Blame the Media? the Influence of Primary News Source, Frequency of Usage, and Perceived Media Credibility on Punitive Attitudes

Article excerpt

Abstract: Few studies examine the effect of media (particularly the Internet) on punitive attitudes of college students and none examine the credibility of sources of news that students consume. This study employs survey research to examine the effect of media in multiple news formats (i.e., national and local television, national and local newspapers, and Internet news), the frequency of news media usage, and perceived news credibility on punitiveness among 373 college students enrolled in a state university in the Western region of the United States. Of those studies that examine punitive attitudes among college students, it is rare for researchers to consider the impact of media and media credibility despite the fact there is clear evidence that media effects are strong predictors of attitudes in the general population. The results of this study indicate that although no primary news source was related to punitiveness those respondents with a higher frequency of exposure to local TV news showed significantly more punitive attitudes. Contrary to expectations, the influence of the Internet as a news source on punitiveness appears to be unimportant as is the credibility of any source of news on punitive attitudes

Keywords: education, Internet, media, media credibility, punitive attitudes

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, crime control policies have become increasingly punitive with the intent of "getting tough" on crime. These more punitive measures are the opposite of the rehabilitative ideal that gave way to penal welfarism, which dominated penal policy in the early and mid-20th century (Cavender 2004; Garland 2001). These "get tough" policy initiatives, which include mandatory minimum sentences, such as Three-Strikes Laws, as well as the War on Drugs, have resulted in an unprecedented number of adults being incarcerated in correctional facilities or being placed in community correctional programs in the United States (Austin and Irwin 2001; Beckett and Sasson 2000; Blumstein 2007; Costelloe, Chiricos and Gertz 2009; Currie 1998; Garland 2001; Hogan, Chiricos and Gertz 2005; Mauer 1999; Tonry 1995; Vogel and Vogel 2003; Whitman 2003). Since the early 1980s, the heavy reliance on incarceration as a penal policy has resulted in a 373% rise in the prison population (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2009). Offenders convicted of minor crimes during this period have been subjected to more stringent sentencing policies (i.e., prison and intermediate sanctions instead of probation) than those sentenced in the mid-20th century under penal welfarism and individualized rehabilitation policies. Moreover, inmates are serving lengthier prison terms because of mandatory minimum and career-criminal statutes (Blumstein 2007).

While "get-tough" policies have prevailed in recent years, it is important to note that over the last two decades, crime has declined (at roughly 5% per year). Thus, it is difficult to understand why the American criminal justice system embraced punitive policies and embarked on the "get-tough" movement in the 1980s - a movement that continues to impact correctional populations today at both the institutional and community levels (Austin and Irwin 2001).1

While there are various explanations for the support of punitive measures, there are scholars who feel that in the United States these policies do not operate without strong, widespread public support (Cullen, Fisher and Applegate 2000; Garland 2001; Roberts, Stalans, Indermauer and Hough 2003; Warr 1995). What can lead to an increase in support for punitive crime control policies? Factors identified in previous studies include individual background/demographic characteristics (i.e., sex, age, race, education level attained, and political ideology), regional differences among the American public, religious affiliation/religious salience, racial attitudes, and crime salience. Generally speaking, research has concluded that males, whites, southerners, conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and individuals with negative attitudes about racial minorities and those who are undereducated are more likely to support punitive policies (Applegate, Cullen and Fisher 2002; Barkan and Cohn 1994, 2005; Baumer, Messner and Felson 2000; Borg 1997; Britt 1998; Chiricos, Welch and Gertz 2004; Cohn, Barkan and Halteman 1991; Costelloe et al. …