Media Consumption and Support for Capital Punishment

Published date01 March 2014
DOI10.1177/0734016814522645
Date01 March 2014
Subject MatterArticles
Article
Media Consumption
and Support for Capital
Punishment
Sarah Britto
1
and Krystal E. Noga-Styron
2
Abstract
Theoretically, the media influences public perceptions of crime and criminality and helps shape
perceptions of how the crime problem should be managed. Using a 2010 survey in Washington state,
this article tests the theoretical connection between watching television (news, crime dramas, and
police-reality programs), reading the newspaper, listening to the radio, interacting with the Internet,
and support for capital punishment. Research in the area of perceptions of capital punishment shows
that support for capital punishment varies depending on its operationalization; therefore, this study
includes both a general measure of support for capital punishment and a measure that provides for
the availability of life without parole as an alternative option. Variables including race, sex, age, atti-
tudes toward the police, and perceptual variables such as collective efficacy, economic insecurity,
and justice concerns are included as controls in the models. Findings indicate that the relationship
between media consumption and capital punishment is dependent on both the media form/channel
and the operationalization of capital punishment.
Keywords
capital punishment, corrections, social constructions of crime/justice, crime/delinquency theory,
crime policy, courts/law
Introduction
Scholars in the area of social control have long posited a relationship between media, popular cul-
ture, and perceptions of punishment, including punitive attitudes and support for capital punishment
(Demker, Towns, Duus-Otterstrom, & Sebring, 2008; Oliver & Armstrong, 2005; Rosenberger &
Callanan, 2011; Sotirovic, 2001). In recent years, both Garland (2001) and Simon (2007) argue that
several significant historical changes have resulted in a culture of fear that has heightened the
public’s sensitivity to risk and led to support for increasingly punitive policies. One driver for
1
Department of Justice Studies, Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, TX, USA
2
Department of Law and Justice, Central Washington University, Lynnwood, WA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Sarah Britto, Department of Justice Studies, Prairie View A&M University, P.O. Box 519, MS 2600, Prairie View, TX
77446, USA.
Email: sarah.l.britto@gmail.com
Criminal Justice Review
2014, Vol. 39(1) 81-100
ª2014 Georgia State University
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DOI: 10.1177/0734016814522645
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changes in public perception may be shifting media consumption patterns that include a steady diet
of round-the-clock television news, crime dramas, police-reality programs, talk radio, as well as
Internet and newspapers, all of which frequently feature crime stories. Scholars tend to agree that
the majority of the public’s knowledge about crime and the criminal justice system come from the
consumption of such a media-rich diet (Surrette, 2010; Tonry, 1999). As a result, it is essential to
understand how the media influences public attitudes, particularly on the criminal justice system’s
ultimate punishment—the death penalty. Understanding the media’s influence in shaping such atti-
tudes is important because some believe that perceptions play a role in policy decisions regarding
capital punishment (Vollum, Longmire, & Buffington-Vollum, 2004).
This article examines whether media consumption is related to attitudes toward capital punish-
ment. Specifically, testing whether the specific form/channel of media content (and the genre of
specific television programs) influences attitudes toward capital punishment, and whether the oper-
ationalization of support for capital punishment influences these relationships.
Literature Review
The Media and Public Policy
Garland (2001) and Simon (2007) both argue that the United States’ punitive turn in the 1970s was a
result of many factors, including increasing crime rates, an economic recession, an increasing eco-
nomic inequality gap, suburbanization, and the media’s blurring of the lines between entertainment
and news. These arguments were consistent with the work of media theorist George Gerbner (1970)
who asserted that the perceptions cultivated by television have consequences not only for people’s
personal and social relationships but also for social policy and social control. Furthermore, media
coverage of crime expanded during this time period as a result of 24-hr news, cable programming
with a crime focus, and the popularity of police-reality programming and crime dramas (Roman &
Chaflin, 2008; Surrette, 2010).
Similarly, Altheide (2009) contends that fear is the driving emotion behind shifts in crime control
and government intervention efforts. Research that looks directly at the political effects of the pub-
lic’s fear in response to crime ‘‘waves’’ indicates that such fears can promote political shifts (Doyle,
2006). ‘‘The media suggests that the ‘problem’ can be changed, that mechanisms exist to change it,
and that we (as a society) already have an agent and process in place to fix the problem, usually the
government’’ (Kort-Butler & Hartshorn, 2011, p. 40). Kort-Butler and Hartshorn (2011) argue that
the more individuals consume media, the less supportive they are of the criminal justice system’s
ability to deal with crime, which translates to them being more supportive of punitive measures, like
longer sentences and increased use of capital punishment.
A more specified version of Gebner and the Cultural Indicators Project’s (Gerbner et al., 1977)
‘‘cultivation hypothesis’’ posits that both audience characteristics and the specific content (media
form/channel and genre of the content) consumed by the audience influence the relationship between
media and fear of crime (Callanan & Rosenberger, 2011; Chiricos, Eschholz,& Gertz, 1997; Dowler,
2002). Sotirovic (2001) suggests that the mass media may affect criminal justice policy preferences
with both the structure and presentation of its content. Specifically, she finds that the use of complex
media content (content that provides a variety of different perspectiveson an issue) is related to more
complex thinkingabout crime, and thus a preferencefor preventive criminal justicepolicies (Sotirovic,
2001). In line with this argument, Baumgartner, DeBoef and Boydstury (2008), in the book The
Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence, suggest that the news media’s recent
focus on innocence cases has led to reduced support of the death penalty on the grounds of fairness.
On the other hand, exposure and attentionto the simple, infotainment formats of various reality-based
82 Criminal Justice Review 39(1)

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