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Youth Gangs in the Twenty-First Century: Back to the Future, Part III

This is the third in a series of blogs adapted from the 4th edition of Youth Gangs in American Society by Shelden along with Sharon Tracy and William Brown (Cengage, 2013).

After many years of little coverage of the subject, public concern about gangs was reinvented during the 1980s and continues today. The rediscovery of gangs has been augmented by an escalation of media presentations about youth gang activities—particularly those gangs located within America’s inner cities. The media have experienced great success in raising the public’s level of fear about youth gangs. Gangs are a hot topic in the media with the amount of coverage increasing tremendously during the past two decades, although with some fluctuations to be sure. Two gang researchers have noted that during the 1980s “newspapers, television, and films were suddenly awash with images of gun-toting, drug-dealing, hat-to-the-back gangstas. With the hue and cry came a massive mobilization of resources. Federal, state, and local funds were allocated to create anti-gang units in law enforcement and prosecution agencies.” Then came the rapid deployment of technology, databases and the proliferation of gang experts (typically police officers or former gang members), and all across the country, they went spreading the word that gangs were everywhere. “In public schools across the country, gang awareness and resistance techniques were incorporated into the curriculum, gang-related clothing banned from campuses, and teachers instructed on how to identify gang members and spot concealed weapons.”

According to an analysis of the Reed Nexis Database, the number of articles on the subject of gangs between 1983 and 1994 increased from a mere 36 references in 1983 to more than 1,300 in 1994. Then there was a downward trend in media coverage in the late 1990s, picking up again by the 2000s. According to the National Gang Center between 2003 and May, 2011 there have been 14,336 news reports on the subject of gangs. This averages out to about 1,365 per year.

Regardless of media coverage, surveys of law-enforcement agencies indicate steady growth in the number of gangs and the number of gang members. This demonstrates that media reporting of events does not always conform to reality, as demonstrated by many studies of the mass media (e.g., Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent).

While media coverage has obviously declined since a peak in the mid-1990s, the number of gangs, gang members, and gang-related crimes, according to every estimate from official sources, has actually increased (see more information later in this introduction). In fact, media coverage of most major topics rarely conforms to reality but rather conforms to the need for profits. There is abundant research showing how the media portray a reality according to the perceptions of groups in power who control the media. The famous phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an appropriate way of expressing this point. Media coverage of most major topics rarely conforms to the importance of an issue to the community; instead, it conforms to the need for profits. One of the major roles of the corporate-dominated media is to divert the public’s attention away from real problems and to keep them entertained.

Keywords: gangs, media, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog

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