A new study claims Americans’ fear of crime is statistically related to the level of violence portrayed on primetime TV. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, compared annual changes in the amount of violence portrayed on popular primetime dramas – broadcast TV only — from early ’70s through 2010, with changes in national rates of response to Gallup poll questions about people’s fear of crime over that period.
The study found that, even though crime rates fell over the period of the study (according to the FBI) people’s fears about crime fell and rose during that period, along with TV violence rates. Incidents of TV violence on broadcast television have increased since the late 1990s — as has the public’s fear of crime, the study said. The findings suggest that TV drama may “transport” viewers emotionally into the imagined world of TV shows in a way that creates fear of crime beyond the influence of the national violent crime rate or the reported perception of local crime,” the study said.
The number of violent sequences per TV hour actually fell from a high of 6.5 in 1972 to 1.4 in 1996, and then increased to 3.7 in 2010. Each additional violent sequence per hour predicted an increase of 1 percentage point in the people who told Gallup they were afraid of walking alone at night in their neighborhood.
“We now have stronger evidence that the fictional treatment of crime on TV may influence the public’s fears of crime,” Dan Romer, co-author of the study and an associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said. By seeing crime dramatized on TV at a higher rate, people do not think there is more crime in their neighborhood, but “by seeing it dramatized, it makes people more afraid of whatever crime there is,” he told Deadline.
“The findings are consistent with media scholarship in the 1960s and ’70s that predicted effects of fictional TV violence on audiences,” said Patrick E. Jamieson, the lead author of the study and director of APPC’s Adolescent Risk Communication Institute. “That prediction has been controversial, but with the present results, we have the best evidence to date that TV shows can affect how safe the public feels.”
APPC researchers studied violent sequences in 475 hours of primetime broadcast dramas, which included a heavy representation of police, legal, and medical shows. The study begins with the 70’s, which is when Gallup started asking people in its polls if they were afraid to walk in their neighborhood at night, and another question about whether there is more or less crime in their neighborhood than a year ago.
When the study started, it was clocking crime ratings on Hawaii Five-O — the original — Kojak, Cannon, Adam 12, etc. In the mid 80’s, it looked at Hill Street Blues, Magnum PI, Cagney & Lacey, etc. Toward end of the study, shows under scrutiny included the CSI’s, the NSCIS’s, the Law & Orders, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Criminal Minds, etc. The shows were watched by trained coders, the school said, who logged acts of violence. The study did not differentiate between different types of violence – for example, stranger vs. family or an attack vs. an act of self-defense. The study did not look at any cable programs because, Romer explained, they weren’t a big factor when the study starts. The study also does not look at age brackets — whether older viewers are more afraid of crime than younger, more women than men, etc. — and, of course, the center has in the past reported on the effect of 24/7 cable news on people’s perceptions about crime.
The study attempted to support or refute the controversial “cultivation theory,” which holds that prolonged exposure to television violence creates fear of crime and a view of the world as a dangerous place. In today’s report, the Annenberg center noted George Gerbner, the late dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, and his colleagues called this phenomenon the “mean world syndrome.” The present findings, the center said today, “confirm the effects of TV on people’s fear, but do not support the idea that people think there is actually more crime in their neighborhood.”