media massages and social justice

Mayo Clinic researchers recently presented a study that compared the incidence and type of crime depicted on popular CSI television shows and CDC data. The results are not all that surprising, but they point out that there are real public health issues related to how we conceptualize risk.

When researchers compared the shows to the CDC data, they discovered the strongest misrepresentations were related to alcohol use, relationships, and race among perpetrators and victims. Previous studies of actual statistics have shown that both perpetrator and victim were often under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs when the crime occurred, differing from what the shows portrayed. Also, CSI and CSI: Miami were more likely to have described the victim and the attacker as Caucasian, which is misrepresentative. Finally, according to the CDC data, homicide victims typically knew their assailant; however, the television series were more likely to have portrayed the perpetrator as a stranger. All of these findings were significantly different when compared to the data.

There are, of course, social justice issues involved as well as public health ones. If the only crime victims who we sympathize with are white, if we build up a fear of stranger violence and neglect intimate partner violence, if we forget that mastermind criminals are rare and drunks behaving stupidly are not, it influences what interventions and punishments we fund and how we conduct criminal justice in this country, which is often criminal but not always justice.

I’ve borrowed from the research of Joel Best, Philip Jenkins, and others to think about how anxiety is used in the formation of social issues (it’s something we also talk about in a course I teach) and how crime fiction reflects the manipulation of anxiety involved in claims-making in some interesting ways.

More about the study can be found here and on YouTube.

Hat tip to Free Range Kids.

2 Responses to media massages and social justice

  1. bernadetteinoz says:

    Fascinating topic Barbara and I have bookmarked the articles to read properly later when I have more time. The entire topic strikes a chord with me right now not for crime fiction reasons but because I work in the health sector which has become mired in spending fortunes on things that will impact very few (e.g. swine flu) while things that will impact many (alzheimers, alcohol) are relatively ignored. The things that acquire funding and attention these days are things that can ramp up people’s fear via the media not things that are mundane and awkward to deal with.

  2. Jardinero1 says:

    I think about this topic as well. I wish that our law enforcement agencies would also study the data and allocate resources accordingly. If they did there would be few resources allocated to preventing terrorism, fighting vice or even investigating violent crime which is, statistically, extremely rare and wholly unpreventable. There are many other crimes which are much more prevalent and go wholly uninvestigated, solved or prosecuted.

    I will cite a personal example of where resources might go if they were allocated according to the apparent risk to the citizenry. I live in the Houston Metro area which comprises a little less than six million people. I was the victim of identity theft about two years ago. I reported it to my local municipal police and they informed me that they don’t investigate ID theft. They said the only police force in the metro area which does is HPD. So I report it to HPD, even though I don’t live in Houston. HPD let me know that, whereas, they will take the report they will never solve it because there are only three detectives working ID theft for the whole metro area.

    I thought that was interesting because there are 6.8 million ID thefts in the USA every year. The likelihood of being a victim, in a single year, is one in forty four. The likelihood over seven years rises to one in six. There are over 100,000 thefts, annually, in the Houston area alone and HPD allocates three detectives. Amazing.

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