It’s nice when science takes the time to confirm one’s own sneaking (or even not so sneaking) suspicions. In this case: That TV crime shows are driving us crazy with fear.
In a report titled, “CSI: Mayo Clinic,” Mayo psychiatrist Timothy Lineberry and his team studied two sets of data: One, a list of crimes, victims and circumstances as seen on CSI and CSI: Miami over the course of two years. The other: a list of crimes, victims and circumstances in real life, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control over the course of two years.
You may think the stories on crime shows are “ripped from the headlines,” but Lineberry found that the shows usually forget to rip the ones involving minorities, for starters. (For that matter, so does TV news. But if the victim is young and white, you will soon see more of her family than your own.)
Meanwhile, TV crime shows also forget to mention how often alcohol is involved, probably because a drunk guy with a gun is not nearly as compelling as, say, a charming psychopath. Or criminal mastermind. Or, as I saw on Law & Order the other day, a Serbian war criminal roaming the streets in search of a young girl — any girl — to drag off and rape.
That’s not going to affect whether you let your daughter walk home from school, is it?
Most significant of all, in terms of warping our perceptions, is that the shows forget to tell us that most homicide victims know their killers. Most violence is not random. Most of the time, murderers are not hiding in the bushes – or mall, or playground — just waiting to pounce. But on TV, the guy with the machete/chainsaw/van is usually some fiend out to nab the next sucker walking by.
That one little fact has had a huge impact on the way we live.
It wouldn’t, of course, if we were better at separating perception from reality. But seeing crime after crime on TV, it’s hard not to feel at least a little nervous. After all, our brains are hardwired to react to dangerous situations. It would be nice if they filed dramas under “Don’t worry!” and TV news under, “Tabloid crap (and weather)!” But in fact, it all gets thrown in the hopper and stays there a very long time. (Anybody have a hard time picturing Hannibal Lechter?)
So when we’re trying to figure out, “Is it safe for me to take a little walk tonight?” we end up flashing on a pile of maggot-covered bodies, courtesy of CSI. Bodies of people murdered by strangers. Result? ”Maybe I’ll just stay in.”
Parents are even more affected. Never mind that while there are about 50 children kidnapped and killed by strangers every year (according to numbers from the Crimes Against Children Research Center), there are about 1,000 killed by family members or acquaintances. Since most of us aren’t exposed to crime in our real lives very much (thank goodness), all we have to go on is what we see on TV.
And so we think, “It’s a jungle out there! Strangers are hiding everywhere, with duct tape. I will not let them kill my kid!”
In we yank our offspring. (And dare I suggest that at least a few of the older ones will end up watching CSI because they’re not out playing kickball?)
The only way to regain perspective — read: sanity — is to counterbalance the crime shows with more and more reality. More walks in the neighborhood. More chats with friends outside. More chats with strangers, even, because most of them aren’t carrying machetes. Or, for that matter, duct tape.