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Surprise! TV Violence Isn’t Portrayed Accurately

Surprise! TV Violence Isn't Portrayed AccuratelyDid you know that television, much like books before it, is often about fictional characters engaging in make-believe stories (called “plots”)? And that some of those fictional dramas don’t actually portray real life accurately?

Apparently these astonishing insights were not known to a few researchers at the Mayo Clinic, who decided to look at the portrayal of violent crime on CSI and CSI:Miami because they believe they would be good examples:

Timothy Lineberry, M.D., a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic, says “We make a lot of our decisions as a society based on information that we have, and television has been used to provide public health messages.”

Really? What an interesting opinion, but surely I hope we do not make public health policy based upon fictional TV dramas. No more so than we do based upon the latest popular New York Times bestsellers.

Now, it would be a difference scenario if these researchers looked at documentaries, or heck, even “reality” TV. But fiction? Since when has fiction ever approached real life for any topic on TV? A part of why we lose ourselves in a Lifetime movie or NCIS or House, M.D. is because they do things we know do not happen in real life. Desperate Housewives isn’t popular because it shows a typical slice of suburban life; if it did, I imagine it wouldn’t have made it half-way through its first season.

So what did the researchers find when examining CSI and CSI:Miami?

Sorry, the headline gave it away. Violence on these two TV shows is not portrayed accurately, compared to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) National Violent Death Reporting System:

When researchers compared the shows to the CDC data, they discovered the strongest misrepresentations were related to alcohol use, relationships, and race among perpetrators and victims. Previous studies of actual statistics have shown that both perpetrator and victim were often under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs when the crime occurred, differing from what the shows portrayed. Also, CSI and CSI: Miami were more likely to have described the victim and the attacker as Caucasian, which is misrepresentative. Finally, according to the CDC data, homicide victims typically knew their assailant; however, the television series were more likely to have portrayed the perpetrator as a stranger.

So in the real world, a lot more perpetrators of violence are under the influence, not white, and know each other. In TV’s fictional world, people aren’t under the influence as much (need a solid motive, and alcohol clouds the picture), white (as are most people on TV), and are strangers (makes the plot more interesting? Don’t know about that one).

The data wasn’t published, not surprisingly. It was presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting.

Surprise! TV Violence Isn’t Portrayed Accurately

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Surprise! TV Violence Isn’t Portrayed Accurately. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 May 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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