Understanding Public Views of Youth Crime and the Youth Justice System

By Sprott, Jane B. | Canadian Journal of Criminology, July 1996 | Go to article overview
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Understanding Public Views of Youth Crime and the Youth Justice System

Sprott, Jane B., Canadian Journal of Criminology

Public views and media coverage of the youth justice system have not been examined to the same degree as has the adult justice system (Doob, Marinos, and Varma 1995). Public opinion of the youth justice system is important, however, because it can affect the policy agenda. For example, the 1993 Liberal political agenda for young offenders appeared in some cases to be informed more by public concerns than by identifiable problems in the way in which adolescents are processed by the youth justice system. In the Liberal Party's 1993 policy document, the party listed as a problem the "clearing" of a youth's record after he or she turned 18 (Liberal Party of Canada 1993: 4). It incorrectly implied that all young people with a youth court record for violence could present themselves as first offenders if they were to appear in adult court at age 18(2). Because public concern may have an impact on the reform process, it is important to understand the public image of youth crime, and to understand the public's main source of information about youth crime - the mass media.

Not only do the news media shape people's understanding of the world, but they also shape the nature of our society. Although the news media play a paramount role in constructing the reality of social phenomena for the public, the reality constructed by the news media discourse may not necessarily reflect other images of reality. By virtue of the need to sell newspapers, journalists reporting news must interpret reality and tell stories as opposed to simply reflecting reality or gathering facts. Therefore, a reporter chooses, and then shapes and defines, events to make useful news media presentations (Ericson, Baranek, and Chan 1987).

Through the act of choosing to report particular events and then constructing those events in journalistic terms, information is presented in one particular way, thereby precluding other avenues of interpretation. The result is not a straightforward presentation of the facts, but the facts modified to the style of the particular news outlet. This has the potential to shape news-media discourse in two ways. First, an unrepresentative, but "newsworthy", selection of stories is presented. Second, and more subtly, a reporter's focus in the story determines which facts are conveyed, and how those facts are depicted.

Range of cases. The reporter, or others in the media organization, must first select which stories to report because it is not possible to present all types of stories in the media. This is one way in which the purposive focus of reporting provides a particular view of society. In an examination of criminal offenses reported in Canadian newspapers, Doob (1985) found that most of the offenses reported were crimes of violence. Indeed, compared to police statistics, the newspapers over-represented serious violent crimes.

The unrepresentative range of crimes reported in the media may contribute to public misperceptions of crime. People may realize that the media will only cover unusual or important news, but they do not weigh this adequately in their judgement of the frequency of crimes in society. The public overestimates the amount of serious crime and perceives crime to be increasing (Doob and Roberts 1988). For example, homicide rates were relatively high in the mid 1970's, but since the abolition of capital punishment in 1976, homicide rates have stayed the same, or declined slightly (Fedorowycz 1994; Figure 1). However, the majority of the public believed, in the mid-1980's, that murders had increased since the abolition of capital punishment (Doob and Roberts 1988.

Focus of story. The focus of a story - which facts are reported and emphasized - is also important. If the media focus on the criminal act, other important facts such as characteristics of the offender, the charge, and the disposition eventually imposed may be omitted. These ignored facts may be important if the public is to understand the event in its entirety and be able to evaluate whether the case was properly handled by the justice system.

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