Dissertation; Literature Review

The price of fear; How the British media helped to create a knife crime ‘Epidemic’

Do British newspapers report knife crime in a way that reinforces prejudice and the stereotyping of marginalized groups?

1.1 The crime news phenomena

Gang crime and gang culture has existed in the UK for centuries. ‘Scuttlers’, ‘Sloggers’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’ were jailed by their hundreds in the late nineteenth century, with most of the victims and perpetrators being young, disadvantaged and disenfranchised males (Bowlby, 2019). Many of the gangs based in Birmingham and Manchester only made it to local and national news, however, it was the South London gang ‘The Hooligans’ which made headlines on an international level. So much so that the term ‘hooligan’ was made a generic label for a troublesome youth (Shore, 2015). The national press would often pay more attention to events and disturbances that were caused in the capital as it was closer to the government (Shore, 2015). As technology advances new crime strategies are developed. During the 1850s and 1860s of Victorian Britain news of ‘Garrotting’ was hitting the headlines a process by which two attackers use a rope to tie around the victims’ neck while the other rifles through their pockets (Bowlby, 2019). Stiffer and thicker neck collars came back into fashion as anxieties were raised during the period. Most crime strategies are sensationalised by the press until they become normalised and lose their newsworthiness, after that a new strategy is found and the cycle is repeated (Bowlby, 2019).

When exploring the statistics behind crime reporting it is evident that newspapers prioritise interpersonal violent and sexual crimes (Williams & Dickinson, 1993). The research project of (Ditton & Duffy, 1983) involved a study consisting of three Scottish newspapers showed that while 6.5% of the news was crime, around 45.8% of that crime news was violent and sexual. The contrasting police statistics showed that only 2.4% of crime in the locality was violent or sexual.

There is a positive correlation between the amount of violent and sexual crime news and the level of public anxiety and fear of those crimes. The public is slowly becoming more aware of the fact that fear sells (Serani, 2011). Researchers have conducted studies which focus on how journalists have created a public sense that there is a crime wave occurring when in reality reporters have simply been highlighting the events of one particular group (Fishman, 1978). This occurred in New York during the mid-1970s when reporters where specifically highlighting crime news against the elderly. This in turn gives news consumers a heightened sense of fear of crime while also giving the public a distorted sense of reality. (Fishman, 1978,. Williams & Dickinson, 1993).

Not only does the abundance of crime news often fail to reveal the bigger picture, but the dramatization of the events also creates a desensitising process. Because such an abundance of media violence exists it undermines the feelings of concern, empathy and sympathy that viewers may have had for the victims of a knife crime event (Rogers, 2016). The public’s need to be entertained and hold emotional value to news stories has meant that they no longer take into consideration the amplitude of the event (Carter & Weaver, 2003).

Other theorists have conducted research on the study of crime news and statistics, for example Stuart Hall (2013) wrote about the UK’s reaction to a previously American crime phenomenon of ‘mugging’. Hall argued that crime statistics were often manipulated and highlighted for economic and political purposes. Hall (1978) also stated that this creates public moral panic and a sense of urgency for police to deal with the ‘crime crisis.’ His work provided a critical analysis of racial prejudice in the media and proved that the media are vital in creating social news that undermine ethnic minorities in order for political or financial gain. (Hall, 1978)

1.2 The exploration of the Framing theory

In order to communicate news effectively pieces of relevant information are essentially selected and placed into frames (Entman, 1993). The Framing theory acts as a shortcut so that communicators and consumers of the media can make sense of a chaotic world (Entman, 1993).

Erving Goffman (1974) applied the framing theory to our everyday lives and suggested that framing can be seen in our use of language and communication. In order for people to understand and perceive events they must contextualise and frame what they are experiencing. Goffman (1974) argues that our everyday activities are much more complex than we think. We also use our preconceived notions and bias as tools to comprehend what is occurring around us, no matter how simple or complex it is. Humans need to frame information in order to understand it (Goffman, 1974).

Media professionals must select what information is to be selected and communicated to their audience, and what influences their choice can be both deliberate and unintentional (Gamson, 1989). The Framing theory is both essential and unavoidable in news reporting. Framing helps media professionals classify and package the information that they have found (Gitlin, 1980).

Researchers such as Gamson (1989) have noted that framing occurs in the unconscious mind of both the journalist and the consumer, while the journalist may try to frame a story a certain way that may not be the way that the reader perceives it. Gamson (1989) refers to the reporting of the antinuclear protest that took place in Seabrook, New Hampshire, in 1977. The television coverage of the event included a substantial amount of footage of people with long hair and bandanas banging drums and playing with frisbees. The perceived frame of the protestors could be that they are ‘do-gooders’ and ‘hippies’ or it could be that they are peaceful and harmonic protestors. The reporters may have unintentionally framed the protestors as either of those two interpretations, in a similar sense the viewers are guilty of the same unintentional framing as they are also contextualising their image of the protestors for their own understanding (Gamson, 1989, Scheufele, 1999).

Moreover, Gitlin (1980) argued that framing information is essential as it helps to pick out the components of an event that are actually important and useful to the reader. Without proper framing the relaying of an event is merely a mess of data and information that may or may not be relevant (Gitlin, 1980). In most cases journalism is organised around obtaining frames, for example when a journalist interviews a subject they will ask for names, place of birth, age etc… It is a selection process in order to understand what is important (Gitlin, 1980).

However, journalists are also guilty of changing the narrative due to their own preconceived ideologies and subconscious bias (Scheufele, 1999). Researchers have noted how journalists are often forced to consider how they report on an event due to external factors such as public opinion. “Media discourse is part of the process by which individuals construct meaning, and public opinion is part of the process by which journalists develop and crystallize meaning in public discourse.” (Scheufele, 1999, p145).

However, it is also important to consider how journalists intentionally choose certain aspects of a story to put in their frame. “Framing effects research has found that news consumers respond to journalists framing of socially important events rather than to the actual event itself” (Wilkins & Christians, 2008, p270). Tim Edensor (2002) put forth the idea that many journalists will use certain pieces of information because they are aware that it will get a stronger reaction from their audience, particularly on subjects that involve conflict. Stories that are based on the topic of war and conflict are more expansively framed due to their links to patriotism and identity (Edensor, 2002).

Fowler (1991) highlights how the English language through which we communicate cannot be described as neutral, but instead it is a highly constructive mediator. As a journalist communicates through newspapers using the written word the content cannot solely be facts and figures but also personal and collective general ideas (Fowler, 1991). Scholars in the field of textual linguistics such as Van Dijk (1985) have argued that ‘context-free’ approaches to language have been revealed to be biased and insufficient to purpose. Van Dijk (1985) also argues that news structures contain a number of specific linguistic constraints that cannot be accounted for without specifying the array of social and institutional conditions that news companies must adhere to. While many news companies strive to deliver honest representations of events there is still a need to consider how social, economic and political settings will affect their reporting (Fowler, 1991).

1.3 Ethnic minorities and youth in the eyes of the British media

‘Stereotype, curiously, has a journalistic denotation as it refers to a metal casting of a printing plate from a mould of movable type. In the days of the ‘hot metal’ press it was a way of fixing type for printing. As a popular figure of speech, it connotes an established, unchangeable association of meaning with a term or phrase.’ (Wykes, M. 2001, p 51)

In Britain, as with most democratic countries, the Freedom of press applies, it states that information and news can be shared and communicated freely without borders or constraints. This also means that there a few constraints outside of the law of libel and defamation, it applies only to named or easily identifiable individuals and not groups or individuals who are vaguely hinted at. Ethnic minorities have not been properly protected by British media law (Parekh, 1980). Tabloids have spent decades running stories and updating news cycles which have reinforced prejudice against minorities. Parekh (1980) has argued that systematic racism and negative portrayals ran through British film and television in the sixties and seventies. Research suggests that the same may have occurred in journalism and news reporting. The effect of the media playing on stereotypes has created a sense of alienation that has led to many young minorities feeling disenfranchised and unbelonging to this day (Parekh, 1980).

There is an argument to be said that the expansive coverage of teenagers and young offenders in Great Britain has had an effect on the overall public opinion of this group of people. There has been a substantial amount of coverage that has sensationalised the subject of minorities and youth involved in knife crime (Gayle & Younge, 2017). This has inevitably led to the heightening of public concern and fear (Serani, 2011). Matt Clement (2010) puts forth the idea that the media has led the public to believe that these people are involved in knife crime because they are young and come from minority backgrounds. In some cases, the media turns a blind eye to the societal structures that lead young minorities to a life crime and instead choose to report facts and statistics that point the blame towards the age and race of those involved (Matt Clement, 2010).

There has been some debate about the way in which the media represent both the perpetrator and victims of knife crime.  ‘The most common victims of violence according to official crime statistics and victim surveys are poor, young, black males. However, they figure in news reporting predominantly as perpetrators…. Anyone interested in learning about crime from the mass media is treated to examples, incidents, and scandals but at such a level of description that it is impossible for them to develop an analytical comprehension of crime’ (Reiner, 2002, p386). Reiner (2002) argues that the portrayal of young black males being labelled as the perpetrators instead of the victims reinforces certain prejudices towards black people. Given the nature of gang wars and revenge attacks it could also be argued that in some cases those involved in knife have often experienced being both the victim and perpetrators of the knife crime problem.

Advocates of peace journalism such as Galtung and Lynch (2010) argue that the reporting of violent events are often bracketed and limited to a specific time and space, depriving the audience of a deeper understanding of the topic. Peace journalism suggests that reporters focus on the causes and effects of conflicts rather than limiting complex issues to individual events (Galtung & Lynch, 2010).

Researchers have conducted studies that focus on the traits of the British media and how in some cases certain groups are defined and categorised in a way that is unlike that of the major population. Robert Fowler (1991) highlights the frames that the media build around minorities and how they can often breed divisive and alienating attitudes, a kind of illusion that it is ‘us vs them’. It doesn’t always matter if an event involving a minority is clear or ambiguous, if it can be related to a cultural stereotype then it can still be newsworthy (Fowler, 1991).

One of the most intriguing examples in the representation of race in the media can be seen in the Brixton riots. The British press provided their own version of the street violence that occurred in the 1980s at a time which saw black British identity become even more solidified in old stereotypes and criminalisation (Greenslade, 2012). The 1980s were a time in Britain where the lower classes were marginally underrepresented, some of the most disadvantaged areas of Inner-City London were populated by Afro-Caribbean cultures. Though these areas experienced years of poverty and deprivation it wasn’t reported because it didn’t fit the criteria to be newsworthy. However once the event of the riots began and it was revealed that there were racial and cultural aspects involved, the minorities once again became the scapegoat for the ills of the decade (Wykes, 2001).

The negative depiction of minorities in the British media began long before the Thatcherite era. In 1965 the BBC aired the first episode of ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, a sitcom about a loudmouth bigot from the east end of London called Alf Garnett and his unfortunate family. The creator of the show Johnny Speight devised the comedy as a way to highlight the ridiculousness of Alf Garnett’s racism and prejudices. Unfortunately for him and for thousands of ethnic minorities across the country the show ended up having the opposite effect (Beidher, 2015). The public airing of racism and bigotry gave Alf Garnett’s views a sense of legitimization and as people familiarized and resonated with the character the terms ‘Wog’ and ‘coon’ soon became further popularised (Beidher, 2015). Entertainment media helped to garner the ideologies of those who would eventually become supporters of Enoch Powell’s famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (Twitchin, 1990).

1.4 The prioritisation of the news and how drama drives the newsroom

Stuart Hall defined news as ‘The end product of a complex process which begins with a systematic sorting and selecting of events and topics according to a socially constructed set of values’ (Fowler,1991, p 12)

While journalists are important contributors to the many social cultures that are constantly evolving, determining what stories are newsworthy depends on a number of aspects (John Eldridge, 1993). When reporting on an event or creating a news story dramatic structure is an important factor in keeping the reader engaged, the representation of conflict is often used to achieve that dramatic structure. While the reader feels a certain right to be served the facts, figures, and the full picture of a story an interesting confrontation and sense of drama is normally also welcomed by the reader. In some cases, readers are consuming news that is swamped by the values of drama and visual attractiveness (Golding & Middleton, 1983).

Journalist Andrew Marr offers insight into our understanding of news and the effect that the nature of the news industry can have on journalists and reporters.

‘We are perpetually intrigued by the extreme, the gruesome, the outlandish. But there is not a reliable supply of these events. The news industry requires constant raw material to fuel it… there is no way that journalists can limit themselves to the genuinely extraordinary event… so journalists learn to take less extraordinary things and fashion them into words that will make them seem like news instead.’ (Marr, 2016, p56)

As stated by Marr (2016) events are sometimes fashioned to seem like news, however, in order for a news piece to be deemed worthy it must first meet a certain set of criteria. The core set of factors were first introduced by Galtung and Ruge (1969) and they were as follows;

Immediacy, familiarity, amplitude, unambiguity, predictability, surprise, continuity, elite nations/people, personalisation, balance and negativity.

The more of these factors a news piece contained the more value and worth it carried. Moreover, there are a number of arguments regarding news values which have proved noteworthy, “Readers will flock to a story that has shock value but ignore one that is routine.” (Brucker, 1973, p 175) Here Brucker suggests that the surprise element of a news story holds precedence over continuity and familiarity.

However, even to this day the findings of Galtung and Ruge (1969) are applicable. In Britain for example, the public enjoys reading about elite peoples such as the Royal family, immediacy and surprise are also highly valued in the modern world of fast-paced journalism. However, personalisation, continuity, frequency and negativity are all factors which fall into the category of knife crime news. A knife crime is a personal and human story which makes it more emotional and more engaging.

The frequency element is of particular interest to knife crime. Once an event or story has been in the news just once the topic will be continued to be defined as news for any given length of time even if the amplitude of the story is substantially reduced (Fowler, 1991). If a story affects the consumer’s emotions or has an effect on the way that they view their daily life then it can be sustained for at least several months (Fowler, 1991). Therefore, according to research it can be suggested that to an extent, one of the reasons for knife crime being featured so often in the news is because it is a familiar and recurring event. 

The findings of Galtung and Ruge (1969) have since been updated to fit more modern news values in the digital age. Researchers have identified a variety of factors that influence newsworthiness, Machshane (1979) defined the following categories of newsworthiness;

“Conflict, hardship/danger to community, unusualness, scandal and individualism” (Machshane,1979, p46)

Researchers Brighton and Foy (2007) acknowledge that while most news is managed and created through an essentially honest journalistic system, the hegemonic processes and media ownership which media companies operate in plays a part in dividing and damaging the fabrics of society. The problem of news values does not therefore end in the newsroom. The way that the news is prioritised is a societal and capitalist issue which is wound in corporate greed and financial growth (Brighton & Foy, 2007, Chomsky, 1997).

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