Impact of media on fear of crime?

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The Mean World Syndrome

by Anette Emanuelsson and Romina Mele

“The famed line, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ is a well-known maxim for what determines newsworthiness of crime. If crime reporting overplays the dangers of violent crime, [...] researchers reason that the public may have an exaggerated fear of crime” (McQuivey 1997). However, before we can approach the effects crime coverage can have on its audience, we first have to take a closer look at how crime is covered by news media.

Crime in the Media

Research throughout the world has shown that (increase in ) crime is generally overrepresented in media coverage, compared to actual crime rates in society. Reporting on crime usually follows a certain pattern, pointed out in a research conducted by Dorfman and Schiraldi in 2001 in the United States. According to their findings the coverage of crime, dominated by violent crime, has gone up while real violent? crime rates have dropped. From 1990 to 1998, the number of homicides, which account for 0.1% of all arrests, has declined by more than 30%, while it’s appearance on the screen skyrocketed and in the end made up more than one quarter of the examined media coverage. On the other hand, white collar crime like fraud is not reported on very often. (either it is not sexy enough for the media, or it has low priority in the justice department) "The audience does not feel threatened by that”, confirms Gabry Vanderveen, Assistant Professor for Criminal Psychology at the University of Leiden. In addition more unusual crimes have the greater chance to get picked up by the media. For example the majority of shown homicides are committed by strangers, although in reality the victim most of the time knows its killer. “Domestic crime and child abuse is hardly mentioned. It’s so hard to get child abuse on the agenda”, Vanderveen said. “Reports in the media follow stereotypical patterns, like stranger rapes, outside in the dark, someone waiting in the bushes versus the innocent, modest victim. We know that that is not the case. Most rapes take place with familiar persons. Women are more likely to get severely victimized inside their homes” (2003).

This disproportionate relationship can be explained by using Peter Sandman’s proposal of traditional journalistic criteria for newsworthiness regarding risk matters – like seriousness, human interest, and drama (1993). In his report in 1997, James McQuivey supports the fact as well that news which meet specific criteria are more likely to survive the newsgathering and selection process of reporters and editors. Violent crimes are selected more often, “because they provide good visuals for television or print coverage; because the involve weak victims such as women, children, and the elderly; or because they involve celebrities.” Vanderveen adds, that “there is a market [for violent crime stories]. People like it when it is not too close.” Statistical data, like crime rates, hardly manages to find its way into news stories. (unless they go up!) “They are less often selected by the newspaper and people are not interested. The good news [the Media] report on is animals (?), but not on crime!” complains Vanderveen. “People like a black and white world, that’s the most simple. But it’s not like that. Actually the media create a black and white world – more black than white” (2003).
We therefore can conclude that the general picture of crime provided by the media is inaccurate. But does that also mean that people can get misled in their assumption of the real dimension of crime?

Distorted View of the Public

Several studies have discovered that the vast majority of the public depends on the media for information about crime, and that they form their opinion about crime according to what they see or read in the media (e. g. Dorfman and Schiraldi 2001; O’Connell 1999: 207). The public’s perception generally is that violent crime is increasing more rapidly than white collar crime, (but people fear violence more than money scams), whereas in reality it is the other way around. “The exception is perceptions about people’s own neighbourhoods, where they are more likely to have first hand information than to have their opinions shaped by the media” (Public Policy Forum 2001: 3). O’Connell also argues that people are aware of the media’s bias due to their experience in life. But the awareness of the distortion depends on the educational level as well. Editors, journalists and social scientists are more likely to realize the media’s bias (1999:207).

Fear of Victimization

The theory most often used to explain the effects of exposure to certain media contents is called cultivation theory and was introduced in the 1970s by George Gerbner. His research was based primarily on the possible effects television may have on its viewers. Gerbner concluded that heavy exposure to media content could over a longer time period gradually implement attitudes in its audience that “are more consistent with the world of television programs than with the everyday world” (Chandler 1995). Although just a minority of the population is involved in violent crimes, people with no or little first-hand experience with violent crime believe that the world is more dangerous and mean than it is in reality, and are generally more afraid of getting victimized than they need to be (e. g. Chandler 1995, McQuivey 1997).

Since the 1970s additional research has revealed that the media are just one of many variables that have an influence on people’s attitudes. According to Vanderveen, “it’s always multiple variables in the social sciences. All the minor roles together build a major role. The media are just one source. [They have] an effect, but it is minor” (2003). (Why?) Other sources for information can be statistical data like crime rates. But research has indicated that facts and figures have no influence on the people’s perception of crime. A person’s personality or socialization (what he or she learned from parents, friends, family members, etc.) are variables that have to be taken into account, too (McQuivey 1997). But here one could criticize, that scientists have created a “hen and egg”-problem: is it the personality that affects the perception, or is it the perception that affects the personality? On top of that, Vanderveen argues that: “people have always thought since the beginning of time, that crime is increasing. It goes back to pre-Victorian England, boys and young males have always been in the news for their behaviour” (2003).

In support of the influence of the variable “personality” Vanderveen mentions the so called identification contrast pattern, which delivers a typology on how people compare themselves to others in everyday life, for example in salary negotiations, perception of the risk of getting a specific disease like cancer, or the fear of getting victimized.

Table 1: Identification Contrast Pattern

Upwards Downwards
identification Sense of control
I can do that as well or even better. Perceived vulnerability
That might happen to me too.
contrast Contrast with victim, blaming the victim
That would never happen to me. Lack of control, perceived vulnerability
I can never make it like he/she did.

Source: Gabry Vanderveen. Unpublished manuscript. 2003.

People can either identify themselves with or contrast themselves from a victim. They can do so in an upwards direction, meaning that they distance themselves from the victim to reach a superior level towards the victim’s position, or in a downwards direction, where people reach the same or an inferior level as the victim. For example people tending to identify themselves with a victim in an upward direction gain a sense of control over their behaviour in a specific situation; they think they can handle such a situation better than the victim did.

Another contributing factor of one’s personality to the fear of getting victimized is how a person evaluates its ability to master involvement in a violent crime. In this so-called “Fear Victimization Paradox” it can happen that although a person is very likely to be a victim of a violent crime, for example a truck driver in the middle of the night at a rest area, its fear of crime might not be high because it thinks that it has control over such a situation (Sandman 1993; Sparks and Ogles 1990). “It depends on how you think you can handle such a situation. Men usually think they can handle it. Women feel more vulnerable” (Vanderveen 2003). In reality, however, men are more likely to become a victim of a crime (Bureau of Statistic and Research 1996).

It might not be completely clear to what extent the media contributes to people’s fear of getting victimized. But the media’s major role in influencing the policy making of the government is undisputable. "Exaggerated public perceptions of crime risks can also lead to serious distortions in government spending priorities [and policy making]” (Bureau of Statistic and Research 1996). There may be also a link between this identification/victimization and all crime fiction in the media.
Therefore one should not underestimate the risk of a possibly larger power of the media than social-empirical research is capable of proving with its rather limited research methods. But this power is based on audiences needs for frightening stories which goes back to the middle ages (fairy tales). Even the first newspapers offered horrible stories.


Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. Media Release: Crime Perception and Reality – Autralian Public Perceptions of Crime Risk. August 11, 1996. Online:
Chandler, Daniel. Cultivation Theory. 1995. Online:
Dorfman, Lori; Vincent Schiraldi. Off Balance: Youth, Race, and Crime in the News. 2001. Online:
McQuivey, James. Fearing the “Mean World”: Exploring the Victim-Offender Relationship’s Influence on Fear of Violent Crime. 1997. Online:
O’Connell, Michael. Is Irish Public Opinion towards Crime Distorted by Media Bias? IN: European Journal of Communication, 14(2), 1999, p. 191-212.
Public Policy Forum. Crime Perception. IN: Research Brief, Volume 89, Number 2. February 12, 2001. Online:
Sandman, Peter M. Mass Media and Environmentla Risk: Seven Principles. 1993. Online:
Sparks, G.G.; R. M. Ogles. The difference between fear of victimization and the probability of being victimized: Implications for Cultivation. IN: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 34(3), 1990, p. 351-359.
Vanderveen, Gabry. Personal Interview. October 31, 2003.

Reporting on Risk | Media-created fear of vaccination | Impact of media on fear of crime? | Mobile’s antennas radiation: media fighting for ads im Albania? | The warmest, driest and deadliest summer in France? | The Fear-society | Hunger in Amsterdam leads to media hype | The risk of mobile antennas | The New Nuclear Age | Y2K bug and the media | Solar Flares- Armageddon or a Spectacular Light Show? | Ebola: a doomsday disease. How the media create unnecessary hysteria | The progress of Chinese media after two wars: Sars and Iraq. | Illegal immigrants in Spain. | Story X |

Date Last Modified: 14-03-2004
This article was written for the Reporting on Risk Class Fall 2003