Knife Crime in the Spotlight: Media Narratives, Moral Panic, and the Dynamics of Criminal Justice Responses


The issue of knife crime has become a significant source of concern in the British media since 2008 when the media reports suggested that there is an unprecedented rise in knife crime (Squires, 2009). The crimes related to knife crime were reported predominantly from the inner city areas of London and were perceived to be disproportionately involving young black men as both victims and perpetrators of the crime (Squires, 2009). The media attention to knife crimes and the disproportionate reporting of these crimes raises the question of the possible building up of a moral panic related to knife crime, youth violence and urban safety (Squires, 2009). By extension of the discourse, it may have also contributed to the development of criminal justice measures involving youth justice system. The research question that this research seeks to answer is how media reports impact the formulation of moral panic around knife crime by exploring the perceptions on knife crime.

The terming of the knife crime as an ‘epidemic’ by some media sources may have added to the perception that there is indeed a significant rise in knife crime in some parts of England (Squires, 2009). In the last two years, there is a significant increase in knife crime with 2018 itself witnessing 7 percent increase (Humphreys, Degli Esposti, Gardner, & Shepherd, 2019). Recent literature has indicated an increase in knife crime (Densley, Deuchar, & Harding, 2020). However, does this amount to an epidemic or emergency relating to crime as reported by media is a question that needs to be explored further. In this regard, Lugo-Ocando and Brandão (2016) have noted that crime journalists often contribute to the creation of moral panic because of their lack of experience and knowledge on how to formulate crime statistics. This suggests that the problem may not have reached an epidemic like status yet. On the other hand, Mejias and Banaji (2019) argue that the media gives out conflicting representations of the youth, at times potraying them as vulnerable to radicalisation, exclusion or criminality, and at other times as digitally savvy service users.


This study seeks to explore the issue of knife crime from the perspective of moral panic and media reporting and the impact of the same on the criminal justice system of England and Wales. The approach to the study is based on the possibility that knife crime may not be a mere moral panic but something that may possibly be a correct depiction of the state of crime in the urban English societies; however, the possibility that it may be a moral panic created by disproportionate media reporting is also kept open. The basis of this is that moral panics are not based on actual evidence or data, but are dependent on ambiguous perceptions and notions (Squires, 2009). In this study, the theoretical context will be provided by the theory of moral panic, which is said to be created when there is an emergence of a threat to societal values and interests from a condition, episode, person or group of persons (Cohen, 1972).

Knife crime is a part of the discourse on youth crime, and there are studies that indicate that youth crime has become a part of the moral panic created by constant media reporting (Bright, 2015). Blackman and Wilson (2014) argue that media reports youth crime do not accurately depict the state of crime in the society and that the reports are often disproportionate increasing rather it is decreasing. This would mean that the extent and intensity of the media reports are often not commensurate with the actual scale of the problem (Blackman & Wilson, 2014). With specific relevance to knife crime, an empirical research conducted by Young, FitzGerald, Hallsworth, and Joseph (2008) indicated that “currently, there are no national trend data on knives available to support the growing concern (shared by professionals working with young people) about the extent to which knives are carried by 10 to 17 year-olds” (p. 3). In another empirical study by Wood (2010), the author presented the factual information about knife crime, including information on the victims and the perpetrators. The study argues that the state of knife crime has remained stable over time although media reports may point to the contrary (Wood, 2010).

One of the important aspects of knife crime reporting is also the use of the media reports by the government to generate public support for its programmes for youth justice system (Blackman & Wilson, 2014). Therefore, another angle for inquiry in this research is how the perceptions of knife crime created by media reports impact the support for such government measures. The argument that the government uses media reports to bolster support for its criminal justice programmes is also made by Pearson (2006) who argues that “what is wrong with government and media responses to youth crime and anti-social behaviour is its emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the problem, while losing its grip on the actual social and historical background” (Pearson, 2006, p. 7). Therefore, this is also a critical area of inquiry in this study.

Research methods

This research will use the qualitative research method including a desk based research study and interview methods for collecting data. Qualitative research method provides an open and flexible framework, allowing the researcher to explore and understand multiple narratives (Berg, et al., 2004). This research study being an exploration of the phenomenon of knife crime and moral panic surrounding the knife crime, is likely to have multiple narratives that are already reported in the current literature and will be appropriately done within a qualitative framework. The philosophy that will guide the formation of the research design will be interpretative, allowing the researcher to consider and interpret the multiple layers of information from literature and primary data collected from interviews (Creswell, 2013). The research study is driven by the need to gain more insight into knife crimes and moral panics (Creswell, 2013). It would be possible to explore interpretation of the multi-layered data within a flexible qualitative research design (Silverman, 2013). Being qualitative research within an interpretative philosophical framework, the researcher will be able to get close to the participants of the interviews and gain more insight (Collis & Hussey, 2009). The sample for the interviews will be chosen from a purposive sampling method from among college students and interview will be aimed at gaining more information on how participants respond to the news reports on knife crime and what their perceptions of state of knife crime are based on these reports, and whether their support for criminal justice measures to control knife crime are based on these perceptions. The sample will be of six students. I have chosen a sample of students because of easier access. The ages of the participants will be between 18 to 22 years.

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Pearson, G. (2006). Disturbing continuities: peaky blinders' to 'hoodies'. 65, pp. 6-7.

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Wood, R. (2010). UK: the reality behind the ‘knife crime’ debate. Race & Class , 52(2), 97-103.

Young, T., FitzGerald, M., Hallsworth, S., & Joseph, I. (2008). Groups, Gangs and Weapons. London: The Youth Justice Board.

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