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Researchers across varied disciplines have begun to explore social media as a new delta of communication; however, few are taking a hard look at social media as it relates to crime. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook increasingly are being used by law enforcement as tools for engaging in criminal investigation, improving public relations, and increasing public awareness. Similarly, persons engaging in crime increasingly employ such sites in novel and unique ways to network, exchange information, and execute and record criminal activities. A survey of research in fields ranging from computer science to sociology to communications demonstrates that both quantitative and qualitative research on and about social media have the capacity greatly to advance contemporary understanding of social organization and protest, crime and criminal behavior, and law and social control. For example, Facebook and Twitter have become key sources for gaining insights into criminal behaviors, such as gang activity, as well as on-the-ground data regarding significant events, such as the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, the Black Lives matter movements, and elections of public figures. Other applications, such as Snapchat and Kik, provide the opportunity for immediate transmission of content and a new source of evidence to be used in criminal prosecutions. Studying social media from a criminal justice perspective, however, is a complex endeavor. While the Internet offers seemingly limitless opportunities for social organizing and networked engagement, the forum bears as much capacity for exclusion as it does for liberation. The growth of new social ills or crimes, such as “doxing,” “phishing,” and “revenge pornography,” for example, highlight that the confluence of immediacy of communication, perceived anonymity, and lack of moderation often renders the online environment threatening for perceived outsiders, particularly young women. On the other hand, as incidents, such as online threats against gamer Zoe Quinn and blogger Anita Sarkeesian, have come to light, online content is increasingly monitored, regulated, and controlled by its corporate ownership, who generally reveal little about how information is sorted, prioritized, and disseminated. As a researcher, one must be mindful that data, particularly qualitative data, collected from social media sites may not be random, representative, or generalizable. In addition, attendant to studying the Internet are unique ethical and privacy concerns not present in non-virtual fora. Many describe the Internet as a public sphere, and law enforcement often treats the online environment as a location in which Fourth Amendment privacy protections can be less rigorously observed. For researchers, however, it is essential to carefully consider whether the study of online discourse is archival or is human subjects research, and in the case of the latter, whether and how consent might be obtained. It is also important that researchers are attentive to the particular characteristics of the online site or sites they choose to examine, as the mission, rules, and practices of each site vary dramatically.
The concept of moral panic was first developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s, principally by Stan Cohen, initially for the purpose of analyzing the definition of and social reaction to youth subcultures as a social problem. Cohen provided a “processual” model of how any new social problem would develop: who would promote it and why, whose support they would need for their definition to take hold, and the often-crucial role played by the mass media and institutions of social control. In the early 1990s, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda produced an “attributional” model that placed more emphasis on strict definition than cultural processes. The two models have subsequently been applied to a range of putative social problems which now can be recognized as falling into five principal clusters: street crime, drug and alcohol consumption, immigration, child abuse (including pedophilia), and media technologies. Most studies have been conducted in Anglophone and European countries, but gradually, the concept is increasing its geographical reach. As a consequence, we now know a good deal about how and why social problems come to be constructed as moral panics in democratic societies.
This approach has nevertheless been criticized for its casual use of language, denial of agency to those promoting and supporting moral panics, and an oversimplified and outdated view of mass media, among other things. As proponents and opponents of moral panic analysis continue to debate the essentials, the theoretical context has shifted dramatically. Moral panic has an uncertain relationship to many recent developments in sociological and criminological thought. It threatens to be overwhelmed or sidelined by new insights from theories of moral regulation or risk, conceptualizations of the culture of fear, or the social psychology of collective emotion. Yet as an interdisciplinary project, it continues, despite its many flaws, to demand sustained attention from analysts of social problem construction.
Since the inception of television, portrayal of crime and justice has been a central feature on television. In particular, the police are featured as prominent characters in many fictional crime programs. Some television cops, such as Joe Friday, Columbo, and Kojak transcend the genre and become enshrined within popular culture. Sometimes referred to as a police procedural, the police drama is a staple of both current and past television programming. In fact, almost 300 police dramas have aired on American network, cable, and syndicated television, with several new shows premiering each year. The vast majority of these shows are short-lived and are largely forgotten. However, some police dramas capture large viewing audiences and/or achieve critical acclaim. Sweeping changes within society have resulted in shifting portrayals of the police on television. Early portrayals focused on a law and order approach, in which the police were moral agents who represented a conservative, pro-establishment point of view. These types of shows represent the so-called “authentic” police drama. The authentic police drama features storylines and characters that engage in somewhat realistic investigative practices and depict relatively common criminal events. The classic example of an authentic police drama is Dragnet, while more recent versions would include shows such as the very popular Law and Order franchise. The 1970s represented the golden age of the police drama, with numerous shows that can be described as gimmicky, with police appearing as super-cops who could singlehandedly fight corruption and achieve justice. Moreover, demographic shifts in the field of policing led to more diversity in media depictions of police, with shows that featured female and African-American characters. In the 1980s, the portrayal of police became even more complex with the appearance of Hill Street Blues, a genre altering show that introduced serialized storylines and characters that were depicted with distinctly human characteristics, with real emotions and flaws. Moreover, the standard law and order approach was challenged, as a more liberal explanation of crime emerged with social inequality as a cause of criminal behavior. Contemporary police dramas, especially shows that appear on network television, tend to focus on a law and order approach. The emergence of cable networks has allowed the police drama to push the limits of television by depicting the police in a more realistic fashion.
John M. Violanti
All too often we emphasize the dangers of police work, but seem to neglect the hidden psychological danger of this profession. Suicide is a consequence of that hidden danger. It is a clear indication of the intolerable strain placed on the police officer’s work and life roles. Policing is an occupation replete with stress and traumatic incidents. For example, witnessing death, encountering abused children, and experiencing violent street combat weigh heavily as precipitants to depression, alcohol use, and suicide among police. Ideas as far back as Freud’s aggression theory relate to the police because officers cannot legally express anger and aggression outwardly and turn it within. Following Freud, other studies examined the frustration of police work and how it was turned inward. Other theoretical ideas concerning police suicide that have emerged over the years are included in this article—police cultural socialization, strain theory, and interpersonal suicide theory.
Scientific research on police suicide has helped to focus on this topic. Much research is on suicide rates in an effort to determine the scope of this problem. Several recent studies are discussed in this article, including a national study. Such studies, however, are not without controversy and more work is necessary to clarify the validity of findings. There is lack of data available on police suicide, which adds to the problem of research. Many believe that causes of police suicide are really no different than those in other groups in society, such as relationship problems, financial difficulties, or significant loss. While scholars cannot yet be certain that police work is an etiological suicide risk factor, we can with some assurance state that it serves as a fertile arena for suicide precipitants. Culturally approved alcohol use and maladaptive coping, firearms availability, and exposure to psychologically adverse incidents all add to the suicide nexus.
Last, and most important, the issue of police suicide prevention is discussed. Likely the biggest challenge in prevention is convincing officers to go for help. The police and societal culture at large attach a stigma to suicide which is difficult to deal with. Additionally, the police culture does not allow for weakness of any kind, either physical or psychological. Several promising prevention approaches are discussed. Given the reluctance to report the deaths of police officers as suicides unfortunately leaves us in a position of “best guess” based on what evidence we can collect. Looking to the future, the development of a national database focused on police suicide would help to establish the actual scope of this tragic loss of life. Interventions need to more efficaciously target at-risk police officers. More research, using longitudinal study designs, is needed to inform interventions and, in particular, to determine how suicide prevention efforts can be modified to meet the unique needs of law enforcement officers.
Clayton Peoples and James E. Sutton
The state is responsible for maintaining law and order in society and protecting the people. Sometimes it fails to fulfill these responsibilities; in other cases, it actively harms people. There have been many instances of political corruption and state crime throughout history, with impacts that range from economic damage to physical injury to death—sometimes on a massive scale (e.g., economic recession, pollution/poisoning, genocide). The challenge for criminologists, however, is that defining political corruption and state crime can be thorny, as can identifying their perpetrators—who can often be collectives of individuals such as organizations and governments—and their victims. In turn, pinpointing appropriate avenues of controlling these crimes can be difficult. These challenges are exacerbated by power issues and the associated reality that the state is in a position to write or change laws and, in essence, regulate itself. One possible solution is to define political corruption and state crime—as well as their perpetrators and victims—as broadly as possible to include a variety of scenarios that may or may not exhibit violations of criminal law. Likewise, a resolution to the issue of social control would be to move beyond strictly institutional mechanisms of control. Criminological research should further elucidate these issues; it should also, however, move beyond conceptual dilemmas toward (a) better understanding the processes underlying political corruption/state crime and (b) illustrating the broader ramifications of these crimes.
The changing cultural role, visibility, and meaning of pornography, particularly its increased accessibility and the sociocultural reverberations that this is seen to cause, have been lively topics of public debate in most Western countries throughout the new millennium. Concerns are routinely yet passionately voiced, especially over the ubiquity of sexual representations flirting with the codes of pornography in different fields of popular media, as well as children’s exposure to hardcore materials that are seen to grow increasingly extreme and violent. At the same time, the production, distribution, and consumption have undergone notable transformations with the ubiquity of digital cameras and online platforms. Not only is pornography accessible on an unprecedented scale, but also it is available in more diverse shapes and forms than ever. All this has given rise to diverse journalistic and academic diagnoses on the pornification and sexualization of culture, which, despite their notable differences, aim to conceptualize transformations in the visibility of sexually explicit media content and its broader sociocultural resonances.
Dawn K. Cecil
Popular culture has the ability to entertain and, on some level, educate. People’s perceptions and understanding of an issue can be influenced by the images and messages contained within common representations. According to social constructionism, the further a subject is removed from our day-to-day lives, the more important second-hand knowledge becomes in shaping perceptions. Prisons are a prime example. These institutions are not a part of most people’s lives; therefore, they must rely on information gathered from other sources to come to an understanding of these complex social institutions. Many turn to popular prison imagery to be entertained and in doing so they may be taking away lessons about imprisonment. By relying on the mediated experiences provided by representations of prison in popular culture, they are likely to have an incomplete and, perhaps, inaccurate perception of institutional life.
Early images of prison were limited, however, today there is an abundance. The first popular prison imagery came in the form of Hollywood films, which gave audience members a glimpse of the prison routine, while following the journey of a new inmate. While these movies are the most iconic images of prison, in today’s media landscape representations of prison life can be found in a variety of places. Most often they are depicted in entertainment and infotainment-type programming on television, but can also be seen in documentary films and represented in various other aspects of popular culture, including music and cartoons. There is a growing body of literature that discusses these depictions. This research examines the accuracy of the portrayals and identifies underlying messages about crime and punishment, which provides vital information on how people come to understand prison in a media culture. Stereotypes and caricatures abound; however, one can also find important messages about prisoners, prison life, and ultimately the role of prison in society. Overwhelmingly people are subjected to images of violent men and women locked up, where their violent behavior continues, which ultimately sends a message that prison is a social necessity. Examining these popular representations of prison allows us to begin to understand the potential impact this imagery has on people’s perceptions of these institutions in modern society.
In 1940, Edwin Sutherland claimed that the discipline of criminology was operating with an inaccurate view of criminal behavior. He argued that criminology focused too much on the offending of working-class people via the causal mechanisms of poverty, psychopathy, and sociopathy. His theory on white-collar crime was an observation that people of high social class commit crimes and have their own forms of offending behavior. Of this behavior, Sutherland noted that it could be more far-reaching and damaging than offenses committed by the working class, while at the same time encountering less scrutiny and condemnation from society. By taking the first steps into the study of crimes of the powerful, Sutherland opened up discussion of a wide range of nonviolent, financially motivated offenses such as corruption of state officials, fraud, and embezzlement. He proposed the theory of differential association as an attempt to provide a more effective explanation of offending behavior inclusive of the offending of the rich and powerful.
During the 20th century, research into white-collar criminals and the professional con artist has revealed broad typologies of offending behavior and patterns of offending. Today, white-collar crime is a broad term that applies to a range of activities and has become shorthand for discussions of crimes that involve deception, abuse of trust, and intelligent criminals.
Media representations have emphasized these characteristics and portrayed white-collar criminals and con artists as offending elites, both in terms of social class and type of offending. Film and television depictions present an elaborate form of criminality based on guile and manipulation of victims. The image of the white-collar criminal, the professional con artist, and their victims in popular culture are equally nuanced and tap into ideas about the moral acceptability of this kind of offending. The influence of popular culture on attitudes toward white-collar crime is of great interest in the study of criminology.
Yuliya Zabyelina and Roman Ivashkiv
Pussy Riot was a feminist punk-rock group based in Moscow, Russian Federation. It was founded by a group of several young women in the summer of 2011, following the announcement that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin would run for a third presidential term. Wearing colorful clothes and balaclavas, band members conducted several unsanctioned public performances, which were recorded, edited, and later distributed as music videos on the Internet. Committed to socio-political change in Russia, Pussy Riot protested against the authoritarian political regime and church-state confluence in Russia and advocated for feminism, LGBT and civil rights, and political liberties.
Pussy Riot’s most famous song, “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away,” a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour held on February 21, 2012, provoked a scandal. Following the performance, a criminal case was opened against three Pussy Riot members, leading to arrests without bail of Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Supporters of Pussy Riot believed the court proceedings and the verdict discredited the Russian judicial system, as the three women were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” While Samutsevich won her appeal, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served 21 months of their 24-month sentence before they were granted amnesty. This case has become a landmark event in Russian politics, causing a domestic and international controversy over the issues of justice, feminism, and separation of church and state.
Criminal justice and its institutions are key objects of popular culture and attract extensive media attention. The portrayal of the justice system, its rules, professions, and institutions has been invigorated with the invention of new media technology. The authorities’ reaction to wrong doing has proven not less exciting to the audience than the criminal acts themselves. French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized that every member of society has an interest in social cohesion and wishes to see perpetrators appropriately punished. The media plays to this basic inclination. From the reactions of the justice system to crime people take clues not only for its effectiveness but the public also wants to see its basic values represented in the work of officials and their decisions. Therefore, aspects of procedural and distributive justice are picked up by popular imagination and exploited to the full by media producers. Beyond recognition that media depictions of criminal justice will follow media conventions and will therefore be distorted in systematic ways, it has to be acknowledged that those representations and the expectations they formed have become a major force in society. Political repercussions and influences on how crime is dealt with are a consequence.
Glenn Muschert and Jaclyn Schildkraut
Stories about crime are staples in modern mainstream media, with the greatest emphasis placed on the most extreme cases. School shootings are particularly exemplary of this, as when word breaks of such an event, various forms of media, including the television, radio, and newspaper formats, as well as social media, become inundated with stories. This around-the-clock attention often lasts for hours and days, and with the most extreme cases, even weeks. As most people never will experience such a school shooting directly, the media then becomes the dominant conduit from which to glean information about the event.
How these cases are presented in the news can impact audiences as much as the number of stories that are aired or printed can. Consequently, researchers have explored the way in which these stories are framed to glean a better understanding of how information about the shootings are presented by the media. Such a line of inquiry is important as violent entertainment media (e.g., movies and video games) in particular have been criticized as possible contributing factors for the events in the first place. Additionally, mass shootings not only are abundant in the news, they also have appeared in popular media including television, film, and even music. Collectively, the media also has the ability to impact the perceptions of school shootings, particularly as the coverage relates to things like fear of crime or even copycat or contagion effects.
Gottfredson and Hirschi advanced self-control theory in 1990 as part of their general theory of crime. Self-control is defined as the ability to forego acts that provide immediate or near-term pleasures, but that also have negative consequences for the actor, and as the ability to act in favor of longer-term interests. An individual’s level of self-control is influenced by family or other caregiver behavior early in life. Once established, differences in self-control affect the likelihood of delinquency in childhood and adolescence and crime in later life. Persons with relatively high levels of self-control do better in school, have stronger job prospects, establish more stable interpersonal relationships, and attain higher income and better health outcomes. Self-control theory was initially constructed to reconcile the age, generality, and stability findings of criminological research with the standard assumptions of control theory. As such, it acknowledges the general decline in crime with age, versatility in types of problem behaviors engaged in by delinquents and offenders, and the generally stable individual differences in the tendency to engage in delinquency and crime over one’s life-course. Self-control theory applies to a wide variety of illegal behaviors (most crimes) and to many noncrime problem behaviors, including school problems, accidents, and substance abuse.
A considerable amount of research has been undertaken on self-control theory and on Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime. As a result, self-control theory is likely the most heavily researched perspective in criminology during the past 30 years. Most reviews find substantial empirical support for the principal positions of the theory, including the relationship between levels of self-control and delinquency, crime, and other problem behaviors. These relationships appear to be strong throughout life, among most groups of people, types of crime, in the United States and other countries, and over time. The posited important role of the family in the genesis of self-control is consistent with substantial bodies of research, although some researchers argue in favor of important genetic components for self-control. The theory’s expectations about the age distribution of crime, versatility of offending, and stability of individual differences over long periods of time also receive substantial support. Researchers have long studied variations in age effects, particularly seeking continuously high levels of offending for the most serious offenders, but reviewers have found that the evidence for meaningful variability is not convincing.
For public policy, self-control theory argues that the most promising approach for crime reduction focuses primarily on prevention, especially in early childhood, and secondarily on situational prevention for specific types of crimes. Gottfredson and Hirschi argue that self-control theory is inconsistent with reliance on the criminal justice system to affect crime levels. On the one hand, general reviews of the empirical literature on deterrence and incapacitation support the expectations of self-control theory by finding little support for severity of sanctions, sanctions long removed from the act, and selective incapacitation for “serious offenders.” On the other hand, experimental studies from education, psychology, and criminology generally support the idea that early-childhood family and educational environments can be altered to enhance self-control and lower expected delinquency, crime, and other problem behaviors later in life.
In media representations the term sex crimes most frequently refers to rape and child sexual abuse, although it can include a wider range of acts such as exhibitionism and voyeurism. While the majority of these crimes receive little media attention, certain sensational sex crimes are prominent topics in news and entertainment media. Media attention tends to focus on violent crimes committed by “dangerous” strangers, largely defined as poor men of color, and crimes committed against white and middle-class victims. These representations provide a distorted image of the reality of sex crimes, which most frequently occur in private settings, by someone known to the victim. Media coverage has also been criticized for focusing on the actions and responsibility of victims, suggesting that victim behavior, such as drinking, flirting, or being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” precipitates sexual violence. Again, these representations vary significantly according to race and class, with white and middle-class victims more likely to receive sympathetic coverage, particularly if their assailant is from a lower-class or more marginal racial or ethnic background.
The emergence of the second-wave feminist movement in the 1970s, however, has led to some changes in media representations of sex crimes. Subsequent decades have seen an increase in sympathetic reporting around victims and increased reporting of crimes perpetrated by acquaintances and family members. There has been a growth in feminist voices and views in media reporting, as well as increased focus on the responsibilities and failings of criminal justice systems. Recent years have seen several examples of media coverage or “rediscovery” of previously ignored allegations against celebrities. Sex crimes have become a highly controversial and contested area, and media coverage reflects this, sometimes supporting progressive social and cultural change and sometimes providing a vehicle for “backlash” sentiments. Social media has been a driver of changes in the media landscape around sexual violence in recent years has provided a new forum for survivors to disseminate their stories but has also been marked by online harassment and abuse.
Joshua D. Freilich and Graeme R. Newman
Situational crime prevention (SCP) is a criminological perspective that calls for expanding the crime-reduction role well beyond the justice system. SCP sees criminal law in a more restrictive sense, as only part of the anticrime effort in governance. It calls for minutely analyzing specific crime types (or problems) to uncover the situational factors that facilitate their commission. Intervention techniques are then devised to manipulate the related situational factors. In theory, this approach reduces crime by making it impossible for it to be committed no matter what the offender’s motivation or intent, deterring the offender from committing the offense, or by reducing cues that increase a person’s motivation to commit a crime during specific types of events. SCP has given rise to a retinue of methods that have been found to reduce crime at local and sometimes national or international levels. SCP’s focus is thus different than that of other criminological theories because it seeks to reduce crime opportunities rather than punish or rehabilitate offenders.
SCP emerged more than 40 years ago, and its major concepts include rational choice, specificity, opportunity structure, and its 25 prevention techniques. Contrary to the common critique that SCP is atheoretical, it is actually based upon a well-developed interdisciplinary model drawing from criminology, economics, psychology, and sociology. Importantly, a growing number of empirical studies and scientific evaluations have demonstrated SCP’s effectiveness in reducing crime. Finally, the SCP approach inevitably leads to a shifting of responsibility for crime control away from police and on to those entities, public and private, most competent to reduce it.
Contemporary sociologists typically trace social disorganization models to Emile Durkheim’s classic work. There is continuity between Durkheim’s concern for organic solidarity in societies that are changing rapidly and the social disorganization approach of Shaw and McKay (1969). However, Shaw and McKay view social disorganization as a situationally rooted variable and not as an inevitable property of all urban neighborhoods. They argued that socioeconomic status (SES), racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and residential stability account for variations in social disorganization and hence informal social control, which in turn account for the distribution of community crime. Empirical testing of Shaw and McKay’s research in other cities during the mid-20th century, with few exceptions, focused on the relationship between SES and delinquency or crime as a crucial test of the theory. As a whole, that research supports social disorganization theory. A handful of studies in the 1940s through early 1960s documented a relationship between social disorganization and crime. After a period of stagnation, social disorganization increased through the 1980s and since then has accelerated rapidly. Much of that research includes direct measurement of social disorganization, informal control, and collective efficacy. Clearly, many scholars perceive that social disorganization plays a central role in the distribution of neighborhood crime.
Gerald Cliff and April Wall-Parker
As far back as the 19th century, statistics on reported crime have been relied upon as a means to understand and explain the nature and prevalence of crime (Friedrichs, 2007). Measurements of crime help us understand how much of it occurs on a yearly basis, where it occurs, and the costs to our society as a whole. Studying crime statistics also helps us understand the effectiveness of efforts to control it by tracking arrests and convictions. Analysts can tell whether it is increasing or decreasing relative to other possible mitigating factors such as the economy or unemployment rates in a community. Politicians can point to crime statistics to define a problem or indicate a success. Sociologists can study the ups and downs of crime rates and any number of other variables in the society such as education, employment rates, ethnic demographics, and a long list of other factors thought to affect the rate at which crime is committed. Property value is affected by the crime rates in a given neighborhood, and insurance rates are said to fluctuate with the ups and downs of crime.
Analyzing any criminal act’s prevalence, cost to society, impact on victims, potential preventive measures, correction strategies, and even the characteristics of perpetrators and victims has provided valuable insights and a wealth of useful information in society’s efforts to combat violent/index crimes. This information has only been possible because there is little disagreement as to exactly what constitutes a criminal act when discussing violent or property crimes or what has come to be grouped under the catch-all heading of “street crime”; this is decidedly not the case with crimes included under the white-collar crime umbrella.
Michelle S. Phelps and Caitlin Curry
Over the past half-century, the number of adults under criminal justice supervision increased precipitously in some Western countries, with carceral control in the United States reaching an unprecedented scale. While much of the scholarly attention has been focused on the development of mass incarceration, new research focuses on the parallel expansion of mass probation and, more broadly, mass supervision. In the United States, the number of adults on probation and parole supervision increased from one million in 1980 to a peak of nearly 5.1 million in 2007, more than double the number of inmates in local, state, and federal jails and prisons. Estimates from Europe in the late 2000s suggest that there were approximately 3.5 million on community sanctions, compared to 2 million incarcerated. Individuals on these sanctions serve out their initial sentences (or remaining time after release from jail or prison) while residing in the community under the supervision of a probation or parole officer.
As scholarship increasingly focuses on the expansion of community supervision, we are learning more about this form of punishment. Probationers and parolees are subject to a variety of conditions, including reporting regularly to their supervising officers, finding and maintaining employment, avoiding drug use and re-arrest, participating in therapeutic programs, and paying fines and fees. Failure to comply with the demands of supervision may result in variety of penalties, up to a return to custody for the entire length of the suspended prison sentence. Thus, while probation and parole are often framed as acts of leniency—allowing individuals to avoid incarceration and/or exit early—they can be experienced as quite punitive. In other words, the official discourses and everyday practices of supervision blend both punitive and rehabilitative elements. The composition of this blend varies significantly across countries, states, local departments, individual officers, and the officer-supervisee relationship. This variation has produced a kaleidoscope of different practices, all under the banner of community supervision.
The themes of terrorism and counter-terrorism have infused the America media’s cultural production for several decades. These popular culture products were designed first for consumption by domestic audiences but also for export to audiences throughout the world, quickly assuming a role in US cultural imperialism. Much of this production took the form of news reports about political turmoil, sectarian violence and liberation, independence or nationalist movements—almost always occurring “somewhere else” in the world. Still others appeared as fictional narratives embedded within diverse entertainment genres such as political thrillers, war, sci-fi, romance and suspense, sometimes in a lifeworld that paralleled that of the domestic audience. But more often than not this production took the form of lifeworlds mimicking foreign lands, mythical pasts, or dystopian futures. Popular culture’s tales of terrorism and counter-terrorism maintained this relatively stable pattern for much of the last quarter of the 20th century. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001 considerably impacted that narrative pattern, and while not fundamentally changing the script, this attack resulted in significant rewrites. To begin, the portrayal of terrorism and the War on Terror, both real and fictionalized, became the central theme in a great deal of popular culture, including television programs, feature films, PC/video games, YouTube videos, advertisements, popular music, and of course, the news. These mediated texts—in essence, stories that the US cultural industries tell about terrorism and the state’s attempts to fight it—reconstituted the social reality of terrorism and counter-terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attacks, the American cultural industries increasingly served as a conduit for US hegemony, both at home and abroad. While there is a long history of arm’s-length cooperation between the state and the entertainment industry in the production of popular culture products that can be traced back to the early 1930s, the immediate post-9/11 period heralded an era of not only more terrorism and counter-terrorism narratives but also narratives whose content changed incrementally (but ultimately markedly) largely as a result of the state’s direct involvement in crafting them.
Chief among the changes was the streamlining of a narrative that emphasized the growing ubiquity of terrorist threats to the American people on US soil. Indeed, in the lifeworlds created by post-9/11 popular culture, terrorism and counter-terrorism are no longer things that happen primarily or exclusively elsewhere. America’s business interests abroad, its embassies and military installations, are no longer the only likely targets of terrorist activity. These traditional targets have been augmented by many others, including iconic buildings in major cities, national monuments, and critical infrastructure—as well as by more mundane parts of the US landscape, such as schools, sports stadiums, amusement parks, and shopping malls. Like that espoused by the state, the culture industries’ narrative is clear; no one is safe from terrorism.
Predictably, the narrative shift that amplified the danger, barbarism, and proliferation of the terrorist threat was complimented by one which aggrandized the counter-terrorist efforts of the United States. In popular culture’s various lifeworlds counter-terrorism strategies, no matter how extreme, are understood as reasonable and legitimate. The narratives, comprised almost wholly of fetishized presentations of military, national security, and law enforcement agents with state- of-the-art weaponry dispatching terrorists with deadly force, provide virtually no political or socio-historical context and offer no alternative to resolving conflicts other than the unfettered use of state violence.
As such, popular culture’s presentation of terrorism and counter-terrorism serves to provide the resolution that the real-world War on Terror promised but did not deliver, while at the same time contributing to a narrative that demands its continuation.
Prosecutors and members of law enforcement have complained that television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have cultivated in jurors’ unreasonable expectations about forensic evidence, specifically that jurors require definitive forensic proof of guilt, or else they will wrongly acquit. This is popularly known as “CSI Effect.” Despite the popularity of this belief, there is little empirical evidence substantiating it. In fact, the majority of studies exploring CSI Effects have found evidence supporting a variety of impacts that advantage, rather than disadvantage, the prosecution. For instance, these programs frame forensics as objective and virtually infallible, bolster forensic technicians and the value of evidence associated with them, and promote schema that endorse prosecution narratives. Indeed, it appears that among CSI’s most salient impacts on the legal system comes not from these television programs distorting juror decision-making, but because lawyers and judges mistakenly believe such an effect exists, and, therefore, alter their behavior in response. It thus appears that the realities of the CSI Effect are quite different than the persistent mythology of it.
This article explores what happens to criminal evidence after the conclusion of legal proceedings, described here as the afterlife of evidence. The text investigates the ways that this material proliferates in the shadow of the law, in both cultural and commercial contexts. During the criminal trial, the rules of evidence and criminal procedure operate to tightly regulate the collection, admissibility, and interpretation of evidence. After the criminal trial, these rules no longer control evidence, and this material is sometimes subject to the substantial cultural curiosity associated with true crime and its artifacts. This article sets out some of the new questions that are posed by this material when it is transferred beyond the law’s control.