People’s opinions about crime and criminal justice in society are shaped by the indirect information obtained from the media. Television is a powerful medium that provides information as well as entertainment to people. There are different varieties of crime-related shows, ranging from pure factual information like crime news to pure fiction like crime dramas. The current study found that programs with mixed “infotainment” content influence people’s feelings of fear and perceptions of criminal justice more than news or fictional dramas.
Most people in a society do not have direct experience with crime. They depend upon media to gather information and then form opinions about crime. Television viewing is known to shape people’s opinions about crime. In some earlier studies, it was found that fear of crime seemed to increase when people watched crime-related programs on television. Other studies found fear of crime decreasing after watching such programs. The details of violence and dramatization of a crime story may be responsible for the increased fear. Watching a culprit being caught by the law and sentenced might reduce the fear. Crime news, fictional crime dramas and nonfictional documentary style programs are three types of crime-related shows regularly aired on television. The current study investigated the complex relationship between the type of crime show and the fear of crime.
• Statistics were obtained from the 2007 Nebraska Annual Social Indicator Survey (NASIS). A total of 784 adults were recruited for a telephone interview. Of these 94.8 percent were white, 41 percent were male.
• The participants were asked about daily time spent in viewing crime shows on television. Their confidence in the justice system was tested through questions like “How confident are you that police can protect society from violent crimes?”
• Perception of fairness was tested through questions such as “How fair is treatment by the justice system of people victimized?” Support for the death penalty was assessed with the question “Which do you think is the best penalty for murder?”
•Fear of crime was assessed with six questions. These dealt with participants’ worries about walking alone at night, getting robbed, having their residence broken into, being sexually assaulted etc.
• People aged 19 to 34 watched less local or national news compared with those aged 35 and older. Those with more education watched nonfiction crime shows more often. Women watched crime dramas more frequently than men.
• Males and the highly educated were less likely to be fearful. Older people and people living in the country thought that the local crime scene was becoming worse.
• Those who watched crime dramas and viewed nonfictional crime shows had greater fear of crime and supported the death penalty more. Those with more fear had less faith in the justice system.
• Town and city dwellers were less in support of the death penalty, whereas people with a more conservative political ideology and those viewing crime dramas were more in support of it.
This study is restricted to only one state; the findings might be different in other states. People from more urbanized states, or those states that are more racially and politically diverse, or from states with raised crime rates may have different opinions of crime. These differences should be documented in future research. Only one piece asked participants about their viewing of nonfictional programs. Future research could differentiate more among kinds of programming. Another shortcoming is that the format of some questions could have potentially influenced the answers. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is that viewers who commonly watched certain types of programming would also prefer to watch related programs, giving rise to a correlation.
Crime-related television news is often factual. Crime dramas are fictional and many a time, the story happens in big cities. Documentary style nonfiction crime shows are different. They rely on facts but dramatise events in a crime. They also include interviews with law officers, victims, relatives and forensic experts. The stories are located in towns and villages. Such programs are likely to make people more fearful about being victimised and shape their opinions about law, justice and crime rate in society. “This study demonstrated, albeit conservatively, that what people watch on television matters when it comes to fear of crime and their attitudes about criminal justice.”
For More Information:
Watching the Detectives: Crime Programming, Fear of Crime, and Attitudes About the Criminal Justice System.
Publication Journal: The Sociological Quarterly, 2011
By Lisa A Kort-Butler; Kelley J Sittner Hartshorn; University of Nebraska, Lincoln