The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is TV making us more afraid of crime? Or burning us out on violence?

From left, Raul Esparza, Kelli Giddish, Ice-T, Mariska Hargitay and Danny Pino of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” (Warwick Saint/NBC)

Watching television dramas does not make us think that crime is more common than it actually is, a new study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania suggests. But rising violence on television appears to have some relationship to how intense our fear of crime is, even if we do not overstate our chances of being victims.

It is a finding that nods to the power of such shows to create intense emotional bonds between viewers and on-screen characters. The study’s authors, Patrick Jamieson and Daniel Romer, emphasize that their research is meant to inspire more work on what television actually does to our brains, rather than to end the conversation.

At the heart of the paper is a idea that influences a great deal of cultural criticism: cultivation theory. Originated by a professor named George Gerbner, the theory holds that “television (TV), as the dominant cultural medium, cultivated a social reality that was often at odds with objective reality.” Gerbner in particular thought that television might make viewers think that crime occurs more frequently than it really does and would drive wedges between them and their neighbors, even opening the way for more authoritarian governance.

Jamieson and Romer point out that Gerbner’s research has come under criticism from any number of angles. Some television programming might have more of an impact than others. Demographics of the population already predisposed to overestimate the amount of crime in the world might seek out more crime-oriented television. And adjusting for actual crime rates in viewers’ areas might weaken the association between television and perception.

To try to figure out what was going on, Jamieson and Romer decided to figure out how many crimes were depicted on the top 30 network dramas that aired between 1972 and 2010. They compared fluctuations in those numbers with fluctuations in the responses to Gallup’s question, asked during the same period, “Is there anywhere near where you live that is, within a mile, where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?”

Their conclusions? While the data are not strong enough to suggest that watching television dramas causes more intense fear of crime, fear of crime and violence on television do appear to trend together.

“TV audiences may be transported into a fictive world in which the effects of portrayed violence are experienced emotionally by the audience but do not lead to changes in the perceived prevalence of crime,” Jamieson and Romer wrote. “We find it noteworthy that both TV violence and fear of crime have changed in tandem over time in recent years even though the actual violent crime rate has declined over this period.”

So what is going on here? Television has always been a responsive medium, with a development cycle that means it catches up to our fears and loves a year or two after they manifest on broad scale. Sometimes, of course, networks get lucky: Fox’s “24” was in production before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and became a smash hit as the United States grappled with new anxieties about terrorism.

It is an intriguing question whether an upswing in terrorism-themed shows might be provoking particularly intense anxieties about crimes. Romer told me that the study’s authors included terrorism-related acts of violence in their counts but did not distinguish them from other crimes.

There are other sorts of data that might be useful, too. The Gallup data that the researchers used as a measure of fear of crime do not look at anxieties about particular sorts of offenses, particularly sex crimes, which are the focus of shows such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

“Women report more fear of crime on surveys and the source of the discrepancy is not clear,” Romer wrote in an e-mail. “Men are more likely to be victims of murder but women are more likely to be victims in domestic disputes and of course in rapes. So, these sorts of situations may loom larger in women’s minds. Gerbner argued that movies and TV tend to show women as victims more than men, and this may also play a role.”

And finally, the rise of cable television may be playing a role in how Americans feel about crime. These series, which have license to depict much more graphic violence than their broadcast network counterparts, have become increasingly popular. But they are also often hyper-stylized and set in environments very different from our own, be it a zombie apocalypse or a fictionalized medieval kingdom.

“We are also exploring what happens to viewers as they are exposed to more and more of this kind of programming,” Romer said. “It may be that we are getting desensitized to it and less likely to be shocked by it.”