Over the past year or so, I have tried to force myself into the cut-throat world of academic research. As a masters student of forensic psychology, based in rural Lincolnshire, trying to forge a name for myself in the pursuit of doctoral funding has at time felt like a long and lonely struggle, and I’ve been confronted with hostility and anger by many people as a result of my activity of choice.
I signed myself up to Twitter and started writing. At first it was good. I shared my content like any good blogger would, and was shared by some key thinkers within forensic psychology and criminology circles. But then I thought I’d go more public.
The eminent criminologist Professor David Wilson (Birmingham City University) suggests that scholars should be open about their research, and look to have impact beyond the often closed-world of academia. I agree. In order for research to have any real-world significance, it is not enough to be satisfied to just publish in subscription-only journals or speak to groups of tired individuals at conferences between breaks for coffee. It should be a priority for researchers to share their findings within the public sphere. Professor Wilson probably does this to a far greater extent than many of us could achieve, hosting his own primetime TV shows and writing key pieces in newspapers spanning the entire political spectrum – from The Guardian to the Daily Mail, but this standard is something that we should all strive to achieve.
Twitter (and other new social media), however, are becoming increasingly important platforms for academics involved in cutting-edge social research. One such area that I feel this should be extended is that of forensic psychology. As political rhetoric about crime and punishment becomes ever-more punitive, empirical findings should be shared more widely in order to redress the balance between evidence and ideology.
And so it began. Twitter, with its handy tool – the hashtag – makes it very easy to be drawn into debates about a host of topics. One such topic that caught my eye was promoted in the wake of a documentary of the Moors murderer, Ian Brady. The hashtag #BringBackHanging was being used widely by those advocating the reintroduction of the death penalty for those convicted of particularly heinous crimes – not just those committed by Brady, but anything from the murder of a police officer to the sexual assault of a child. These are very controversial and debate-worthy topics, and these debates should be led by the latest research into these issues. However, these issues quickly become polarised by the popular press, where ‘common sense’ and the ‘law-abiding-majority’ often triumph over empirical findings. Enter forensic psychology.
My own postgraduate research has focused on the ways in which the national British press reports sexual crime in relation to other types of criminality. Preliminary results indicate a nine times over-representation of sexual crime within the press than is reflected in officially recorded crime rates reported by the Ministry of Justice (2011). In my thesis, I put forward the argument that public knowledge about sexual crime is flawed in that it is filtered through the misrepresentative lens of the print press which, as respected journalist and broadcaster Yasmin Alibhai-Brown suggested in her professorial inauguration lecture at Middlesex University, sets the agenda for broadcast media, and in turn political and public discourse.
As already stated, a key idea within my push for a better-engaged forensic psychology is the promotion of academic findings and official statistics instead of common sense ideas and reactionary public policy. When faced with tweets citing the death penalty as a useful deterrent for reducing crime, then, I felt compelled to propose that this was not the case, citing evidence from the USA that suggests that states with the death penalty of the statute book actually have a higher murder-rate than those states that don’t execute people convicted of serious offences.
In addition to the deterrence argument, I saw several tweets attached to the #BringBackHanging tag arguing that executing sex offenders – especially those who victimised children (commonly categorised, just as in the popular press, simply as ‘paedophiles’) – would be a useful way of cutting reoffending. Whilst this, theoretically may be true (executing all sex offenders would, in fact, lead to a 0% rate of reoffending, as one tweeter pointed out), the argument ignores recorded reoffending rate associated with these crimes.
The nationwide reoffending rate for England and Wales (the proportion of people with criminal offences against their name who go on the commit additional crimes) is between 50-60% (Ministry of Justice, 2013). These figures are broken down further, by sentence type for the original crime given, and by index offence. I shared with some of the tweeters in the ‘reducing reoffending’ camp the figures for child sex offenders – a lowly 9%.
The reaction to this was actually quite alarming. For suggesting that not everyone with a sexual conviction will go on to abuse children in the future, I received a string of abusive messages, including “No wonder there’s so many sick murderers around then with softly softly approach“, “very strange view point empathising with child raping sadistic murderers“, and “lefties like yourself, would probably give child murderers, community service“.
Whilst it is easy to see why people may have interpreted my messages as bleeding-heart-liberalism, it did surprise me how brazen the attitudes of some people were in the face of academic research and officially validated statistics. Whilst I’m acutely aware that the UK government are more than capable of massaging crime statistics for political reasons, or stressing the importance of some trends over others, the fact that those with sexual convictions are significantly less likely to be reconvicted of further offences than other groups of offenders is beyond doubt.
Of even greater concern was the ease at which people were able to essentially accuse me (and others stating similar research findings) of being “one of them”. By this loose statement, some critics of empirical findings were asserting that the only reason somebody would be advocating less harsh (or, as it may be better phrased, more evidence-based) responses to sexual crime was that you were either supportive of it, or directly involved in it. This is a dangerous mentality, and one that I fear is potentially more widespread than even I have encountered.
So how might academics respond to this type of hostility? There is some evidence that suggests that training and education can improve people’s attitudes or confidence when interacting with members of the sex offender population (Craig, 2005; Hogue, 1995), and that facilitating more positive attitudes increases opportunities for community reintegration and eventual long-term desistance from crime (Willis, Levenson and Ward, 2010) .
I focus on this issue of sexual offending as this is the topic of my current masters level research, and something that I will continue to study as a PhD student at the University of Lincoln. Specifically, I will be looking at whether the ways in which people interact with social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, and comments sections of online newspapers) impacts upon the attitudes held and the ‘knowledge’ expressed by media consumers about sexual crime. There is some encouraging research from other postgraduate psychologists (e.g. Faye Riley at the University of Roehampton) that indicates that using YouTube videos may be able to reduce islamophobic attitudes among Western populations, and this effect is something I plan to try to replicate within a forensic context.
But the PhD is yet to be started – what now for my Twitter use? I firmly believe that sharing research findings with the public, however resistant, is vital when trying to give your research lasting impact. As James Treadwell and I recently stated in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, academics should be “unashamedly presenting evidence in mass-media circles, in order to redress the balance of power in criminal justice matters” (2013, p.221). The main points to keep in mind are to trust your findings and have the courage to confront, head-on, the stereotypes of an often misled general public.
I will continue to do this – will you join me?