True Crime - True Crime The Origins of Modern...

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True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism JOY WILTENBURG A few years ago, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a study finding that "heavy watchers" of television news reports greatly overestimated the incidence of crime in their communities, as compared with "light watchers." In the newspaper's survey of local residents, none of the respondents had an accurate idea of the incidence of crime or their own statistical likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. But while all overestimated these figures, those exposed to the fewest reports were closest to the truth. In other words, increased consumption of true news reports actually decreased people's objective knowledge about the prevalence of crime. Despite their low or even negative informational value, such reports have substantial emotional impact. The fears sparked by perceptions of crime influence decisions about where to live, how to raise children, where to invest social wealth, what punitive governmental actions to support, how to view groups perceived as likely criminals—a broad range of choices and attitudes that affect the quality of a society and its political life. 1 This story forcefully underlines the impact of sensationalist crime reporting. Irrespective of the intent of their originators, who may see themselves as neutrally conveying factual material, the crime reports exert substantial political and cultural power. Representations of crime influence people's conceptions of their lives and communities far out of proportion to the actual incidence of criminal activity. 1 This modern example points to a number of considerations that inform this study of the historical roots of "sensationalism"—the purveyance of emotionally charged content, mainly focused on violent crime, to a broad public. First, the representation of crime operates semi- independently of crime itself. In all periods, discourses and rituals of crime, rather than direct experience of criminal acts, are the key determinants of crime's cultural impact. 2 Not specific events, but varying cultural uses of them, bring deviant actions from the margins of experience into the mainstream. Second, the social effects of such representations do not necessarily mirror the goals of their creators and purveyors. This will surprise no one but is worth pointing out, because the obvious commercial aims of sensationalism have often led to its dismissal as culturally insignificant. Third, and most important for this essay, emotion plays a central role in the reception of crime reports, in this case even ones that aimed at objectivity. If one sees the mind as divided into emotional and rational components—a dubious though time-honored division—these cultural products operate much more powerfully on the emotional side. This feature of sensationalism, like its commercialism, has downgraded its status among modern rationalists. However, just as psychology has been uncovering cognitive aspects of emotions that undermine the attempt to segregate them from the fields of knowledge and culture, scholars are
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This note was uploaded on 07/21/2011 for the course BUS 10001 taught by Professor All during the Spring '11 term at Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology.

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True Crime - True Crime The Origins of Modern...

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