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Richard Morin

Dramatic Influences

By Richard Morin
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page B05

Some advice for political journalists and pundits trying to determine who will win the presidential election: After you've digested the latest polls, queried the strategists and perhaps even talked to a few actual voters, check out what likely voters will be watching on television the night before the election.

If more voters plan to tune into "CSI: Miami," that may bode well for John Kerry. But if more expect to be viewing "Monday Night Football," that might be good news for President Bush.

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That's one implication of new research by Andrew Holbrook, a graduate student in political science at Ohio State University, and Timothy G. Hill, an assistant professor of political science at Doane College in Nebraska. In three related studies, the researchers found that people who viewed crime dramas were more likely than others to cite crime as one of the top issues -- and often the top issue -- facing the country.

Moreover, those who regularly watched crime programs were far more likely than others to judge the president primarily on the basis of his performance on crime -- and to regard George Bush slightly more negatively as a result of having seen these shows, presumably because as the incumbent, Bush is seen as responsible. The researchers' findings will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Political Communication.

In their first study, Holbrook and Hill randomly assigned 213 students to watch one of two episodes of the crime/fire/paramedic show "Third Watch" or one of two episodes of the political drama "The West Wing." Then the students were asked to name the country's most important problem. Among those who saw a "Third Watch" episode, about one in four -- 27 percent -- volunteered that crime was at the top of their list, compared with 12 percent of those who watched "West Wing."

In a second experiment using episodes of the family dramas "Everwood" and "American Dreams" and the crime dramas "Robbery Homicide Division" and "Without a Trace," Holbrook and Hill confirmed the results of their first test. They also found that exposure to crime programs decreased overall approval of President Bush.

The researchers decided to compare their simulated findings with the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the real world. They turned to the 1995 National Election Study Pilot Study national survey, which included a question about how often respondents watched "NYPD Blue." They found that regular viewers were significantly more likely to identify crime as the country's number one problem and to evaluate the president based on their perceptions of his handling of the issue, even after controlling for factors that would seem to predispose someone to view crime as a top problem, including age, overall fear of crime and the characteristics of the neighborhood where he or she lived.

Other shows also can shape political attitudes, Holbrook said. His recent analysis of National Election Study poll data found that "weekly viewers of 'ER' tend to be more likely to see health care as the most important problem, and are much more likely to evaluate the president as to the way he is addressing health care."

Interesting. But what about those ghastly reality shows that seem to be all the rage these days? What political effect do they have?

"Maybe they increase the perception that everything is one big competition," Holbrook laughed. "But really, I don't know."

The Almost Adults

Who says kids grow up so fast these days? Certainly not a team of sociologists whose research suggests that many twenty- and thirty-somethings aren't yet adults. Instead, these young people linger for years in a newly emerging generational netherworld, these sociologists contend.

More than two-thirds of all 30-year-old men and slightly more than half of all 30-year-old women would not be considered adults under traditional definitions of adulthood, claims the group of sociologists, which included professors Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania and Ruben G. Rumbaut of the University of California-Irvine.

They seem stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. "Some features of this stage resemble coming of age during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when youth lingered in a state of semi-autonomy, waiting until they were sufficiently well-off to marry, have children and establish an independent household," the sociologists write in Contexts, a journal of sociology.

A century ago, however, most young men and women hovering on the cusp of adulthood were in their late teens, the sociologists reported. Today, many are in their thirties and still not grown up. "It takes much longer to make the transition to adulthood today than decades ago, and arguably longer than at any time in America's history," they asserted.


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