Framing and Cultivating the Story of Crime

Date01 June 2018
AuthorPatrick Habecker,Lisa A. Kort-Butler
Publication Date01 June 2018
CJR710696 127..146 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(2) 127-146
Framing and Cultivating the
ª 2017 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
Story of Crime: The Effects of
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817710696
Media Use, Victimization, and
Social Networks on Attitudes
About Crime
Lisa A. Kort-Butler1 and Patrick Habecker1
The current study extended prior research by considering the effects of media, victimization, and
network experiences on attitudes about crime and justice, drawing on the problem frame, culti-
vation, real-word, and interpersonal diffusion theses. Data were from a survey of Nebraska adults
(n ¼ 550) who were asked about their social networks; beliefs about media reliability; use of
newspaper and news on TV, radio, and the Internet; and exposure to violence on TV, movies, and
the Internet. Results indicated that viewing TV violence predicted worry and anger about crime.
Believing the media are a reliable source of information about crime predicted more anger and more
support for the justice system. Personal and network members’ victimization was also linked to
attitudes. Other network contacts, including knowing police or correctional officers or knowing
someone who had been arrested or incarcerated, had limited effects. The results support the
problem frame and cultivation theses in that media framing and media consumption influence atti-
tudes about crime, as do certain real-world experiences.
media, crime, social networks
The role of media in the construction and proliferation of crime images has been illustrated across
several types of media, particularly the news media. Research has generally demonstrated the effect
of media consumption on public attitudes about crime and justice, such as misperceptions about the
extent of crime (Lowry, Nio, & Leitner, 2003), fear (Chiricos, Padgett, & Gertz, 2000), anger
(Johnson, 2009), and policy support (Rosenberger & Callanan, 2011). This research, however, has
also revealed that the effects of media may be conditioned by factors like audience characteristics
(Eschholz, Chiricos, & Gertz, 2003) or the genre of media examined (Kort-Butler & Sittner Harts-
horn, 2011). Less research has given simultaneous attention to other personal factors that may
1 Department of Sociology, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA
Corresponding Author:
Lisa A. Kort-Butler, Department of Sociology, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 718 Oldfather Hall, PO Box 0324, Lincoln,
NE 68588, USA.

Criminal Justice Review 43(2)
influence an individual’s knowledge and attitudes about crime and justice issues. Individuals’
experiences with the criminal justice system, as well as the experiences and composition of their
social networks, may also be influential (Pickett, Mancini, Mears, & Getz, 2015).
Accordingly, people’s knowledge or understanding about crime and justice comes from at least
three sources: the media, personal experiences, and the experiences of others in their social net-
works. Despite this, the degree to which information derived from these sources impacts attitudes
about crime and justice has not been fully explored. The current study provided insight into this issue
by examining the effects of these three knowledge sources on attitudes about crime, including worry
and anger about crime, and support for the criminal justice system.
In this article, we first consider how the media socially construct the crime problem and the
implications of that imagery for people’s attitudes about crime and justice, highlighting the problem
frame thesis (Altheide, 1997). Next, we outline the contributions of media consumption, personal
experiences, and social network experiences to attitudes about crime. In doing so, we highlight the
cultivation paradigm (Signorielli, Gerbner, & Morgan, 1995), the real-world thesis (Weitzer &
Kubrin, 2004), the interpersonal diffusion thesis (Romer, Jamieson, & Aday, 2003), and the sub-
stitution and resonance theses (Eschholz et al., 2003). Using a data from a survey mailed to a random
sample of Nebraska adults (analytic n ¼ 550), the analyses explored how news consumption,
exposure to media violence, personal victimization, victimization of social network members,
employment of network members in the justice system, and involvement of network members in
the justice system influenced respondents’ worries and anger about crime as well as their support for
the criminal justice system. Results point to the complex yet overarching impact of media consump-
tion on attitudes about crime and justice.
Media Images and the Crime Problem
Although empirical research is somewhat equivocal about whether the media react to or directly
motivate public opinion about crime and justice (Frost, 2010), recent analyses demonstrate that on a
broad level, reporting about crime and the tone of that reporting has influenced public punitiveness
over time (Enns, 2016). The media are a means through which cultural images about crime are
disseminated and reinforced as well as a means by which criminal justice policy debates are shaped
(Barlow, Barlow, & Chiricos, 1995; Cavender, 2004). The media play a prominent role in socially
constructing and shaping ideology about crime and its control in ways that generally uphold the
status quo (Dotter, 2002; Surette, 1998). Most people have little to no direct experience with street
crime; therefore, they must rely on other sources for information about crime, victimization, and the
response of the justice system (Chermak, 1994; Surette, 2003).
The media are often considered the public’s primary frame of reference for issues of crime and
control. The media focus public attention on certain types of criminal events and offer interpreta-
tions for how to understand them (Barak, 1994; Eschholz, 1997). The rarity and severity of crimes
drive media presentations such that the characteristics of crime, criminals, and victims represented
in the media are frequently the opposite of the pattern demonstrated in official crime statistics
(Pollak & Kubrin, 2007) and tend to fit cultural stereotypes (Gruenewald, Chermak, & Pizarro,
2013). Furthermore, across various television genres, crime and justice issues are frequently framed
by the ideologies supportive of the punitive crime control policies that emerged in the later part of
the 20th century (Cavender & Fishman, 1998; Eschholz, Mallard, & Flynn, 2004; Welsh, Fleming,
& Dowler, 2011).
The news media have also been central to the process of constructing the social reality of crime
(Chiricos et al., 2000). Altheide (1997) argued that the process of problem framing in the news
media acts as a primer on crime and justice by providing tools that consumers can use to interpret
information and events. According to the problem frame thesis, the media inform the audience that

Kort-Butler and Habecker
some situation is undesirable, many people are affected by it, and the main contributing factors are
identifiable. Further, the media employ “expert” commentaries who are most often political or
criminal justice figures and rarely academic researchers (Buckler, Griffin, & Travis, 2008; Frost
& Phillips, 2011). Such experts tend to reiterate existing narratives in detailing how the problem can
be changed and what mechanisms exist to change it. They serve to remind the audience that we as a
society already have agents and procedures in place to remedy the problem. This problem frame thus
becomes a resource that the audience can use to interpret subsequent information about crime.
The discourse embedded in the problem frame has come to center on the malevolent individual
uninhibited by social rules and moral values with whom law-abiding people cannot identify
(Cavender, 2004; Surette, 1998), while emphasizing innocent or vulnerable victims (Bjornstrom,
Kaufman, Peterson, & Slater, 2010; Lundman, 2003). Consequently, the discourse that pervades the
media promotes anxiety about violent crime, while encouraging public reliance on existing struc-
tures for formal social control (Altheide & Michalowski, 1999; Green, 2009). Indeed, research has
demonstrated that media consumption influences how people think about issues related to crime.
Media consumption, across several genres, is linked to support for more punitive policies and
support for law enforcement (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011; Kleck & Jackson, 2016; Pickett &
Barber, 2014; Rosenberger & Callanan, 2011).
Media Consumption, Personal Experiences, and Social Networks
The problem frame thesis and other insights into the social construction of crime in the media
describe how the story of crime is crafted in such way as to shape, even distort, how people think
and feel about crime. When it comes to crime and justice issues, constructed as they are to over-
emphasize extraordinary street crimes, criminals, and victims, research has frequently focused on
fear, anxiety, or worry. Given the high levels of violence in American television, the cultivation
thesis asserts that heavy television viewing engenders fear, mistrust, and perceptions that the world
is a dangerous place (Gerbner, 1970; Signorielli et al., 1995). Early work with the Cultural Indicators
Project confirmed the thesis (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
As research has evolved, the relationship between television consumption and attitudes about
crime, particularly fear, remains equivocal (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2015). Some studies have
documented an association between...

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