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.
Hat tip to Free Range Kids.