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Violence, Media Effects, and Criminology  

Nickie D. Phillips

Debate surrounding the impact of media representations on violence and crime has raged for decades and shows no sign of abating. Over the years, the targets of concern have shifted from film to comic books to television to video games, but the central questions remain the same. What is the relationship between popular media and audience emotions, attitudes, and behaviors? While media effects research covers a vast range of topics—from the study of its persuasive effects in advertising to its positive impact on emotions and behaviors—of particular interest to criminologists is the relationship between violence in popular media and real-life aggression and violence. Does media violence cause aggression and/or violence? The study of media effects is informed by a variety of theoretical perspectives and spans many disciplines including communications and media studies, psychology, medicine, sociology, and criminology. Decades of research have amassed on the topic, yet there is no clear agreement about the impact of media or about which methodologies are most appropriate. Instead, there continues to be disagreement about whether media portrayals of violence are a serious problem and, if so, how society should respond. Conflicting interpretations of research findings inform and shape public debate around media effects. Although there seems to be a consensus among scholars that exposure to media violence impacts aggression, there is less agreement around its potential impact on violence and criminal behavior. While a few criminologists focus on the phenomenon of copycat crimes, most rarely engage with whether media directly causes violence. Instead, they explore broader considerations of the relationship between media, popular culture, and society.

Article

Copycat Crime  

Ray Surette

The term “copycat crime” implies that the root of a crime can be found in exposure to a live model or media content concerning a prior crime. The four basic components of a copycat crime are a “generator crime” (a media portrayal of a crime or a real-world crime that is the precursor of a subsequent crime), “criminogenic models” (media content or real-world offenders that portray a subsequently copied crime), “copycat criminal” (an individual who commits a crime after being influenced by criminogenic media content, live models, or a combination of the two), and “copycat crime” (a crime whose occurrence or form is influenced by prior exposure to media content and/or live criminal models). The linked crimes are seen as sharing a unique criminogenic dynamic with the first crime serving as a generator for later copycat crimes with substantial elements of the first crime present in the second. The premise of copycat crime is that exposure to a generator crime is the linking mechanism and that the removal of the exposure would eliminate the occurrence or form of the subsequent copycat crime. There is no theory of copycat crime, but there are four theoretical perspectives that are pertinent. Under the first perspective, imitation has been examined as a general human behavior within biology and psychology. The second perspective, social contagion, studies imitation in collective groups with a focus on the life cycle of crime waves. The third perspective is the study of the diffusion of social innovations and focuses on the factors that encourage adoption of a new, socially accepted and advocated behavior. In diffusion research, criminal behaviors have not been a major consideration. The final theoretical perspective is social learning theory, which focuses on how humans learn new behaviors in social settings. Despite the attention of these four research streams, research on copycat crime has not been extensive. One reason for the deficiency is the difficulty in identifying copycat crimes. Whereas other crimes are relatively straightforward to quantify and are routinely tallied in official law enforcement statistics, copycat crimes are not counted in any systematic way. Copycat crime has traditionally been conceived within an emphasis on direct exposure to live person-to-person models. The media as a source of crime models has historically been downplayed. As the media evolved in the 20th century the study of mediated copycat crime models ascended so that the dominant contemporary view of copycat crime is that of media-sourced transmissions. Copycat crimes are today linked to literature, movies, television shows, music, video games, and print and television news, but despite concern and a large number of studies of violent media’s relationship to social aggression, the rigorous study of copycat crime has lagged. At this time, copycat effects are felt to be relatively rare and are most likely to appear in at-risk individuals predisposed to crime and in preexisting criminal populations. The effect of the media is thought to be more qualitative (affecting criminal behavior) than quantitative (affecting the number of criminals). Whether copycat crime effects influence any particular individual depends on the interaction of the content of a particular media product (its characterizations of crime and criminals), the individual’s predispositions toward crime (personal criminal history, family, and environmental factors), and the media’s social context (preexisting cultural norms toward crime, crime opportunities, and nature of the mass media). The most likely individual to be a copycat offender is hypothesized to be a socially isolated but criminally confident offender who is exposed to multiple live criminal models and has immersed themselves in criminogenic media.

Article

Reality TV Crime Programs  

Annette Hill

Crime reality television is a significant origin story in understanding reality entertainment. In the 1980s, crime reality television captured the public’s imagination with cold cases, ongoing criminal investigations, surveillance feeds, and live appeals to the public for information to catch criminals. Early crime reality television borrowed from other factual genres, including news reportage, crime and observational documentary, and crime drama; this mixing of different generic elements helped to create representations of crime that were a combination of dramatized spectacles, surveillance footage, and public appeals. What united this mix of factual and dramatic styles was the sense of liveness; the live address to the public and the caught-in-the-act camerawork contributed to an experience of watching as immediate and real. This feeling of liveness, a central component of television itself, meant that crime reality television was popular entertainment that also connected to the real world, inviting audiences and publics to engage with crime in their local neighborhood, in society, and in public debates about law and order. This was citizen crime television that had commercial and public appeal. At some point in the origin story of reality television, crime was overshadowed by the global development of this entertainment genre. In early studies, books such as Entertaining Crime (Fishman & Cavender, 1998) or Tabloid Television (Langer, 1998) examined the influx of infotainment and sensational news reportage primarily on television in Europe, Australia, and America. These books were about reality television and addressed the first crime wave in the genre. Studies of the 2000s books, such as Reality TV (Hill, 2005) or Staging the Real (Kilborn, 2003), examined docusoaps and competitive reality and talent shows, addressing the second and third waves in the genre. More recently, companions to reality television (Ouellette, 2014) contain research on global reality television formats, as well as scripted reality or business reality, and analyze issues concerning politics, race, class, production, celebrities, branding, and lifestyles. Crime is conspicuous by its relative absence from these discussions: what happened to crime reality television? Today, true crime is flourishing in commercial zones, for example, on branded digital television channels like CBS Reality or the international surveillance format Hunted, and subscription video on demand true crime Making a Murderer. Many of these popular series tap into that feeling of liveness that was so crucial to early crime reality television, particularly the connection between representing crime, law and order, and the real world. This makes crime reality television a rich site of analysis as an intergeneric space where there are tensions surrounding the staging of real crime for entertainment, and its connection to traditional values of authority and duty, representations of ethnicity, gender and social class, and broader moral, legal and political issues.

Article

Visual Criminology in International and Comparative Context  

Stefan Machura

Visual criminology concerns itself with how crimes and society’s reaction to crime appear visually and how such representations are perceived. In a Durkheimian view, individuals look out for signs that the social order is upheld or undermined by crime. In doing so, visual criminology observes, they react to visual cues such as the appearance of their environment, photos in news media, and the combination of moving pictures and sound on TV and social media. Attempts to reduce harm and to change structures also often express themselves visually. Sight and sound often go together, and sometimes further sensual impressions are impacting on the recipient. In a society ever more saturated by visual and audio-visual media, criminology has to engage with the visual. Therefore, visual criminology will be of use to researchers from all the different strands within criminology, even if up until now most of the contributions come from anglophone countries. As varied as the visual manifestations of crime and the response to crime are the research methods employed by visual criminology. They include making respondents react to the stimulus provided by photos, the interpretation of “found” pictures and even criminologists involving themselves in the production of audio-visual media, like TV shows or films. In this way, visual criminologists have arrived at insights that they would not have gained otherwise. Visual criminology will form an important addition to the work of criminologists, especially those who wish to engage with the new ways in which people communicate about crime, and across the globe.

Article

Crime and the Visual Media in Brazil  

Vicente Riccio

The presence of crime in the visual media is a phenomenon shared throughout the world. In Brazil there is also a great level of consumption of it. The Brazilian production of media about crimes is deeply rooted in the social context that has emerged from intense social, political, and economic transformations that have taken place in the country since the second half of the 20th century. The depiction of crime in Brazilian visual media is based on three different genres: (1) television series, (2) films, and (3) police journalism. They deal with critical issues about the rule of law in Brazilian society such as violence, inequality, police corruption, failures of the criminal justice system, and the demands for public policies to improve it. Despite this common ground, the genres reveal different political and ideological views about the rule of law in Brazil. Productions centered on the plane of fiction (television and film) are more critical about the criminal justice system in Brazil, especially in relation to the performance of its police forces. Brazilian police journalism is the opposite. The style reinforces a view of the problem of crime founded from the viewpoint of problematic people rather than problematic structures. Finally, the media coverage of crime is an important field to help understand the different views in the public agenda about the criminal justice system’s reform in Brazil.

Article

Big Data and the Study of Communities and Crime  

Daniel T. O'Brien

In recent years, a variety of novel digital data sources, colloquially referred to as “big data,” have taken the popular imagination by storm. These data sources include, but are not limited to, digitized administrative records, activity on and contents of social media and internet platforms, and readings from sensors that track physical and environmental conditions. Some have argued that such data sets have the potential to transform our understanding of human behavior and society, constituting a meta-field known as computational social science. Criminology and criminal justice are no exception to this excitement. Although researchers in these areas have long used administrative records, in recent years they have increasingly looked to the most recent versions of these data, as well as other novel resources, to pursue new questions and tools.

Article

Crime, Justice, and Anglo-American Comics  

Thomas Giddens

Criminal justice is a perennial theme in modern comics published in the United States and United Kingdom, with dominant narratives revolving around the protection of the innocent from crime and harm or the seeking of justice outside the authority of the state. The history of the comics medium and its regulation in the mid-20th century, particularly in the United States, shows how the comics medium itself—not just its popular content—was embroiled in questions of criminality, in relation to its perceived obscenity and fears that it caused juvenile delinquency. Indeed, the medium’s regulation shaped the way it has been able to engage with questions of crime and justice; the limitations on moral complexity under the censorship of the 1954 Comics Code in the United States, for example, arguably led to both a dearth of critical engagement in crime and justice concerns, and an increased evil or psychopathy in criminal characters (because more nuanced motivations could not be depicted under the Code). From the 1980s onwards, the restrictions of the Code abated, and a broad “maturation” of the form can be seen, with a concurrent increase in critical engagement with criminological questions. The main themes of comics research around crime and comics after the 1980s include questions of vigilantism and retribution, seen as the dominant concern in mainstream comics. But other leading questions go beyond these issues and explore comics’ engagement with the politics of crime and justice, highlighting the medium’s capacity to question the nature of justice and the legitimate exercise of state power. Moreover, stepping back and considering the general relationship between comics and criminology, comics can be seen as important cultural forms of expression of moral and social values, as well as potentially alternative orders of knowledge that can challenge mainstream criminology. From free speech, juvenile delinquency, and vigilantism, to politics, culture, and disciplinary knowledge, there are significant interactions between comics and criminology on a variety of levels.