The impact of television viewing on perceptions of juvenile crime.

Author:Goidel, Robert K.

The news media's coverage of crime has been extensively studied, although only recently has attention focused more narrowly on considerations of juvenile crime (Gilliam & Bales, 2003; Gilliam & lyengar, 2005; Solar, 2001; Wilson, Colvin, & Smith, 2002). Adult crime dominates television news, but Yanich (1999) found that almost one third of the crime stories focused on juvenile crime, that most of these stories focused on violent crime (particularly murder), and that nearly 80% were covered in the first block of the newscast. In a recent review, Dorfman and Schiraldi (2001) outlined four major findings related to news coverage of crime and their implications for juvenile crime: (a) News coverage of crime is not connected to actual crime rates and focuses largely on violent crime; (b) news coverage of crime is episodic, focusing on individual crimes as isolated events; (c) news coverage of crime connects race and crime, particularly violent crime and particularly on television; and (d) youth are rarely in the news, and when they are it is usually in the context of violence.

Here, the impact of television news and reality-based crime programming on perceptions of juvenile crime are considered. Questions regarding the impact of news coverage of juvenile crime stories have received increased attention in the literature and as part of a broader reform movement aimed at overhauling state juvenile justice systems (Cullen, Golden, & Cullen, 1983; Dorfman & Schiraldi, 2001; Gilliam & Bales, 2003; Gilliam & lyengar, 2005; Mattinson & Mirrlees-Black, 2000). Although several studies have conducted content analyses of the portrayal of juvenile crime in local and network television news (Yanich, 1999), to date few studies have examined the effects of television news viewing on citizen attitudes toward juvenile justice. Similarly, content analyses of reality-based crime programs demonstrate a propensity to feature violent crimes out of proportion with actual crime rates (Oliver, 1994). No known research, however, has focused on the effect of reality-based crime programs on perceptions of juvenile crime. We attempt to fill this gap in the literature by considering the impact of individual television viewing, including television news and reality-based programming such as Cops and America's Most Wanted, on perceptions of juvenile crime.

Literature Review

In the previous literature, scholars have connected patterns of crime-related news coverage to misperceptions of crime rates, exaggerated fear of crime, and racial stereotyping of both criminal perpetrators and victims (Barnett, 2003; Roberts, 1992; Tamborini, Zillmann, & Bryant, 1984; Windhauser & Seiter, 1990). For example, it is widely accepted that coverage of crime during the 1990s increased even as crime rates declined and that this distortion was particularly evident with respect to violent crime (Doi, 1998; Yanich, 1999). Murders, for example, make up over one quarter of all reported crimes, despite the fact that the incidence of murder is quite low (Gilliam, lyengar, Simon, & Wright, 1996). Murders are more newsworthy than burglaries, so to some extent the focus on violent crime can be justified by traditional news values that emphasize sensational and dramatic news stories (Dorfman & Schiraldi, 2001). To the extent that citizens rely on the news to develop their understanding of "the real world," however, such coverage presents a distorted and troubling image.

Coverage of juvenile crime has been less frequently studied but has also been shown to have a disconnect with reality as measured by juvenile crime rates (Dorfman & Schiraldi, 2001; Yanich, 1999). In an extensive analysis of crime rates and media coverage in Hawaii, for example, Perrone and Chesney-Lind (1998) demonstrated that media coverage of juvenile crime increased as juvenile crime rates declined. Yet, if it is known that patterns of media coverage of juvenile and adult crime are often disconnected from the reality of actual crime rates, there is a more limited understanding of the role the media may play in shaping individual perceptions of juvenile crime. Specifically, is heavier exposure to television news and reality-based programs associated with misperceptions that juvenile crime rates are increasing? And, if so, is the influence of media exposure different for juvenile crime rates than for overall crime? Likewise, is heavy exposure to television news and reality-based crime programming related to exaggerated perceptions regarding the violence of juvenile crime? In addition, does television news and reality-based crime programming exposure influence perceptions regarding the effectiveness of various treatments (rehabilitation vs. imprisonment) and/or the fairness of sentencing?

To answer these questions, we begin by first considering the theoretical underpinnings of cultivation analysis, how this theoretical perspective has explained individual misperceptions of crime, and its applicability to television portrayals of youth and juvenile crime. In addition, we also consider how news coverage frames youth generally and juvenile crime specifically, and the implication of these news frames on public opinion.

Although findings regarding patterns of news coverage have not been subject to much dispute, the impact of this coverage on public opinion has often yielded inconsistent results and conflicting interpretations of their meaning. According to the tenets of the cultivation hypothesis, greater television exposure results, first, in misperceptions regarding "real" world conditions and, second, in a "mean world syndrome," generally defined as an increased and exaggerated fear of crime (Gerbner, 1990, 1998; Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al., 1978; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli, Morgan, & Jackson-Beeck, 1979; Hawkins & Pingree, 1990; Hawkins, Pingree, & Adler, 1987; Morgan & Signorielli, 1990; Shrum, 1995; Signorielli, Gross, & Morgan, 1982).

The cultivation hypothesis has not been without its critics (Hirsch, 1980, 1981; Rubin, Perse, & Taylor, 1988), who argue that the relationship specified in the cultivation hypothesis is largely spurious (Hirsch, 1981 ; Potter & Chang, 1990). Specifically, Hirsh (1980) contended that the fear of crime documented by cultivation analysis may not be so exaggerated once one controls for the actual neighborhoods in which respondents reside and the real threat of crime within these neighborhoods (see also Doob & MacDonald, 1979). Critics of cultivation analysis argue as well that the causal mechanism between fear and television viewing is not particularly clear and that television viewing may result from (rather than cause) fear of the outside world (Doob & MacDonald, 1979).

Although the initial tenets of cultivation theory have been challenged, researchers have suggested ways to avoid the "spurious" conclusions associated with cultivation research. For example, Potter and Chang (1990) suggested that the use of control variables can help provide a context "for comparing the relative predictive power of various measures of exposure" (p. 330). They also suggested that proportional viewing among program types is a better predictor of cultivation than is total viewing. As a result of refinements to the cultivation hypothesis, a middle ground has emerged that supports the hypothesis that television does have some influence on perceptions of social reality, especially in areas related to violence (Hawkins & Pingree, 1981 ; Potter, 1986, 1994, 1999; Sparks & Ogles, 1990). Subsequent research has focused on specific television content, with television news (and not entertainment) serving as the culprit for increased fear of crime (O'Keefe, 1984; Potter & Chang, 1990; Weaver & Wakshlag, 1986). Reality-based crime programming, such as Cops and America's Most Wanted, may likewise increase fear for personal safety through its perceived realism and by triggering affective responses to crime stories (Dowler, 2003; Holbert, Shah, & Kwak, 2004; Sotirovic, 2001).

Additional research has also illuminated the psychological mechanism through which cultivation effects are realized. Drawing on the information-processing literature, this work has emphasized the public's use of cognitive heuristics in simplifying and managing incoming information--which is often both complex in content and overwhelming in quantity (Kahneman & Tversky, 1972, 1982; Shrum, 1995, 1996; Shrum & O'Guinn, 1993). The specific application to cultivation analysis is that respondents rely on the most "accessible" information to estimate the risk and propensity of crime (Shrum, 2001 ; Shrum & Bischak, 2003) and to develop their understanding of events or social constructs (Busselle, 2001; Busselle & Shrum, 2003). For citizens who have little direct experience with the juvenile justice system, the most available and accessible information on the incidence and nature of juvenile crime will come from television news. Broader generalizations regarding the nature and incidence of overall crime will be rooted in television news as well but may also reflect media examples provided through reality-based crime programming and crime dramas (Busselle, 2001; Busselle & Shrum, 2003; Zillmann & Brosius, 2000). These broader generalizations are likely to have direct relevance to juvenile crime as individuals without experience or exposure to juvenile justice use their perceptions of overall crime to infer characteristics to the juvenile justice system.

Prior research indicates that youth are rarely in the news, and when they are it is generally in the context of violence. Gilliam and Bales (2003), for example, reported that only 1 in 12 local news reports and 1 in 25 national news stories involved youth, but that nearly half (46%) of these stories involved crime victimization, accidents, or violent juvenile crime. Gilliam and Bales found as well that attitudes about youth (as often troubled and frequently violent) are...

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