Fear Itself   /   Fall 2003   /    Articles

Mass Media, Crime, and the Discourse of Fear

David L. Altheide

Detail from cover of Famous Crimes #1 (1948). Via Wikimedia Commons.

The crime scene, marked off in yellow police tape, doesn’t move; no matter when the reporter arrives there’s always a picture to shoot, preferably live. No need to spend off-camera time digging, researching, or even thinking. Just get to the crime scene, get the wind blowing through your hair, and the rest will take care of itself.11xLawrence K. Grossman, “Why Local TV News is So Awful,” Columbia Journalism Review (Nov/Dec 1997): 21.

Crime and fear dominate most U.S. newspapers and television news reports. Objective indicators of risk and danger in American life suggest that most U.S. citizens are healthier, safer, and live more predictable lives than at any time in history, yet numerous surveys indicate these same citizens perceive that their lives are very dangerous. This essay examines how crime coverage is linked to entertainment formats that provide the basic underlying logic of commercial television (and newspapers). Drawing from more than a decade of research on the social construction of fear, I argue that one reason crime is so popular is that it is almost always linked to “fear,” the most basic feature of entertainment in popular culture. This emphasis has produced a discourse of fear: the pervasive communication, symbolic awareness, and expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of everyday life. The discourse of fear has important consequences for social policy, public perceptions of social issues, the demise of public space, citizens who are becoming more “armed” and “armored,” and the promotion of a new social identity—the victim—that has been exploited by numerous claims-makers, including politicians, who promote their own propaganda about national and international politics.

Crime news has been a staple of journalism for decades. For many years newspapers emphasized sensational and even erotic aspects of homicides and brutal assaults, sex crimes, and kidnappings. This emphasis became rationalized with the emergence of movie “newsreels” as well as television news and the ability to “see” crime scenes, victims, and the accused. Today, a pervasive mass-mediated popular culture virtually engulfs everyday life. In another age, there was the mass media and there was reality; in our age, there is popular culture—everywhere—and even “reality” is presented to us as entertainment programming. In the U.S., for example, dozens of “reality” television programs are about crime and “crime fighting,” as caricatures of criminals and police offi- cers are presented back-to-back with sexually evocative images of people roaming “remote islands” in search of love, treasure, and security.

Running through all this programming is the commercially inspired entertainment format. As suggested by Robert Snows analysis of “media culture,”22xRobert P. Snow, Creating Media Culture (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983). the entertainment format emphasizes: first, an absence of the ordinary; second, the openness of an adventure, outside the boundaries of routine behavior; third, a suspension of disbelief by the audience member. In addition, while the exact outcome may be in doubt, there is a clear and unambiguous point at which it will be resolved. Packaging such emphases within dramatic formats (visual, brief, and action-oriented) produces an exciting and familiar tempo to audiences. Moreover, as audiences spend more time with these formats, the logic of advertising, entertainment, and popular culture becomes taken-for-granted as a “normal form” of communication.

There are two reasons why crime is so prevalent in American television, and increasingly, throughout the world. First, crime is connected to fear, a staple of the entertainment format. Second, crime is very easy to cover and therefore fits well with the scheduling and personnel constraints of local television. As one vice president of several local stations pointed out, “covering crime is the easiest, fastest, cheapest, most efficient kind of news coverage for TV stations. News directors and station owners love crime.”33xGrossman 21. A clear bias of this coverage is that those crimes that occur very rarely—homicides and brutal physical assaults—receive the majority of coverage, while those crimes that are more likely to occur—theft and burglary—are seldom mentioned. One consequence of this coverage is to give viewers (and readers) the sense that “crime” means “violent crime.” There is strong evidence that this perception of the “crime problem” contributes to voter support for “tough crime legislation,” including mandatory sentencing, “three strikes and you’re out,” as well as capital punishment.

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