If it bleeds, it leads, as the saying goes: Violence is omnipresent in media, and when consumed through news on a regular basis, it drums up support for continuing the status quo in the criminal justice system.
That’s one finding from new research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which examined how media consumption and social networks influence anxiety about crime and opinions about the justice system.
Husker sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler used surveys from 550 Nebraskans to gather data about media consumption, violence in media, acquaintances in the criminal justice system, victimization and trust in news to see what has the most impact on opinions about crime and punishment.
The most significant finding, Kort-Butler said, is that if respondents felt that the news was reliable and they were exposed to violent content in the news, it was more likely that they were more anxious and mad about crime – as well as more likely to support the current criminal justice system.
This finding helps shed light on why criminal justice reform, debated in many states on topics such as overcrowded prisons and addiction crises, may struggle to gain support when violence is shown often on the nightly news and in social media.
“If you think TV news is reliable and is telling the whole story about crime, then that makes a person more worried and angry,” Kort-Butler said. “At the same time, someone is going to double down and support the criminal justice system and want more of the same. More prisons, more law enforcement, more surveillance and so on.”
The study also found that those who had been victimized or knew a crime victim were worried and angry about crime, but they did not necessarily support the current criminal justice system.
“When they encounter information about crime in the media, that tends to amp up whatever they’re feeling – whether it’s anger, worry or further eroding support for the justice system,” Kort-Butler said. “They’re digesting the information with a different lens.”
Surprisingly, she said, knowing someone who works in the criminal justice system did not affect views about crime or the system. Also, viewing violent movies had no effect – but consumption of violence through the internet did increase anger and worry.
The study examined various types of media, from print and broadcast news to TV shows and social media. Few studies have put mass media, people’s own experiences with crime and attitudes toward crime side by side, she said. That’s becoming more important as media consumerism becomes more disjointed.
“We’re beyond the age of everyone getting the same newspaper and the same news broadcasts,” Kort-Butler said. “We now have the ability to seek out the information we want, and we need to look more at how all media overlap.”