Skip to main content

Fear of crime related to prime-time television violence

PHILADELPHIA – Has watching television made people afraid of crime?

A new study finds that Americans’ answer to one of the long-running questions in a Gallup poll – are you afraid to walk alone in your neighborhood at night? – may be influenced by the amount of violence shown on television dramas.

The study, by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, found that the American public’s fear of crime is statistically related to the amount of violence portrayed on prime-time TV.

Published in the online journal Media and Communication, the study compared annual changes in the amount of violence portrayed on popular prime-time broadcast dramas from 1972 through 2010 with changes in national rates of response to the Gallup poll question over that period.

Even though the actual crime rate has fallen, according to FBI statistics, the study found that TV violence has increased since the late 1990s. The public’s fear of crime, as assessed by the Gallup annual crime survey, has also begun to rise again since that time.

“We now have stronger evidence that the fictional treatment of crime on TV may influence the public’s fears of crime,” said Dan Romer, co-author of the study and an associate director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC).

APPC researchers studied violent sequences in 475 hours of commercial-free nighttime broadcast dramas, which included a heavy representation of police, legal, and medical shows. The researchers found – even after factoring out changes in FBI crime rates and people’s perceptions of change in crime rates – that the poll results fell and rose along with TV violence.

The number of violent sequences per TV hour fell from a high of 6.5 in 1972 to 1.4 in 1996, and then increased to 3.7 in 2010. Each additional violent sequence per hour predicted an increase of 1 percentage point in the people who told Gallup they were afraid of walking alone at night in their neighborhood.

“The findings are consistent with media scholarship in the 1960s and ’70s that predicted effects of fictional TV violence on audiences,” said Patrick E. Jamieson, the lead author of the study and director of APPC’s Adolescent Risk Communication Institute.  “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.”

For the complete news release, click here. For the study in Media and Communication, click here.

News coverage of the study: