Warning: NYPD Blue may affect your opinion of the President

October 04, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Television viewers don't develop their views about the president and national politics just by watching the news. New research suggests that crime dramas like NYPD Blue and Third Watch may have an influence on political attitudes as well.

In three related studies, researchers found that viewers of crime dramas were more likely than others to view crime as one of the top issues - and often the top issue - facing our country.

Moreover, these concerns about crime significantly influenced the viewers' overall opinions about the president, the findings showed. "The entertainment media can have a significant impact on political attitudes," said R. Andrew Holbrook, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in political science at Ohio State University.

"Entertainment programs that have just a small bit of political content may serve as a cue for people about how to think, especially for those who watch regularly."

And crime dramas aren't the only entertainment programs influencing voters. In a new study still underway, preliminary evidence suggests that doctor dramas like ER affect political views about health care.

Holbrook conducted the studies with Timothy Hill, an assistant professor of political science at Doane College who received his PhD from Ohio State. Their crime drama results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Political Communication.

The results are surprising, Holbrook said, in part because they were unexpected.

Holbrook and Hill didn't start out to explore how crime dramas affected political views. They wanted to see how NBC's political drama The West Wing, about a fictional president, affected attitudes towards the real president.

So they had 213 undergraduate college students watch either an episode of The West Wing or NBC's crime drama Third Watch. After viewing an episode of one of the two shows, the students were asked a variety of political questions, including one in which they were to list the most important problem facing the nation.

Viewers of Third Watch were supposed to be a control group, one that the researchers could use as a comparison to the group they were really interested in, The West Wing viewers.

But when they were analyzing the data, the researchers found something surprising: while only 11.5 percent of The West Wing viewers mentioned crime as the most important problem facing the nation, 27 percent of Third Watch viewers indicated so.

"The difference was so striking that we knew we had to investigate this further," Holbrook said.

So they did a second experiment, nearly identical to the first, in which they had 154 undergraduates watch one of two crime dramas - Without A Trace and Robbery Homicide Division - or two family dramas, Everwood and American Dreams.

In this experiment, the participants were asked, immediately after viewing one of the programs, to list the three most important issues facing the country. While only 10 percent of the participants viewing a family drama listed crime as one of their choices, 30 percent of those watching a crime drama did so.

"What is surprising is that just watching one crime drama seems to increase the importance of crime as an issue to viewers," Holbrook said.

In this study, done in 2002, the researchers also wanted to see how watching the crime drama might affect how viewers rated the performance of President George W. Bush.

Results showed that viewers of the crime dramas were more likely to use evaluations of the president's handling of crime in rating his overall performance. These crime drama viewers had lower overall approval ratings for President Bush.

"We believe that watching crime drama can be a negative experience as people view the violence, and they may misattribute these negative feelings to the president," he said.

While the results were strong in these controlled experiments, Holbrook said he and Hill wanted to see if the findings held true in the outside world.

So they examined data from the 1995 National Election Study (NES) Pilot Study. Along with a variety of political questions, the survey asked the nationwide sample how often they viewed the crime drama NYPD Blue.

The researchers found that weekly viewers of NYPD Blue were almost twice as likely as others to report crime as being the most important problem facing the nation. This was after taking into account a variety of factors - including demographics and overall media and television use - that might also affect the results.

But the findings only held true for weekly viewers, Holbrook said. People who watched only occasionally were no different in their views of crime than people who didn't watch at all.

This suggests that the earlier experiments, in which people watched just one episode of a crime drama, might be capturing only short-term effects.

"We believe that the way these programs really affect political attitudes is by frequently emphasizing the crime issue, so that it becomes ingrained in the minds of viewers," Holbrook said.

This study also reinforced the earlier findings that viewers of crime dramas are more likely to judge the president on how he handles crime. In this case, regular viewers of NYPD Blue were more likely to judge President Clinton on his handling of crime than were others. And their ratings of Clinton's handling of crime also were a significant contributor to their overall opinion of the president.

In new studies currently underway, the researchers are replicating these studies looking at how viewing of the drama ER, set in a hospital emergency room, impacts viewers' opinions about health care.

The preliminary results are nearly identical, Holbrook said. Regular viewers of ER are more likely than others to view health care as a top issue, and they are more likely to evaluate the president on his handling of the health care issue.

The results of all these studies cast new light on the debate about the blurring of lines between news and entertainment programs, said Kathleen McGraw, Holbrook's faculty adviser and professor and interim chair of Ohio State's Department of Political Science.

"Political scientists and communication scholars have tended to focus on the news media -- television and newspapers -- in their search for media effects that are politically consequential," McGraw said.

"This study is an important contribution to the media-effects literature because the researchers argue that entertainment shows, such as crime dramas like NYPD Blue, can also systematically influence citizens' political views."

Holbrook noted that some observers have been especially concerned about programs like The Daily Show, which has elements of news and entertainment. Some believe that such shows might be confusing to viewers.

"That's not the real issue," Holbrook said. "Our results suggest that people don't have neat dividing lines in their brains between entertainment and political news.

"People go back and forth between the two rather easily. That doesn't mean they don't know the difference between entertainment and reality. But they find they can use examples from television programs to illustrate points in real life."
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State University

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