Examining the Relationship Between Media Consumption, Fear of Crime, and Support for Controversial Criminal Justice Policies Using a Nationally Representative Sample

Published date01 November 2018
Date01 November 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(4) 399 –420
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986218787734
Examining the Relationship
Between Media Consumption,
Fear of Crime, and Support
for Controversial Criminal
Justice Policies Using a
Nationally Representative
Matthew J. Dolliver1, Jennifer L. Kenney1,
Lesley Williams Reid1, and Ariane Prohaska1
According to cultivation theory, higher levels of crime-based media consumption
result in an increased fear of crime. This study extends cultivation theory’s basic
assertion by (a) creating a robust measure of media consumption based on three
different factors and 38 original questions, (b) examining the direct and indirect effects
of media consumption and fear of crime on support of criminal justice policies, and
(c) using a nationwide sample. Using a sample of 1,311 participants, a combination of
principal components analysis and structural equation modeling was used to examine
these relationships. The results support the usefulness of a four-factor measure of
media consumption in relationship to fear of crime. Results also reveal that fear of
crime amplifies the effect of media consumption in creating support for three-strikes,
death penalty, stand your ground, and open carry laws.
cultivation theory, media, fear of crime, structural equation modeling
1The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matthew J. Dolliver, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, The University of Alabama, Box
870320, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0320, USA.
Email: mjdolliver@ua.edu
787734CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218787734Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeDolliver et al.
400 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 34(4)
As with many actions of the government, Americans have diverse views on which
laws are important and which policies are unnecessary. It is important to understand
how Americans make decisions supporting or rejecting certain criminal justice poli-
cies that could be perceived to be more punitive in nature, such as the death penalty
and three-strikes laws, and other policies that are perceived to be defensive, including
stand your ground and open carry. Gaining a better understanding of why some
Americans are more likely to support these policies is valuable, as citizen opinions
inform how elected officials develop and implement these crime-related policies. The
media is awash with a variety of information on crime and the policies designed to
prevent and respond to it, with some media sources providing factual information, oth-
ers leading to an increased fear of crime, and some both providing facts and increasing
fear. In this article, the researchers extend Gerbner’s (1969) cultivation theory by cre-
ating a new measure of media consumption and using it to examine how the media,
particularly the news media, influences individuals’ fear of crime. In turn, the research-
ers examine how both media consumption and fear of crime translate into real-world
support for certain defensive and punitive policies.
Since the 1970s, the United States has enacted a wide range of punitive and defen-
sive criminal justice policies. Tough-on-crime laws, including mandatory minimum
sentences and so-called three-strikes laws (Garland, 2001; Roberts, Stalans,
Indermauer, & Hough, 2003), have been directly attributed to a dramatic rise in the
incarceration rate in the United States (National Research Council, 2014), which most
recently reached 2.7% of the U.S. population (Carson & Anderson, 2016). The most
punitive criminal justice policy, the death penalty, was reinstated by the Supreme
Court in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153). In addition, policies that protect citi-
zens’ rights to fight back against potential crimes, such as stand your ground and right-
to-carry legislation, have resulted in state laws allowing gun owners to carry firearms
in public, with only three states not permitting firearms in any public places (Wolfson,
Teret, Azrael, & Miller, 2017).
Despite a short-lived period of retrenchment in punitive criminal justice policies,
including the Obama Administration’s Get Smart on Crime Initiative and a national
bipartisan recognition of the untenable costs of the most punitive policies, the United
States faces a renewed commitment to tough-on-crime and self-protection policies at
the federal level (Gotsch & Mauer, 2017). This change is supported by a majority of
the American public (Enns, 2014). Although research has demonstrated that many
Americans are tolerant of these punitive and defensive policies, research has not
explained what factors might influence Americans’ opinions about crime and crime
As federal and state policy redirects itself toward punishment and self-defense, it is
important to understand the basis of support for such criminal justice policies.
According to Surette (1998), most Americans learn about crime through the media. As
the criminal justice system became more punitive, Gerbner (1969) began to examine
how the media affects viewers’ feelings toward crime, specifically their trust of one
another and their feelings of fear related to violent crime. Gerbener’s work provided
the impetus for the development of cultivation theory, which states that watching more

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