Research: Crime TV shows successfully communicate health messages

By Allison Matthews/MSU University Relations

STARKVILLE – While television violence often is cited for potential negative effects on viewers, a recent study points to a benefit of viewing crime genre television shows.

Research published in the Journal of Health Communication shows that television viewers who watch Law & Order, CSI or NCIS are more likely to help prevent sexual assault or intervene in a sexual assault if they have the opportunity.

Emily Garrigues Marett, an instructor of management and information systems who teaches organizational communication in Mississippi State University’s College of Business, is the research paper’s second author.

Marett said she and her colleagues controlled for various factors directly related to bystander intervention. After accounting for factors such as rape myth acceptance and perceptions of social norms and peer expectations among the college students surveyed, Marett said people who viewed the crime dramas seemed more willing to intervene themselves if they were facing a similar scenario.

Stacey Hust, associate professor of communication with Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communications and lead author of the research article, said the data indicated that increased exposure to crime dramas was associated with increased intentions to intervene.

“Increasing bystander intervention is critical to sexual assault prevention efforts,” Hust said. “Bystander intervention both creates an environment in which sexual assault is not tolerated and an environment supportive of victims–both of which are necessary to eliminate sexual assault.”

Marett explained that the dramas in some instances depict people being rewarded for intervening to prevent an assault or stop a crime in progress as part of the story line.

She said “intervention” could include behaviors like checking on a friend in a party setting or alerting someone if a person sees another person slip a drug into a drink.

What makes this finding valuable, Marett said, is realizing that entertainment media can provide an effective venue for communication professionals who are trying to influence behaviors.

“The implications are the most exciting,” Marett said. “If we can show people something entertaining and it helps solve a really negative, prevalent issue in society, that’s really exciting.”

Further research about how beneficial health messages could be included in prime time entertainment to seek positive societal results is likely to follow, Marett said.

The MSU faculty member received her doctoral degree in communication from Washington State University. She also has an M.B.A. from Idaho State University, along with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and another bachelor’s in business administration from Central Washington University.