Public Opinion, Law Enforcement and the Media
Researchers examine how different media platforms affect the public’s perception of law enforcement and the justice system
Television, documentaries, films, newspapers and social media: People receive information about current topics and events in many different ways. Kristine Levan, assistant professor of sociology in the University of Idaho College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, is exploring how these different types of media inform the public’s opinions of law enforcement agencies.
Levan was motivated to investigate the topic after noticing a spike in the number of stories regarding violence perpetrated against — and by — the police.
“Personally, I noticed [the increase of] stories in all forms of media; however, it is important to note that an increase in stories doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in frequency, it means an increase in frequency in the stories being reported (which may or may not mean an increase in frequency),” Levan said.
Her research project, titled “Community Relations with Law Enforcement through the Lens of Media Exposure,” was awarded the 2017-18 Kurt O. Olsson Early Career Research Fellowship. Created to promote research and creative activities in the humanities, arts and social sciences, the Olsson Fellowship is one of the college’s top internal funding opportunities. It targets recently hired faculty to help develop scholarly/creative programs or supplement ongoing projects.
“I am excited and grateful to have been chosen for the Olsson Fellowship,” Levan said. “This award is helping me focus on a project that is timely and important, given the current strains on relationships between the community and members of law enforcement.”
Levan joined the University of Idaho in 2016. Her research and teaching interests focus on violent crime, prison culture, capital punishment and public perceptions of crime and criminals.
“I teach classes that cover the same issues, so I was curious how students were processing these stories when the topics were brought up during class discussions,” Levan said.
Kelsey Stevenson, a senior from Nampa majoring in psychology and sociology with a criminology emphasis, assists Levan as an undergraduate research assistant.
“I had always been interested in how big of a role media plays, since in my lifetime I’ve been exposed to many different kinds of media — from television and newspapers when I was younger, to a constant stream of social media and online news sources,” Stevenson said.
Levan and Stevenson wanted to find a range of students to interview from various majors and interests. They recruited subjects from freshman-level classes, including ISEM (Integrated Seminar) classes and Introduction to U.S. History.
“I wanted to give Kelsey a really immersive and true research experience, so we wrote the questions together, and she interviewed many of the participants herself,” Levan said.
The pair finished interviews in May 2017 and are analyzing their results for patterns. They are working to pinpoint the types of media students are exposed to and how it affects their opinions of law enforcement and community interactions.
Stevenson plans to attend graduate school for criminology and continue research in this field.
“As I prepare for a career in the criminal justice system, I think it’s important to understand how the public views law enforcement and how the media plays into that, and our research is helping me see those connections,” Stevenson said.
Many of the interviewees acknowledged there is an issue in terms of relations between some communities and some law enforcement officers but most viewed law enforcement officers positively, and acknowledge that the stories we see for violence against police and by police, are not the norm.
“They understand these incidents are not representations of most interactions, but they are also acknowledging the damage that can be done when an incident occurs (again, by both the police and citizens) in terms of trust,” Levan said.
The pair will tie their results back to the pre-existing themes in academic literature.
“We have already had our presentation accepted for the American Society of Criminology conference presentation in November, and Kelsey also plans on putting together a poster presentation for the undergraduate research symposium for the upcoming academic year,” Levan said.
The two are also co-authoring a paper.
“It’s important that we understand how all streams of media contribute to our collective understanding of how, and why, we frame incidents in the ways we do,” Levan said. “In the future, I am hoping to continue this line of inquiry and build on this research, perhaps extending it to the community at large,” Levan said.
Article by Laurien Mavey, College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences