Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Topic 12:
Mass Media Portrayals of Gangs and Gang Members

Television, movies, radio, and music all have profound effects on youth development. Before youth have established their own value systems and are able to make moral judgments, the media promotes drugs, sex, and violence as an acceptable lifestyle. (Lees, et al., 1994)

Why Gangs Form

What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to the influence of the media. Any of the aforementioned. Any of the aforementioned.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form as a result of media portrayals of gangs, gang members, and gang-related attitudes, ideas, fashions, and behaviors.

Gangs migrate into the minds and lives of young people through the mass media. The term "Mass media" refers here 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. Their impact on the minds of our youth has been hotly debated. I believe media portrayals which glorify gang behavior do little to help reduce our youth's interest in gangs.

You may recall our discussion of the role economic deprivation plays in the formation of gangs. The point of that discussion was that, being economically deprived, some youth will venture into illegal ways of earn an income. Movies and videos which show gang members enjoying the fruits of their illegal activities (i.e., drugs, sex, a nice apartment or house, money, cars, power, guns) suggest, in some children's minds, ways to reach the goal to which most American's aspire - financial success and all it entails. The ways in which that income is earned often entails the use of violence.

Before the age of eighteen, the average American teen will have witnessed eighteen thousand simulated murders on TV. While staggering in number, more disturbing is the effect this steady diet of imaginary violence may have on America's youth.

Over the past forty years, more than three thousand studies have investigated the connection between television violence and real violence ... Though none conclude a direct cause and effect relationship, it becomes clear that watching television is one of a number of important factors affecting aggressive behavior. (Fanning, 1995)

By watching mass media portrayals of gang member behavior, some children learn of illegitimate ways to acquire goods and services. They learn how to lay in wait to "hit" (execute) someone. They learn what a drive-by-shooting looks like - how it's done and how to possibly get away without getting caught. If they watched American History X, they learned how to "curb" someone.

If you didn't see American History X, here's what it shows - in full color and in all its gory detail. A Skinhead (a Caucasian gang known for its ideologically-based hatred of African-Americans and other minorities) is shown forcing an African-American youth to lay face-down in the street perpendicular to the curb. The youth's mouth is then forced open and pushed down until the curb is in his mouth. The skinhead then stomped on back of the young man's neck, fracturing his jaw, shattering his teeth, and breaking his neck. (Read an opposing point of view.)

I mentioned earlier that the impact of the media on the minds of our youth is hotly debated. The debate goes like this ...

There are those who believe only children who are predisposed to violence will be stimulated by it when shown in the media. Some believe otherwise non-violent children learn to be violent by watching violence, particularly when it is observed without the supervision of someone who explains that certain kinds of violence are inappropriate and wrong. Finally, there are those who believe violence in the media releases one's feelings of anger and violence by providing catharsis (in this case, a purging of one's own anger).

Which is right? I think they all are. I believe there are children who are raised in violence and who, when they observe violence or other gang activity in the media , view the media portrayal as confirmation of what they already know. If you have a problem just put your fist in it and it will go away.

I also believe there are unsupervised children who, fed a constant diet of television and rap music violence, begin to emulate it, particularly if there are others who are doing the same thing. Every child wants to be accepted. If I am rejected by the "good kids," perhaps the "bad kids" will want me if I act and think like they do. And there are those who feel frustration and anger who, after a media portrayal of violence, feel purged of such feelings.

When I read about the relationship between violence in the media and violence among our youth I extrapolate the findings and think of them in regard to gangs. When it comes to the portrayal of gangs and gang members, the mass media sometimes go into great detail. They portray the language, dress, body movements, and look of a gang member - male and female. They show, in explicit detail, the crimes gang members commit - how drugs are sold, how to " shoot up" (inject drugs intravenously), how to free base, how to rape someone, how to stab or shoot someone, how to settle disputes using violence. The list is very long. The problem is that it is the wrong list in terms of socializing our youth into acceptable, legal behaviors.

The impact of media portrayals of gangs and the activities of their members help us understand why gangs form, but sometimes gangs form by following in the footsteps of others.


Additional Resources: To learn a little more about Skinheads, you can read a description of them and the activities in which they are involved.

2002 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.