Nirmal Maraj and Dr Dylan Kerrigan
The ongoing efforts of Operation Strike Back and the recent declaration of a “red alert” by the Commissioner of Police have resulted in the detention of several “gang leaders” who live in so-called “hotspot” communities.
In their reports on these increased policing measures, the commissioner has lambasted the media in TT for their “biased coverage” that leads to the “glorification of the gang-mentality.”
Referencing a recent operation in the Beetham for example, the commissioner criticised the media for “giving attention” to the residents of these communities. The commissioner also went on to say that, “Nowhere else in the world does the media give so much prominence to persons of interest.”
Of course the media and in particular editors and journalists have a role to play in how they report crime and must be responsible in this, including being critical of the processes they engage in to construct and shape news.
Yet how true are these statements by the commissioner? What actual content analysis of our national newspapers has the commissioner done? What evidence does he have to support his supposed statement of fact? Is it actually true numerically that the media gives more attention to community members and residents over the police and politicians?
Or is the commissioner speaking of personal anecdote as fact? We would love to know.
In our recent local study examining 121 newspaper articles on violent crime during a three-month period in 2017, it was discovered that newspaper reports of crime in TT are most often constructed by relying heavily on state-affiliated sources. In particular, police officials were the “primary definers” or the dominant sources utilised by journalists and newspaper editors when constructing local crime stories and shaping the local news agenda.
This evidence from TT is not new or something only found here either. In the UK, during the early 1980s for example, the late Stuart Hall, a Jamaican-born sociologist, along with several of his colleagues at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, wrote about the “mugging” crisis in UK society.
Hall and others noted then, that often, the media as a body acts as a tool of the criminal justice system in the criminalisation of different social groups and setting the initial definition of a social problem. That is, in terms of frequency, the sources the media rely upon most when reporting on crime are the police, lawyers, judges and politicians. These sources are consulted most by virtue of their powerful positions. They are seen as being legitimate and truthful.
At first glance, that the media rely on the authorities of course makes sense. Who else, if not the police, is best qualified to speak about crime?
Yet one of the fundamental aims of sociology and the sociological imagination is to question such simplistic thinking and reveal how the operations of social power in society unfold and, in the case of the media, shape those voices the public see as legitimate in defining the causes and solutions to society’s problems.
For example, over at least the last two governments in TT, police officials and politicians have often spoken about crime as a “war.”
Furthermore, the current commissioner can be accused of seeing the social problem of crime as a “bad people problem” rather than the consequences of longstanding problems of cumulative social inequalities created in the administration of capitalism under successive government policies stretching back to before independence.
A metaphor of war makes it easy to depict some actors as villains and others as heroes.
However, sociology does not understand social problems in this way. Social problems aren’t black and white dilemmas that can be solved simply by eliminating an entire group of people from a society.
Dealing with and solving social problems entails an examination of the underlying structural and historical forces that feed into them. It requires seeing that bad people are consequences of the capitalist system and the social problems it creates, rather than that bad people are the cause of society’s social problems.
This means that part of the process of understanding social problems involves the media giving a voice to the voiceless. This is not “giving attention” to “gangsters” and “criminals.”
Rather, it allows for a fuller picture of the issues and context to emerge. We then start to realise it is not simply a glorification of gang life that is at stake here, it is also a problem of glorifying militarised police violence as the best solution to tackling TT’s long-term social problems.
* Nirmal Maraj and Dr Dylan
Kerrigan are members of the UWI Sociology Unit.