North American television-program content is increasingly under fire because it flagrantly misrepresents important features of mainstream society. By inaccurately portraying elements of everyday reality, television dramas and other programs forge enduring misconceptions that distort the mindsets of viewers.
Much of what is broadcast on television does not mirror actuality, researchers report, but instead distorts fundamentals so as to create a false impression of authenticity that people actually come to believe is factual.
"The more time people spend watching television, the more likely their conceptions of reality will reflect what they see on television," explained George Gerbner, a communication specialist at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.
People usually perceive the world as reflected by the program content they watch, he added. The phenomenon is called the "cultivation theory."
"Television viewing is related to altered perceptions of reality," confirmed Jacob Wakshalog at Indiana State University and his colleagues.
Reports by T. Tyler, F. Cook and others in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media indicate television is a "dominant social force" that subtly manipulates viewers' beliefs.
"It influences citizens' views," confirmed Meredith Lett and Andrea Di Pietro at West Virginia Weslyan College. "It has an impact on societal-level judgments."
Accumulating research confirms television-program content, and especially an overabundance of programs dealing with violence and other important topics, taints the way viewers look at some significant social issues. It makes people believe things that are not true.
For instance, the Atlantic monthly recently summarized controversial information dealing with the public perception of the proportion of gays and lesbians in the population at large. Studies by the University of California School of Law, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Statistics Canada and several prominent demographers agree 1.7 to 2.8 per cent of the North American population comprises gays and lesbians.
An overwhelming number of people have concluded the proportion is much larger, and television's depictions of gay/lesbian-related themes are largely responsible for the misconception, researchers say.
Two extensive polls conducted by the Gallup organization show in 2002, fully 25 per cent of adults thought 25 per cent of the population was gay/lesbian, a figure 10 times too high.
In 2011, another Gallup poll showed 33 per cent of adults surveyed thought 25 per cent of the population is gay/lesbian. In total, more than half of the people polled thought 20 per cent of the population is gay/lesbian, almost seven times the actual figure.
According Gallup pollsters, more than one-quarter "massively overestimated the actual figure."
Similarly, another poll found most respondents overestimated the number of foreign-born people living in the United States by a factor of four.
"Exposure... on television (to misleading information) is the driving factor in changing public perception," concluded James Joyner, of the Atlantic Council.
Comparably biased public perceptions have surfaced with regard to the prevalence of violent crimes, stemming from the comparative frequency of crime-related prime-time programs. Such a preponderance of crime programming generates the mistaken belief that crime is more rampant than is the actual case.
Even though crime-focused programs often dominate prime-time television schedules, Canada's per capita homicide rate is a mere .016, ranking 42nd on a descending scale of the nations of the world (the United States ranks 33).
Television dramas give the impression aggravated assaults are virtually commonplace, yet the assault rates in Canada are about 140 per 100,000 people; robbery, often depicted as common, has a rate in Canada of 88 per 100,000 people.
A recent U.S. study showed most people overestimate the prevalence of blacks and Hispanics in the population, believing proportions five times those compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Communications specialists caution television programs comprise entertainment, and any information they might subtly suggest should not be construed as representing reality.
Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria, British Columbia.