Media Use and its Impacts on Crime Perception, Sentencing Attitudes and Crime Policy

Published date01 July 2005
Date01 July 2005
Subject MatterArticles
Media Use and its Impacts on Crime
Perception, Sentencing Attitudes and
Crime Policy
Christian Pfeiffer
Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, Germany
Michael Windzio
Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, Germany
Matthias Kleimann
Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony, Germany
The German statistics of police-recorded crime show a decline in total offences
over the 10 years up to 2003. In contrast to that trend, survey-based evidence
shows that the German public believes or assumes, on balance, that crime has
increased. Moreover, the proportion of people who are in favour of tougher
sentencing has increased, and multivariate analyses show that the belief that
crime is rising is the factor most strongly associated with a preference for stiffer
penalties. Further analysis of survey data shows that the pattern of television
viewing is associated with the belief that crime is rising. This pattern of results
suggests that television broadcasts that include fictional or factual treatment of
crime stimulate this biased perception of reality. The article discusses the
significance of these findings for national and international developments in
crime policy.
Crime Policy / Media / Public Perceptions of Crime.
Volume 2 (3): 259–285: 1477-3708
DOI: 101177/1477370805054099
Copyright © 2005 European Society of
Criminology and SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks CA, and New Delhi
Media use and its impacts on crime perception,
sentencing attitudes and crime policy
In democratic societies, crime policy and its management by parliaments
and ministries largely depends on trends in crime. If, over a prolonged
period, the media report strong upward trends in the number of crimes
committed and if the public debate on crime focuses on spectacular, serious
crimes, policy makers come under heavy pressure to increase statutory
punishments and tighten the rules of procedure for criminal prosecutions.1
The courts in turn feel duty bound to hand out tougher sentences2– passed
in the name of the people, their judgements are meant to reflect public
opinion.3The question thus arises as to whether long periods of either
dwindling or stable crime figures allow policy makers and the courts to
soften punishments for specific offences and to place, for example, the
notion of offender-victim compensation and offender resocialization at the
There is thus every reason to raise awareness of the relationship
between the media and perceptions of crime. The German Police Crime
Statistics for the last 10 years have indicated a strong downward trend in
the number of crimes that people perceive as very threatening or generally
worrying. There has been a 45 percent reduction both in the number of
break-ins in private homes and in bank robberies. In the past 10 years, the
number of murders has dropped by around 41 percent. Car thefts are down
by as much as 70 percent. While other offences like fraud have increased,
there has been a slight overall reduction in the number of crimes recorded
since 1993.4In the light of our ageing society, this hardly comes as a
surprise. In the past decade, the 18 to 30 age group – a group which in
1993, for example, made up almost half of all crime suspects – has shrunk
1A topical example in Germany is the debate about increasing juvenile violence and the
proposals adopted by a majority in the Bundesrat (upper house of parliament) to toughen the
criminal law response to crimes by 14 to 21-year-old offenders; see Bundesrats-Drucksache
15/1472 (Bundesrat bill based on motion 2138/04 brought by the states of Saxony, Bavaria,
Hessen, Lower Saxony and Thuringia).
2From a recent example in Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung 26 May 2004, 4.
3See the interview given on this question by Professor Winfried Hassemer, Vice President of
the German Federal Constitutional Court, in Zeitschrift f¨ur Rechtspolitik (2004: 93–4). He
stressed that one purpose of sentencing is to ‘accommodate popular sentencing demands’ and,
further, that ‘the state does well to heed’ such demands. He qualified this sweeping statement
later on, however: ‘Judges should not mirror public opinion, of course, but they must be
mindful of it’. Dreher (1967: 42 ff.) justified such a stance as follows: ‘Judges, bound up in the
spirit of the times, are meant to prevent mob rule and lynch justice by channelling and taming
public sentencing demands’; see also Streng (2002: 14).
4See German Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt), Police Crime Statistics
260 European Journal of Criminology 2(3)

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