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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
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

Chapter 12:
The Mass Media

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.

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." (Surette, 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, page)

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

... the 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 patterns." 

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 society. (McQuail, 1983, p.99)

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.

"Residents 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 'gang.'  

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. "One 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. (Hagedorn, no date,  page)

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 "youth 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 community. (ibid, 1998)

There have been many studies concerning the impact of the media on public perceptions of crime and justice. (Best, 1999; Ericson, 1995; Ferrell and Websdale, 1999)  As Surette (Surette, no date, page) found, most television entertainment programming sensationalizes and misinforms.

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 aggravated assault) and four crimes against property (burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle 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. 

Fractured Realities

"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. Media 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. 50)

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.  

These images 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." (Surette, 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 violent.

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, 1999, review) 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 of 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 reality." (Surette, 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 situation. It 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.

In Closing

Gardner (1992) 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 affects society.

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 deterioration, 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 situation.


Additional 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 - you will find the lyrics for hundreds of rap/gangsta rap artists songs.

Are we winning the "War on Drugs?"  

Beyond 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 community.

© 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.