Americans encounter millions of messages every day, each striving to persuade, entertain, inform or inspire. But do these messages have an effect on the thoughts, beliefs and actions of those who consume them? Mississippi State researchers investigate if, in a word, you are what you eat.
With more than 20 crime dramas hitting network television this fall, it appears as though America’s favorite pastime has moved from the baseball diamond to a fictional interrogation room.
Packed with suspense, action and a satisfying ending, these shows, like most entertainment media, serve as a perfect distraction from the monotony of daily life. But while they take one’s mind off work worries, household duties and endless political commentary, they still convey messages to the viewer.
It’s how viewers respond to these messages that first piqued Emily Marett’s interest as a researcher.
“We study something called transportation. Basically, when you get lost in a story, suddenly your barriers go down,” Marett explained. “With advertising or political messages, we know they’re trying to persuade us and we’re resistant to that. But if you sit down to watch television, you don’t really notice the messages and how they’re affecting you because you’re just enjoying it.”
An instructor in Mississippi State’s College of Business, Marett began studying crime dramas and their impact on attitudes about sexual assault and consent as a doctoral student at Washington State University. The resulting work has been part of multiple published papers.
“We wanted to see if entertainment media could be an effective way to get people to understand the tricky issues related to sexual consent,” Marett said. “So, we looked at the viewing habits and attitudes of those who watch network crime dramas.”
Marett and her fellow researchers developed a survey to understand participants’ attitudes about sexual assault, including their likelihood to seek consent before engaging in sexual activity and feelings toward rape myths, which place blame and responsibility on the victim in an effort to justify the crime. The study also looked at participants’ consumption of televised crime dramas focusing on the “big three” franchises: “Law and Order,” “CSI” and “NCIS.”
“There were some really positive findings that excited us, but we also found some disturbing things, honestly,” Marett said. “Overall, we found that the more stereotypically a show portrayed gender roles, the more negative an impact it had on the viewers’ attitudes toward sexual assault.”
The study found that each show corresponded with different attitudes toward sexual assault. For example, viewers of “Law and Order” showed lower instances of rape myth acceptance. They also reported an increased likelihood to refuse unwanted sexual activity, while viewers of “NCIS” were less likely to refuse unwanted advances. Those who watched “CSI” were less likely to seek consent or respect a partner’s expression of consent before engaging in sexual activities.
Marett stressed that these findings do not prove a causal relationship between crime-drama viewership and attitudes toward sexual assault. However, she said it does show that the way these crimes are portrayed on television has an impact.
As an example, she points to the more positive attitudes expressed by viewers of “Law and Order,” a show produced in a way meant to discourage rape myths and encourage recognition of consent.
“The way you portray the issue matters,” Marett said. “If characters on the show blame the victim by saying the assault was her fault because of what she was wearing, what she was doing or where she was going, it’s reinforcing rape myths and not helping society get better.
“It’s a wasted opportunity to educate viewers about these topics that can be uncomfortable or even taboo to talk about,” she continued.
Colleen Sinclair, an associate professor of psychology, explained watching television—even scripted programs meant solely for entertainment—provides a type of social learning.
“You expect children to learn when you let them watch ‘Sesame Street.’ Why would you think it would be different with any other television show?” Sinclair asked. “You learn social norms through watching models and that’s what television provides.”
In her classes, Sinclair uses first dates as an example of how popular media provides scripts for how to behave in certain situations. Ask people who have never been on a first date to describe how it would go and their responses would likely follow the same general process. That, she explains, is because those events are portrayed so often in television and movies that it’s become part of our culture.
While these media-supplied scripts for a first date will likely be supplemented or altered by viewers’ own firsthand experiences or those relayed by their peers, scripts that depict uncommon situations might have a more lasting impact on a person’s attitudes and beliefs. When those scripts are based on portrayals that have been exaggerated and fictionalized in an effort to entertain, the viewer might be confused when a similar situation presents itself in real life.
Having studied media depictions of persistent pursuit, or stalking, Sinclair sees how fictional portrayals meant to entertain can affect people in the real world.
“In the media, you see persistent pursuit cast as either a joke or where someone is going to kill your pet and leave it on your doorstep. It’s one extreme or the other,” Sinclair said. “That really doesn’t capture what happens in most cases and could leave real stalking victims less likely to report their experience if it doesn’t match the portrayals of ‘serious stalking.’”
She added that these portrayals can also affect what is seen as socially acceptable, meaning someone might not realize that repeatedly calling or being called by an ex could be a form of harassment.
“There are a lot of different ways that entertainment media can be both a mirror of our society and something that we end up reflecting,” Sinclair said.
It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, explained Nicole Rader, an associate professor of sociology. While she says parents, friends and school are among the most important influences on a person’s social learning, she sees where socialization from those sources begins to follow the scripts conveyed through entertainment media.
“Media presents a very particular image of victimization and crime to viewers, and it’s one that doesn’t necessarily match up with reality,” Rader said. “With crime and victimization, social learning is more important than experience because most people won’t experience it firsthand.”
A criminologist by training, Rader studies how network television talks about victims, offenders and society as a whole. Through content analysis of popular crime dramas, including Nielsen-rating leaders like “Criminal Minds” and “Law and Order: SVU,” she and her fellow researchers studied who was portrayed as the victims and perpetrators of violent crime, as well as how other characters on the show responded to the victim.
“One thing we wanted to study was what attributes made the fictional victims more likely to be blamed for their own assault and how that translates to the public,” Rader explained.
Rader found that in the 124 episodes studied, victims of intimate- partner violence were more likely than those attacked by strangers to be blamed for their victimization—either by law enforcement, lawyers, neighbors or themselves. She also found the demographics of many fictional crime victims and the circumstances surrounding their attacks did not match actual crime statistics.
For example, Rader explained that in television dramas, women, particularly white women, are portrayed as crime victims much more frequently than they are victimized in real life. She said the crimes also perpetuate the idea of “stranger danger” when in reality, women are most likely to be attacked by someone they know.
“What we’ve seen is that even when a woman is the victim of something like date rape, she is still most afraid of a stranger jumping out of the bushes,” Rader explained. “They think their experience with date rape is not the norm because they’ve been taught that stranger danger is where the real risk is.
“In the end, you have some groups that are overly fearful and others that maybe don’t recognize their full risks because it’s not being reflected by entertainment media,” Rader continued.
Entertainment media, she said, really does help set the tone for society.
Sinclair explained that the potential of entertainment media to slip past viewers’ natural barriers to persuasion means it’s important to actively think about what’s being shown.
“It’s not that it’s bad to consume entertainment media, it’s just that you have to engage in processing what you’re seeing,” Sinclair explained. “If you have an attitude about something, you need to look back to see where the underlying belief is coming from.”
Sinclair said understanding the root of attitudes and beliefs is especially important before acting upon them. But, she stressed, having a media-inspired thought or feeling alone is not likely to make someone take an action.
A media-driven fear of danger lurking in the shadows might cause a woman to carry pepper spray. And a media-fed belief in rape myth might make a juror less sympathetic to a victim of date rape. But bingeing on “CSI” or “Breaking Bad” is not likely to send a law-abiding citizen on a crime spree.
“Constant exposure to violent or crime-related media might desensitize the viewer or remove some roadblocks, but it would be just one small line on a very complex model of all the circumstances that contribute to someone crossing that line,” Sinclair said.
Kevin Williams agrees. An associate professor of communication, he has spent most of his academic career studying media effects, particularly whether or not violent video games make players more likely to commit violent acts in real life.
“It sounds sexy to blame consumption of violent content for someone’s violent actions,” Williams said, “but it’s not a magic trigger that’s going to cause that behavior.”
Williams explained that video games—whether violent or not—are more likely to affect players’ moods than their underlying morality. So, a losing round of “Call of Duty” or even “Candy Crush” could increase a player’s feelings of anger or frustration in the short term, but not make a person act on those feelings.
“One stimulus, like a video game, isn’t going to turn someone into a killer or a rapist,” Williams said. “It can impact their beliefs. It can emotionally and physiologically desensitize them to it, but it won’t make them take an action that goes against their moral code.
“There have to be underlying mental, emotional and environmental issues that would cause a person to break those ultimate societal taboos,” he continued.
However, like Marett’s studies of transportation as a way to educate viewers through entertainment television, Williams sees how getting lost in play could make video games a valuable tool.
“My recent work focuses on how people interact with video games: What draws them in? What makes them lose track of time while playing?” Williams explained. “If I’m training you to do a task and can make four hours feel like one by getting you immersed in the process, then that has beneficial applications in many fields.”
With smartphones putting Internet access, streaming services and video games at everyone’s fingertips, Williams said entertainment media, specifically video games, are creating a huge cultural convergence that crosses ages, genders and location.
“With more and more people playing, the traditional definition of a ‘gamer’ is changing,” Williams said. “It’s becoming something that links people across demographics, and as technology becomes better and better, entertainment media is going to play a bigger role in shaping things.”