and encourage the expression of racist attitudes.
In summary, local news has emerged as the ordinary citizen’s major source of information. The content of local news programming is marked by two themes: crime is violent and those who engage in crime tend to be nonwhite males. As described below, these themes are likely to make their presence felt in the minds of viewers.
Agenda-Setting and Priming Effects
More than any other issue, Americans consider crime to be the "most important problem facing this country today." The Gallup Poll has asked this question twelve times since January 1994; in eleven of the surveys, crime has dominated all other problems. What role has the media played in fanning public fear of crime? The fact that the rate of crime -- and violent crime in particular -- has dropped dramatically over the past decade would seem to suggest that the public's beliefs about crime are based not on some personal experience as a crime victim, but rather, on what they see in the news media, namely, that violent crime is a frequent daily occurrence. In the Los Angeles area, a report on violent crime airs every three minutes during local newscasts. Murder accounts for less than one percent of all crime in Los Angeles but makes up twenty percent of all local news reports on crime (see Gilliam and Iyengar, forthcoming). In the sheer frequency of crime news, Los Angeles is no outlier; violent crime accounted for two-thirds of all local news in a recent study of news programming in fifty-six different U.S. cities (Klite et al., 1997).
In keeping with the notion of media agenda-setting, the research evidence suggests that exposure to news coverage of crime contributes to the perception that crime is a serious problem. Iyengar and Kinder included illegal drugs as a "target" in one of their experiments on network news coverage. Examining various indicators, they found that viewers exposed to news coverage accorded significantly greater importance to drug abuse (Iyengar and Kinder, 1987, Ch. 3). In a series of similar experiments, this time manipulating the amount of local news coverage, Gilliam and Iyengar found that exposure to a single crime-related story heightened viewers’ fear of being victimized (Gilliam and Iyengar, forthcoming). Comparable results have been obtained in studies of newspaper coverage. Erbring and his colleagues, for instance (Erbring, Goldenberg and Miller, 1980), found that crime was the only issue for which the amount of news nationwide correlated with the level of audience concern. This body of experimental and correlational evidence thus helps explain the paradox of continued high levels of public concern for crime in the face of declining rates of criminal activity. Crime may be declining overall; information about specific acts of crime is all too visible.
In addition to estimating the net impact of news coverage on issue salience, agenda-setting researchers have attempted to identify the factors that moderate the effects of the news. Do people differ in their susceptibility to coverage of particular issues? Iyengar and Kinder hypothesized that agenda-setting would be enhanced when the target issue was personally consequential for the audience. They yoked their manipulation of news coverage to specific personal characteristics of their participants so that the issue under investigation would be especially compelling to one group of viewers. For instance, news reports about the financial difficulties facing the social security system were shown to elderly and young participants. In general, their results revealed a significant interaction between personal relevance and news coverage -- the impact of the news was greatest for viewers personally affected by the issue. The identical pattern was uncovered in the Erbring et al. study of newspapers. Readers most likely to be "at risk" -- women and the elderly -- were especially receptive to news stories dealing with crime.