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Lecture 6

Week 6 - Welch et al. (1997) - Moral panic: crime stories in newspapers

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University of Guelph
SOC 3750
Michelle Dumas

Week 5 – Primary Definitions of Crime and Moral Panic: A Content Analysis of Experts’ Quotes in Feature Newspaper Articles on Crime • This study performs an analysis of 105 feature articles published in 4 major newspapers between 1992-1995 • At a basic level, crime is “news” because the way it is treated evokes a threat to society in a moral sense – the “devil” is both symbolically and physically cast out from the society by its guardians – the police and the judiciary • Recent research tends to focus on the social construction processes which dictate how crime events become news. o Critical investigations of this have explored the relationship between media outlets and the primary individuals or institutions which define crime – namely law enforcement officials and institutions o Crime news very rarely involves a first-hand account of the criminal act itself. Crime news are produced from the definitions and perspectives of the institutions and professional individuals who provide society with its definitions of criminality  This results in the primary definers (i.e. law enforcement officials) establish the terms of reference from which all discussion of crime emanates • In examining two groups of experts – namely, state managers (politicians and criminal justice practitioners) and intellectuals – they found that statements offered by state managers were more ideological (in both the causes of crime and ideas of how to deal with it) in that they neglected the causal connection between social conditions and crime. Research Method • The sample of feature articles in this study were drawn from: The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune o They were selected due to their large circulation, and geographical representation o 105 feature articles were published in these papers about crime, of which the majority of articles appeared in 1994 • Groups of Experts: o State Managers – consisted of 62 law enforcement officials, 23 politicians, 13 criminal justice organization advocates (e.g., New York City’s Citizen Crime Commission), 5 prosecutors, and 2 defense lawyers.  The rationale for grouping politicians with criminal justice practitioners is due to the similar roles as state managers o Intellectuals – 58 professors, 9 nonacademic researchers. • Unit of Analysis – the specific quote offered by a crime expert. Findings o In their sample, 47 topics of crime are represented among the 105 articles examined – this suggests a diverse range of crime issues: o The most common was crime rates and trends, followed by the crime drop in NYC; youth crime; and politician discussing crime o A disproportionate emphasis on street crime was found in the sample, while only one of the articles went beyond street crime and focused on white-collar offenses. This may indicate a media bias toward street crime, especially those committed by individuals o This could further suggest that the topics selected for the feature articles were ideologically filtered or screened – as a consequence, issues reproduce a public image of lawlessness which focuses on street crime.  The media’s preoccupation with these types of offences could be indicative of moral panic against street crime o The authors also suggest that this pattern of selected or filtered topics supports the assertion that crime new is commodified for public consumption – according to the dominant ideology.  A principle aspect of this is that it insinuates that street offences are the most costly and dangerous, however financial assesments of the costs attached to different types of offences contradict the dominant ideology’s image of crime. • The cost of street crime is roughly $4 billion per year; while white collar crime is roughly 50 times that at $200 billion per year. • There were 24,000 murders in 1995, and by contrast more that 56,000 workers who died as a result of injuries or diseases caused by unsafe working conditions Themes of Experts Quotes – these are not mutually exclusive as some experts referred to multiple themes in one quote. o Statements confirming that crime and fear is a problem o This category had the larges number of quoted statements accounting for 37% o State managers offered 48% of quotes in this category  This indicates that nearly half of the time, journalists rely on state managers to confirm crime and fear as a problem o Statements serving as technical remarks o Accounted for nearly 29% of quoted statements o State managers accounted for 28% of these remarks and intellectuals accounted for 30%  Journalists rely equally on state managers and intellectuals in order to clarify terms, concepts and criminal justice procedures o Statements criticizing popular perceptions of crime o This category represents 13% of quotes offered o State managers and intellectuals offer comparable numbers of remarks about popular perceptions of crime o These critical statements appear tangential to th
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