Impact of the media on the perception of crime

by / July 7, 2008

Stephanie Fisher is doing her Master’s thesis on the impact of the media on society’s perception of crime.

Her study is carried out by providing subjects with one of two questionnaires presenting offending from two opposing standpoints. The offender is presented to the respondent as either a ‘moral stranger’ or ‘fellow traveller’, and Fisher is looking to see how that affects the respondent’s reaction.

The ‘moral stranger’ is someone who is “outside of society, and … society doesn’t want back in”, and the ‘fellow traveller’ is a “fellow human being who has done something wrong, but should actually be accepted back into society.” Subjects will be presented with one or the other, and asked questions regarding the perception of causation and the appropriate level of punishment.

The two questionnaires typify something approaching a subject/object distinction. The subject (the fellow traveller) is shown as “one of us” – a person who has done a bad thing, but with whom the reader is encouraged to identify – whereas the object (the moral stranger) is “a bad person who has done these bad things, and it’s because of them, not because of situational circumstances.”

The distinctions are designed to be subtle: the friends of the moral stranger in the questionnaire are unsurprised at his offending, unlike the fellow traveller, and the moral stranger does not believe his actions to have been wrong in the circumstances, whereas the fellow traveller is repentant. The fellow traveller uses his intoxication as an explanation for his actions, whereas the moral stranger considers that his belief in the victim’s consent excuses him.

The questionnaire is divided into several sets of questions. Some questions are essentially a ‘control group’: questions like severity and the likelihood of reoccurrence, which are designed so that the moral stranger will rate higher. But Fisher also expects that there will be more subtle differences, showing a bias in people’s minds against the moral stranger. For example, Fisher expects that respondents will perceive the moral stranger as less likely to benefit from rehabilitation, although that is not loaded within the question.

Fisher believes that the print and television media present accounts of crime that are closer to the moral stranger view than the fellow traveller. If the biases show up strongly in her study, it is likely that they occur to a lesser extent in society as a whole. If this is the case, it would have implications for public policy. In terms of Corrections, “the government is there to do what the public wants… If the public has a more punitive view than they should, then that will impact it. But also if the government thinks that the public has a more punitive view, even if they don’t, which is often what happens, then they will be putting policy into place that isn’t actually beneficial to the offenders [or] to the community in general when they get released.”

Fisher was motivated in her choice of this topic by an interest in offenders in general, and “looking at them from a human rights perspective”, considering what is appropriate for both the government and society at large to deal with them, but also by a wider interest in the effects of the media on perception.

Fisher is philosophical about the potential impact of her study. “Do I think the media would [pay attention]? No,” Fisher laughs. “I mean it would be nice to say that they would! I just finished reading a paper … that said that the media needs to portray sex offenders in a more accurate light. That they don’t recidivate as much as everyone thinks they do. That’s never gonna happen.”

“[But] in terms of policy, it could eventually perhaps have an impact. If the government can be made to realise that the policy that they’re putting in place doesn’t actually reflect the empirical data that’s there, nor the actual public attitudes that are there, then that could have an effect, but I don’t think you can ever change the media.”

In particular, Fisher wants to show that the creation of sex offender notification laws where released sex offenders must notify the communities into which they move of their history, not only is restrictive from a human rights perspective, but actually makes no difference on the chance of reoffending. “There is no empirical data that says that it makes the community safer … and it’s just not going to be helpful.”

“That’s where all my ideas stem from. The fact that an offender has obviously done a bad thing, but they’re not necessarily a bad person… Some people just cannot be reintegrated into society; that’s reality. But the vast majority, probably 99 point-something per cent, can be. But if you don’t give them treatment … and don’t try and reintegrate them, then of course they’re going to come out [of prison] and reoffend.”

Stephanie Fisher holds a BSc in psychology, and a BCA in commercial law from Victoria University

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