Labelling and deviance in the media Tabloid papers are renowned to label anyone with what one sees as a deviant label. Newspapers, magazines and even news reporters are either vocally or publishing such labels to a person or group who they have decided is of a deviant nature or differs in some way from what they deem as normal. Examples of such labels will follow later on in this report of how the media label people who they deem deviant or in fact just differ from the norm, and in turn, our society who either accept this label or even attach another.

This report will aim to show who attaches the label and what the label means in terms of the person carrying the label and how labels can be negative and therefore damaging. This report will indeed include historical influences, however a more modern day approach and way of thinking will also be applied to bring labelling into the 21st century and understand where the labelling process and the deviant to which it is presented to now sit in our society.

Howard Becker has been seen to be one of the pioneers of the ‘labelling theory’, his book, ‘Outsiders’, holds a quote which is now widely used across the academic spectrum when studying labelling and deviance, “…. social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders. From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied. Deviant behavior is behavior that people so label. ” (Becker 1963:8–9). This quote is used timelessly even in today’s modern world, as others try and prove if this is in fact true. If we so label a person do they become that label? This report will neither prove nor disprove this theory, however, it will try to evidence is there is any truth in it. Many theories surrounding the labelling theory can still have some relevance in today’s society. Kitsuse (1962 cited in Holstein:2008)“the processes by which persons come to be defined as deviant by others”.

This endeavours to see if or what is deviant and by whom thinks it to be. Our media in Britain label such deviants, but who is assigning the label, and are they qualified to do so? Edwin Lement came up with the theory of primary and secondary deviance. Primary being the initial act of what we call deviance and secondary being, Lement (1951 cited in Holstein 2008) states, “When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary.

Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization. ” As Becker stated before, a person who is so labelled deviant could in fact become that label. This is as relevant today and maybe even more so than it was 60 years ago, with our expanding media and communication rotes to the wider society. In today’s media we often see or hear about so called ‘yob culture’, mainly young males who ‘terrorise’ their local communities.

One article in the Daily Mail was published recently, headlining, “Let off again and again, the boy branded the most out of control child in Britain at 4 who became a rapist 19 years later” (Daily mail. Online) The article describes Wesley Gordon and his family with a variety of labels to suit the picture the newspaper want to depict, “Branded the ‘biggest brat in Britain’ after being expelled from school for pouring custard over a dinner lady when he was four, he has been in constant trouble ever since….

The young tearaway became a regular in court and spurned offers of help to turn his life around until he eventually ran out of last chances…. June West, 50, a jobless mother of three, accepts no blame herself for the damage Gordon has inflicted upon his community…. Miss West, a divorcee who has reverted to her maiden name from her married name of Gordon, brought up her children alone in a Sheffield council house…. ” (Daily mail.

Online) In this article the picture is painted of this man to come from a council house, with a divorced, unemployed mother who could not control her ‘tearaway’ son, because of her reactions and his lack of respect for anything, he is now branded a rapist and in another paper a ‘yob’. The newspaper is trying to get the reader to view this single, unemployed mother who cannot even control her own son. They have failed to add any factors that have contributed to her life and the boys. The Mirror prints, “Boy from hell jailed for rape at 23…. A yob randed Britain’s worst child tearaway at just FOUR has been jailed for rape two decades later…. The thug was expelled at 13…. ”(Mirror. Online) At the age of four this boy was branded in the media as ‘the biggest brat in Britain’, now he is branded as a ‘thug’, ‘tearaway’ and a ‘yob’, and also carries the criminal label of a ‘rapist’. Proving that such labels at such a young age contributed to his recent conviction for rape would be near on impossible, however, what if he was not labeled, or in fact was not strewn across Britain’s tabloids at such a young age and again now, would this man have turned out he way he did?

The media labeled this man, although if they are qualified to do so remains a question for every debate about the media. They are allowed to do so by British law, so in fact even though they are not professionals in psychology or any other profession that is an expert on labeling and the damage it could do, and it seems has never appreciated Becker’s or Lement’s work of the labeling theory, they see themselves as qualified to label such acts as they deem deviant and therefore deviate the person that carries that label.

In countries such as Norway the age of criminal responsibility lies at 15, where as in Britain it is 10. Around the same time of the infamous Jamie Bulger killing by two young boys, a similar event took place in Norway. Two boys’ ages 6 beat a girl aged 5 to death. However, unlike Britain, Norway chose not to publish and brand these boys through the media; they instead let the boys go back to kindergarten within a few weeks. This is an abstract from a Guardian newspaper article following this case recently as it asks,” So why has the public reaction in Norway been so startlingly different?….

Harry Tiller, the journalist who covered the story for the Adresseavisen, Trondheim’s biggest selling newspaper, explains why. “In the local community, everybody knew who these boys were. That was the big difference between Norway and England, that the names were never mentioned [in the press]. It was never an issue to identify them at any level. We have some debates in Norway about identifying criminals, but when it comes to children, it’s never an issue. It was never discussed in the newsroom. They were six-years-old, but even if they were 11; it would not have been an issue. “(Guardian.

Online). The article goes on to describe how the local community and authorities did everything in their power to maintain a sense of normality and not publicly label these children as murderers or worse ‘yobs’ or ‘evil’, as Jon Venebles and Robert Thompson were by the British media. Instead they chose to work therapeutically with all involved and the wider community. The mother of the little girl killed when asked what she thinks about the British response to the Jamie Bulger case is, “Redergard is surprisingly circumspect, “The system we have in Norway is still best,” she says. (Guardian. Online). Here is a mother of a girl killed in tragic circumstances and feels that no label should be applied or criminal conviction to the young boys that brutally murdered her young girl. With the case of our own ‘tearaway’ rapist and ‘evil child murderers’, they have been labeled for most of their lives and in the case of Jon Venebles and Wesley Gordon, they have lived up to their labels and reoffended. However, the two young boys in the sad case of Silje, those boys were not labeled in the media and have not reoffended.

They were and still are given the help and support needed for them. The British media and then in turn our wider society attach labels to people who they deem deviant, deviance being not just the act of the crime, but also what their own morals deem to be out of the ordinary in terms of the crime committed. Brownfield and Thompson write that, “The notion that adolescent identity can be transformed by official labels is rooted in the processes advocated by labelling theorists.

In the “handling” process adolescents are surmised to take on the identity thrust on them by powerful juvenile justice authorities,”(Brownfield and Thompson. 2008). Is our media and legal system responsible for these young offenders taking on board the labels and becoming them? Others also take the view that the label itself is only reinforcing the behaviour and not actually solving the reasons behind the act. Hirschfield writes that, “Perhaps the most enduring contribution of labeling research is that formal sanctions often reinforce the very delinquent behaviors they seek to extinguish. (Hirschfield. 2008) The labelling theory clearly has its weaknesses in that it does not seek to understand the reasons behind the act of what we see as deviant. However, it does provide us with the knowledge that a label in, a negative context, could contribute towards further delinquent and deviant behaviours. Even with the extensive research published about labels and how they may create further deviance, researchers are still writing about their findings and expanding on original theories.

However, our British media still feels qualified to label such behaviours and could almost contribute to further acts of deviance.


Becker, H. (1973) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. New York: Free press Hirschfield, P. (2008) The Declining Significance of Delinquent Labels in Disadvantaged Urban Communities. Journal of Sociological Forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 2008 Holstein, J. (2008)

Defining Deviance: John Kitsuse’s Modest Agenda. Journal of Am Soc (2009) 40:51–60 Brownfield, D. , and Thompson, K. 2008) Correlates of Delinquent Identity: Testing Interactionist, Labeling, and Control Theory. Journal of Criminal justice services. January – June Vol. 3 (1): 44–53 James, E. , and MacDougall, I. (2010)

The Norway town that forgave and forgot its child killers[online]Guardian. Available from: http://www. guardian. co. uk/theguardian/2010/mar/20/norway-town-forgave-child-killers(Assessed: 1st, 2nd and 3rd November 2010) Thornton, L. (2010)

Boy from hell jailed for rape at 23[online] The Mirror. Available from: http://www. mirror. co. k/news/top-stories/2010/10/27/boy-from-hell-jailed-for-rape-at-23-115875-22661195/. (Assessed: 2nd and 3rd November 2010) Brooke, C. (2010)

Let off again and again, the boy branded the most out of control child in Britain at 4 who became a rapist 19 years later[online] Mailonline. Available from: http://www. dailymail. co. uk/news/article-1323916/Wesley-Gordon-branded-Britains-control-child-rapist-23. html (Assessed: 2nd and 3rd November 2010 Bibliography Gove, E. (1980) The labelling of deviance: Evaluating a perspective. London:


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