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"Media Effects" Paradigms for the Analysis of Local Television News - page 5 / 7





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consequence of lawlessness and disregard for human life. Confronted with news coverage describing particular instances of complex issues, people reason accordingly: poverty and crime are caused not by deep-seated economic conditions, but by dysfunctional behavior. The appropriate remedy for crime is not improved job training programs and economic opportunity, but harsh and unconditional punishment. By shaping viewers’ attributions of causal and treatment responsibility for crime, the episodic frame indirectly influences crime-related attitudes. People who subscribe to individualistic accounts of crime, for example, are more likely to favor greater spending on law enforcement and to express greater support for the police (see Iyengar, 1991; 1996). By influencing attributions of responsibility, episodic framing of crime also shapes attitudes towards the criminal justice process.

What is especially striking about the episodic news frame for crime is the frequency with which it conveys explicit racial cues. The focus on a particular perpetrator and the visual emphasis of television mean that as depicted in the news, the principal antecedent of criminal behavior is race (see Gilliam and Iyengar, forthcoming, Entman, 1992).

By associating crime and race, local news necessarily interjects racial stereotypes into the public's understanding of crime. Viewers are compelled to evaluate their racial beliefs in light of what seem to be empirical realities. Iyengar’s framing experiments suggested that news of crime in black neighborhoods made viewers more likely to offer either individualistic (e.g. character flaws) or punitive (e.g. insufficient retribution) attributions of responsibility for crime (Iyengar, 1991). Because attributions of causal and treatment responsibility for crime and poverty proved to be significant attitude cues, the racial component of crime news also contributed to opinionation more generally.

The most unequivocal evidence concerning the racial element of the crime news script has been provided by Gilliam and Iyengar (see Gilliam and Iyengar, 1998, 1997). Their experiments demonstrate that the presence of a black rather than white perpetrator in local news reports is meaningful to viewers. Specifically, the skin color of the alleged perpetrator matters to viewers’ opinions concerning both race and crime. Using computer-based editing techniques, the researchers present the same individual as either a white or African-American male. The results show that when the suspect in the news was African-American, significantly more viewers endorsed punitive criminal justice policies (the death penalty, "three strikes," increased funding for prisons). In addition, the racial manipulation strengthened viewers’ racial stereotypes (ratings of blacks as lazy and unintelligent) and lowered evaluations of black leaders such as Jesse Jackson (Gilliam and Iyengar, 1998). However, Gilliam and Iyengar found that the racial element of crime news was overshadowed by any exposure to crime news as an antecedent of racial attitudes. That is, viewers’ tendency to stereotype African-Americans and their negative evaluations of black leaders became more pronounced in response to the crime-no crime rather than the white perpetrator-black perpetrator manipulation (see Gilliam and Iyengar, 1998). This result suggests that viewers have internalized the racial element of crime news, so much so that any reference to crime is sufficient to trigger negative racial attitudes.

Not only does exposure to crime news influence viewers’ attitudes, we can expect that it will also serve to increase the relevance of racial stereotypes as a basis for judging the performance of elected officials or for choosing between candidates for elective office. In effect, local news programming "racializes" public discourse by making policy choices increasingly intertwined with questions of race. A recent study by Mendelberg is revealing (Mendelberg, 1997). Mendelberg found significant priming effects of exposure to the 1988 "Willie Horton" advertisement used by the Bush campaign. Among participants exposed to the Horton ad., racial prejudice was a stronger predictor of support for particular social welfare and civil rights policies than among control participants who did not view the ad. (Mendelberg,

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