Internet and telecommunications, ubiquitous sensing devices, and advances in data storage and analytic capacities have heralded the age of Big Data, where the volume, velocity, and variety of data not only promise new opportunities for the harvesting of information, but also threaten to overload existing resources for making sense of this information. The use of Big Data technology for criminal justice and crime control is a relatively new development. Big Data technology has overlapped with criminology in two main areas: (a) Big Data is used as a type of data in criminological research, and (b) Big Data analytics is employed as a predictive tool to guide criminal justice decisions and strategies. Much of the debate about Big Data in criminology is concerned with legitimacy, including privacy, accountability, transparency, and fairness.
Big Data is often made accessible through data visualization. Big Data visualization is a performance that simultaneously masks the power of commercial and governmental surveillance and renders information political. The production of visuality operates in an economy of attention. In crime control enterprises, future uncertainties can be masked by affective triggers that create an atmosphere of risk and suspicion. There have also been efforts to mobilize data to expose harms and injustices and garner support for resistance. While Big Data and visuality can perform affective modulation in the race for attention, the impact of data visualization is not always predictable. By removing the visibility of real people or events and by aestheticizing representations of tragedies, data visualization may achieve further distancing and deadening of conscience in situations where graphic photographic images might at least garner initial emotional impact.
In contemporary society, “closure” refers to “end to a traumatic event or an emotional process” (Berns, 2011, pp. 18–19)—and, in the more specific context of capital punishment, controversy over what, if anything, is needed for murder victims’ families to attain healing and finality or move forward with their lives, including the execution of their loved one’s killer. The term is highly politicized, and is used by both death penalty advocates and its opponents to build arguments in favor of their respective positions. Closure has been indelibly linked to both capital punishment and media institutions since the late 1990s and early 2000s. The media’s penchant for covering emotional events and its role in informing the American public and recording newsworthy events make it perfectly suited to construct, publicize, and reinforce capital punishment’s alleged therapeutic consequences. Legal and political officials also reinforce the supposed link between closure and capital punishment, asking jurors to sentence offenders to death or upholding death sentences to provide victims’ families with a chance to heal. Such assertions are also closely related to beliefs that a particular offender is defiant or lacks remorse. Surprisingly, however, the association between closure and capital punishment has only recently been subjected to empirical scrutiny. Researchers have found that victims’ families deem closure a myth and often find executions themselves unsatisfying, provided that a perpetrator does not enjoy high media visibility so that the execution has a silencing effect, as did Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s execution by lethal injection in 2001. Recent empirical examinations of the link between capital punishment and closure prompt a redefinition of closure through which victims’ family members learn to cope with, work through, and tell the story of a murder and its impact. This redefinition is less sensational and thus perhaps less newsworthy, which may have the salubrious effect of discouraging extensive media emphasis on executions’ closure potential. Another way to decouple closure from capital punishment is for media organizations to change their practices of covering perpetrators, such as by not continually showing images of the perpetrator and by incorporating a more extensive focus on the victims and their families. While government officials have called for the media to exercise restraint in the wake of such events as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, victims’ groups are now beginning to advocate for this same goal, with much success.
Lisa A. Kort-Butler
Content analysis is considered both a quantitative and a qualitative research method. The overarching goal of much of the research using this method is to demonstrate and understand how crime, deviance, and social control are represented in the media and popular culture. Unlike surveys of public opinions about crime issues, which seek to know what people think or feel about crime, content analysis of media and popular culture aims to reveal a culture’s story about crime. Unlike research that examines how individuals’ patterns of media consumption shape their attitudes about crime and control, content analysis appraises the meaning and messages within the media sources themselves. Media and popular culture sources are viewed as repositories of cultural knowledge, which capture past and present ideas about crime, while creating and reinforcing a culture’s shared understanding about crime.
In content analysis, media and popular culture portrayals of crime issues are the primary sources of data. These portrayals include a range of sources, such as newspapers, movies, television programs, advertisements, comic books, novels, video games, and Internet content. Depending on their research questions, researchers draw samples from their selected sources, usually with additional selection boundaries, such as timeframe, genre, and topic (e.g., movies about gangs released from 1960 to 1990).
There are two primary approaches to conducting content analysis. In quantitative forms of content analysis, researchers code and count the occurrence of elements designated by the researcher prior to the study (e.g., the number of times a violent act occurs). In qualitative forms of content analysis, the researchers focus on the narrative, using an open-ended protocol to record information. The approaches are complementary, as each reveals unique yet overlapping concepts crucial to understanding how the media and popular culture produce and reproduce ideas about crime.
This article brings together scholarship on crime and celebrity in media culture to offer an overview on the works that engage with their intersection points. Focusing on Anglo-American media culture in particular, it offers a useful overview of the field of celebrity studies and to the notable scholars that are sharpening their focus to include media discourses of notoriety and infamy. The text also includes approaches from film and television studies, cultural studies, and cultural criminology. After establishing an introduction to the place of notoriety within the context of celebrity studies, there follows a detailed, though not exhaustive, taxonomy of different types of notoriety (Infamous Crime, Celebrity Criminal, Criminal Celebrity, Celebrity Victim, Victimized Celebrity, Victims of Celebrity, and Celebrity Expert). This taxonomy draws on the work of media scholars studying fame and provides a vocabulary for theorizing and contextualizing the place of crime and transgression within contemporary media culture.
With the taxonomy of notoriety in place, the remainder of the article considers two significant cultural practices of criminalized celebrity: the first is the forensic framing of criminality, transgression, and violence made possible by the figure of the Celebrity Expert. Such experts provide a containment system for the atavism of the criminal act by offering rational explanations and analytical tools. In the hands of the Celebrity Expert, the sensationalism of the true crime story is tempered by discourses of scientific rationalism. This process is often problematic because forensic accounts of crime must balance the tension between telling sensational stories of (often sexualized) violence and offering reassurance that justice can be realized through systems of scientific procedure. The second practice is generally considered more contentious: the industries of crime tourism and collection, dubbed murderabilia. Fans of true crime are invited to take part in “Ripper walks” through Whitechapel or Black Dahlia–themed bus tours through Los Angeles. The murderabilia trade proves that crime is indeed a lucrative business, and that celebrity fandom is not a practice limited to the admiration of film stars or musicians. The article concludes with a consideration of the serial killer, a highly mediated figure around which all of the debates and discourses of crime and celebrity circulates.
Paul Kaplan and Daniel LaChance
Crimesploitation is a kind of reality television programming that depicts nonactors committing, detecting, prosecuting, and punishing criminal behavior. In programs like Cops, To Catch a Predator, and Intervention, a real-life-documentary frame creates a sense of verisimilitude that intensifies the show’s emotionally stimulating qualities and sets it apart from fictional crime stories. Crimesploitation programs create folk knowledge about the causes and consequences of criminal behavior and the purposes and effects of criminal punishment. That folk knowledge, in turn, reflects and reinforces two ideologies that legitimized the ratcheting up of harsh punishment in the late-twentieth-century United States: law-and-order punitivism and neoliberalism.
Cara Rabe-Hemp and John C. Navarro
In the study of crime media and popular culture, researchers have a wide range of research methodologies at their disposal. Each methodology or standardized practice for producing knowledge involves an epistemological foundation and rules of evidence for making a claim, as well as a set of practices for generating evidence of the claim. The research methodology chosen is contingent upon the question being studied, as each methodology has strengths and weaknesses.
As the most stringent research design, experiments are unique because they are the only methodology able to establish causality. This is because experimental design’s major advantage is that researchers can control the environment, conditions, and variables that are being studied. However, experiments suffer from a major disadvantage as well: the precision and control utilized in experiments make it difficult to apply the findings to the real world, referred to as generalizability. This is especially poignant in crime media and popular culture studies where researchers are often interested in exploring how the criminal justice system, participants, and processes are socially constructed and how the mediated images impact our conceptualization of criminality and appropriate criminal justice system responses.
Nancy C. Jurik and Gray Cavender
The academic literature notes that male-centered protagonists dominated the crime genre (novels, film, television) for many years. However, beginning in the 1970s, when women began to enter the real world of policing, they also began to appear in the crime genre. Scholars describe how in those early years, women were depicted as just trying to “break in” to the formerly male world of genre protagonists. They experienced antipathy from their peers and superiors, a situation that continued into the 1980s. In the 1990s, television programs like Prime Suspect addressed the continuing antipathy but also demonstrated that the persistence and successes of women protagonists began to change the narrative of the crime genre. Indeed, some scholars noted the emergence of a feminist crime genre in which plot lines were more likely to address issues that concerned women, including issues of social justice that contextualized crimes. Not only was there an abundance of women-centered genre productions, there was a significant increase in academic scholarship about these protagonists. Some scholars argue that once women in the crime genre reached a critical mass, some of their storylines began to change. There was a tendency for women to be seen as less feminist in their career orientations and more like traditional genre protagonists, e.g., brooding, conflicted, and oppressive. Plots abandoned social justice issues in favor of more traditional “whodunits” or police procedural narratives. The same darkness that characterized men in the crime genre could now be applied to women. Some scholars have argued that a few feminist-oriented productions continue to appear. These productions demonstrate a concern not only with gender but also with issues pertaining to race, class, sexual orientation, and age. For the most part, these productions still center on white, heterosexual women, notwithstanding some attention to these larger social matters.
The enduring popular fascination with crime and criminality suggests that history matters. In the most obvious sense, current representations of crime in the media bear traces of earlier codes and practices. Recognizing this past enables a more sophisticated understanding of the present—especially since many current controversies have much longer histories than is usually acknowledged. This is not to suggest a long line of steady continuity stretching back to the earliest forms of oral, face-to-face storytelling from the latest mediated technology that encompasses the lives of millions around the world. Instead, the argument is that understanding changing forms of representation requires attention to how developments in communication media are themselves integral to the formation of modern societies. For example, it has been argued that the blurring of fact, fiction and entertainment is indicative of a postmodern “hyperreality,” where the boundary separating reality from its representation has “imploded” to such an extent that there are now no real-world referents (Baudrillard, 1988). However, the boundaries between fact and fiction have always been fairly fluid. For instance, during the 16th and 17th centuries, both novels and news reports were seen as neither entirely factual nor as clearly fictional (Davis, 1980, 1983). Moreover, what we now regard as a “news story” would have to have been cast in the form of fiction for it to appear in the press during the 18th century. None of this is to suggest that people are incapable of distinguishing between the real and the imaginary, but to insist that understandings of crime in everyday life are continually informed by representations of crime in popular culture.
The importance of bringing to bear a historical perspective is emphasized throughout, as is the sheer range of material. The tendency to refer to “the media” in the singular obscures the diversity of media forms (film, television, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, books, and so on) that surround us. The word “media” is the plural of “medium,” which was initially used to refer to the materials used for communication (Briggs & Burke, 2005, p. 5). From the papyrus, clay, and stone of the ancient world to the plastic, metal, and wire of modern media, it is clear that the technologies of communication have an immense influence, ranging from the most inner dimensions of personal experience to the global organization of power. In a time of fast-paced media developments and rapid information delivery, a thorough understanding of media history and changing forms of representation is needed more than ever.
Rachel Austin and Amy Farrell
Although the exploitation of people for profit is not a new phenomenon, in the late 1990s and early 2000s international leaders, advocates, and the public became increasingly concerned about the risks of exploitation inherent in labor migration and commercial sex work. In 2000, the U.S. government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which defined a new crime of human trafficking and directed law enforcement agencies to begin identifying and responding to this form of victimization. Following passage of the TVPA, U.S. media interest in human trafficking as a crime increased steadily, though the framing of the problem, its causes, and its solutions has changed over time. Media coverage of human trafficking spiked around 2005 and has risen steadily since that time. Human trafficking has become a “hot topic”—the subject of investigative journalism and a sexy plot line for films and television shows. Yet, the media often misrepresent human trafficking or focus exclusively on certain aspects of the problem. Research on human trafficking frames in print media revealed that portrayals of human trafficking were for the most part oversimplified and inaccurate in terms of human trafficking being portrayed as innocent white female victims needing to be rescued from nefarious traffickers. Depictions of human trafficking in movies, documentaries, and television episodes in the United States have followed a rescue narrative, where innocent victims are saved from harmful predators. Additionally, traffickers are commonly portrayed in the media as part of larger organized crime rings, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Incorrect framing of human trafficking in the popular media may lead policymakers and legislators to adopt less helpful antitrafficking responses, particularly responses focused on criminal justice system solutions.
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.
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.
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.
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.