The most popular shows on television are about crime: CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, The Closer, etc. A new study from Purdue University indicates that the more people watch these shows, the more distorted are their views of the criminal justice system and crime rates overall.
Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication who studies mass media effects, and Susan Huelsing Sarapin, a doctoral student in communication, conducted 103 surveys with jury-eligible adults about their crime-television show viewing and their perceptions of crime and the judicial system. Their research was presented earlier this month at the International Crime, Media, and Popular Culture Studies Conference: A Cross Disciplinary Exploration at Indiana State University.
“Many people die as a result of being murdered in these types of shows, and we found the heavy TV-crime viewers estimated two and a half times more real-world deaths due to murder than non-viewers,” Sarapin says. “People’s perceptions also were distorted in regards to a number of other serious crimes. Heavy TV-crime viewers consistently overestimated the frequency of crime in the real world.” Purdue University News Release 10/29/09
Viewers of crime shows also misjudged the number of police officers and attorneys in the total work force. Lawyers and police officers each make up less than 1 percent of the work force, but those surveyed estimated it at more than 16 percent and 18 percent, respectively, Sarapin says.
The study also linked heavy viewership of these shows with “mean world syndrome” — the belief that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. Previous research by media scholar George Gerbner associates this syndrome with paranoia about imminent victimization.
This research is especially interesting in light of recent stats on public perception of crime, as discussed on Neuroworld here. Crime decreased all through the 1990s, and for the last decade crime rates have remained steady. Yet, between 52% and 89% of Americans every year since 1990 have thought that crime is on the rise.