Viewing of Crime Drama and Authoritarian Aggression: An Investigation of the Relationship between Crime Viewing, Fear, and Aggression

By Reith, Margaret | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Viewing of Crime Drama and Authoritarian Aggression: An Investigation of the Relationship between Crime Viewing, Fear, and Aggression


Reith, Margaret, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


This study contrasts three theories about the reasons for, and effects of, viewing of crime drama. While the three theories differ about the motivation for watching crime drama, they all suggest the same end effect of heavy crime viewing -- a change in the viewer aggression structure in an authoritarian direction. Gerbner (1976; 1979) maintains that we watch crime dramas as a result of accidental exposure and that consumption of these programs increases viewer fear of becoming a victim of crime. His data show a positive but weak relationship between general TV viewing and fear of victimization. Gerbner further suggests that this TV-produced fear changes the structure of the viewer's aggression in an authoritarian direction: it creates greater dependence upon established authority and increased acceptance of the use of force to maintain law and order. He calls this cultivation of fear and consequent dependence upon established authority, "the religion of the industrial order," and claims that it "relates to governance as the church did to the state in earlier times (p.194)." No data has, however, been presented to support his theory that these authoritarian attitudes are related to crime viewing or TV-induced fear of victimization.

In contrast, Zillmann (1985) argued that it is fear of victimization which motivates viewing of crime drama. In Zillmann's analysis, this fear is based on real-life experiences or on reliable information about such experiences. He maintains that crime drama may have a calming effect on this fear, since each episode ends with the restoration of law and order. Such a reaction pattern has also been presented as a possible explanation of the association reported by Doob and MacDonald (1979) between living in inner-city, high-crime neighborhoods and watching crime drama (Comstock, 1982).

Zillmann suggests that this reality-based fear of crime may be the main cause also of the positive relationship Gerbner proposes of crime viewing to dependence on established authority and acceptance of their use of force. According to Zillmann, should such a relationship exist, then these authoritarian effects of exposure could be a result of coping with the reality-based fear which motivates viewing of crime drama rather than a result of fear cultivated by accidental exposure to the crime drama (p.154).

The present research introduces a third theory. It consists of two steps. The first states that increased levels of antisocial aggression in viewers motivate viewing of crime drama. The second step proposes that the standard crime story channels this antisocial aggression in an authoritarian direction, away from those who represent the established law and order and towards those who threaten this order by breaking the social law.

The hypothesis that antisocial aggression is a motivating factor has been supported by the two first studies in the present research project (Reith, 1987; 1996). Rising unemployment in society was found to be positively associated with increased preference for crime drama among TV viewers: there were long and strong time-series correlations between unemployment rates in the US and Canada and national indexes for the popularity of crime drama compared to other program categories(1). It was assumed that rising unemployment causes feelings of frustration and antisocial aggression. Historical examples support this interpretation. Social unrest and revolt have often been associated with rising unemployment, the best known example being the German Nazi movement at the end of the 1920s.

The claim that viewers with increased levels of antisocial aggression are motivated to seek out crime dramas, draws on the homeostatic theories which state that the mind seeks equilibrium (Osgood & Tannenbaum, 1955) or congruity (Festinger, 1957). Intensified feelings of antisocial aggression may place an individual in conflict with his or her immediate surroundings and previous life or values, while the ability to channel this aggression against those who break the social rules may make one feel integrated into society again and may make it easier to live with a high level of aggressive feeling. …

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