Bolstering an illusory majority: The effects of the media's portrayal of death penalty support

  • Niven D
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Abstract

Researchers have found a distinct difference between expressed support for the death penalty (which garners a majority of Americans) and expressed preference for the death penalty over other sentences (which attracts only a minority). Despite the strength of this finding in academic circles, the media tend to cover the death penalty as if it were indisputably favored by a majority of Americans. This article tests the effect of this disparity in coverage. Methods. Using an experimental design, respondents were placed in three groups: Condition 1 read a typical media portrayal depicting widespread support for the death penalty, Condition 2 read a realistic portrayal of the mix of preferences for the death penalty and an alternative sentence, and Condition 3 (the control group) read an article unrelated to the death penalty. Results. Compared to the control group and Condition 1, those who read a more realistic account of public opinion on the death penalty (Condition 2) were less supportive of capital punishment, more likely to think death penalty opponents would talk comfortably about their position, and believed the death penalty would become less prevalent in the future. Conclusions. These findings suggest that the unrealistic media portrayal of public opinion on the death penalty is bolstering a sense of inevitability about the issue.

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Authors

  • David Niven

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