Fear, Authority, and Justice: Crime-Related TV Viewing and Endorsements of Capital Punishment and Gun Ownership

By Holbert, R. Lance; Shah, Dhavan V. et al. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Fear, Authority, and Justice: Crime-Related TV Viewing and Endorsements of Capital Punishment and Gun Ownership


Holbert, R. Lance, Shah, Dhavan V., Kwak, Nojin, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


We focus on the relationships among three types of television viewing (news, police reality, and crime drama) and attitudes toward capital punishment and handguns, as well as the likelihood of actually owning a handgun. A host of exogenous variables are treated as predictors of television use, support for police authority, fear of crime, and our criterion variables. A series of direct and indirect relationships are assessed. Analysis suggests that viewing police reality shows is both directly and indirectly related to the endorsement of capital punishment and handgun ownership, while also directly predicting a greater likelihood of actual handgun ownership. In addition, TV news viewing predicts fear of crime in audience members, and this fear contributes to the endorsement of capital punishment and handgun ownership. Crime drama viewing is positively related to support for the death penalty.

Television news, police reality shows, and crime dramas devote a significant portion of their content to criminal activity and law enforcement. Each of these types of television programming has received attention in the fields of mass communication, criminal justice, and psychology. Crime news has been studied at length both in terms of content- and effects-based research.1 The same can be said of police reality programming.2 In contrast, the effects of television crime dramas have received relatively little attention to date,3 but several content analyses exist.4

Most of these studies focus on a single type of crime-related message, either public affairs or entertainment in nature. Few incorporate simultaneous or comparative analyses of multiple types of television programming involving crime and law enforcement.5 In addition, the dominant criterion variables pertain to attitudes toward police or fear of crime, the latter mirroring early work testing Cultivation's Mean World hypothesis.6 This study conducts a simultaneous assessment of relationships among all three types of television programming (news, police reality, and crime drama) and three criterion variables (support for capital punishment and gun ownership, and likelihood of gun ownership) theorized as related to various forms of television use, support for police authority, and fear of crime.

Ordinary least squares regression path analysis was performed on 1999 and 2000 DDB Needham Life Style studies, large national sample data recently made available for academic use.7 The use of multiple data sets allows for the direct assessment of the replicability of findings.8 Adhering to the basic tenets of the O-S-O-R model of media influence, we assess multiple pre-media use orientations along with patterns of media use, while also identifying the specific relationships that exist among media, potential intervening variables, and a given set of criterion variables.9 This approach has provided an understanding of the use of TV news and entertainment content in a variety of con texts, ranging from support for women's rights to pro-environmental behaviors.10

Literature Reivew

The three types of television use included in this study have been analyzed in relative isolation. Both qualitative and quantitative empirical methods, grounded in various epistemological traditions, have been employed to study the content and effects of these types of programming.

TV Viewing, Support for Police Authority, and Fear of Crime.

Television News. Several studies have found that news media use tends to lead individuals to think more negatively about those in law enforcement," and this pattern matches findings from several content analyses that reveal that public affairs reporting consistently yields negative portrayals of police activities.12 However, a .recent survey conducted by Eschholz et al. finds that the use of news leads to more positive perceptions of police officers.13 Despite the contrary finding by Eschholz et al, the preponderance of empirical evidence supports the following hypothesis:

H1: TV news viewing is negatively related to support for police authority. …

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