Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Influences and the Assignment of Responsibility for Wrongdoing in Organizational Settings

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Influences and the Assignment of Responsibility for Wrongdoing in Organizational Settings

Article excerpt

How do the media and an actor's social role influence a person's perception of organizational wrongdoing? We argue that the manner in which events are framed in media presentations influences how people attribute responsibility, regardless of the actor's social role. In the present study, approximately half of the participants watched a televised media report focusing on organizational causes of wrongdoing; the other half were not exposed to media influences. All participants read a vignette, which manipulated the actor's role. We then asked respondents to assign responsibility to both the individual and the organization presented in the vignette. Participants' attributions were influenced by both the media condition and the actor's role. However, the interaction between media and role was not significant. We discuss implications and directions for future research.

We draw on the attribution of responsibility (AOR) literature to investigate how the media influence audiences' assignment of responsibility for wrongdoing. In particular, we are interested in AOR for both an organization and an individual involved in the "Cold War" human radiation experiments (Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments [ACHRE] 1996). Public perceptions of organizational wrongdoing are important, because organizational contexts frequently reduce culpability for both agents and organizations, especially with regard to criminal sanctions (Sanders and Hamilton 1997; Stone 1975). Individuals acting on behalf of the organization are sometimes held solely responsible, especially when the wrongdoing cannot be linked to the organization as a whole. The organization, however, may be held accountable if it becomes publicized that organizational elites, or the organization's culture, tacitly or actively supported the individual's deviant actions (Ermann and Lundman 2002). Gailey and Lee (2005a) proposed an integrated model of AOR, which contends that both media depictions and the actor's social role, among other factors, will affect a perceiver's attributions. The purpose of the present study is to understand the extent to which the media and an individual's social role influence people's perceptions of whom to hold accountable for wrongful acts.

The media have a considerable effect on the way people understand and judge everyday events, including crime and deviance (Graber 1980; Potter and Kappeler 1998). Unlike individual wrongdoing, organizational wrongdoing is seldom portrayed in media coverage as "crime," and the public has tended to accept this view (Lofquist 1998; Wright, Cullen, and Blankenship 1995). Because the media are capable of shaping public opinion, the first question we ask involves media influences; specifically, can a media presentation that frames wrongdoing as an organizational problem persuade audiences to find the organization, rather than an individual, responsible? Attribution research has found that people tend to focus their attention on individuals, not contextual situations (Baron and Misovich 1993; Heider 1958; Jones and Nisbett 1971). Presenting a stimulus, however, which frames the issue at the contextual level might focus respondents' attention to the organization. When environmental factors are discrete and obvious, an individual actor is more likely to be absolved of personal responsibility (Downs 1996).

In addition, according to the AOR literature, the role of the actor is one of the most important determinants of how people assign responsibility (Gailey and Lee 2005b; Gibson and Schroeder 2003; Hamilton and Hagiwara 1992; Hamilton and Sanders 1983, 1995; Hans and Ermann 1989; Sanders and Hamilton 1997). Previous research indicates that actors who are in autonomous roles (e.g., a manager) are attributed more responsibility than people who are in obedient roles (e.g., a subordinate). Therefore, our second question involved the actor's role: how does the actor's social role within the organization (autonomous or obedient) affect assignments of responsibility? …

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