Crime, justice, and the media have long been intertwined. This is because crime constitutes a fertile ground for news production accounting for 35% of news produced daily. It is widely accepted that ideas, images, and narratives that dominate the media have a definitive impact on public opinion.1 The power of the media is unrivalled and continues to grow through more avenues and formats today than ever before. Such technologies include the Internet, electronic games, personal digital assistant devices, and virtual reality devices, all of which contribute to an efficient ‘high-speed media world’ with significant consequences in the area of crime and justice.2 The media’s technological ability of gathering and disseminating information at a much quicker rate provides people with easy accessibility to crime-and-justice content, which shapes the public perception of crime and criminal behaviours, including methods of punishment and how authorities should act.3
See full paper “Fear: How the Media Distorts Public Policy”.
The Sky is Falling
Over the coming four years, $3.8 billion will be spent by Correctional Services NSW to build new prisons. The prison-boom policy, which would build 7000 additional prison beds at a cost of $1 millions per cell, has been driven by media reports that, while aiming to inform, serve the purpose of increasing the feelings of personal insecurity and heightening the fear of becoming a crime victim, creating a culture of fear that is leveraged by the media to gain ratings, and by politicians to garner public support. This policy has been categorized by Previous Inspector of Custodial Services, John Paget4, as an “indefensible” policy not supported by facts, when he states that, in deciding the expansion of the NSW prison system “Sound bites trumped sound science, again”.5Paget’s statement is reasonable as, with crimes rate falling as they have since 20016 the required prison beds would be expected to decrease accordingly, but as has been reported widely, the number of incarcerated individuals continues to reach new highs periodically “largely due to more people being refused bail, more people receiving prison terms for minor crimes and more people staying in for longer”7. This situation clearly points to a disconnect where, while having fewer offenders, new and existing ones are being treated more harshly, consistent with what the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, has called a discourse of being “tough on crime”8.A “tough on crime” discourse isn’t new, but it is a logical fallacy in two accounts: firstly, evidence points to longer incarceration and more astringentpolicies as having a negative effect in the communities9 and secondly, its seeming strengthening by the construction of more corrective facilities is not justified by the current crime rates or measurable security needs of NSW10; this begs the question of why are $3.8 billion dollars of tax payer money being directed towards the construction of prisons when they are not only the least effective alternative to combating crime11, and directly affect the enactment of projects that are conducive to development12 but are also entirely unnecessary? And furthermore, why is the public opinion’s response to this misappropriation not strongly negative? The answer lies in the media.
Mass communication has been widely documented to have a significant effect on public opinion. Research in the matter has shown that beliefs, opinions and attitudes about crime are shaped by news and entertainment and reflect self-appraisals of personal security, which are tied to attitudes about criminal offenders13. Not only that, but a 2007 study14 found that the way in which a message is conveyed is more influential in shaping people’s opinion that the actual message, thus the media’s “framing” becomes the main referent from which publics obtain information about their personal safety. In fact, a study demonstrated that a community’s perception of their safety was affected to perceive a crime wave by an increase in news coverage of crime while actual rates remained unchanged15. This is relevant as it is estimated that up to 35% of news reports broadcasted daily are about crime16 and several studies have reported that crime levels as reported in media do not correspond with levels actually experienced in daily life.17 In fact a study found that “while 1% of crimes know to police involve murder, over 26% of crime news stories feature a homicide case. Additionally while 47% of crimes reported to police are nonviolent only 4% of crime news stories depict instances of non-violent crime”.18 With crime also presenting above average recall rates19 crime reporting can create a severely distorted view of self-security resulting in avoidance behaviour and increased fear of becoming a victim of violence.20 Particular to Australia, research by Indermaur and Roberts (2007) has shown that the public overestimates the level of violent crime and underestimates the current severity of sentences with over 80% of respondents believing harsher sentences should be given to offenders.21 This is then perpetuated when policy makers pursue actions, which are done in favour of votes and public opinion over rational, evidence-based legislating. In the end this kind of policy work creates more problems than it solves as institutionalizes fear, and provides a low cost-value equation for constituencies.22
The media impact is evident in the proposed $3.8 billion expenditure for the building of new jails. Even with the crime rates falling, Australians still feel crime has increased as demonstrated by the latest Australian Survey of Social Attitudes:
“The results of the survey show that many Australians considercrime-related issues to be of importance, a large majority would likemore spent on police and law enforcement and that television, radioand newspapers are the major source of information about crime andjustice for most people. At the same time, crime is believed to beincreasing, violence is thought to be widespread and offenders areseen as being treated lightly by the court system.”23
The survey also shows that while the constituency has little or no confidence in the prison system,24 there is still a majority of Australians that feel harsher sentencing laws are needed25 to curb crime rates, which would justify spending $1million dollars of taxpayer money per cell in the building of new prisons. On top of this, it has been suggested that newly built prisons are a device that allows policy makers to appear to reinforce the “tough on crime” discourse through media optics.26
However, policy makers should not be held to the same standards as public opinion. The availability of objective information regarding the effectiveness of the prison system and other alternatives such as mentoring, restorative justice, or others, should mean the public’s best interest is served with accountability and not based on the distorted sense of security created by television, radio and newspapers. As long as uneducated news shape the public opinion and this in turn the policies being passed, spending $3.8 billions on the construction of new, pointless prisons will be easily justifiable by policy makers who leverage information sources to do a disservice to their communities.
1 Nicole Rafter, ‘Crime, Film and Criminology: Recent Sex-Crime Movies’ (2007) 11 Theoretical Criminology 403.
2 David Altheide, Creating Fear (Aldine De Gruyter, 2002).
3 Nicole Rafter, ‘Crime, Film and Criminology: Recent Sex-Crime Movies’ (2007) 11 Theoretical Criminology 403.
4Olding, Rachel,Prison push an ‘expensive’ failure. The Sydney Morning Herald, September 5th, 2016.
5Paget, John.More NSW prisons evidence free public policy. Australian Policy Online. Retrieved September 5th, 2016 from https://apo.org.au/node/65416
6 BOCSAR. NSW Recorded Crime June 2106. Retrieved September 5thfrom www.bocsar.nsw.gov.au/Documents/RCS-Quarterly/NSW_Recorded_Crime_June_2016.pdf
7Olding, Rachel, Call for complete rethink as prison population, recidivism explode. The Sydney Morning Herald. February 19, 2016. Retrieved September 5th, 2016 from https://www.smh.com.au/nsw/recidivism-20160218-gmxmog.html
8Olding, Rachel (2016)BOCSAR Crime stats boss Don Weatherburn calls for lighter prison sentences. The Sydney Morning Herald. February 17,2016. Retrieved September 5th, 2016 fromhttps://www.smh.com.au/nsw/weatherburn-comes-out-swinging-20160216-gmvavn.html
9 Paget, John.More NSW prisons evidence free public policy. Australian Policy Online. Retrieved September 5th, 2016 from https://apo.org.au/node/65416
13Indermar, David & Lynn Roberts. (2007) Perceptions of Crime and Justice. Australian Survey of Social Attitudes. Retrieved September 5thfrom https://aussa.anu.edu.au/questionnaires/questionnaireB2007.pdf
14Scheufele, Dietram and Tewksbury, David.Framing, Agenda Setting and Priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication (57) 2007, 9-20.
15Graber, D. 1980. Crime News and the Public. New York: Praeger.
16 Altheide, D.L. (2002)Creating Fear; News and the Construction of Crisis, (Aldine De Gruyter; New York).
17 Mirka Smolej & Janne Kivivuori (2006) The Relation Between Crime News and Fear of Violence, Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 7:2, 211-227, DOI: 10.1080/14043850601002429
18 Peg O’Connor (2002). Oppression and Responsibility: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Social Practices and Moral Theory. Penn State University Press.
19 Graber, D. 1980. Crime News and the Public. New York: Praeger.
20 Mirka Smolej & Janne Kivivuori (2006) The Relation Between Crime News and Fear of Violence, Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 7:2, 211-227, DOI: 10.1080/14043850601002429
21Indermar, David & Lynn Roberts. (2007) Perceptions of Crime and Justice. Australian Survey of Social Attitudes. Retrieved September 5thfrom https://aussa.anu.edu.au/questionnaires/questionnaireB2007.pdf
22Furedi, Frank (2007). The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself. Spiked. Retrieved September 5thfromhttps://www.spikedonline.com/newsite/article/3053#.V7qG_xh97AQ
23Indermar, David & Lynn Roberts. (2007) Perceptions of Crime and Justice. Australian Survey of Social Attitudes. Retrieved September 5thfrom https://aussa.anu.edu.au/questionnaires/questionnaireB2007.pdf
24 as above
25 as above
26 Olding, Rachel (2016)BOCSAR Crime stats boss Don Weatherburn calls for lighter prison sentences. The Sydney Morning Herald. February 17,2016. Retrieved September 5th, 2016 fromhttps://www.smh.com.au/nsw/weatherburn-comes-out-swinging-20160216-gmvavn.html