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Study: Media Instructs But Doesn't Cause Criminal Behavior

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By Karen Guin

Popular media are more likely to serve as a source of instructions for crime than to cause criminal behavior, according to a University of Central Florida study.

Professor Ray Surette examined the effect of exposure to crime in media and crime through life experiences on criminal behavior in a study published recently in the American Journal of Criminal Justice.

"Most of the research in this area has focused on the impact of violent media on aggressive behavior, not on criminal behavior," Surette said. "The influence of media on criminal behavior remains strongly debated. If there is a consensus, it's that the influence concentrates in populations with a history of crime."

For this study, Surette administered an anonymous survey to inmates at the Orange County Jail in Orlando. The respondents included 574 inmates, with equal numbers of whites and African-Americans. Fifteen percent were Hispanic, and one-fourth were females. Most of the inmates had extensive arrest histories.

The survey included questions about their criminal history; exposure to crime through family, friends and neighborhoods; and exposure to media, including television, films, music, music videos, video games, the Internet, radio, newspapers, book and magazines.

It also posed questions about their history of copying crime portrayed in media, or copycat crime. Specifically, the survey asked if they had ever looked for a fight after media use, ever wanted a gun after watching television or a movie, ever wanted a gun after listening to music, ever considered committing a crime based on media content and ever attempted a crime based on media content.

Statistical analysis revealed that both sources of information about crime, media and life experiences, contributed independently to copycat criminal behavior, but they interacted significantly. The more exposure inmates had to real-world crime, the more likely they were to report attempts to copy crime.

Surette also found that the more an inmate read, the less likely the inmate was to report copycat behavior.

About 19 percent of the inmates perceived the media as a highly helpful source of information on how to commit crime. Both attitude toward crime in media and age were significant predictors of copycat crime.

Who was most prone to report copycat crime? Younger males who were exposed to family and friends engaged in crime and who perceived media as a good source of crime information.

"The emerging picture is that of a younger male living in a high-risk situation and inclined to commit a crime for other reasons," Surette said. "He might see something in the media that kind of crystallizes it for him."

The survey results did not support a view of crime in media as a direct cause of criminal behavior, concluded Surette. "The media remains best perceived as a rudder for crime more than as a trigger."

Surette's report in the American Journal of Criminal Justice is one of three publications this year by the criminal justice professor. In Criminal Justice Policy Review, he estimates one in four offenders has attempted a copycat crime. And in his chapter in Criminal Psychology (edited by Jacqueline Helfgott), he presents a model for how the media might lead an individual to commit a copycat crime.

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