Researchers have found that when media portray a shooting victim in a negative way, it not only leads people to blame the victim for their own death, but also leads people to sympathize with the shooter.
Participants in the study were given a written account of a fatal shooting of an unarmed man. Some victims were portrayed in negative terms, often associated with black male stereotypes. Specifically, the victim was described as being quick-tempered, a high school dropout who had been raised by his grandmother in a housing project, and he was also frequently in trouble with the law.
After reading the negative portrayal about the victim of the fatal shooting, study participants preferred lighter sentences for the shooter. The “blame-the-victim” effect occurred regardless of whether the shooting victim was white or black, study co-author Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology at Duke, said, saying in a statement:
“Reading negative information about the shooting victim not only affected attitudes about the victim, it also altered attitudes about the shooter.”
However, it was also found that when other study participants were given positive information about the victim, the opposite was true. In this part of the study, the victim was defined as a college student who grew up in a middle-class suburb with a banker and English professor as parents.
Again, some of the “good” victims were designated as black and some as white. After reading positive material about the shooting victim, the participants were more likely to recommend that the shooter be charged with first-degree or second-degree murder.
However, when the victim was described in negative ways, the participants were more likely to view the homicide as justified, recommending a lighter sentence for the shooter. The results indicate that it makes no difference whether the shooting victim was black or white.
Surprisingly, respondents did recommended harsher sentences when the victim and the perpetrator were of different races (when a white man shot a black man or a black man shot a white man). Gaither explains that:
“These results highlight the powerful impact that the media can have in reporting shooting incidents.”
The study, which was published in the December issue of the Journal of Social Issues, shows that news reports about a shooting victim’s biography can and most likely do shape public opinion about a shooter. This also shows that media reports have the potential to affect whether a suspect gets a fair trial, the authors suggest.
Like this article? Subscribe to our weekly email for more!