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Study: TV Violence Linked To ‘Imagined’ Fears Of Real-Life US Crime

Benjamin Fearnow
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The amount of fictional violence depicted on television has created a “mean world syndrome,” where TV audiences exposed to increasing levels of violent programming create an “imagined world” of fear and paranoia that does not parallel real-life decreasing crime rates.  (Photo Illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The amount of fictional violence depicted on television has created a “mean world syndrome,” where TV audiences exposed to increasing levels of violent programming create an “imagined world” of fear and paranoia that does not parallel real-life decreasing crime rates. (Photo Illustration by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

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Philadelphia, Pa. (CBS DC) – The amount of fictional violence depicted on television has created a “mean world syndrome,” where TV audiences exposed to increasing levels of violent programming create an “imagined world” of fear and paranoia that does not parallel real-life decreasing crime rates.

Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center find evidence of a parallel between increasingly violent broadcast television programming since the 1990s, and audiences’ real-life fears of crime – despite the fact that actual crime rates have fallen dramatically in the same time period.

The University of Pennsylvania study suggests that people’s real-life fears about crime rise and fall with the amount of violence being shown on television. The findings suggest that TV violence “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,” write the authors.

“We now have stronger evidence that the fictional treatment of crime on TV may influence the public’s fears of crime,” Dan Romer, co-author of the study and an associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, told Deadline. By seeing crime dramatized on TV at a higher rate, people do not think there is more crime in their neighborhood, but “by seeing it dramatized, it makes people more afraid of whatever crime there is.”

The study covered a sampling of popular TV broadcast shows between 1972 and 2010. Shows analyzed over the four decades included “Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Hill Street Blues, House M.D., and Law & Order.”

Using FBI crime statistics and Gallup poll data, the number of violent sequences per hour on television actually fell from a high of 6.5 in 1972 to 1.4 in 1996 – followed by an increase to 3.7 in 2010. Each additional violent segment per hour paralleled an increase of 1 percentage point in people who reported to Gallup that they were afraid of walking alone at night in their own neighborhood.

“The findings are consistent with media scholarship in the 1960s and ’70s that predicted effects of fictional TV violence on audiences,” Patrick Jamieson, lead author of the study, told the Hollywood Reporter. “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 research is rooted in “cultivation theory,” which maintains that prolonged exposure to media violence creates a dramatically darker and more dangerous view of crime in the world. The late dean of Annenberg, George Gerbner, testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1981 that this “mean world syndrome” could create an environment of political oppression.

“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, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television.”

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