Misrepresentation of Crime in by US Politicians

Misrepresentation of Crime in by US Politicians

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The crime problem in the United States has historically been misstated
and exaggerated by bureaucrats and politicians. The intentions behind
these overstatements vary within each context but a common thread
emerges upon closer examination. As in any capitalist society, money
and material possession are the primary motivation that fuels society
and people. It could be argued that FBI director Louis Freeh made his
comments to the National Press Club in 1994 out of genuine concern for
the American people, but realistically the statement was made in an
effort to gather support and increase funding for law enforcement.
Following this statement and from increased pressure from politicians,
the Federal Crime Bill was ratified, and authorized the spending of
thirty billion dollars, primarily towards more police officers and
prisons. It also included many new punitive sanctions and the
expansion of the death penalty to more than fifty federal crimes.
Louis Freeh's politically correct and unapprised proclamation takes an
exceptionally narrow view of crime and its curtailment. Freeh chooses
to focus on the media, statistics, and ultimately public opinion as
his justification for increased funding. However he fails to realize
the influence of the media and statistics in molding public opinion
and the difference between public opinion and reality. Existing
individualistic theories such as rational choice theory help reinforce
Freeh's statement. The overstated crime problem, backed by a
capitalistic media and misinterpreted statistics has created a
punitive crime policy, which is further supported by individualistic
theories of crime. In this paper I will show how misreported
statistics and media focus on violent crimes shapes public opinion.
Then I will go on to demonstrate the role of individualistic theories
in supporting punitive crime control policies. Ultimately I look to
prove that the actions of the media and politicians are centered on
money and how crime is inherent to the American Dream . The media
never has been and probably never will be an accurate source for
criminology or criminal analysis. The sensationalist media depiction
of crime is almost always exaggerated and biased toward violent

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crimes. From newspapers to television the crimes that get the most
coverage and attention are homicides and aggravated assaults. However,
in actuality ninety percent of all crimes are property crimes and less
than one percent are homicides (Stephen Lincoln 9/24/01). The media
also is fond of reporting crime clocks based on aggregate statistics.
Popular and catchy lines like, "A murder occurs every twenty seven
minutes, a robbery every sixty seconds," are very misleading yet are
used regularly. These crime clocks show no reference to a ratio
between crimes being committed and the people effected (Lincoln
10/3/01). Once again here the motives behind depiction of crime by the
media vary, but money can be found at the source. Newspapers and
television stations don't want to report common and usually petty
crimes because they are boring and monotonous. People don't buy boring
and monotonous newspapers; so to increase circulation and ultimately
revenues, editors choose to emphasize and embellish violent crimes.
This intentional bias towards violent crimes, even though they
represent a very small fraction of all crimes creates a sense of
apprehension and concern in law-abiding citizens. Television is also
responsible for exaggerating crime and over emphasizing its focus on
violent crimes. Where newspapers can only provide writing and limited
photographs of crime, television can take the next step in showing
(versus telling) the crime and criminals. The television show "COPS"
is an excellent example of the misrepresentation of crime and law
enforcement. On the show you never see routine traffic stops or
officers writing parking tickets, rather the producers choose to show
shootings, gang fights and drug offenders. People throughout the
country get to see criminals actually breaking the law on television.
Given that the majority of the scenes shown are of violent crimes,
people construct a violent and evil image of all criminals. While in
reality the majority of police work is mundane, the show attempts to
glamorize crime fighting (Lincoln 9/26/01). These producers don't care
about how they are depicting crime or its consequences; they are
simply concerned about TV ratings. Higher ratings mean advertisers
must pay more money for airtime, which ultimately leads to more money
for the television networks. By constantly and disproportionately
reporting violent crimes, the media influence the general public into
thinking there is a bad crime problem. The media produces several
criminal fallacies and strongly influences the public's opinion on
crime. The dramatic fallacy has been discussed above as it relates to
the overemphasis on violent and extreme crimes. The "not me" fallacy
helps create a distinction between criminals and non-criminals
(Lincoln 9/29/01). By creating a distinction, people tend to believe
they are not capable of committing violent crimes and that criminals
are inherently evil and different from the rest of society. "Contrary
to popular perception, the expansion of the U.S. prison and jail
populations are not the direct result of a worsening or an
exceptionally bad crime problem…rates of violent and property crime
have been in decline" (Beckett and Sasson 237). Since the vast
majority of crimes people hear and see in the news are violent and
heinous, they assume that there is a crime problem and that something
must be done to stop it. The statistics that the media enjoys to
misinterpret and report misleadingly is primarily taken from the
uniform crime report. The uniform crime report is aggregate data taken
from 17,000 law enforcement agencies and compiled annually by the
federal bureau of investigation. Organizational and presentational
concerns arise from the uniform crime report (Lincoln 10/3/01). There
are significant omissions in the report such as white-collar and
environmental crimes. Also the definition of crimes chosen by the
agencies greatly manipulates the data. For example some jurisdictions
define rape as the forceful act of sexual intercourse, this omits the
entire category of date rape (Lincoln 10/3/01). Law enforcement
agencies have a direct interest in the reporting of crimes and crime
rates. If they report that crime is on the decline, then people will
feel more secure and satisfied with law enforcement but funding will
be decreased. Conversely if they report that crime is increasing, and
make the public feel at risk, an increase in funding will occur and be
justified. Individualistic theories of crime serve to contribute
support to the image of the bad crime problem and encourage punitive
crime control policies. The two hundred year old rational choice
theory defines human behavior through the two principles that humans
act in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This very
Hedonistic theory facilitates the creation of punitive polices because
it creates a need to harshly punish self-indulgent crimes. Throughout
the 1980's and 1990's there was a rapid influx of punitive crime
policies like the creation of long mandatory prison sentences for drug
possession and the expansion of the death penalty. The biological
deterministic theory highlighted by C. Ronald Huff in Historical
Explanations of Crime defines a "criminal type, or 'born
criminal'"(Huff 75). The theory works hand in hand with the media
depiction of criminals. It tries to show criminals as separate and
distinct entities that are different from the rest of society. In this
theory it is ineffective to deter crime since criminals are
unalterable and predestined to break the law. Biological
individualistic theories should be analyzed and critiqued with
rigorous scrutiny. Although many of the sources for data acquisition
in this theory are objective, the consequences and conclusions drawn
from the data are subjective and open to argument (Lincoln 10/17/01).
In order to curb crime based on the rational choice theory, lawmakers
have fashioned policy around preventative measures. The foundation of
preventive policy is based on controlling the physical environment.
Examples of preventive measures are gated communities, target
hardening, and neighborhood watch programs. Although these policies
are effective in curtailing crime in their specific contexts,
"measures which increase the difficulties of a particular crime will
merely result in criminal activity being 'displaced'"(Cornish & Clarke
118). A criminal isn't going to break a law that is heavily policed
and enforced because his chances of getting caught are greater. To
counter the supposed pressing crime problem, bureaucrats and
politicians alike have adopted a very punitive system of crime
control. They claim that, "The people of this country are fed up with
crime" and that the people are the ones demanding better crime control
(Louis Freeh, 1994). Gallup polls from 1993 to 1998 showed that crime
was the most pressing problem in public opinion (Lincoln 9/28/01). In
actuality during this same time period the crime rate has been
decreasing annually which does not justify the tremendous rise in
government spending that has been allocated to the criminal justice
system. This goes to show that public opinion does not necessarily
mimic or reflect the true reality of the situation. Public opinion can
be easily shaped and molded by forces such as media and politicians.
More responsibility must be taken by the media in reporting statistics
and crime because of their influence on public opinion. When
influential leaders like Louis Freeh make statements based on the
opinion of the masses instead of facts, the false crime problem is
further worsened and perpetuated.
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