True crime?

Faculty: Science and Engineering
School: Psychology & Sport Science
Course: BSc (Hons) Psychology and Criminology
Category: Psychology

27 January 2020

Psychology and Criminology student Emma Crook

Many of us rely on the media to provide insight into crime in the real world. But how much of the reporting is factual, and how much is storytelling?

As explored by my recent course module, Crime News and Criminology, the concept of storytelling within the media when exploring the causes of crime is vastly apparent.

However, many academics believe that this representation of crime may not be the reality – storytelling on behalf of the media for the purposes of newsworthiness (reporting on stories that are topical and attention-grabbing for the general public) leads to many cases being recounted without an evidence base. Therefore, can it be said that the image of the causes of crime as presented by the media is distorted and not a true reflection of crime in society?

An example of the disparity between academics and the media lies in a contemporary theory by Wikström – namely Situational Action Theory (SAT). To summarise, SAT suggests that there is a complex interaction between people and their environments in the context of crime and that it is this interaction that determines whether criminal action takes place.

For example, an individual with high levels of self-control (an individual factor associated with criminality) is less likely to react aggressively in response to provocation, such as being pushed (an environmental factor that often triggers criminality) than one who lacks self-control. Thus, as suggested by SAT, for criminality to ensue, a crime-prone individual (someone with individual factors increasing their likelihood of criminality) must be faced with a crime-conducive environment.

When looking at the representation of the causes of crime in the media, this viewpoint is rarely adopted. More commonly than not, individual factors such as low morality are focused on by media articles over environmental factors. Academics suggest that this is due to the fact that representing criminals as predatory and morally deficient is vastly more newsworthy than suggesting that the environment they were in was at play, or equally importantly, how and why that morality may have developed in a certain way in earlier life.

Furthermore, media reports of crime do not provide insight into the interaction between both individual and environmental factors contributing to criminality. For example, a recent article suggested that a bar in Devon was responsible for half of the town’s pub crime. However, research indicates that individuals with high crime propensity are first more likely to spend time in such settings, and secondly, when they spend time there, more likely to react to any triggers. However, the news report in question reports the occurrence of crime as attributable to the location and not the individuals that frequent it.

To conclude, when telling the story of crime and its causes in society, it can be said that the media do not provide a comprehensive image of all facets of crime causation and their interactions. Whether to label an individual as ‘predatory’ or an environment as ‘crime-conducive’, media accounts of criminal activity often echo news values such as sensationalism and do not align with many of the academic theories of crime causation. They tell a version of a story, but is it a true version?

By Emma Crook, BSc (Hons) Psychology and Criminology

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