Never Seen A Ghost? Then TV May Be Your Teacher

October 30, 1997

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- This season's prime-time television lineup of angels, space aliens, witches and other oddities may influence people to believe in such creatures, according to a survey by a Purdue University communication expert.

Glenn Sparks, professor of communication, and colleagues conducted a random telephone survey of 120 people in a small Midwestern city. The researchers wanted to know whether exposure to paranormal phenomena on television affected belief in such things as unidentified flying objects, ghosts, devils and extra-sensory perception.

Sparks says belief in the paranormal is more complicated than it might seem. He says many factors such as age, family, religion and education influence one's beliefs. "After all these other variables are considered, the fact that television even factored in is kind of remarkable," he says. "Television may explain 10 percent of the belief in the paranormal."

Television viewing was not found to be an influence for people who reported real life experience with paranormal phenomena. However, for those who had no such experiences, belief in supernatural beings was related to the viewing of paranormal programming.

"People tend to rely on their own personal experiences rather than the media -- when they have those experiences to rely on. When they don't, then the media may become a more important source of information and may become more influential," Sparks says.

His findings were reported in the summer 1997 edition of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with several statements that measured their tendency to believe in the paranormal. They also were asked whether they had experienced anything that might be considered outside the realm of normal existence.

To gauge possible television effects on their beliefs, respondents were asked about their exposure to several television shows that routinely feature paranormal themes. They also were asked to estimate the amount of time they spent watching television in general.

Sparks says people tended to put paranormal phenomena into two groups. One group includes creatures that Sparks labels as supernatural beings, such as ghosts, space aliens and angels. The other group consists of psychic phenomena, such as ESP, astrology and the ability to move objects with the mind. "If people endorsed one member or aspect of a group, then they tended to accept them all. It was usually all or none," he says.

Sparks says he thinks television's influence may be tied to how realistically it depicts the paranormal. "Because we saw a connection between supernatural beings and television -- and no such connection between psychic powers and television programming -- we think it may have something to do with the fact that television provides more vivid coverage of ghosts and space aliens. Things like ESP may be harder to depict on TV in such a vivid fashion," he says.

Sparks says belief in paranormal phenomena was quite common among the study's respondents. "For example, over 50 percent of them indicated a belief in ghosts; nearly one-third reported that sometimes they had been able to read another person's mind through extrasensory perception; and nearly 45 percent believed in UFOs from outer space," he says.

Those percentages are similar to national poll results. However, as far as Sparks is concerned, why people come to believe in such phenomena is just as important as what they actually believe. Sparks' research shows that the media do exert some influence on paranormal beliefs.

"We are hoping to draw attention to the ways in which people arrive at their beliefs about the nature of the world," Sparks says. He says charges that the media have not exercised enough caution in disseminating information about paranormal events may be justified if it's proven that the media have undue influence in shaping society's beliefs.

Television shows with paranormal themes are not new. Sparks compares today's "Third Rock From the Sun" with the 1960's "My Favorite Martian" -- both of which he says are strictly for laughs. However, he says many programs today take their paranormal depictions more seriously. That's the case in the show "X Files" which is fiction, and in the nonfiction program "Unsolved Mysteries."

"I would be most critical of shows that I call 'infotainment.' They masquerade as 'news documentaries' but really seem to be designed primarily for entertainment," Sparks says.

As far as this season's apparent upswing in paranormal programming, Sparks sees it as another case of the chicken and the egg -- which came first? "The public seems to be expressing an interest in this type of programming, and the media's increasing tendency to offer these programs tends to create a larger public appetite for them," he says.

Purdue University

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