Crime And Media Images Of Crime Are Becoming As Real As Crime Itself

Crime And Media: Images Of Crime Are Becoming As ‘Real’ As Crime Itself


Any discussion on the close resemblance between images of crime and real crime itself is basically a study of the relationship between agents of images of crime which is mass media and agents of real-life crime. The relationship between these two closely-alike agents needs to be closely examined and clear boundaries set. However, recent trends of real-life crimes shows such examination may bear little fruits as crime images portrayed in popular media have turned into precursors of real-life instead of serving their intended role of invoking moral panic. As a matter of fact, recent research shows that not only are images of crime closely similar to crime itself, but that images of crimes lead to the crime itself (see for example Leishman and Mason, 2002; Leitch, 2003a; 2003b; 2003c). There is a general contention that young people tend to associate themselves with popular film characters and even go to the extent of emulating some of their behaviour traits. This essay seeks to explore how images of crime are becoming as ‘real’ as crime itself. This will be achieved by way of giving examples. Overall, it will be argued that the mass media has failed to induce moral panic and instead has turned to be the popular knowledge repository where would-be criminals learn their first criminal skills.

Relationship between Crime Images and Real-Life Crime

The mass media portrays crime in a rather problematic manner. There is a growing concern among theorists and criminologists alike that mass media have become more of a cause and not a deterrent of crime (ASC, 2010; Brain, 2002; Chancer, 2005). However, Reiner (2007) posits that this trend is not new. While giving the case of Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, Reiner shows that as early as the 18th century, mass media was perceived as a major precursor of crime. He claims that in a landmark ruling, Magistrate Patrick pointed out that since the media is perceived by majority of the people as a lens through which one can look into the outside world as well as a mirror through which one can polish their images, then the recent cases of crime among the young people could be because many people especially the young look at film characters as role models which should be emulated. These sentiments are shared by Leitch (2003b), who claims that young people lack a strong sense of judgment and are easily beguiled into following popular film characters even when their moral standing is weak. Moreover, Leitch (2003a) argues that though portrayals of crime in the mass media are meant to instil moral panic among the audience, this is not always the case as recent crime trends indicate – young people develop a liking of criminal characters instead despising them. Specifically and while drawing from Leitch (2002: 15), it is true that,

Crime films operate by mediating between two powerful but blankly contradictory articles of faith: that the social order that every crime challenges is ultimately well-defined, stable, and justified in consigning different people to the mutually exclusive roles of lawbreakers, law enforcers, and the victims who are the audience’s natural identification figures; and that every audience member is not only a potential victim but a potential avenger and a potential criminal under the skin.

Media portrayal of crime is biased and may at times attract criminal sentiments. Though the above statement by Leitch (2002) was made in an attempt to define what a crime film entails, one cannot fail to see that the perceptions drawn by crime film audience could actually be retrogressive to the very gist of crime films. For instance, crime films that are constructed from the perspective of the criminal who ends up evading law enforcers are most likely to portray crime as a good thing among the young audience whose content analytical skills are not well developed. Since according to Reiner (2007), content analysis is an art and a science that requires high levels of cognitive capability and great moral composure, it is only wise to reason that the young audience may fail to grasp the moral of a crime film and blindly believe that the society expects them to exhibit hardcore characters as a normal way of day-to-day survival in their respective societies. Leitch (2003c) supports this sentiments by positing that though crime films are meant to be educative on matters of morality and law, most are times when they are interpreted wrongly especially those films with complex storylines. Overall, it is arguable that like many other literary works, crime films are full of scriptural fallacies that tend to mislead the audience into believing that one can engage on crime and get away with it.

Media portrayal of crime is not consistent with the actuality. A content analysis of the reporting of crime in newspapers, official statistical reports as well as in radio and television programmes by Reiner (2007) shows a systematic and rather intentional disparity between crimes reporting and the actuality. Specifically, there is a disparity between the reported offenses, the crime victims, the offenders and the roles played by law enforcers in the crime in question. Usually, these differences are revealed when authorities commission a statistical survey. Nevertheless and as Leitch (2002) shows, at times such surveys gather accurate data but their interpretation and reporting is again not impartially carried out. Many studies have documented this problem and have gone ahead to show that this disparity is partly responsible for the escalating cases of criminal activities in poor working class neighbourhoods where access to authentic information may be a big challenge. For instance, Leitch (2003a; 2003b) argues that the overrepresentation of crime creates a hardcore-mentality among poor neighbourhood youths who in turn form vigilante groups for self protection. Over the course of time, these vigilante groups generate into criminal gangs especially if their purpose is defeated when official crime combat teams made up of elite police squads take over to crash criminal elements. Moreover, Reiner (2007) shows that overrepresentation provokes law enforcement agencies to roll out extreme measures which sometimes may be oppressive as to elicit negative sentiments among the youths who may in turn become run-away belligerents.

The contemporary society mediatises almost all major behavioural indicators. A paper presented in the ASC annual meeting in San Francisco in 2010, argues that in a world characterised by multi-mediatisation of cultural and ethical values, one’s moral standing is a function of the media they consume. Specifically, the article attaches the contemporary crime trends to the mediatisation of the justice system – human experience from a justice system is approached broadly from the popular culture (media) representation. These sentiments seem to be influenced by what Greer (2010) refers to as “media criminology” or the link between the intended functions of the mediatisation of crime and the actual results of such mediatisation. Specifically, it can be inferred that indeed, the media is a good tool for crime prevention especially when it is utilised rightly, however, it is clear here that since almost every human experience has been mediatised, there is the likelihood that some mediums such as the internet are wrongly misunderstood. For example, there are a lot of crime related video games circulating in the computer world and many youth have grown popular with them. Brain (2002) confirm this contention by arguing that as opposed to other mediums such as television and news papers where the audience only views or reads crime news, videos games have a major impact on their audience as they require one to actively take part, practice and perfect a game.

There is a very narrow distinction between fiction and fact crime images in the contemporary mass media. Due to their popular nature among the young and middle aged population, the production of crime related films has become a multimillion dollar industry – today, film producers outdo each other in producing literary works out of almost every major criminal justice related activity including the recent trend of terrorist activities (ASC, 2010). A latest book by an alleged member of the team of SEAL marines who took part in the successful killing of Osama bin Laden exemplifies this argument. This competition has however made it very hard to distinguish between what constitutes a true story and factual one. While drawing from past studies done by Leishman and Mason (2002), Reiner (2007) argues that some crime films are just too entertaining and influential as to beguile the audience that they are indeed real. For example, any film showing the abduction and the subsequent killing of Osama may sell millions of copies in a short time. Moreover, while drawing from Chancer (2005) postulation that the images of characters portrayed in films are etched in the minds of the viewers and irrespective of whether they are true or fictitious, one only imagines how Osama sympathisers will react towards the western culture when such a film is realised. These sentiments are shared by Lawrence (2000) and INNES (2001) in their accounts of the O.J. Simpson trial, assault of Rodney King and the CCTV records of Jamie Bulger killing. All these images can be precursors to criminal activities depending on one’s cognitive and content analysis capabilities.

Contemporary crime, from a “media criminology” standpoint occurs in a systematic manner. In his work Reiner (2007) argues that contemporary crime can be conceptualised into the following core theoretical frameworks. Arguably, these frameworks spans the length of time one takes to familiarise themselves with a literary work and the actions they take as advised by these literary works (ASIC, 2010; Brain, 2002; Chancer, 2005). They include labelling, motive, means, opportunity and absence of control. The media cannot be said to be a framework in itself but it helps to unbundle the frameworks. Labelling entails the portrayal of certain characters as criminals in crime films. Since most of these characters are given the “main actor” tag, it is only wise to argue that they have a lasting mark on their audience (Reiner, 2007). On the other hand, most psychological and legal studies agree that criminal activities are aggravated (see for example, ASC, 2010; Brain, 2002; Chancer, 2005). This aggravation amounts to motives. One can form a motive after watching an emotionally wrenching film, such as the capture, sentencing, and hanging of Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, means entails the flexibility with which one can access various media platforms to access new knowledge. For example, Reiner (2007) shows that the murder of Jamie Bulger was influenced by a popular video in the 1950s called child’s play. Criminal opportunity manifests in the ease with which the media presents new methods and types of crime. One can watch many crime documentaries showing different homicides perpetuated in different locations and put such methods into practice (Chancer, 20055). The proliferation of internet enable mobile devices presents this opportunity at the tap of a button. There is much freedom today in most societies when it comes to accessing informative mediums such as the internet. This leads to avoidable crimes. This is true since has been noted that controls prevent crimes (Brain, 2002; Chancer, 2005), For instance, cases of rape can be reduced if underage children are barred from accessing pornographic materials.

Nevertheless, “mediatised criminology” is entirely not tied to the above conditions. Recent works by ASC (2010) and Greer (2010) reinforce this contention by clarifying that the order in which these conditions are structured in not always rigid, sometimes, crime can take place without a clear motive, without labelling, without a clear opportunity, or even in instances when there is clear control. Here, the authors suggest that the mediatisation of crime does not necessarily take place a long a formal line, rather an offender can just wake up one day and decides to set their neighbours property on fire because they saw a film depicting a celebrity such as the controversial Italian and Manchester City footballer, Mario Ballotelli was reported to have set his own house on fire for setting firecrackers in his bathroom.


There is no doubt that crime films contribute to real-life crime. This easy has argued that crime films clearly label some characters as criminals through the roles they are assigned to play. Such labelling draws much meaning especially when it is accompanied by motive, means, and the opportunity to put what has been learned in a film to practice. This is exacerbated by the lack of control on what people can watch as anyone can access an amateur movie through online applications such as you tube. That crime films are usually biased and far from the actuality makes these conditions to be easily realised. Moreover, since people look at media as a tool for social procreation, people especially the young might want to put into practice what they learn from crime films. This is true since it has become very hard to differentiate between a factual and a fictitious literary work.


AC (Nov. 2010), Mass Media and the Social Construction of Crime: A Critique and Implications for the Future, Article presented at the Annual Meetings of the ASC, San Francisco, November 2010, available at: HYPERLINK “” (accessed September 4, 2012).

Brain, C. (2002), Advanced psychology: applications, issues and perspectives, Cheltenham, Nelson Thornes.

Chancer, L. S. (2005), High-profile crimes: when legal cases become social causes, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Greer, C. (Ed.) (2010), Crime and media: A reader, London, UK: Routledge Publishers Limited.

Lawrence, R.G. (2000), The Politics of Force: Media and the Construction of Police Brutality, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leishman, F., and Mason, P. (2002), Policing and the Media: Facts, Fictions and Factions, Cullompton: Willan.

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Leitch, T. (2003), ‘Fury and the victim film’, In Crime Films: Genres in American Cinema, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 79-102.

Leitch, T. (2003), ‘Murder on the orient express, blue velvet and the un-official detective film’, In Crime Films: Genres in American Cinema, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 170-191.

Reiner, R. (2007). ‘Media made criminality the representation of crime in the mass media’, in M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner, The Oxford handbook of criminology, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 376-416.