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Criminality on Television: a qualitative review

Executive Summary

This report will extensively cover the question on how criminality is covered on television. Among the pivotal issues include various points of perception from various authors, associated theories, findings and recommendations for action and further research. The paper is exclusively based on qualitative research and critical analysis of the facts available on crime and television.

How is criminality represented on television?

Every evening people come back home from work wore out but in an attempt to relax with television, they are shocked to learn of crime news that inflicts terror and endless fear to them. Does presentation of criminality on television news contribute to more incidences of crime in the society?


Reports on criminality on television have been obtained from books, journals and research reports from various authors. Authors had collected facts from the newspapers, magazines and police investigation reports. The reports used to compile this paper were obtained by researchers who had applied both empirical and conceptual approaches to research. The researchers also applied both qualitative and quantitative means before deriving conclusions about crime issues on television. However, this research report only used secondary materials.

Literature Review

The question of crime on television has been a subject of debate for the last two decades. Seemingly, there is some danger as the whole world concentrates on technological innovation for entertainment. According to Cordner, 2010, three in every four Americans think that there is a positive relationship between the violence on television and the reported national crime rate. Further research indicates that most Americans believe that crime shows on television and news highly contribute to the high murder rate in the United States. Roman, 2005, subscribes to this claim, adding that for 60 years now, Americans have been exposed to interpersonal and collective aggression, gory images, gunshots and even death on television. Some are only attracted to a crime scene in a television show and nothing else.

According to Gerbner & Gross, 1976, the cultivation theory is an influential analysis on the effects of television on the public which works on the assumption that the prime-time television airs programs which portray a world full of menace that what takes place in the real world. It is based on cultivating what is fed to the mind.

Media research’s historical roots can be traced back to World War II when radio and cinemas carried a whole host of crime that raised concern among criminologists, sociologists and psychologists. As television came in, there were about two or three shows every week which presented incidences of crime to the viewers. Scholars were quick to mention that such a frequency could be considerably influential, thus posing immense risk to the viewers. Perhaps this was attributed to by the fact that the law did not regulate what was shown on television.

According to Hetsroni, most of television content aired by commercial broadcasters may be defined as infotainment or fictional entertainment. Just after commercial broadcasting on television took off, researchers noticed a ubiquitous presence of crime in the United States. Innocent plotlines in the early 1950s indicated that a fifth of the total protagonists in all prime-time programs were either law enforcers or criminals. The number; which is comparably higher than the population figure has risen over the past five decades.

Diefenbach and West (2001), say that murder is a thousand times more present on the small screen. Rape is three times less popular than murder while aggravated assault and robbery are represented moderately. In general, television drama is richer in crime by approximately 15 percent and poorer in nonviolent crime and programs by approximately 10 percent.

According to Lett, DiPietro & Johnson, 2011, television drama is responsible for nurturing two types of criminals in the society. These include the professional deviant criminal who enjoys and looks forward to improving his/her life of crime and the established citizen that turns to crime in order to maintain or at least improve his/her standard of living. The former type is highly characterized by nonrecurring roles in courtroom drama, police drama as well as medical drama. His personality can’t be analyzed in depth because his/her participation in the program is always limited to his involvement in the scene of crime. The latter type is characterized by a multifaceted personality and leading roles in TV shows. His/her choice to be largely involved in crime scenes on television forms a large part of the plot. The involvement receives a focused explanation, not just a mere justification. In the business arena, crime among the middle class businessman may be used to indicate the drive for moving on to the uppermost social class through illegal methods.

But one may ask whether crime shows pay off the screen? Well, the answer is yes because 66 percent of the crime cases reported to the police in the real world are usually unsolved. However, the television presents a totally different contrast because more than 60 percent of crime cases are usually solved. In the real world, there is a very long multi-step saga in the investigation process while crimes on TV usually concentrate on dramatic phases of the juridical procedure. And there is a gradual change in the verdict because more than five decades ago, it was almost obvious that a criminal had to be convicted. However, more recent TV programs such as Boston Legal leave an open end like a criminal escaping out of prison (Roman, 2005). This is quite destructive to the viewer who may undermine police orders and constantly seek for ways of emulating the stars on television. The programs also present scenes of excessive force applied by the police—which may undermine the rights of detainees in the real world.


As a general principle, we are always influenced by what we see and even interact with. And as a matter of fact, the unexpected and overly surreptitious nature of crime that takes place in the real world makes the act of singling out and assessing the impact of a single factor on the society such as the television quite impractical. Therefore, a number of conclusions and findings based on the influence of crime as presented on television are either historical or indirect and derived from laboratory experiments.

Most researchers use the approach of studying the impact of these scenes on the individuals and the society as a whole. Many of them have reported the aggression brought about by observational learning from the viewers. According to Hennigan, Heath, Wharton, Del-Rosario, Cook & Calder, 1982, an aggregate of historical crime rate studies show a sharp increase in the level of crime in the United States shortly after introduction of televised crime.

Pediatricians, scientists and child researchers have increasingly conducted studies on the influence of televised crime on the society. Bandura and Ross, child researchers, carried out a somewhat shocking study on the effects of violence and crime in TV shows on children. They took a number of children and put them together into two groups. The first group was shown a videotape of a young girl who acted aggressively with a doll. The girl in question hit the doll and kicked it hard. Children in the second group were shown, in a different room, a videotape of a young girl who was playing nicely with a doll. After some days, children in group A were given a doll and put in a separate room. Guess what? They were aggressive with the doll, beating it and kicking it hard. On the other hand, children in the second group played nicely with their doll. The conclusion about this study is that children are likely to imitate what they see on television.

Bandura and Ross further indicate that 47 percent of the crime shown on television portrays the victim as going unharmed. This is not uncommon in cartoon programs. And these victims, in most cases, come back unharmed. This leaves the children with the belief that violence doesn’t really hurt. It’s also shocking that 73 percent of crime individuals in cartoons and other shows watched by children usually go unpunished. A young child who is actively developing the faculties of the mind will pick the lesson that nothing is done when you commit a crime.

They further derive the finding that the television is a powerful teacher to the child because, rather than reporting a matter to the police, individuals in crime scenes always solve their problems by fighting. This ideally means to the child that crime is a good way to solve problems in the society. A movie title is always presented by the lead character in the crime. This individual, the main actor, is always praised and presented as a hero. Therefore, children are taught that it is the individual who commits crime that is heroic. At the end of the day, a child can’t different something unreal from what is real.

Signorielli, 2005, says that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States Surgeon General appointed two separate committees to investigate the relationship between televised violence and the actual violence in the American society. Both committees came up to the conclusion that there is a connection between televised crime and actual crime. However, this relationship, according to those committees, is not strong but it is heavily mitigated.


Does televised crime really affect the behaviour of individuals in the society? Yes it does. Eron & Huesman (1980) carried out a survey among young people by dividing them into two different groups. The survey was conducted in two different periods: when the children were aged 9 and 13. The researchers were able to come up with a positive correlation between the young people’s preference for crime and violent programs when they were aged 9 and the response about 4 years later. While it can’t be explicitly said that television programs affect the child in later years of his/her life, it is still difficult to determine whether the violence in an individual’s later years of life is caused by media exposure or they are tempted to emulate their favourite characters in those aggressive television programs. This coincides with the cultivation theory’s proposition.

It is not uncommon to find parents concerned about their children; particularly with reference to what they see on television. Parents are always concerned that the morals of their children will decay and they will become bad people in the society who may bring down the name of the family in question. To support these claims, a research study was carried out in 1997. There were 1,204 respondents aged 18 years or more. They were asked to evaluate the risks posed by environmental factors to themselves and their families at large. Some of these environmental factors include floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, blood transfusion, explosion, fires, street drugs, nuclear power plants, nuclear waste, violent crime, handguns and vaccines. They were also asked to report the risk posed to Americans with respect to cell phones, chemical manufacturing, asteroids, sexual violence and other facets as well. The research results indicated that there was a high correlation between the level of crime in the society and the exposure to similar incidents on the television. Television crime presented the most serious threats to individuals, their families as well as the general public (Daniel Romer, Kathleen Hall Jamieson & Sean Aday, 1998).

Do the number and nature of crime incidences reported have a relationship to what the individuals committing crime view on television? Well, there is a great disparity as to the conclusions in this matter but a greater bias agrees that there is a relationship between the two variables. Hetsroni & Tukachinsky, 2006, established from various experiments and studies that there is a relatively small but unusually significant correlation between the amount of time devoted to television program viewing and the rising number of criminals.


Even though there isn’t a 100 percent correlation between crime in the real world and what is shown to the viewers on television, we can deduce the fact that to some extent, television affects the thinking and behavior of young people as they grow up. Moreover, we always get role models from what see and interact it on a regular basis. That’s why children of politicians are likely to become politicians and those of sportsmen likewise. More experiments, however, need to be carried out to prove this fact beyond doubt.
Reference List

Bandura A & Ross, C 1977, Bandura Social Learning Theory, Printice-Hall, New Jersey, USA

Gary, C 2010, Reducing Fear of Crime: Strategies for Police, U.S. Department of Justice, Philadelphia, USA

Daniel, R, Kathleen H, J, & Sean, A 1998, Television News and the Cultivation of Fear of Crime, Journal of Communication 53(1): 88-104

Lett, D M, DiPietro, L, A & Johnson, I, D 2011, Examining Effects of Television News Violence on College Students through Cultivation Theory, Communication Research Reports, Vol. 21, No.1, pp.39-46
Hennigan, K, M, Heath, L, Wharton, J, D, DelRosario, M, L, Cook, T, D & Calder, B, J 1982, Impact of the Introduction of Television on Crime in the United States – Empirical Findings and Theoretical Implications, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,Volume:42, Issue 3,March 1982, pp.461-477

Hetsroni, A & Tukachinsky, R,H 2006, Television-World Estimates, Real-World Estimates, and Television Viewing: A New Scheme for Cultivation, Journal of Communication, Vol. 56, Issue 1, pp.133-156

Huesmann, L.R., Fischer, P., & Eron L, D 1984, Cognitive Processes and the Persistence of Aggressive Behaviour, Wheelan Publishing, Cullompton, UK

Nancy, Signorielli 2005, Violence in the Media: A Reference Handbook (Contemporary World Issues), ABC-CLIO, California, USA

Rebecca, Paynich & Brian, Hill 2011, Fundamentals of Crime Mapping: Principles and Practice, Jones and Barlett Publishers, London, UK

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