Crime and Punishment: News media should focus less on crime and more on punishment

If you have read Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, you must have noticed that the story is less about the crime, and more about the punishment. It is another matter that the punishment that Raskolnikov goes through is less about jurisprudence and more about morality and religiosity. But the point is, I would again like to stress, the book is less about the crime and more about the punishment.

Is our society obsessed with crime while we care little about punishment?

It seems so, the way instances of crimes are covered by our news media. Whenever a heinous crime takes place there is “Breaking News” everywhere, tickers are running for hours talking about the same crime again and again and ominous-sounding news anchors repeatedly declare that a particular crime has been committed and how our civilization is at the precipice of destruction. Even in newspapers and magazines, there are screaming headlines when a repulsive or a rarest of the rare sort of crime takes place.

Recently the Zee TV anchor Sudhir Chaudhary, while interviewing UP’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, highlighted how the number of crimes seems to have increased, and if not increased, at least they haven’t decreased, despite reduction of crime being one of the major election issues on which the BJP government fought elections this time. He cited various instances of crimes that have taken place ever since the new government took charge.

Yogi Adityanath repeatedly stressed that although crimes haven’t stopped yet, the big difference now is that people are being arrested. There is a lesser chance of a person escaping punishment after committing a crime than under the previous government.

Sudhir Chaudhary acted as if it wasn’t even an issue — people being arrested for their crimes — because the bigger issue for him (him being a generic representation of the news media mentality) was that the crimes are happening. Yogi Adityanath repeatedly mentioned that people are now being arrested for committing crimes but Sudhir Chaudhary kept mentioning one crime after another as if he wasn’t even listening to the Chief Minister.

This is a prevalent tendency among all TV news channels and journalists. Whereas they scream from the rooftops when a crime takes place, when criminals are nabbed and punished, it is mentioned just in the passing unless the issue is taken up by human rights activists and debates take place regarding whether a particular group of criminals should be punished or not. Or if it is a high-profile case like the Nitish Katara or even the Jessica Lal murder case.

As a society, I feel that we should talk more of punishment and less of crime. I’m not saying that we should completely ignore the crimes happening around us because we need to know in what sort of environment we are living. But I believe that when we constantly talk of crimes, somehow, it sends a signal to prospective criminals. It is called reaffirmation. It must trigger a mob mentality: if so many people are committing this crime, maybe we should too.

Crime, after all, is an activity, and just like an activity, people tend to indulge in an activity that is being indulged in by many others. It’s like, when a cricket match is going on and it is being broadcast, you find more kids playing cricket in the streets. The same happened when Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu became famous — you see more people playing badminton these days.

We lament the fact that rape crimes are increasing in the country. How do we know that? Because the media is constantly showing us that more and more rape crimes are happening in our cities, towns and villages. The more we hear about rape crimes on TV news channels, the deeper it is drilled into us that rape crimes are on the increase.

I’m not saying this is bad. Of course, if rape crimes are increasing we need to know about them. If there is a general increase in the number of crimes happening in our cities, towns and villages, we need to know so that if the law and order situation is not reliable, we can take measures to keep our families and loved ones safe. It is better to be scared out of your wits than be sorry later.

But this constant talk of heinous crimes being committed must also send signals of reaffirmation to what you may call a “sleeper” criminal. This might be a criminal who has a tendency to commit a crime but he is not sure whether he (I’m using he just for brevity, it can be she too) should go ahead with it or not. Then he sees in the news that there are many people indulging in the same act of crime that he would like to indulge in. He feels encouraged. He feels, he’s not the only one who has such dark desires; there are others too. If he is mentally sick, there are other mentally sick people also, so it isn’t as bad as he thought it was.

Such news also fills the minds of dormant criminals with the ideas of committing a heinous crime. Our news headlines are constantly telling these people how the same crime can be committed in different ways.

There might not be some sort of scientific data available to set a correlation between the reporting of such news and the increase in the crime rate, but there is a great chance that the constantly screaming headlines of crimes being committed do motivate criminals.

What should be done?

Crime is going to be reported and there is no escaping from it. People need to be informed. News these days is 24 x 7. They might be as many news channels these days as there are entertainment channels, and who knows, even more.

What these news channels and newspapers can do is, they can accompany these reports with the previous instances of people being nabbed by the police and the courts punishing those people. Even if such instances are not many, they can be repeated, with every new crime. The same old instance of a particular criminal being caught by the police and then punished, can be repeatedly shown with every new, similar crime.

To some extent, this will act as a dampener, like that warning message on cigarette packs or when someone on the screen smokes. Aside from the fact that a criminal may get the idea that since many people are committing a particular crime so he should also commit it, he will also get the message that when people committed such a crime, what happened to them.

Additionally, when people are punished for their crimes, this should also become stuff of headlines. Screaming anchors, just the way they talk about the crime, should also talk about the punishment. Seriously, they should also scream and tell people when a criminal is brought to book.

In fact, there should be dedicated programs on how criminals were caught and how it isn’t possible to escape when the law enforcement agencies work efficiently. The biggest stress of such programs should be that people get caught.

Right now, there is a general perception that only a few people get caught after committing crimes, and to a great extent this perception might be correct, but why constantly broadcast it, especially for the benefit of those who are just on the verge of committing a heinous crime?

This perception needs to be change. Whenever a criminal is punished, the news must be broadcast repeatedly. It should be like 20–80 ratio. Just devote 20% of the time to the crime and 80% should go towards covering how the person was caught and then how he was punished. This will create deterrence.

Social scientist and some law experts constantly complain that punishment is not a deterrence. I think the problem is not with the punishment, the problem is with the lack of coverage the punishment gets in the mainstream media.

A crime happens, there is a general pell-mell for a couple of days, and then everybody moves on to the next crime or the next controversy of the day or the week. The follow-up is rarely done unless it is another sort of controversy people can debate about and newspapers can publish about (for example, the Sunanda Pushkar murder case).

When the criminals are caught, when they are brought to book, it is simply mentioned in the passing. It should also become a big news. I’m not talking about Shashi Tharoor being arrested or Salman Khan being arrested because, the news then is less about the crime and the punishment and more about the individuals.

Punishment is as important as the crime and frankly, more important, because it shows us that a functional justice system exists, that there is a cause and effect. All prospective criminals must get a strong message that when they commit a crime, there is a great possibility that they will be caught. It is the responsibility of the news media to relay this strong message.

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