Both police and media
have powerful motives of self-interest. Police tend to limit the focus
of their concern to law enforcement issues and the need for more police
power. The media sensationalize their coverage in order to attract an
audience. What is known about gangs and crack, for example, comes
almost entirely from the media and police, and it is sensationalized. (Moore,
1993, p. 52)
For our purposes, the term "mass media" refers to the Internet, radio,
television, commercial motion pictures, videos, CDs, and the press (newspapers,
journals, and magazines) - what are referred to collectively as broadcast
and print media.
You can click on
the topics below or
simply continue reading down the page ...
Media and the Social Construction of Reality
Assessing various media
constructs of "'gangs' and of girls in gangs, with specific attention
to stereotypic notions of 'violence' on the part of girl gang members"
it was found that "such media constructs are based almost solely upon
questionable sources, particularly anecdotal and/or exceptional cases that
grossly distort reality." (Chesney-Lind
and Shelden, 1992, p. 71)
What you and I perceive of as "reality" is, in many ways, a
social construct. Other people and the
media create images in our minds as to what is real. As to the role of
other people, Surette tells us that "People
create reality - the world they believe exists - based on their individual
knowledge and from knowledge gained from social interactions with other people."
1998, p. 5)
Television viewing constantly ranks as the third most
time-consuming activity (after sleep and work or school) for Americans. Americans spend nearly half of their free time watching television
and television today is a more consuming socializing agent than school and
church combined. (Surette,
1998, p. 34, italics added for emphasis)
Americans watch a great deal of television and often base their perception of the world upon
media content. How the media define reality is how many observers then define reality.
This is not surprising given the extent of electronic
socialization to which most youth are exposed today.
According to Surette, "Public surveys
have reported that as many as 95 percent of the general population cite the
mass media as their primary source of information about crime." (Surette,
1998, p. 197) To some extent, then reality is what
other people and the media tell us it is.
The public continues to perceive youth gangs and gang
members in terms of the media stereotype of the California Crips and Bloods
rather than in terms of current scientific data. (Starbuck,
et al., 2001,
What is the media telling us about crime? Do media portrayals
accurately reflect the reality of crime or are they a misrepresentation of
it? The answer to that question probably lies somewhere between
the two. As long ago as 1976, Gerbner noted that
significance of the media comes from the "creation of shared ways of
selecting and viewing events," thus common ways of seeing and understanding
the world. He calls it the "cultivation of dominant image
In effect, the media tend to offer uniform and relatively
consensual versions of social reality and their audiences are
"acculturated' accordingly. Gerbner makes a prediction that
media, especially television because of the systematic character of its
message and its consistency over time, have powerful effects and he comes
down firmly in favor of the media as molders of
About the long-term effect of media presentations,
Gerbner believed that television cultivates a perception of reality among
its viewers. He found that "television ... has acquired such a central
place in daily life that it dominates our symbolic environment,
substituting its message about reality for personal experience and other
means of knowing about the world.
The message of television is ...
distinctive and deviant from 'reality' on several key points, yet
persistent exposure to it leads to its adoption as a consensual view of
... society. The main evidence for the 'cultivation' theory
comes from systematic content analysis of American television, carried out
over several years and showing consistent distortions of reality in
respect of ... violence and crime. (ibid,
1983, p. 283, italics added for emphasis)
The place is Sydney, Australia, and the story is of one of media
fabrication. It provides an insight into how the media may shape our
perception of reality and, ultimately, our response to it.
terrorized by 50-strong Deuce gang," claimed one of the tabloids recently,
regarding some incidents on the East Fairfield Housing Estate. In
fact, "deuce" was just a word written on walls by an 11-7ear-old boy who liked
the word. According to youth worker Stephen Clarke, when one of the
gang-hunting media shows turned up and asked a group of bemused young people
how many of them were in the "Deuce gang," they all thought that sounded
like a great gang and put their hands up. The media had invented a
That wasn't all. As story after story reported on
the fearsome atmosphere of residents being harassed by youths, the media
invented the name "the Bronx." No-one had ever called it that before.
kid thought it was the name of a gang in America. Another thought it was a
place where really stupid people live." said Clarke, highlighting the damage
to community self-esteem such nonsense reporting can cause. (Karadjis,
no date, page)
Field Note: According to the Sheriff, "The
way we handled it here was to
tell the press not to use gang names or to glamorize the gangs if an event became
public. We told them that and cautioned them that, if they publicize gang
names, we would no longer cooperate on other matters with the
press. That was enough to win their compliance."
Media sensationalism, although it sells more advertising and increases the
income of the media businesses, is a disservice to the community. In
order to deal effectively with a local gang situation, the community must
have accurate information, not media hype.
The entertainment media's pattern with regard to portraying crime
and justice can be summarized as follows: Whatever the media show is the
opposite of what is true. Whatever the truth about crime and violence
and the criminal justice system in American, the entertainment media seem
determined to project the opposite. The lack of realistic information further
mystifies the criminal justice system, exacerbating the public's lack of
understanding of it while constructing a perverse topsy-turvy reality of
it. (Surette, 1998, p.
47, italics added for emphasis)
In the end, the point I will try to make is that the social policies
we have adopted for dealing with gangs (arrest and incarcerate) are the
result of a public perception of gangs which is incorrect - or, at the
least, muddled, confused, and misleading. Some of the responsibility for
this belongs to the media.
Media Images of Crime and Gangs
Our view of gangs is still mainly shaped by the
media and law enforcement, who typically define gangs as organized crime.
To my knowledge, no studies have yet been published which investigate the
impact of media presentations on public attitudes about gangs. There
have, however, been reports of the devastating impact of negative reportage on certain ethnic
groups. A Melbourne, Australia, study concerned with media
portrayals of Vietnamese young people (YVP) and the impact the portrayals had
upon them, "their Vietnamese community, and the ... community in
general" may serve as an example. (Leiber
and Rodd, 1998)
From 1994 - 1996 residents in the Inner Western
suburbs of Melbourne ... were bombarded with local newspaper reports of
"youth violence", "youth drug dealing", "Asian gangs’ and
crime." Most of these reports targeted Vietnamese young people as the
culprits, tapping into two of the wider community’s underlying fears and
prejudices: their suspicion of young people and their fear of difference.
Street kids, Asians, heroin, gambling, knives, gangs
and crime became big news. Consequently, the larger Melbourne dailies,
talkback [talk shows], even "A Current Affair" [television program] picked
up on the drama and controversy. The frenzy
of such reportage conveyed a sense of impending threat and utter crisis.
It sparked a police crackdown; it had them declaring ‘war’ and it had
local traders hiring security staff. We saw references to Los Angeles by
local community members, followed by the Pennington Drug Advisory Council.
The effect of such sensationalist, simplistic
reportage has been far reaching, devastating and divisive for VYP and the
wider Vietnamese community, as well as the general community ... Local
young people were left stunned, particularly VYP. The representations they
saw in the media were far from the reality they lived.
The impact of negative media reportage on these three
groupings has been far reaching. It has added to existing division,
isolation and defensiveness between them and the rest of the Melbourne
There have been many studies concerning the impact of the media on public
perceptions of crime and justice. (Best,
and Websdale, 1999) As Surette (Surette,
no date, page)
found, most television entertainment programming sensationalizes and
Television entertainment largely ignores most aspects of
real crime in America, focusing instead on the most serious, violent and
life-threatening offenses. By sensationalizing crime in this way, TV misses
its opportunity to educate the audience about the true dimensions of
America's crime problem. (Surette,
no date, page,
italics added for emphasis)
Take, for example, the media's obsession with rape and murder. Long ago
the Federal Bureau of Investigation created a category of crimes known
as Index Crimes. The Index Crimes consist of four crimes against persons (murder,
rape, robbery, and
assault) and four crimes against property
theft, and arson). There are other crimes people commit,
to be sure, but those eight are the Index Crimes (used, like the Dow Jones
is used for the stock market - as an indicator of whether crime in the United States
is going up or down in any given year).
In 2001, rape and murder combined accounted for less than .7%
(that's less than one percent) of all Index Crimes known to the police. (Uniform
Crime Reports, 2001,
page) They would be an even smaller
proportion of all crimes since not all crimes are included in the
Index. To accurately reflect the reality of rape and murder, then, fewer than
7 out of every 1000 crime-related news stories, movies, or television shows
should deal with rape and murder. Instead, we are bombarded by one media
presentation after another dealing with rape or murder to the near exclusion
of the other 99.3% of all Index crimes.
As a result of this distortion of reality, the image created in the mind of the public is that we live in a
very scary place where violent crimes are happening all the time and
everywhere. According to Surette, "People today live in two
worlds: a real world and a media world." (Surette,
1998, p. 197) The media world is the world created in the mind of
viewers as defined by media portrayals. "Such a portrait of the world has been associated with the development
of a 'mean worldview' - the feeling that the world is a violent, dangerous
place - and attitudes of fear, isolation, and suspicion." (Surette,
1998, p. 49)
There are gang members who watch the news and listen to the radio. They go to the movies, read newspapers, magazines, and journals, and they
surf the Internet. Media mention of their activities furthers their
purposes. A frightened public is an easy target. Rather than
having to intimidate the public themselves, gang members can thank the media
for taking care of that for them.
For the sake of argument, I will
suggest the impact of media portrayals of crime and criminality on the American public's perception of
them are similar to the impact of media portrayals of gangs -distorted,
sensationalized, and self-serving.
"The repeated message in the visual entertainment media (film and
television) is that crime is largely perpetrated by individuals who are
basically different from the majority, that criminality stems from
individual problems, and that criminal conduct is freely chosen
behavior." (Surette, 1998, p. 40)
In the entertainment media (movies, videos, and television) one may note that
... crime is separated and
isolated from other social problems that in reality tend to come bundled together
- crime, poverty, unemployment, poor health, poor schools, high divorce
rates, high pregnancy rates, community decay and deterioration, illiteracy, drop-out
rates, and so on. (Surette, 1998, p. 48)
The problem is that these social problems are linked. By
failing to show them together, the viewing public has difficulty making the necessary connections between them.
portrayals of crime and gangs as being the problem rather than being
symptoms of the problems which cause them to form, are terribly misleading.
As explained in earlier
portions of Into the Abyss, gangs form in response to the
collapse of social institutions in the neighborhoods and communities in
which they are found. The two - gangs and our social institutions - are
inextricably intertwined. The media seldom portray that relationship
accurately. Media generated responses of arresting and incarcerating gang members will not reduce gang
activity as effectively and permanently as would reducing the poverty, urban
decay, poor schooling, substance abuse, and child abuse which contribute so
significantly to the formation of gangs.
I don't mean to suggest that criminals, and gang members among them,
should not be held responsible for the illegal acts they commit. They
should be held responsible and should face certain and appropriate
punishment and/or treatment. But to only punish or treat them is to continue cleaning up
the spill without paying any attention to turning off the spigot.
In light of these comments, limited to a "simplistic, incomplete picture of crime as mostly
individual, socially isolated acts, members of each group involved
(criminals, crime fighters, and the public) have for generations been
receiving a misleading constructed reality in how to engage in and respond
to crime." (Surette, 1998, p.
All three groups derive role models from the media. Criminals can learn how to actually commit crimes, whom to victimize, and
when to use violence and weapons and disdain sympathy. Crime fighters
and the public are shown that counter-violence is the most effective means
of combating crime, that due process considerations hamper the police, and
that in most cases the law works in the criminal's favor.
of society and criminality, combined with the emphasis on the front end of
the justice system - investigations and arrests - ultimately promote pro-law
enforcement and crime control policies." (ibid., 1998, p.
50, italics added for emphasis)
By "crime control" policies Surette is referring to the
tendency to think the crime or gang "problem" can be solved by arresting and
incarcerating the offenders. Two hundred years of this policy should,
by now, have convinced us that it doesn't work well over the long haul.
While we have been emphasizing arrest and incarceration instead of treatment, our prison
population, like the number of police, has been increasing and
yet the crime rate refuses to drop significantly.
The Media-Generated Response to Crime
Surette believes "Media solutions emphasize individual violence and aggression, with
a preference shown for weapons and sophisticated technology."
1998, p. 47) We talk about the "war on crime"
and the "war on drugs" when, in fact, they are a war on criminals
and a war on drug users and suppliers. Gang units go by such names as
the "Gang Strike Unit," and "Gang Task Force,"
and we talk about "attacking" or
"combating" gangs. The lexicon of our approach is often
In no small measure, "The increasing emphasis on graphic violence has also resulted in a
kind of weapons cult within the entertainment media." (Surette, 1998,
p. 54) I believe it has also contributed to a preference for the use of force
against gangs and the use of
violence by the gang members as well. The lyrics of gangsta rap
reinforce this penchant for violence and the gun.
I sometimes think that if we spent as much time, effort, and money on
designing effective education and treatment programs for youthful offenders
as we do on designing new prisons and new weapons to fight crime, we might
actually reduce gang activity and youth violence.
The Contagion Effect
"For every American who is victimized by crime, several experience
crime vicariously each evening on their television sets." (Surette,
no date, page)
There is a contagion effect (Lynch,
related to media portrayals of crime and
gangs. That is, after an incident occurs in one community and is
reported in other communities, people in the other communities respond to the event
as if it happened in their own community.
|Field Note: One
week before my research sabbatical began there was a fatal gang-related
stabbing in a neighboring community about 50 miles from my
home. The event dominated the news in my community for
more than a week. The perpetrator of the crime was a documented
gang member from a city in another state.
The incident turned into the
primary topic of
conversation on our community's television- and radio talk shows every day for
over a week. Daily newspaper editorials added
to the frenzy of fear, anger, and concern among the population. Due to the amount of attention the incident received in the media,
it almost seemed as though it had happened in my town.
The gang-related murder in a community north of my town happened in that
community, not in mine nor in
any of the approximately 50 communities within range of the media coverage
the event. Mixed with the hype may have been a genuine concern of
some in the media who want the public to know what's happening -
no matter where it happens. But done to excess, the motivation
appears more to be the desire to increase viewership or sales.
The Media and Social Policy
"People ... act in accordance with their constructed view of
1998, p. 5)
If the public perception of gangs is inaccurate, policies designed to
address the gang situation based upon
that perception are likely to fail. If the perception of gangs is that their members are
mostly African-Americans, then we overlook the tragedies occurring in Hispanic,
Asian, Russian, Samoan, and other ethnic enclaves in cities throughout
America. If the perception is that all gang members are male, then we
overlook policies needed to help females stay out of gangs.
If our perception is that all gang members are violent and are
"packing" or "strapped" (carrying a gun), then we will support the use of force
in dealing with them. The police will have permission to apply the
screws. The problem is that not all gang members are
violent or armed. As discussed
earlier in Into the Abyss, acts of violence by a gang
sometimes lead some gang members to leave the gang.
If we think that all gangs and their members are into drugs and that
the drug problem is a gang problem, then we not only overlook the tens of
thousands of gang members who are not into drugs, we also overlook the drug dealers who are not gang members.
The image of gangs created by the media is not accurate. I'm
no different than anyone else and my own experience, as you have seen, was
that the image I had of gangs wasn't even close to the reality of the
is the inaccurate image, however, which informs public opinion and lays the foundation for
our social policies towards gangs. It is no wonder that our
current policy of suppression (arrest and incarcerate) hasn't been
effective. The image created by the media is that the individual gang
member is the problem, not the product of the problem. The gang problem has
been incorrectly defined, so our solutions are doomed to failure.
Social policy on how to deal with gangs and their members must be based
on a rational assessment of each community's local situation. The media do not
contribute constructively to this understanding when they sensationalize
gang-related events. On the other hand, when the media undertake to
provide documentaries and other thoughtful programs, their efforts can
contribute to reducing gang activity. This pro-social aspect
of the broadcast and print media should not be overlooked. It should be
encouraged and strengthened.
Media programs which focus on the reality
of the gang situation in specific communities may stimulate the public
to support or develop appropriate policies including all three approaches to
the gang situation - prevention, intervention, and suppression.
has a good understanding of the paradox presented by media portrayals
of gangs. She asks "Is it educational or harmful to publicize
gangs?" to which she replies:
On the one hand, youth gang activity is news and, as
such, is considered suitable for reporting on television and in print.
News stories are the method by which the public becomes informed about a
social issue. In order to solve a social problem, the public needs to know
that it exists, what the extent of the problem is, and the way in which it
On the other hand, publicity about youth gangs can
make them attractive to young people living in gang-infested areas. The
publicity enhances their reputation for violence; this, in turn, can
encourage them to engage in further violence. Furthermore, movies and
dramas, in trying to create an interesting story, often romanticize gangs,
distorting the truth by portraying gang members as adventure-loving
outlaws, instead of dangerous, violent criminals. (Gardner,
1992, pp. 62-63)
Some refer to the situation with the media saying "If it bleeds, it
leads," meaning that only the goriest of stories capture the attention
of the media. The public needs more than that. The media, generally speaking, seem unwilling to tackle the larger issues
surrounding gangs - racism, ethnic hatred, limited opportunities, poverty,
slums and public housing, segregation, poor schools, inner-city
political disenfranchisement, substance abuse and addiction, child abuse,
single parenthood, and a loss of hope. Yet, those are the
very forces that have contributed to the formation of gangs in the United
States and the conditions which must be altered to produce a long-term
reduction in gang activity and youth violence.
We'll explore a variety of steps the mass media could take to reduce gang
activity in the Solutions section of this book. Our next topic,
however, is the response of the American justice system to the gang
Resources: The Federal Bureau of Investigation, through the Bureau of
Justice Statistics, gathers Index
Crime data for many cities and counties the United States.
Explore the content of the Rap
Dictionary. Although you will encounter several unwelcome pop-up
sites when exploring http://www.ohhla.com
- you will find the lyrics for hundreds of rap/gangsta rap artists songs.
Are we winning the "War
Gangs, Drugs, and Gambling is a paper concerned with the media
portrayal of young Vietnamese people from the Inner Western suburbs of
Melbourne and the impact media portrayal has had upon them and their
Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in
writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.