Publieke ernstpercepties van criminaliteit en het verband met televisiegebruik: een kwantitatieve studie bij de Vlaamse bevolking
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AbstractThe research on public perceptions of the seriousness of crimes has emerged from the idea of public opinion as a significant force in the field of criminal law. More in particular, we argue on the basis of a literature review in different domains that the concept of serious crime is relevant in four policy stages, i.e. criminalization, priority setting for crime control, sentencing policy, and sentencing practices. Since the pioneering work of Selling and Wolfgang (1964), in the ’70s and ‘80s a bulk of studies were conducted on perceptions of crime seriousness. In the last three decennia, however, not much was published, and in Europe only a handful of studies were conducted on the topic. Moreover, our literature review revealed some conceptual and methodological flaws in previous studies. Also striking is the finding that in public opinion research within criminology in general, and in research on the perceived seriousness of crime in particular, media use was only rarely included as an influencing factor, although research has shown that people primarily rely on the mass media for information about crime. From this background, this study has two main objectives. Firstly, we aimed to re-vitalize the topic of perceived crime seriousness, introduce it in Belgium, and at the same time overcome the weaknesses of previous studies. Secondly, with the cultivation theory as a theoretical framework, we wanted to investigate the extent to which public crime seriousness perceptions and its components are – directly or indirectly – related to television exposure. To achieve these goals, reflecting the legal and criminological literatures and the content of EU policy documents, we first defined crime seriousness in terms of four components, namely, severity of crime harms, incidence of crime, incidence of crime harms and wrongfulness. On the basis of a representative survey research in Flanders, we then investigated how people perceive the seriousness, harm severity, incidence and wrongfulness of a set of ten crimes. The survey took place in 2014, employed a stratified, random sample of 3,000 residents in Flanders, and achieved a 42.6% response rate. By doing so, this is the first study on public perceptions of crime seriousness conducted in Europe since the ‘90s, and serves as the first study ever conducted in Belgium on the topic. To study the relationship between television exposure and perceived crime seriousness and its components, we first conducted a quantitative content analysis of 154 hours general television content and 15,756 news items. On the basis of the results of this analysis and previous studies, we then constructed a hypothetical model indicating possible direct and indirect relationships between television exposure and perceived crime seriousness and its components, and tested it using structural equation modeling. Results show that there is a relative consensus between the respondents, and that murder, terrorism and sexual assault are perceived as the most serious, and corporate fraud, cannabis production and trafficking as the least serious crimes. The seriousness means for all offences are high (none is lower than 7.59 on a 9-point scale) and higher than in previous studies, implying that the respondents perceive all crimes as serious to very serious. Moreover, results showed little variation between the seriousness scores of the different crimes. With regards to the components of crime seriousness, results reveal that the perceived wrongfulness and perceived severity of crime harms are significant predictors of perceived crime seriousness, but the perceived incidence of crime and its harms have no predictive power. Moreover, the perceived moral wrongfulness of crime is a much stronger predictor of perceived crime seriousness than the perceived severity of the crime harm. Furthermore, the analyses confirmed the previous finding that only a small amount of the variation in crime seriousness perceptions could be explained by socio-demographic variables: only the age of the respondents seemed a significant positive predictor of crime seriousness perceptions. Being a direct victim of one of the crimes in the survey was a significant predictor of overall, but not of crime specific crime seriousness perceptions. Lastly, structural equation modeling showed that overall television exposure did not predict respondents’ perceptions of the wrongfulness and severity of crime harms, while television news exposure did – directly and/or indirectly through intermediating variables - cultivate these perceptions. On the basis of these results, we could thus confirm Gerbner’s cultivation theory for exposure to television news, but not for overall television exposure. These findings show the scientific value and policy relevance of opening the ‘black box’ of seriousness and helps shape the debate on the role public opinion should play in relation to criminal policies. Our findings also question the classical idea of cultivation, with exposure to overall television content as the independent variable, and provide useful insights for the discussion on the function and content of television news in today’s society.
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