Saturday, July 18, 2015

Get it, Got it, Good? Media interpretation and sexual harm

This week in the British media we have numerous reports about paedophilia and individuals who commit sexual harm against children, with the news (BBC 4, BBC and the Guardian) focusing on the work of Dunklefeld as well as Circles of Support and Accountability. In the main these reports are good news stories focusing on the work that Dunklefeld does in preventing sexual harm while recognizing that we as a society, as well as individually, maybe uncomfortable with the story being done.  These media reports emphases two important things to me,

-   firstly, that media engagement is as important, if not more important, in changing social perceptions and attitudes towards sexual harm than the research and practice work that we all engage in; and

-          secondly, that we are starting to see a shift in the type of sexual harm stories that the media cover and a change in the language as well as the approach that they use.

The media plays a central role in modern society (Mc Quail, 2010). The media is still the main method for the dissemination of information, the shaping of public perception and the reinforcement of societal attitudes (Greer, 2012).  Meaning that the media can have a great deal of power and influence, in that it can shape and influence public opinion, while at the same time inform society in a quick in-depth fashion that legitimizes the subject, thereby re-establishing the credibility of the story (Mc Quail, 2010). Research suggests that the public engage with the media, especially the press, in a number of different ways, to either shape, reinforce or consolidate their existing opinions as well as to shape new ones (Howitt, 1998; McQuail, 2010; Bohner and Wanke 2009); however, the impact of the media upon the public depends upon the reader, the story and the credibility of the source (Bohner and Wanke 2009). This suggests that the media can affect attitudes through a series of psychological and sociological processes including, but not limited to, stereotyping, group processes and norm reinforcement. Which suggests that there seems to be a relationship between the media and the public, with the public selecting its media based upon personal preference and the media producing public interest stories (Cohen and Young, 1981; Howitt, 1998; Gamson, Croteau, Haynes & Sassoon, 1992), as such indicating a repetitive cycle with it’s between the media and target audience which results in the reporting as well as creating the news (Cohen & Young, 1981).

This interrelationship between the media, the public and the state is best crystallized through the medias’ representation of crime. One of the most significant and prevalent media stories and moral panics of recent years has been that of paedophilia (Silverman & Wilson, 2002); traditionally the media has helped to construct this through this frequency (Greer, 2012; Critcher, 2002), selectively, negative language and format with it discusses paedophilia (Silverman & Wilson, 2002; Thomas, 2005; McAlinden, 2006). This means that the media has often misrepresented and misunderstood the complexity of paedophilia tending to discuss it in one-dimensional, simplistic and stereotypical terms (Thomas, 2005; McCartan, 2010). This media misrepresentation is problematic as it works to weaken public understandings and social awareness resulting in an inappropriate and a skewed social construction of the realities of paedophilia. However, as previously stated this seems to be starting to change with a range of articles and shows taking about the complexity and reality of sexual harm from This American Life to the recent Dunklefeld stories. These considered  approaches to sexual harm stories (another example, published today, is how much consideration is given to victims of sexual harm when publishing new sexual harm stories and a consideration of Trigger Warnings)means that insightful and appropriate messages are going into the public domain, this does not mean that public attitudes will shift overnight (that’s another story for a another day), planting the seed for an informed debate. This realistic conversation about the nature of sexual harm; who perpetrates sexual harm; who are victims of sexual harm and the impact that it has on them; as well as sexual perpetrator prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration. One positive conservation leads to a raft of other positive conversations. Therefore the media should be congratulated and worked with us by academics, professionals and practitioners in the sexual harm field (an approach advocated via Public Criminology with precedent in Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland and HMP Whatton) to help develop these stories, changes in narrative and new approaches to sexual harm.

Kieran McCartan, PhD


Bohner, G. and Wanke, M. (2009) ‘The psychology of attitudes and persuasion’, in J. Wood, and T. Gannon (eds) Public Opinion and Criminal Justice. Cullumpton: Willan.

Cohen, S. and Young, J. (1981) The manufacture of news: social problems, deviance and the mass media. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications.

Critcher, C. (2002) ‘Media, Government and Moral Panic: the politics of paedophilia in Britain 2000-1’, Journalism Studies, 3: 521-35.

Gamson, W. A., Croteau, D., Hoynes, W. and Sasson, T. (1992) ‘Media images and the construction of reality’, Annual Review of Sociology, 18: 373-93.

Greer, C. (2012) Sex crime and the media: Sex offending and the press in a divided society. Cullumpton; Willan.

Howitt, D. (1998) Crime, the media and the law. Chichester: Wiley.

McAlinden, A. (2006) ‘Managing Risk: From regulation to the reintegration of sexual offenders’, Criminology & Criminal Justice, 6: 197-218.

McCartan, K. (2010) Media constructions and reactions to, paedophilia in modern society. In: Harrison, K., ed. (2010) Managing High-Risk Sex Offenders in the Community: Risk Management, Treatment and Social Responsibilities. Willan Publishing, pp. 248-268.

McQuail, D. (2010) Mass Communication Theory, 6th Edition. London: Sage Publications.

Silverman, J., and Wilson, D. (2002) Innocence Betrayed: Paedophilia, the media & society. Cambridge: Polity.

Thomas, T. (2005) Sex Crime: Sex Offending and Society, 2nd edition. Cullompton: Willan.

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