Social media has revolutionised how we communicate. In this series, we look at how it has changed the media, politics, health, education and the law.
The popularity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have transformed the way we understand and experience crime and victimisation.
Previously, it’s been thought that people form their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the media. But with social media taking over as our preferred news source, how do these new platforms impact our understanding of crime?
Social media has also created new concerns in relation to crime itself. Victimisation on social media platforms is not uncommon.
However, it is not all bad news. Social media has created new opportunities for criminal justice agencies to solve crimes, among other things.
Thus, like many other advancements in communication technology, social media has a good, a bad and an ugly side when it comes to its relationship with criminal justice and the law.
There is no doubt social media has been beneficial for some criminal justice institutions.
For the police, social media has given them unprecedented access to the public, and vice versa. Via Facebook and Twitter, police and the public can communicate in real time about incidents and events. This has proven invaluable not only during times of crisis, but also on a day-to-day basis and at the local level.
Social media has also become an important tool in police investigations. For example, the release of CCTV footage of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher’s last moments via Facebook pages and YouTube assisted in apprehending her killer.
Furthermore, the social media “broadcasting” of criminal trials has added an extra level of transparency to criminal proceedings.
But while live tweeting represents a step forward in achieving open justice, there remain concerns with the practice.
At the other end of the spectrum, social media has been accused of posing risks for many users, particularly young people.
Social media has been used to facilitate “new” crimes such as revenge porn, prompting calls for harsher punishment.
Also, the ability for criminals to use social media platforms to track potential victims (and their possessions) was highlighted in the recent Kim Kardashian robbery.
In addition, “old” crimes such as harassment and threats, as well as fraud and identity theft, have been conducted in new ways through social media.
Social media is also changing the nature of post-crime behaviour. So-called performance crimes – where offenders boast about their criminal behaviour to their friends and followers online – are increasingly common.
Finally, “couch detectives”, eager to identify suspects, often weigh in on social media, which can at best be distracting for law enforcement and at worst result in innocent people being wrongly accused.
In a recent ABC documentary, the detectives who worked on the Meagher case said they:
… refused to engage [in the Facebook debate], making a conscious decision that they did not need any extra pressure.
Trial by social media has become increasingly concerning for those working in the criminal justice system.
Activity on Facebook and Twitter can pose a threat to prosecutions and the right to a fair trial through practices such as sharing photos of the accused before an indictment, creation of hate groups, or jurors sharing their thoughts about a case online.
In the Meagher case, Victoria Police used its Facebook page to educate the public about the consequences of such breaches. In addition, a web gag on social media was imposed by a magistrate who suppressed the information that might compromise the trial.
Social media can also be used as a tool for victim-blaming, as occurred after the Kardashian robbery. Immediately following the incident, some Facebook and Twitter users argued she got “what she deserves” and that “maybe she will cover herself up now”.
Social media can be further be used as a weapon through which the friends and families of victims of crime are exposed to secondary victimisation.
As platforms evolve and new issues emerge, social media will continue to provide challenges and opportunities for criminal justice officials, as well as change the way the public perceives and engages with issues of crime and victimisation.
However, calls for bans and restrictions to social media are unlikely to yield results.
Social media is here to stay, and we need to think outside the box if we wish to understand this phenomenon, capitalise on its benefits, and prevent or minimise its negative effects in relation to crime and the criminal justice system.
Media and crime studies have covered such diverse issues as the sheer volume of crime coverage by mass media, the ideological content of mass media artifacts concerning crime and justice, how media organizations select certain crimes for coverage, the impact of media coverage on high-profile criminal trials, the impact of crime coverage on public opinion and public policy, and the impact of mass media consumption on how fearful a person is with respect to his or her likelihood of victimization, to name a few.
II. The Importance of Market Demands in Mass Media Production
A. The Market and Public Sphere Dichotomy
B. Market-Based Criteria and Media Assessments of “Newsworthiness”
C. The Market Model and Entertainment Media
III. Organizational Factors Intrinsic to Media Production
A. News Themes
B. Reliance on Official Sources of Information
IV. Effects of Media Coverage of Crime
A. Moral Panics
B. Fear of Crime
V. Future Directions
Crime and justice issues have been a stable fixture of mass media portrayal of American society. From the 1920s onward, crime appeared very frequently in tabloid journalism, especially in the context of photographic accounts of crime scenes. Since television became popularized in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, crime has been featured extensively on television programming, including both entertainment and news programming. In terms of local television news, coverage of crime has intensified as local stations have shifted to “eyewitness” and “action news” formats (which rely on live, from-the-scene footage) beginning in the 1970s (Lipschultz, & Hilt, 2002). Crime also occupies a prominent position on many of the “infotainment”-oriented cable news network programs (on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) that infuse entertainment elements with news elements.
This research paper focuses attention on mass media and crime and justice. This topic is very broad and encompasses too many multifaceted aspects to cover them all in the space that a research paper provides. Media and crime studies have covered such diverse issues as the sheer volume of crime coverage by mass media (relative to other topics), the ideological content of mass media artifacts concerning crime and justice, how media organizations select certain crimes for coverage, the impact of media coverage on high-profile criminal trials, the impact of crime coverage on public opinion and public policy, and the impact of mass media consumption on how fearful a person is with respect to his or her likelihood of victimization, to name a few. In addition, research has been done on news media and crime (relating to newspapers, national news programs, local television news programs), entertainment media and crime (relating to television programs, movies, songs, etc.), and “infotainment” media and crime.
This research paper will focus broadly on mass media and crime and justice. First, the paper identifies a framework within which mass media behavior can be understood— from a market-oriented perspective. Distinctions between the market and public sphere models of mass media are noted. Justifications are next provided as to why it is logical to believe that market-oriented concerns have trumped public-sphere-oriented concerns in the production of mass media artifacts. This section of the paper also illustrates how market-oriented concerns impact media decisions by discussing perspectives and research on “newsworthiness” criteria used by journalists. This section concludes with the application of the market model framework to research on entertainment media decision making.
Second, media decision making is assessed from the perspective of organizational imperatives of the mass media organization. This discussion is framed in the context of news organizations. This section focuses on how journalists create “news themes” in the reporting of news and how journalists are reliant on official sources of information. Third, research on the effects of media coverage of crime is discussed. Here, research on the concept of “moral panics” is presented. Finally, research on the link between media consumption and fear of crime is discussed.
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