Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Mass-Mediated Hyper-reality of Crime

The CSI franchise, the Law & Order franchise, the NCIS franchise (will there be a new show, NCIS: Port to Port?), these are businesses that sell fiction as closely related to criminology as Star Trek is to physics. 

We know rationally that few human problems as intense as marriage and murder can be solved in 54 minutes.  The telescoping of time is a convenience for storytelling.  The real problem with crime fiction is that it obscures basic truths by projecting startling anomolies as real.  Corporate executives do not kill each other - in real life, deaths come from corporate irresponsibility and the victims are anonymous and many.  When "the boys in the hood" kill each other over drugs, we do not see who owns the airplanes (and submarines) that bring the stuff in.  More to the point, it is not necessary for the poor to commit homicide to go to prison.  According to University of Michigan law professor, Samuel R. Gross,  as many as 80,000 people have been wrongfully imprisoned in the past generation. They were not corporate executives framed for murder. 

It is also true that, generally, at the time a so-called "first offender" first makes a court appearance he has committed about 30 previous felonies for which he was either not caught or otherwise avoided consequences. 

In order to separate fact from fiction, it is important to define the crimes, harms, actors and circumstances.

Generally, any police chief will tell you that 80% of the problems come from 20% of the addresses in any neighborhood.  The sons of lawyers, doctors and accountants are just as likely to shoot out street lights with a pellet gun as the friends they don't have across town.  Their fathers are just as likely to strike their mothers or abuse their cousins.  The difference is in the response of the criminal justice system - even as the ultimate response (doing nothing) may be the same. 

On the other hand, when a series of burglaries is reported and when the neighborhood calls the city council representative to get action from the police, the response is widely different across neighborhoods.  In the suburbs, useless patrols roll through the subdivisions more often.  In the city, "known offenders" are rounded up and charged with crimes.

For the accused youth in the suburbs, there are more resources.  Plea bargaining is not a matter of choosing jail over prison by admitting to crimes they did not commit so that the police can "clear" a string of reported harms.

And we are talking about youths. Burglary, shoplifting, petty drugs, graffiti, and vandalism are the crimes of youth - and most offenders simply age out of crime.  Marriage, family, work, and overall maturity take a toll on the headstrong and carefree. 

But that does not make a good TV franchise.

 In the city much retail business is "off the books."   Plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, and beauticians are among the many productive people who look "unemployed" to the authorities.  The businesses themselves are illegal, being unlicensed.  Making an honest living is against the law.  Again, that does not play well on TV or in the movies.

When gangs of toughs shake down neighborhood merchants, we call that a shake down.  When Goldman Sachs extracts a $12.9 billion dollars from the people of the United States, we call that quantitative easing.

As a result of the mass-media distortions that reflect back to us the reflected images we sent back to them, among the most common fears of crime is among old, white women in the suburbs who watch out for serial cannibals. It is unlikely that the neighborhood librarian poisoned her nephew to prevent him from coming out.  However, it is likley that she has been visited by federal agents wanting to know who is reading which books.  That, too, is a story that does not play well on television crime franchises.

Eastern Michigan University professor of criminology Gregg Barak is responsible for several innovations in the sociology of crime.  Most recently, he and his collaborators, Prof. Young S. Kim, and Hon. Donald E. Shelton, published a series of papers on the "CSI Effect"  (summary here.).  Among Dr. Barak's other investigations is "newsmaking criminology" the relationship between the mass media and the reality of crime. 

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