Marett links crime genre TV with viewer attitudes

Emily Garrigues Marett

Watching crime genre television shows may be a guilty pleasure for many, but new research has identified benefits for viewers tuning in to one of the most popular series, "Law and Order."

A Mississippi State instructor of management is part of a recent study appearing in the Journal of Health Communication that explored the influence different crime dramas had on attitudes regarding sexual assault, rape and consent. Viewers of "Law and Order" had a better understanding of issues related to consent and were less likely to believe myths that blame sexual assault victims, whereas viewers of "CSI" and "NCIS" were linked with negative attitudes about sexual assault and consent-seeking behaviors.

Crime dramas are among the most popular TV shows and are prevalent during prime time. "Law and Order" is one of the longest running series, but the show is only one example of the genre that has entertained and captivated audiences.

Emily Garrigues Marett, an MSU instructor of management and information systems, is second author on the recently published article. The study surveyed 313 college freshmen at a large Northwestern university -- 39 percent male and 61 percent female -- and discovered that positive and negative attitudes were associated with different television shows. Those who reported watching "Law and Order" also reported reduced rape myth acceptance and increased intention to refuse unwanted sexual activity. Viewers of "CSI" reported lower intentions to seek consent for sexual activity and a lower intention to respect a partner’s expression of consent, whereas "NCIS" was associated with lower likelihood of refusing unwanted sexual activity.

Marett pointed out that the design of the study cannot prove a causal relationship, but that exposure to crime dramas is associated with different attitudes and knowledge about sexual assault. She said the study accounts for the differences in content between crime drama franchises and expands on research that has established that general crime drama viewing is associated with decreased rape myth acceptance and increased intentions to intervene as a bystander to stop a sexual assault.

“We knew from previous research that these three crime drama franchises portray sexual assault in fundamentally different ways. What we didn’t know was whether these differences had an impact on audience attitudes about sexual assault,” Marett said.

Marett said published interviews from the producers of "Law and Order" have demonstrated that they have proactively decided to ensure that the ways they portray issues related to sexual assault have positive effects on their audience.

“For example, they have publicly stated that they intentionally challenge common rape myths when they write plotlines for the show,” Marett said.

She explained that rape myths are false negative beliefs that typically justify sexual assault. For example, she said, the belief that how someone dresses may justify a sexual assault is a common rape myth. “You have the right to say no, regardless of your situation,” she added.

“All television programs should seriously question how they are portraying this issue and whether they are perpetuating the rape myths that blame the victim and make it hard for victims to seek help,” Marett said.

“People who are victims often fail to report or seek the assistance they need because they feel like they somehow deserved it. And the more these messages are in the media, it reinforces these false beliefs,” she added.

"Law and Order" also differs from the other series examined in this study because it portrays both the investigation and the legal prosecution of the criminal. The legal aspects of "Law and Order" present opportunities to better address topics that other crime dramas might omit, said Marett. “For example, the process of preparing a case for prosecution frequently requires establishing whether consent was present. This provides a valuable opportunity to clarify misperceptions around this issue.”

Marett said one significant take-away from this study is that television content really matters.

“We shouldn’t disregard television because we use it as an entertainment medium. What we see in it—how issues are portrayed in it -- it really does matter,” she said.

Marett’s research, which she conducted with lead author Stacey J. T. Hust, associate professor of communication with Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communications, among others, is gaining widespread attention in the media, appearing in such outlets as The Atlantic, The Washington Post, New York Magazine and People.

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Allison Matthews | Public Affairs

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