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The amount of fictional crime depicted on television has increased since the late 1990s and so has the level of real-life fear among those who have been watching, even though the actual crime rate has fallen, according to a study released Wednesday.
Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center used a combination of FBI crime statistics, Gallup poll data and findings from its own study of 475 hours of broadcast TV dramas from 1972 through present day to determine that the “mean world syndrome” exists.
In 1972, there were 6.5 violent sequences per TV hour but that number fell to just 1.4 by 1996, then it rose to 3.7 by 2010. Over the years, Gallup polls indicated that the level of fear people had about real crime had risen and fallen in relation to the amount of fictional crime depicted on television.
Since the late 1990s, fictional crime has increased on TV and fear of crime also has increased, but in the same time frame actual crime rates have fallen, according to Annenberg, Gallup and the FBI.
The study is grounded in “cultivation theory,” which holds that prolonged exposure to television violence creates fear of crime and a view that the world is a more dangerous place. George Gerbner, the late dean of Annenberg at the University of Pennsylvania, called the phenomenon the “mean world syndrome,” and he testified before a U.S. House of Representatives Sub Committee in 1981 that it could lead to political malfeasance.
“Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong tough measures and hard-line postures,” Gerbner said in 1981. “They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television.”
The mean world syndrome promoted by Gerbner and his colleagues has been controversial, but Annenberg says its new study should bolster the theory.
“The findings are consistent with media scholarship in the 1960s and ’70s that predicted effects of fictional TV violence on audiences,” said Patrick Jamieson, lead author of the study. “That prediction has been controversial, but with the present results, we have the best evidence to date that TV shows can affect how safe the public feels.”
The TV sample was culled from the top-rated network dramas over four decades, including Kojak and Hawaii Five-O from the 1970s; Hill Street Blues and Trapper John M.D. from the 1980s; Law & Order and ER from the 1990s; and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and House M.D. from the 2000s.
The study found that each additional violent sequence per hour predicted a 1 percentage point increase in the people who told Gallup they were afraid of walking alone at night in their neighborhood.
“The findings suggest that TV drama may transport viewers emotionally into the imagined world of TV shows in a way that creates fear of crime beyond the influence of the national violent crime rate or the reported perception of local crime,” Jamieson said.
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