation and acceptance of violent imagery. Second, that the contextualization of these violent images are closely associated with the legacies of patriarchy, rugged individualism, and neoliberal capitalism. For example, Annalee Newitz has provided a distinct economic strategy in her analysis of the serial killer cinema in general and in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) in particular. The question that she asks is: “What exactly is it about the narratives in serial killers which make them so seductive, particularly when their seductiveness is so easily and quickly criticized?” (Newitz, 1999: 56). She argues that the body count of this cinema genre is a “caustic rebuke to an atomized society of consumption in which cravings are constructed so as never to be fulfilled” (Quoted in Sharrett, 1999: 14).

            Perhaps no book or film, in this case both, has captured the dilemma of mediated criminal violence and the postmodern imagination better than Bret Easton Ellis’ twisted satire on serial murder, American Psycho. This best-selling novel was first published in 1991, and in 1999 it was released as a semi-successful film. Despite the movie’s controversial reception of the portrayal of a high-class Wall Street, wheeling and dealing, serial killer, or because of it, the film became a cult classic as a video rental and is still shown regularly on cable television.  In a strange way, Ellis’ representations of graphic violence were of a serial killer gone mainstream, suggesting true to “risk society” that harm and dangers can come from anywhere. 

As a final point of this section, the endless stream of simulations and (re) presentations of crime and justice scenarios played out in reality TV programs like COPS and Lockup are indicative of carefully edited scripts that are unrepresentative stereotypes of crime and criminals. In these hyperreal orbs viewers are invited “into” the allegedly objective worlds of policing and corrections where crime and disorder result from a byproduct of broken families, ethnic minorities, and the underclasses. The postmodern imagination of crime and justice has also been impacted by developments in science and advancements in technology. Most recently, the phenomenal growth of televised forensic dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have become embedded symbols (e.g., the “CSI-effect”) in a constantly looping, merging, and intertwining socially constructed reality of real life criminal trials that have come to exemplify the altered but not radically changed representation of crime and justice even as the older portrayals of criminals, law enforcement, and adjudicating attorneys are giving way to forensic experts and criminalists. For example, as Mariana Valverde (2006) has pointed out in her examination of CSI and what she refers to as “the apotheosis of the forensic gaze,” the programs may be about specific crimes and criminals, however, very little attention is paid to the actual criminals and their victims or to those efforts of ordinary police officers and detectives to catch the bad guys. All of these blood-and-bone persons have become subordinate to physical clues and technical gadgets.  


            Despite their differences, Durkheimian, Marxian, and feminist theories of communication all associate the workings of mass media with contributing to the maintenance of social conformity, order, and control. Historically, the roots of mass media involvement in social control can be traced back to the 1960s with “the success of prosocial entertainment programs and public information campaigns” and to the “development of a number of media-based anticrime programs and the widespread adoption of media technology in the criminal justice field” a decade later (Surette, 2007: 171). Today, in addition to the anticrime advertising, case processing using media technology, and police surveillance systems based on the older technologies of audio- and videotaping, there is an abundance of newer media technologies “capable of both facilitating and constraining communication, interaction, mobility, and the creation and realisation of fluid identities” (Greer, 2010: 491). 

            Moreover, the digitized, computerized, and networked information and communication technologies exemplified by the Internet have created virtual worlds with their own changing norms, values and codes of practice, altering the ways in which “people engage and interact in time and space,” giving “new meaning to what it is to be ‘social’” (Ibid.). These technological transformations have created new opportunities and risks for crime and victimization, and for surveillance and crime control. For example, Closed Circuit Television cameras, information gathering, and data processing have transformed how people perceive and negotiate their social worlds with caution and reserve, aware that “cybercrime” is all about. At the same time, while the news media, law enforcement, and external observers have raised concerns over the rise of Big Brother and 1984, the public has tended to resign itself to a lack of privacy and to the installation of surveillance cameras in public places to prevent crime (Surette, 2007).

            In 2010, the mass media can be used to influence people’s attitudes about crime and criminal justice, for better or worse. The popular media can be used to provide the police with more crime-related information. Media technology has also become a staple used to speed the processing of criminal cases, to videotape police patrols, vehicle stops, and subsequent interrogations. It can be useful in the investigation, surveillance, and deterrence of crime and in the prevention of victimization by intercepting, for example, potential terrorist bombers foiled by TSA full-body video scanners when trying to pass through airport security. In these applications of media technology to crime and social control, the question typically asked by inquiring minds is at what costs or benefits to the general public?

            For example, while programs designed to increase public cooperation by advertising crime have proven effective in gathering information and in solving some crimes, the overall effect on crime is not significant. Media programs that teach the public about crime prevention techniques are quite popular. They also increase public knowledge and change attitudes about crime prevention, but not actual crime prevention behavior. Similarly, while surveillance programs do show deterrence effects, their ability to do so without displacement remains unproven. With these caveats in mind, Surette (2007) is ambivalent at best acknowledging that media technologies can enhance both due process and crime control models of the administration of justice. His concern is that the message conveyed by the news media, in conjunction with the entertainment message that crime is individually caused, is that the resolution of crime becomes overly dependent on technological rather than social interventions. Other noted costs to the public include the potential for decreased citizen involvement; increased depersonalization of the criminal justice system and isolation of the police from the policed; increased citizen fear and suspicion of the criminal justice system; and, the polarization of society due to the creation of affluent, technologically secured garrison communities.


            Can mass communication—text and visual—be used to stop war, abolish the death penalty, cultivate genocide, reduce ethno-political conflict, or mediatize peace and nonviolence? Not the typical set of questions pondered by most folks trying to grasp an understanding of the impact of mass media on nonconforming (or conforming) behavior. Yet, in 1997 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, recognizing the power of the Internet to mobilize and enlist worldwide support. It had all begun a few years earlier when Jody Williams, from Putney, Vermont, used her email account to coordinate the activities of more than 700 organizations from over 60 countries. Direct effect? Indirect Effect? What about the ultimate cases of ethnic cleansing and the extraordinary crime of genocide or the denial of it by millions of people? Direct effect? Indirect Effect? No effect? Contradictory effect?

In terms of genocidal murder or rape, for example, or more generally in the context of collective and/or organizational violence (or nonviolence), the causes of ethnic conflicts (or peace) involve “structural factors,” including economic, social, and political dimensions relating to both the distribution of wealth and inter-ethnic relations, “facilitating factors,” such as the degree of politicization and ethnic consciousness, and “triggering factors,” including sharp economic shocks, intergroup tensions, and collapsed central authority. In the genocidal cases of Germany, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, while the ethnic and national media could not be blamed directly for the creation of ethno-political conflicts, the media and mediation played an important role in negotiation across all three causal spheres, especially in shaping evil Others, messages of hatred, and the need for extermination (Costy and Gilbert, 1998).

            Since the inception of mass mediatized words and images, concerns have been selectively raised over real and imagined effects of deviant or taboo behaviors, especially as these have been associated with graphic or explicit depictions of sex, interpersonal violence, and other “morally” transgressive behaviors involved in both crime and crime control. The restricted question has always been: Do the various mass media and mediatized representations of these behaviors elicit fear or imitation from their audiences? Is there a direct effect, an indirect effect, no effect, or perhaps all three? Despite an abundance of research studies in the laboratory and in the field examining the effects of televised violence, sexual and nonsexual, on aggressive and non-aggressive behavior, which tend to support the third possibility of both mixed and contradictory effects at the same time, most, if not all, of these studies are subject to a number of criticisms regarding the validity and appropriateness of the theories and methods, and in many instances, the moral politics that have traditionally underpinned the direct effects model of mediated research.

            David Gauntlett (2001) in The Worrying Influence of “Media Effects” Studies has identified ten things that are wrong with the “effects model.” Among the most obvious of these, the effects model: tackles social problems “backwards,” inadequately defines its own objects of study and is selective in its criticisms of media depictions of violence, is often based on artificial studies and/or on studies with misapplied methodology, makes no attempt to understand meanings of the media, and is not grounded in theory, or in any type of explanation for that matter. Regardless of the inefficacy of the direct effects paradigm on mediated behavior, this is not to deny an indirect effects impact or the influence of mass media on the thinking, attitudes, and ideological beliefs of a myriad of audiences, depending on their gender, class position, political affiliation and so on.

            Importantly, media studies of violence and aggression of a sexual or nonsexual nature have been able to differentiate among media consumers. These studies have also been able to examine the indirect effects of media in relation to the reciprocal roles of other contributing factors. In arguing for an “indirect-effects” model of hypothesized environmental influences on the development of antisocial behavior against women, Neil Malamuth (1989:162) summarized the work that he and his colleagues had conducted on sexually violent media, thought patterns, and antisocial behavior as, “no influence works in a vacuum, and media influences are viewed as combining and interacting with a variety of other individual and cultural factors—sometimes counteracting them, sometimes reinforcing them, and at other times, not having much of any effect.” More specifically, the indirect-effects model or reciprocal theory of mediatized sexual violence may be thought of as follows:

                        Individual conditions and the broader social climate

                        are postulated as the originating environmental influences

                        on the individual. The mass media are considered one of

                        the many social forces that may, in interaction with a

                        variety of other cultural and individual factors, affect the

                        development of immediate attributes, such as thought

                        patterns, sexual arousal patterns, motivations, emotions,

                        and personality characteristics. These immediate variables,

                        in complex interactions with each other and with situational

                        circumstances, such as alcohol consumption or acute

                        arousal, may precipitate behaviors ranging from passive

                        support to actual aggression (Malamuth, 1989: 164).


            As the indirect-effects model of mediatized sexual violence underscores, the direct-effects model of crime and crime control is simply too simplistic for serious consideration. On the other hand, the indirect-effects model of mass media effects leaves the door wide open for exploring the reciprocal relations between media and crime.


            The literature, research, and analyses on media and crime, critical and traditional, are underdeveloped in the spheres of both entertainment and news. In the newest and fastest growing, and all encompassing sphere of online mediatizing, there has been virtually no criminological work or analysis to speak of. More specifically, from the perspective of a general critique of media and crime studies and the development of a research agenda for the near future, what has been missing from media criminology is a lack of an integrated framing of both the discursive and visual imageries of crime and justice that the public in general and a myriad of subgroups in particular accept and apply, reject and oppose, or negotiate and mediatize. To understand “media effects” or “discursive practices” in the contemporary digital environment requires that media and crime researchers interact, whenever possible, with real producers and consumers of crime news or film, the Internet, graphic video games, or televised violence.

Thus, quantitative surveys and content analyses while necessary only go so far, falling way short of explaining how these messages are used, negotiated, and played out in the everyday practices of criminal justice and crime control as well as in the everyday behavior of ordinary citizens. In addition, the all important qualitative and ethnographic studies are called for of folks working in news rooms and film studios and in online chat rooms and reading groups of the latest genres of crime novels as well as in other virtual communities, including that in which William Gibson has referred to more broadly as the “mass consensual hallucination” of cyberspace. For example, if media criminologists want to get to the different meanings of media and to the indirect effects or influences, then do as Gauntlett (1997) did when he asked children to make their own videos as a way of capturing what they had acquired from the mass media. Or provide readers with crime news stories and ask them to write the headline titles or captions, or show viewers a series of crime films and ask them to map out a short crime story of their own.

As a means of closing out this chapter on media and crime as well as providing an illustration of some mediatized research that helps to capture the reciprocal relationships between the interactions of physicality, social constructionism, and virtual realism, let me turn briefly to the 21st century crime and justice buzzword phrase of the past decade, “the CSI effect.” Not yet a clearly agreed upon or defined concept, the so-called CSI effect has probably usurped the once dominant and iconic concept in crime and media studies, “moral panic,” which may no longer even be relevant in the multi-mediated social world in which we live (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995).[1]  For example, the promotional blurb on the back cover of Dennis Stevens’ Media and Criminal Justice: The CSI Effect (2010) reads that this book…


            illustrates how media coverage and television programs

            influence the public’s perception of criminal justice. Fiction

                        is often mistaken for reality, and this phenomenon called the

                        CSI Effect adds to the assumption that all criminal cases can

                        be easily solved through the employment of high-tech forensic

                        science, as depicted on television crime shows. More than 400

                        prosecutors assist in explaining the CSI Effect’s influence,

                        which reinforces America’s troubled wars on crime, junkies,

                        poverty, and immigrants, while also producing a greater tolerance

                        of official misconduct and an increase in wrongful convictions.


This would be quite a claim, to say the least, especially if all or even some of these effects were true. However, as it turns out, the mediatized meanings of the CSI effect are far more complex than Steven’s book jacket implies. For example, studies have revealed that most prosecutors believe that the bar has been raised to secure a jury conviction without the presence of physical evidence, and that criminal court judges generally agree with prosecutors on this point (Heinrick, 2006; Cole and Dioso-Villa, 2007). However, ask defense attorneys and they will make a case that the CSI effect has lowered the bar or made it easier to secure a criminal conviction (Tyler, 2006).

More importantly, my colleagues and I who conducted the first empirically based examinations of juror decision-making in two Michigan jurisdictions, discovered that the so-called CSI effect had no effect on whether or not jurors decide to convict or acquit a defendant (Shelton, Kim, and Barak, 2006; Kim, Barak, and Shelton, 2009). At the same time, the empirical evidence demonstrating that there is no direct CSI effect on juries to convict or not, does not mean that both prosecutors and defense attorneys will not continue to conduct their voir dire and opening and closing statements as if the alleged CSI effect did, in fact, exist. Therefore, as prosecutors and defense attorneys continue to litigate as if the CSI effect on jurors was real, we argue that there is “an indirect-effects model of mediated adjudication” (Shelton, Kim, and Barak, 2009) or an epiphenomenal “CSI effect.” However, these perceptions are not based on those of the general public mistaking fiction for nonfiction. Rather, they are based on the contradictory misperceptions of prosecuting and criminal defense attorneys who have both erroneously and mythically concluded that jurors could not distinguish between reel justice and real justice. Turns out in this high tech world in which jurors and laypersons reside, that they were far more tech savvy than the criminal bar gave them credit for. In other words, jurors today do, in fact, expect more CSI type of evidence. However, whether or not it materializes at trial does not influence their decision to convict or acquit.

Finally, within the rapidly transforming age of mass communication from the older world order of institutional only media production and distribution to the newer world order inclusive of personal media production and distribution, and as the above mass mediated illustration of juror behavior and the non CSI effect reveals, it is about time for critical media studies and criminology to incorporate into their toolboxes of inquiry the newest sphere of mass mediatized social communication.  

 *This ASC paper was published as the Chapter 28, Media and Crime, pp. 373-385 in the Routledge Handbook of Critical Criminology, edited by Walter Dekeseredy and Molly Dragewicz, London: 2012.



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[1] Although a Google search performed on January 4, 2010 received 929,000 hits for moral panics compared to 577,000 hits for the CSI effect, the former concept is some 38 years old while the latter concept is about nine years old. Underscoring this claim, Simon Cole and Rachel Dioso-Villa (2009) in “Investigating the ‘CSI Effect’ Effect: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law,” 61STAN L. REV.1335, have collected data documenting the continuing media use of the phrase in what they refer to as “CSI effect discourse.”