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TV News Fuels Punitive Attitudes Toward Crime and Justice

ALBANY, N.Y. (August 25, 2016) — When it comes to views on crime and justice, television news exposure appears to play a more important role than internet media accounts, according to a new study led by researchers at the University at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice.

According to a new paper in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, media depictions on TV news and crime programs systematically exaggerate the blameworthiness of offenders, the deficiencies of the justice system, and the threat of crime in society. Previous studies have shown that exposure to traditional media is associated with greater support for punitive policies, higher confidence in the police, and higher levels of anxiety about victimization. These findings have been presented as evidence in support of the cultivation theory – where the more time people spend consuming TV programming, the more likely they are to believe that reality matches the television world.

TV programming can fuel attitudes on crime
A new UAlbany-led study has found that when it comes to views on crime and justice, television news exposure appears to play a more important role than internet media accounts.

Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Justin Pickett and graduate researcher Sean Patrick Roche, along with Florid State Professor Marc Gertz used four national samples to test how the theory holds in light of the fact that more and more people are receiving their news via the Internet.

"Theoretically, one might expect Internet news exposure to play a unique role in the formation of attitudes and beliefs," said Pickett. "Additionally, online news content may be less regulated and can be supplemented with an array of additional information sources."

However, unlike previous findings related to TV news consumption, Pickett and his colleagues found no evidence that Internet news consumption is positively associated with anxiety about crime, or support for getting tough with criminals.

"Indeed, even when we break down the groups to investigate differential relationships by audience traits, very few significant relationships emerge. Those that do are negative, the opposite direction of what would be expected on the basis of cultivation theory," said Pickett.

Among the findings, the researchers found that:

  • Similar to previous studies the results generally suggest that exposure to television news and crime programs is associated with greater anxiety about victimization and increased support for ‘‘get tough’’ crime policies
  • Among conservative respondents, the associations between Internet news exposure and the dependent variables (greater anxiety about victimization and increased support for harsher penalties for criminals) are always positive, despite being non-significant
  • By contrast, the relationships between Internet news exposure and the dependent variables among non-conservatives are always negative
  • In one of the four samples, which includes Internet users from across the nation, the association between Internet news consumption and support for the death penalty is consistently negative

"In conclusion, our current study provides evidence that among members of general public, new media differs from traditional media in its relationship to public views about crime and justice. We show that Internet news consumption either is not related to, or in some cases is actually negatively related to, anxieties about crime and support for harsh crime policies," said Pickett.

These results raise questions about whether cultivation theory or similar theories are useful frameworks for understanding how the rapidly expanding sources of news on the Internet may influence public opinion, especially given that Internet usage and content will undoubtedly continue to grow.

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