The South African Media Criminology Essay

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Crime is one of the top fears of the South African community. Public opinion regularly specifies that crime is one of the most persistent problems facing South Africa. The community's distress and fear of crime is influenced by several diverse sources. It is interesting that the majority of South African does not have direct contact with serious crime. Besides, the community is exposed to crime from different sources of information, such as the news media. Media is the most important sources used by the public to develop opinions about crime. Moreover, the frequent presentation of crime in entertainment sources increases the importance of understanding the media images presented to the public. Although the images of crime are important, our understanding of the media as a social control institution is limited.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Crime narratives and representations are, and have always been, a prominent part of the content of all mass media. Many studies have provided estimates of what proportion of media content consists of images of crime, sometimes comparing this across media, or over time (Walter & Molly, 2011).

Throughout history the various forms of mediated communication have always reflected an apparent massive interest in crime, criminals, punishment, and justice. In other words, over time print, sound, visual, and new media alike have always depended on responsive audiences. Through the processes of mass communication, these popular media have also made significant contributions, for better and worse, to the social construction of crime (Walter & Molly, 2011).

Mass media representations of crime have been a persistent root of anxiety. According to Geoffrey Pearson (1983), two competing anxieties can be discerned in public debate, and both are reflected in a large research work. On the one hand the media are often seen as fundamentally subversive, on the other as a more or less subtle form of social control.Those who see the media as subversive see media representations of crime themselves as a significant cause of offending (Pearson, 1983).

A concern about media representations of crime has worried liberals' criminologists and radicals' criminologists (Wykes, 2001). To them the media are the cause not of crime itself but of exaggerated public alarm about law and order, generating support for repressive solutions (Wykes, 2001).

It is clear that the media's role in representing reality is highly contested and subject to interpretation. Although fictional accounts of crime are arguably of greatest salience in discussions of media influence, the reporting of crime news is also of importance and is no less shaped by the mission to entertain (Yewkes, 2004).

South African news workers who can deliver dramatic crime narratives are applauded by their bosses and peers and an aggressive approach to crime reporting has been linked to corporate imperatives (Retief, 2002). In his book on media ethics in South Africa, Johan Retief notes that certain sections of the South African media deserve the blame for reporting sensitive matters in an insensitive and sensational way. Crime events in the media are often dramatized and presented so as to attract attention in order to sell (Retief, 2002).

It takes as a premise that media representations are not simply a mirror of society but rather that they are highly selective and constructed portrayals, it is the capacity of these portrayals to shape and frame our perception of the which is under consideration.

Our research put it concern on the impact of the image of crime represented in the South African media. This study is needed because it will help to understand the ways South African media portray the image of crime and how it affects the public. It will provide also more understanding on the exact relationship between the mass media and crime.

I will begin by formulating the problem of this research in the following chapter. A review of the vast literature on the content of representations of crime in the media based on the research done internationally as well as locally in South Africa will follow. Next I will then explain the methodology used to collect data. Following this I will turn to the attempts to understand the data collected by analysing them. In the concluding section I will summarise the results of our research based on the image of crime in the South Africa media.

Chapter 2: Problem Formulation

One of the most interesting debates about the mass media today is the level to which media represent criminal behavior. Everyday news headlines report stories about crime designed to shock, to frighten and to entertain the public.

As first objective, our research has to provide an analysis on the way media have made significant contributions to the social construction of crime in South Africa. At the same time, this research will try to understand the contradictorily representation of crime in the South African media. In addition, it will explore the idea behind the reason why media are targeting certain offenders but they have also omitted or given less interest to other offenders.

While acknowledging that the media can have many positive roles, our focus here is to put our investigation on three aspects that media has in representing crime in South Africa. The three aspects are:

The way the South African media portray the image of crime;

The relationship between the South African mass media and the representation of crime;

And the reason why the mass media in South Africa focus more on reporting a certain category of crime;

Chapter 3: Literature Review

Most people receive information about crime from media`s reports. American studies show that most local television stations begin the evening news with a story focusing on a criminal event, that one third of news stories focus on crime, and that crime news is twice as common as political news (Beale, 2006).

Crime narratives and representations are, and have always been, a prominent part of the content of all mass media. The proportion of media content that is constituted by crime items clearly will depend on the definitions of crime used (Sacco, 1995).

Most analyses of the content of media representations of crime have focused more narrowly on the legally defined category, not the broad sociological concept of deviance. Some studies only consider stories about specific criminal incidents, but others include reports, articles, or editorials about the state of crime generally, about criminal justice, and about criminal law violations related to political and social conflict, such as terrorism (Sacco, 1995).

Crime news exhibits remarkably similar patterns in studies conducted at many different times and places. From the earliest studies onwards, analyses of news reports have found that crimes of violence are featured disproportionately compared to their incidence in official crime statistics. Indeed a general finding has been the lack of relationship between patterns and trends in crime news and crime statistics (Davis 1952).

A historical study of two British newspapers since the Second World War found that homicide was by far the most common type of crime reported, accounting for about one third of all crime news stories throughout the period. Other violent crimes were the next most common (Beckett and Sasson, 2000). However, there were significant shifts in the proportion of stories featuring other sorts of crime. Recent studies confirm the pattern of increasing overrepresentation of violent and interpersonal especially sex crimes (Beckett and Sasson, 2000). Between 1951 and 1985 the number of rape trials in Britain increased nearly four times, from 119 to 450. In the same period, the number of rape cases reported in the press increased more than five times, from 28 to 154. The percentage of rape cases reported jumped from 23.5 per cent in 1951 to 34.2 per cent in 1985 (Soothill and Walby, 1991).

In the process of collecting and disseminating information on crime, media representations can negatively influence perceptions on crimerelated issues. Media coverage of crime can be inaccurate, biased and promote inappropriate and harmful policies on crime control (Yanich, 2001).The processing of media information on crime is based on short term, fast paced and surface level research, which can limit the types of information disseminated, and disregard crucial issues (Yanich, 2001). Often news reports of crime read like a police blotter of information including information on the offender, place of crime, and victim, with little devoted to the context of how offending or victimization occurs (Yanich, 2001).

According to Jeffrey C. Hubbard et. al. (1975), print media influences public opinion on crime trends by increasing coverage of certain crimes disproportionately to the amount of crime in a community (Hubbard et al., 1975). The way the news media represents crime often includes sensationalistic aspects of crime events, whereby newsworthy stories act on emotion more than on fact, and focus on negative images of crime in communities (Hubbard et al., 1975).

James C. Hackler, in his Canadian Criminology: Strategies and Perspectives (2007) argue that some crimes, such as white collar crime and environmental crimes are often overlooked by the media. According to him the intentional absence of these crimes to the hyper-publicized and over-politicization of crime, security and crime prevention and the harmful control of the private sector in lobbying politicians. The result can be inaccurate perceptions on crime and inappropriate policy decisions, which hinder effective and sustainable crime prevention strategies (Hackler, 2007).

Crime news has situated crime as a problem frame which fuels a fear of crime mentality, feeds on public opinion and perception, and strengthens repressive and tougher public policies on crime and criminal penalties. Kenneth Dowler (2003) asserts that the media's obsessive focus on crime has resulted in over-exposure and therefore individuals who are highly exposed to violence in the media perceive crime as threatening, which increases a fear of crime, and therefore punitive attitudes (Dowler, 2003).

Understanding news representation and the social construction of news making requires an examination of the conscious and unconscious processes involved in the mass dissemination of symbolic consumer goods (Dowler, 2003). These commodities of news production and the images of social reality that they invoke are inseparable from their cultural histories. Moreover, mediated characterizations of crime and criminal justice, of criminals and social control, projected in news presentations are representations themselves of culturally shared visions accessed through commonly unfolding historical narratives, in which average people and most journalists come to know crime and justice in developed societies. In other words, crime and justice stories produced by news media for mass consumption reflect and reveal much about those societies' views of themselves, good and bad (Dowler, 2003).

While most people understand that crime is part of the reality of life, and a legitimate subject for news coverage, the amount and nature of media coverage given to crime has come into question. Yanich (1998) argues that local newscasters in Baltimore and Philadelphia made conscious decisions to cover more crime news than any other social issue. They also decided what crimes they would cover and how they would cover them (Yanich, 1998).

Definitions of crime and criminals are often linked to the politics of power related to issues such as gender, race, age, wealth or class. Violence and crime are deeply embedded in political, economic and social dynamics (Yanich, 1998). Crime is a social phenomena and social construction linked primarily to how the State and the media manage crime (Lehman & Okcabol, 2005). People's perceptions of locations and destinations are influenced by how the media interprets where violent assaults are committed by designating what are safe and unsafe areas (Lehman &Okcabol 2005).

In South Africa also, media consistently provides high levels of prominent coverage on crime. Much of this coverage is not referred to as crime per se, but the particular crime committed. The media covers dramatic and exceptional crime on a consistent basis, sometimes at the expense of more systemic, less striking crimes such as gender based violence. Both, broadcast news and print newspapers give more prominence to stories of violence, rape and racism issues (Jere-Malanda, 2002). The reporting of economic crimes such as white collar crime is rare in all news.

But some researchers argue that some media also inflame crime in South Africa, especially the print media. Numerous research reports have directly or indirectly accused the South African press of contributing to antiforeigner sentiment, with one paper going so far as to claim that xenophobia in South Africa can be attributed to the formulation and publicity given to various anti-illegal views through the media (Jere-Malanda, 2002). There is no doubt that crime in South Africa is a crucial issue that warrants extensive and prominent coverage in the country's media, as it deals with fundamental rights of safety and security. There is also no question that the media is required to raise and highlight the failure of the government to protect and to safeguard the South African population as well as foreigners.

A concern about media representations of crime, in South Africa as well as around the world, has worried many scholars (Wykes, 2001). To them the media are the cause not of crime itself but of exaggerated public alarm about law and order, generating support for repressive solutions. Many journalists said the ethical dimensions of crime reporting are the subject of newsroom debates. Nonetheless, the news imperative almost always ensures the reporters will cover sensational crimes (Wykes, 2001).

The issue of sensational reporting, particularly of crime and corruption, has been the subject of extensive debate in South Africa. Thabo Mbeki, former South African president, and many government officials have complained that the press is undermining the interests of the country by giving prominence to reports on crime (Retief, 2002). The development model of the media suggests that journalism is obligated to help improve the image of South Africa both at home and abroad. Critics say the failure to accentuate the positive and the insistence on splashing negative images on front pages has had damaging results to national identity.

Arnold S de Beer has noted that this image is especially tied to South Africa, where rates of murder, rape and domestic violence are among the highest in the world. Added to this are perceptions, conveyed in the international news media, of Africa being on the brink of total collapse due to unbridled corruption, civil wars, the scourge of HIV/AIDS sweeping over the continent (De Beer, 2003).

Although journalists rarely mentioned the issue of race when they discussed their reporting on crimes, media scholars and critics have made clear connections. De Beer sees a persistent fear of the black majority as being apparent, especially in the conflict-ridden reports on crime, racial polarization is again the order of the day through news reporting that creates the perception of blacks being the cause for the tide of crime engulfing the country, while it fuels white fears and crew racial strife (De Beer, 2003).

Robert Entman`s research looks at the ways in which news coverage stereotypes black in the United States of America, but his observations have application to the case in South Africa. According to Entman, the specific realities depited in single stories may accumulate to form a summary message that distorts social reality. Each in a series of news stories may be accurate, yet the combination may yield false cognitions within audiences (Entman, 1994).

South African media have a major influence on the general representation of crime in the country. The images that permeate popular consciousness of crime are mainly generated by, and reflected in, the electronic and print media. In this way the media have a tremendous impact in terms of how crime is generally defined in society.

Chapter 3: Methodology

To explore how audiences interpreted the image of crime in the South African media, we conducted a series of interviews as well as we administrated questionnaires to our sample. Our sample derived from first year students in criminology at the University of Kwazulu Natal. In the total of 40 participants; we chose 10 Africans, 10 coloureds, 10 Indians as well as 10 whites. The reason why we put all race group in the sample it is because we want to have a balanced idea on how different race in South Africa think about how the media represent crime.

The content analysis of answers from people who participated as sample in the research was to understand major discourse in the representation of crime in the South African media from different views. Specifically our analysis used the constant comparative method amongst different races. We analyzed the data through a detailed understanding of our research objectives.

Although we agree that image of crime disseminated by the media are strikingly consistent, we must urge caution in generalizing our findings to other places in South Africa. Because our analysis is restricted only to a group of first year students at the University of Kwazulu Natal, we cannot assume that our findings would be replicated in other areas. Moreover, we have no data with which to access the generalizability of our results to other places in South Africa.

Chapter 4: Data Analysis

We have collected a volume of data about content of media representations of image of crime in South Africa. We are only able to present a selection of our main findings here related to the objective of our research.

The first section of the questionnaire referred to the background or biographical information of participants. This information helps us to compare racial groups understanding regarding the representation of crime in the South African media. Based on racial group, we discover that there is some differences on the way Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites understand the representation of the image of crime in the media.

For the understanding about which form of the media our sample use to keep up-to date with current affairs and be informed about current or past issues on crime:

80% of Africans use television as the first source of information, 90% use radio as source of updating with news, 30% use internet and also 10% use newspaperss.


90% of coloured use television as source of information, 40% of them use radio, 40% use internet and 20% use newspaperss as source to keep up to date with current affairs.


100% of Indians use television like the first source of information, 80% of them use radio as source of updating them about current affairs, and 30% of them rely on internet and newspapers.


100% of whites use television as source of information, 70% of them use radio as source of information, 95% use internet as form of media to keep them update with information and 80% use newspapers.


The result indicate that television seems to be the main platform that keep updating people regarding the issue of crime in South Africa, following by radio, internet and Newspapers.

By analyzing the representation of crime in South African media, 85% of participant agree that South African media exaggerate the way it represent crime , 10% of participant disagree and 5% of them are neutral.

The result shows that media do not give an accurate representation of crime. It overstates crime coverage. And this affect people attitude or concern toward crime problem in South Africa. 90% of participants agree that their attitudes towards crime are affected by the way media exaggerate the representation of crime, 7% of participants are neutral and only 3% disagree. This findings indicate that the way the media represent crime create fear in the population. The majority of respondents are more likely to be fearful of crime based on the way the media represent it.

Regarding which kind of crimes are most reported in the South African media, the results indicate that 75% of crimes reported are violent crimes (murder, rape, assault,…) and only 25% are non violent crime such as corruption and fraud.

According to the participants, the media put more attention to violent crime in South Africa because that kind of crime happens often in the daily life of citizen. And also because of the country has the reputation as a violent crime capital of the world. Violent crimes are easy for media reporters to have access to information compare to non violent crime such as white colour crime or fraud.

Regarding the representation of crime in the new Democratic South Africa; the majority of participants, 87% of them, argue that today`s media are more interesting in reporting crime more than it was during the apartheid period. 10% of them disagree and only 3% gave a neutral position. During the interview one of participant argue that one of the big reasons why the media focus more on reporting crime today is because of the freedom of press that the new South African constitution grant to the media. During apartheid area, media were controlled by the state and it was difficult for it to report any news. Participants went further by declaring that South African media represent a certain racial group as more potential criminals then other. Africans are represented more criminals in the media more than other races, following by collareds people, Indians and whites population:

At the same time, our research shows that some media represent black people as more victims of crime in South Africa, following by Whites, collareds and Indians. According to participants, black South Africans are much more likely to be victims of crime because most of them are not able to afford the protections and security measures and also the majority of black South Africans live in the areas where there are high levels of criminal activities.

On the question referring on if crime stories are told in a balanced way with all points of view represented, the majority of respondents indicate that crime stories are not told in a balance way. 82% of respondents argue that when the media cover a crime for example committed by a black person to a white person or vice versa, the media always exaggerated by reporting such crime. However if the same crime involves two people of the same race, the media coverage does not lay it on thick by exposing it.


By analyzing answers of participants in this research, the exploratory factor analysis of the data revealed that South African media play a significant role in the social construction of crime. Social constructionims is a method that shape someone`s view of truth.

The media participate a lot in the procedure of social constructionism as it is use as main source of information. Most of the time, individuals are not in a straight line experiencing events and, thus, they must depend on other means to provide the experience they are unable to obtain directly.

Surette (2007) gives 4 phases of social constructionism used by the media. The first phase incorporates circumstances, and elements that form the real world. It serves as the establishment for social constructionism because declarations and assumption that disagree with the certainty of the real world are overlooked.

The media play their most influential role during the third stage (Surette, 2007). In the third stage, the media choose a certain categories of information to be transmitted, whereas others are basically omitted. The media like to cover a certain category of events that will interest the public; consequently, the media is inaccurate by deciding what to show to the same public.

The way the media represent crime in South Africa, it definitely increase population fears. But at the same time it also guides to increase efforts at law enforcement.

The coverage of crime by the media does not reflect the real image of crime in the country. Based on our research, television seems to be the main platform that updates citizen about crime issues. However, television news as well as newspapers most of the time focus on crime occurring in the street which are in high number violent crimes. These kinds of crime are in general committed by poor people and it is very easy to access information about it. That can be the justification by which media portray African population as more criminal than other racial groups and at the same time African people seem to be portrayed by the same media as victims of crime than other.

But however, media in South Africa don't focus a lot on crimes committed by people with power such as white colour crime and fraud. This can be justified by the fact that these kinds of crimes are very difficult to find out and are most of the time done in closed door.

Chapter 5: Conclusion

In conclusion, this research reveals that the image of crime in the South African media is not presented in a truthful way. While statistic of the population participating in this research is significant based on racial group (Africans, whites coloureds and Indians), the strength of our findings is minimal in the sense that it included only a small number of participants (n=40) which is a tiny small number compare to the all population of South Africa.

In South Africa as well as in the world as show our literature review, crime issues are always newsworthy. But crime reporting is not as value free and objective as the majority of people think. South African media focus more or put it attention in reporting violent crimes more than non violent crimes. So, the world seems to believe that South Africa is the capital of violent crime based on the way the media represent it. This misinforms people on the right figure and nature of types of crimes that occur in the country. Non violent crime such as white collar crime is less represented or less reported in the South African media.

One can understand also that the fear of crime can be naturally a reaction to the violence, brutality that is broadcast daily by the media. The media contribute on a high level on the social construction of crime and it would be naive to suggest that South African population is not affected by a number of sources such as crime news from newspapers or television.

Offenders also in the media are frequently represented as coming from disadvantage and poor families. That portrays some people more criminal than others.

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