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Crime, a forever topic in human society, seems to have limitless content to explore and report. Nowadays, crime news is already common and general. The media, as a news and story finder and reporter, has always been keen on the crime areas. As most people believe that the media tend to pay more attention on the female offenders' stories on serious offences, such as violent and sexual crimes using a gendered attitude towards them. This assertion may be thought by a great number of people that is reasonable. However, some people may wonder why there is such a phenomenon. In this essay, this assertion would be discussed and critically analysed. First of all, this article would explore the female offenders which are relatively small compared to male offenders as the beginning point. Then, the media would be another key point to discuss how they choose their news story, which may explain the gendered responses. What's more, some specific case studies would be given as examples for readers to have a concrete idea about how the media is depicting the crime facts. To finish off, the writer would give his own opinion about the assertion and show his own critique.
There is a general and common knowledge about women that women are gentler and less possible to be related to violence than men. This is somewhat because of the data is less concerned by most people. To majority of people, they would seldom concentrate on the statistic by official organizations. For them, to know what is going on in the world is to read news paper or watch TV. As traditions and customs have been given us some formed ideas, women are the characters of mothers and comforts. In the contrast, men are considered more energetic and aggressive. Majority of men are keen on football or basketball which is competitive sport. As most media have reported, an overwhelming number of crimes, especially serious crimes, are committed by male offenders. Therefore, to most general people an idea that women are less likely to commit crime especially serious crime has been rooted in their minds. Not only do the public have that thought, but within criminology there is also such a thought held by many criminologists. Women commit a wide coverage of offences and crimes though compared to male offences are less in quantity and less severe and dangerous in quality. (Carlen and Worrall, 1987) This is an overriding consensus in criminological area, held by many criminologists. Heidensohn (1996, p.8) expresses the idea that 'it does seem that women commit fewer serious crimes and are rather less likely to be recidivists'. As Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey (2008, p.26) concluded that 'women are less likely to be recidivists or professional criminals, and are less likely to be involved in violent or sexual crime and men outnumber women across all major crime categories'. Thanks to the improvements of availability of statistics of offenders, we can examine the official data on offenders comparing female and male offenders. According to an article of Home Office (2005), approximately 91 per cent of offenders who were found guilty of burglary, robbery, drug offences, criminal damage or violence against human were male. Therefore, most crimes committed by female offenders are less severe than ones committed by male offenders no matter in quantity or quality.
However, as the society and culture are developing and changing, female offences are becoming more prominent in public notice. The population of women prisoners was 4314 compared to the 74,574 men prisoners on January 2007. For most women prisoners, their crimes that made them imprisoned are 'acquisitive' offences such as shoplifting or fraud (NOMS Briefing, 20060. This situation showed that women offenders committed less severe crimes. Female offenders remain considerably less than their male counterparts in prisons. However, the statistics imply an essential trend that women prisoners have increased exponentially. In the decade from 1995 to 2005 the women's prison population increased by 126 per cent compared with a 46 per cent increase for men (Home Office, 2006). Not only has the number of female offenders been grown significantly, but also the nature of women offences has changed evidently. Silvestri and Crowther-Dowey (2008, p.26) point out that an increasing discourse containing the gender neutrality idea in violation behaviour. Though this trend seems to be new to most normal people, some criminologists have already held that opinions of search for equivalence in women's and men's offending behaviour. One of them is Freda Adler who tried to discuss and make clear of the rise and changing nature of female offences throughout 1960s and 1970s. A 'new breed of female criminal' is identified by her, which shows that women criminal is changing their offences into a more masculine style. Female offenders are becoming more violent, more aggressive and unfeminine. Alder writes:
Women [are] no longer indentured to the kitchen, baby carriages and bedrooms… in the same way that women are demanding equal opportunities in legitimate fields, so a number are determined to force their way into the world of major crimes. (1975, p.67)
The main argument of her idea was that besides liberation contributing to crime, female criminality can be regarded as an indication that shows how women achieved their liberation. Women's movement may contribute to the changing nature of female offences. This idea has become the subject of extensive media and academic notice. In other words, the concept that female offenders become equivalent as their male counterparts reappear as a noticeable and remarkable issue nowadays.
The media is the other key point that this article is concerned about. In modern society, we are surrounded by different kinds of media. Our life is influenced and affected by the media in all kinds of ways and aspects. Most households at least have a TV set with tens of hundreds of channels available. Newspapers, as a traditional medium, still play an important role for most people to gain news and critique in routine life. We cannot describe how great influence of the media has on us. There is no doubt that media have great impact on our minds and knowledge. For the media, crime seems to be an irresistible topic for them. Reiner (2007) indicates two general methods to understand why media representations come to be as they are. Firstly, he refers to it as 'crime news as hegemony in action'. All the crime related media representations show the social ideology and social order. Secondly, 'crime news as cultural conflict' is a variation about this issue. This is an attempt about providing a smaller but more important way to regard crime news as the product of the interest from different factors. MacDougall (1968, cited in Newburn ) indicates that, 'At any given moment billions of simultaneous events occur throughout the world… All of these occurrences are potentially news.' Therefore, it is a very difficult and selectable job for the news reporter to select the good 'stories' to tell. 'Newsworthiness' is the key concept concerning about choices of news. There are eight 'professional imperatives which act as implicit guides to the construction of news stories' identified by Chibnall (1977, p.23). These are:
Dramatisation (drama and action).
Structured access (experts, authority).
Titillation (revealing the forbidden/voyeurism).
Conventionalism (hegemonic ideology).
Personalisation (culture of personality/celebrity).
Simplification (elimination of shades of grey).
To be more specific in crime news, Chibnall (2007) points out five further requirements that inform journalists' representation of offences. These are:
Visible and spectacular acts.
Deterrence and repression.
Sexual and political connotations.
These factors can be considered while explaining and analysing the news in which journalists reported. What is more, Greer (2007) added one more news value - the visual. As he describes it:
The rapid development of information technologies in recent decades has changed the terrain on which crime news is produced. Today, crime stories are increasingly selected and 'produced' as media events on the bases of their visual (how they can be portrayed in images) as well as their lexical-verbal (how they can be portrayed in words) potential.
These value factors can contribute to analysing why the media give gendered responses to the female criminals related to sexual and violent crimes.
The world is widely spread with the media. Take UK for example; there are numerous daily or weekly newspapers nationwide. Due to the great numbers of competition, they may be fiercely competing for the 'floating' readers. Each press would make their effort to grasp the audiences' notice in order to sell their newspapers. As mentioned above, female offences are far less than male offences no matter in quantity or quality. And there has been a more and more prominent status for women as the equivalent counterparts as men in criminal activities in recent years. Therefore, according to the newsworthiness, crimes committed by women can be very dramatic and novelistic, especially the sexual and violent crimes. However, the facts are available and accessible to everyone. How the media report and criticise it become the key difference for readers to choose their own reading materials. This may be a contribution to the gendered responses of the media. Because the reporters should use some attractive and striking words and phrases to make people interested. Most people hold the conventional views of women while the violence of women is quite shocking to them. To use some extremely disapproving language such as 'monster', 'evil' and 'demon' on describing women easily raise people's curiosity. The news about women as serious offenders is contrast to conventionalism which shows its great news value.
Here this article will analyses some cases involved violent women to explore the question. In 1922 Fred and Rose who were from Gloucester, England, were arrested alleged to commit a sexual assault on a young woman. As the investigation conducted, more and more clue and evidence showed their violent criminal behaviour. There human bones found by the police officers under the floor of the Wests' former home and in a field near the village where Fred West grew up. The place became disreputable as the 'HOUSE OF HORRORS' (Sunday Mirror, 6 March 1994). All victims were women in this case. Though Rose West was released at first, she was arrested again due to great possibility of suspect. Rose West faced the trial alone while Fred West hanged himself in his prison cell. She showed 'lack of womanhood' and deviation from prescribed and expected maternal roles. Considering her horrible sexual violence, she was described by the media as an evil, callous monster. The media here took a gender and shocking attitude to her, due to her great deviation from the conventional views. Such a serious case was seldom appeared in the history, so the media kept concentrated on her repeating their striking reports constantly. Rose West was depicted really mad and bad. However, few media managed to find out the reality why she became such an 'evil'.
In contrast, Sanna Sillanpaa from Finland was depicted as sick and poor rather than evil and demon. She was a high educated computer programmer living alone in a suburb of Helsinki. Three men were killed and one was injured by her on a Sunday afternoon in 1999. In this case, the media reported it as the title 'blood bath' (Helsingin Sanomat 22 February 1999) or 'hail of bullets' (Helsingin Sanomat 23 February). Sanna Sillanpaa had no relationship with any of these men and never joints a shooting club in which she got the gun. She was caught by the police at the airport when she was setting off to London. This case gained an intensively focused by the media in the Finnish press. The press interviewed her relatives and others who had known her and published an assumption that she was mentally sick. Much press gave speculations about her motive on committing such crime, including 'man hatred'. She was judged that she was mentally ill by the lower court. This was a dissatisfying outcome for both sides. Finally she was sentenced to a mental hospital because of the verdict that she was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Since then the press stopped reporting the case again. The press showed obviously great interest in this female violent offence. They did more interviews and survey into this case than common offences. And they finally gave an unusual result that Sanna was a poor woman with mental disorder.
These two cases are very typical and comparative. Berrington and Honkatukia (2002) have critically analysed these two cases and have shown there own perceptions. They concluded that women offenders represented by the media as extremely evil or really sympathetic. The press portrayed women offences in a more sensationalized and sexualized way in order to grasp readers' notice and boost their scales. In Rosemary West case, the media categorised it as the 'crime of the century'. Her story contained the key themes of the media including sex, violence and murder. This news met the value of dramatisation and novelty so that the media would pay more attention to it. Wykes (1998, p.237) highlights the orientation of press reporting once Rose West's trial began, with personalization and individual pathology used to express the crimes.
Berrington and Honkatukia (2002) precisely states that:
Violent women are seen as exceptional, unnatural and `doubly deviant'. Not only have they broken the law; they have transgressed the norms and expectations associated with appropriate feminine behaviour. Women's use of lethal violence is especially rare. This enhances the newsworthiness of these few, highly unusual cases and encourages sensationalized media reporting.
The core idea is that the rarity of women offences leads to the sensationalized media reporting.
Then the case of Sanna Sillanpaa is also very shocking because everyone knew her cannot image her to be a multiple killer. Her appearance was so normal and feminine that no one would relate her to a dangerous killer. 'Poor thing' and 'a sad case' were used to describe her in this case.
These two cases in relation to female offences were both given gendered responses by the media. For the purpose that raising readers' interest, somewhat exaggeration and fictionalization may be added to the news, which led them away from the reality.
This is not good for the media and readers because that would make reality into mist. People may get wrong messages that women are becoming more dangerous than before. However, this response by media is quite human basic. As a characteristic of human being, the curiosity of rare incident always raises people's attention. That may help people to consider why there is such an undesirable phenomenon and lead them to think the way to solve and prevent it. But all in all, the media should give an objectively narrative on crime news no matter it related to male or female.
In conclusion, the media do give some gendered response to the female offenders in relation to violent or sexual crimes. This phenomenon may be due to the rarity of the female offences and the rising trend of female offences. Considering the newsworthiness, the media should select the most attractive news. Female violent and sexual crimes are undoubtedly suitable for the news. In some typical cases, the media do show difference attitude towards the female offenders. It is mostly drawbacks about this phenomenon, albeit that it may also do some good influence. All in all, I hope the media can realize their flawed attitude and turn to a more objective way in reporting crime news or even all news.