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The Construction of the Criminal “Other”: The Effect of Media-induced Heuristics on Attitudes Toward Sex Crimes

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

This 2-study program of research has two objectives: 1) evaluate framing and thematic representations in newspaper articles about sex offenders, sex offense, cases, and sex offender policy; and 2) measure the role of similarly framed media exemplars and heuristics on individuals’ attitudes and social judgments regarding the social problem of sex crime. Drawing upon a theoretical basis in social psychology, political psychology, and critical race theory, this research seeks to examine the role of media framing and social identity in shaping people’s attitudes toward crime, crime policy, and those who are labeled as “criminals,” particularly with respect to the particular presentation of sex crimes.

In Study 1, newspaper articles (N=43) about “sex offenses” and/or “sex offenders” in three major California newspapers were analyzed and coded for thematic frames. Analyses were informed by grounded theory (Corbin & Strauss, 1990) and coded accordingly. Independent coders established the validity of core themes, and inter-coder reliability was established using consensus agreement. In Study 2, video newscasts that vary in their framing of sex offender issues were shown to participants (N=183). Participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups based upon the independent variable they received (i.e., the video or combination of videos they watch). Participants watched either: Video A (a newscast about “sex offenders” that is similarly framed to the articles coded in Part One of this study); Video B (a newscast about “sex offenders” that eschews the types of frames found in Study 1); both Video A and Video B; or an unrelated (control) video. After the video, participants completed an 80-item questionnaire to measure their attitudes about crime generally, sex crimes, and sex offenders. Analyses of the dependent variable demonstrate that the variation in framing of the video stimuli affects the degree to which participants endorse the heuristic of the “sex predator” and the degree to which participants favored punishment of sex offenders. More specifically, participants who viewed the more sensational and fear generating news segment endorsed the “predator” characterization and favored punishment more than those who did not view this video. Results were statistically significant. Findings from these studies will have important practical and theoretical implications for understanding the role that the media plays in shaping attitudes about crime, offenders, and overall prison policy in the United States.

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