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Crime, Media, and Reality: Examining Mixed Messages About Crime and Justice in Popular Media

By Venessa Garcia and Samantha G. Arkerson
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. 2018.

Grounded in a social constructionist framework, Garcia and Arkerson provide a comprehensive examination of how perceptions of crime and criminal justice are distorted by media constructions. This book presents a comprehensive guide to crime media consumption, aiming to provide readers with the necessary tools to be not only informed media consumers, but critical ones. The authors, both American scholars writing on an American media context, combine Garcia’s expertise in the areas of race, gender, and policing with Arkerson’s developmental perspective in early childhood development.

The book begins with a discussion of how perceptions of crime and criminal justice become distorted, due primarily to how the media presents issues surrounding crime and criminal justice. The authors posit that, today, the term “mass media” is highly accurate, as various media have become exceedingly wide-spread and permeates the daily lives of many. According to the authors, although there appears to be more information available, the diversity of information being made available to the public has largely decreased over the past several decades. The authors state that this decrease has been largely due to the consolidation of media corporations and increasing ties to other corporations and government entities.

The authors’ primary focus is on the consequences of distorted messages in media. From increased fear of crime to ineffective policy enactment to political elections, the authors demonstrate that the consequences of a misinformed public are severe. Because media sources tend to focus on extreme and/or violent crime, the authors argue that individuals’ perceptions of risk are much higher than necessary. For example, the authors discuss what has been deemed “the shadow of sexual assault,” whereby women and girls have a constant fear of being sexually assaulted and believe that any crime may escalate into a sexual assault (p.35). Similarly, the authors discuss the notion of the “symbolic assailant” and how it has been reinforced through news media, perpetuating the image of a racialized, impoverished, violent man waiting to victimize unsuspecting targets (p.35). As fear of crime increases, so too does public outcry, which can (and has) resulted in policy reform. Unfortunately, the new policies, which are based solely on the misinformed public opinion, are often ineffective and can, in some cases, be more damaging than beneficial. With the “war on crime” ultimately failing, that misinformed public then turn to politicians and make political decisions based on mis- or distorted information.

The authors discuss not only what the consequences of distorted information are, but how they come about. One element of the social construction of crime and criminal justice is media framing. The authors identify six common media frames: i) the faulty system, ii) blocked opportunities, iii) social breakdown, iv) racist system, v) violent media, and vi) the war on terror. Under the faulty system frame, it is argued that the system is broken and unable to adequately prevent and fight crime. The blocked opportunities frame argues that crime is a result of disproportionate access to opportunities for success. The social breakdown frame posits that crime is a result of a breakdown of the values of family and community. The racist system frame tries to demonstrate that crime is a result of systemic racism within the criminal justice system. The violent media frame argues that violent behaviour is learned through violent media exposure. Finally, the war on terror frame posits that the constitutional rights of terrorists interfere with law enforcement being able to apprehend and punish them. The authors demonstrate how these frames are not static and discrete, as in the 24/7 news cycle, narratives are continually evolving, and oftentimes the frame will shift from one to another as the story progresses. Ultimately, these frames reinforce distorted messages and stereotypes influencing not only public opinion, but public policy and politics, as well.

The authors break down types of crime media exposure, such as television and movies, and subjects of media coverage, such as law enforcement and the prosecution process, and identify the overarching themes that arise across each. The media frames addressed previously were found to be common across each of the media forms and media subjects they examined. In addition to news media, the authors found those same themes in other popular media, such as crime dramas, docuseries, and documentaries. These frames result in a myriad of negative consequences, including unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice system and exaggerated perceptions of risk of crime victimization. The authors stress the need for the public to become informed and critical crime media consumers and encourage individuals to engage more actively with information presented in the media so that public knowledge and opinion are more reflective of reality than they currently are. Throughout the book, the authors have provided an effective and comprehensive guide for readers to become critical crime media consumers.

The major strength of this book is the style of writing, as the authors present rather complex information and arguments in language that is engaging and very accessible to those outside social science disciplines. The authors provide a cross-discipline perspective, drawing upon media studies, psychology, sociology, and criminology to present their arguments. The authors’ use of examples from Google searches, such as the number of hits a search yields, reflects how many consumers access news media effectively bolster the authors’ various arguments. Some of the popular culture references they use are, perhaps, not the most effective illustrations. For example, when discussing police procedurals, many television shows come to mind, particularly Law & Order, instead, the authors use Dukes of Hazard for their exemplar. Overall, however, this book will be of interest to both academics and non-academics concerned about crime media presentation and production.

University of Waterloo

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