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Social Constructionism and the Media
Social constructionism is a mechanism, or method, that shapes one’s perception of society and reality. The three types of recognized reality include experienced reality, symbolic reality, and socially constructed reality. Experienced reality refers to the events that an individual directly experiences. Although this type of experience is limited, it may have a powerful impact on one’s constructed reality. For example, the media may portray a certain type of person in a particular way, such as referring to teenagers as delinquents, while the individual has a different constructed reality of teenagers through direct experience.
Symbolic experience refers to the events that an individual did not directly experience, though the individual believes them to be true because he or she has gathered the facts from indirect sources. For example, an individual may believe that there are people suffering in undeveloped nations because they were informed through the media and other sources, rather than actually witnessing it in person.
Socially constructed reality is a combination of experienced reality and symbolic reality. It is what an individual determines to be true and valid about the world by using both direct and indirect experience. Individuals who share environments or are close in proximity to one another share more similar socially constructed realities than individuals living in completely different areas of the globe. This is because individuals that share environments are subjected to mostly the same information, via the media and otherwise, and may also have similar experienced realities.
The media plays a large role in the process of social constructionism as it serves as a key outlet for entertainment and information. The information that individuals are subjected to greatly influences their perception of the world. Individuals are not always able to directly experience events and, thus, they must depend on other means to provide the experience they are unable to obtain directly.
Surette (2007) lists four stages of social constructionism utilized by the media. Stage one embodies the elements, conditions, and properties that constitute the physical world. This stage serves as a foundation for social constructionism because claims and theories that contradict aspects of the physical world are disregarded, and stage two cannot be reached.
In stage two institutions compete for credibility, often with conflicting claims such as “guns are bad,” or “guns protect us.”
The media play their most influential role during the third stage (Surette, 2007). In this stage, the media acts as a filter by allowing certain claims and social themes to be broadcasted or reported, while others are essentially shoved to the side. The media prefers dramatic events and situations; therefore, the media may be biased in choosing what will be presented to the public.
Finally, in stage four, a dominant social construction prevails and ultimately directs public policy. In reference to the criminal justice system, the socially constructed reality will influence the ways in which individuals and situations are handled in criminal procedures. An example is that of gay marriages: although illegal in many other places, it is not illegal in Canada because of the shifting social construction that has influenced our legal system into adjusting the law to fit with newly forming social constructions.
The sentence “the ultimate social importance of social constructionism is found in its implication for criminal justice policy” (pp.51) refers to how social constructionism on behalf of the media influences our legal system. That is, the way in which the media portrays certain crimes has an effect on our social construction of crimes. The most important impact of social constructionism imposed by the media, as suggested by Surette, is that it influences individuals to oppose or support certain policies of the criminal justice system. This can occur even though their only source of information is biased media outlets. For instance, if the media dramatizes or negatively over exaggerates certain crimes while the criminal justice system is lenient with regards to that particular crime, individuals may oppose the current policies and demand stricter ones.
Surette, R. (2007). Media, crime, and criminal justice: images, realities, and policies (3rd ed.). (pp. 31-56). Belmont: Thomson.