Representations of Gangs and Delinquency: Wild in the Streets?

Article excerpt

Introduction

National media coverage of crime has increased dramatically in recent years (Media Monitor, 1994) and youthful crime, particularly "violent" and "gang" crime, is a major focus of this new media attention (Males, 1996). For example, a recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs revealed that while the homicide rate in the U.S. fell 20% between 1993 and 1996, media coverage of murders increased an incredible 721% (Washington Post, August 12, 1997: D1). Links between media trends and public perceptions are generally complex, yet the number of Americans naming crime as the nation's "most important problem" increased six-fold between June 1993 and January 1994 - at a time when official crime statistics and victimization surveys showed little change (Media Monitor, 1994). Certainly, criminology must begin to take account of media coverage in more systematic ways than it previously has.

Of fundamental import is that the media often "over report" crime-related news by "exaggerating the seriousness of events, the violence that occurred, and the damage caused" (Cohen, 1981), and by producing outputs of crime-related articles that bear little resemblance to official crime trends (Garofolo, 1981; Sheley, 1981; Davis, 1952). Even stories that are specifically about official crime statistics may misrepresent these figures by downplaying, ignoring, or focusing excessively on certain statistics and extenuating circumstances (Smith, 1981). For example, the media may focus less on a 10% decrease in overall violent crime than on an embedded five-percent increase in aggravated assaults. Similarly, a 10% decrease in the crime rate may only be given passing mention in the back pages of a newspaper, while a five-percent increase may be automatic headline news.

The results of an interesting study on youth gangs in the media provide a useful component in this brief exploration of the complicated patterns and effects of media crime reporting. Decker and Kempf-Leonard (1991) queried groups of St. Louis gang members, non-gang juvenile detainees, police officers, and local policymakers with a questionnaire designed to establish how the respondents received most of their knowledge about youth gangs, as well as how accurate they believed media representations of youth gangs to be. While 100% of gang members, 85% of non-gang detainees, and 96% of police officers responded that most of their information came from first- or secondhand knowledge (i.e., either by being a gang member or by having contact with gang members), 52% of policymakers reported that mass media were the primary sources of their gang information. When asked to rate how accurately media portrayed gangs, only 25 % of gang members, 28 % of non-gang detainees, nine percent of police officers, and 30% of policymakers rated media portrayal as "accurate."

As a group, policymakers wield the most community power to respond to gang problems. Yet they acknowledge that most of their gang information came from a source they believed to be generally inaccurate. Essentially, even those who lack faith in the accuracy of media reporting may still be influenced by it. The study also demonstrated that individuals with the most direct contact with gang members (or at least with those residing in St. Louis) find media portrayals of gangs to be especially improbable.

Juvenile Arrests in Hawaii, 1987-1996

To assess how the media have covered juvenile crime in Hawaii, it is necessary to establish the actual extent and nature of local juvenile crime during the period in question. Patterns of youth crime in the state during the last decade or so have typically been very much unlike those of the nation as a whole. This may be best demonstrated by a comparison between statistics drawn from annually published editions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Crime in the United States: Uniform Crime Reports and the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General's Crime in Hawaii: A Review of Uniform Crime Reports. …