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SOAN Professor Alicia D. Simmons on Her New Article in *Social Forces*

By Chris Henke on September 12, 2017


This post submitted by Prof Alicia Simmons.

I am a social psychologist studying the intersections of media, race, and politics in the United States. My scholarship focuses on the nature of Americans’ racial attitudes toward blacks and their opinions about public policies that obviously or tacitly invoke race. I further explore how these attitudes are created, triggered, altered, and reinforced by exposure to the news media. One branch of my research uses surveys and experiments to investigate the nature and causes of racial attitudes and racialized policy preferences.

My latest publication, “Cultivating Support for Punitive Criminal Justice Policies: News Sectors and the Moderating Effects of Audience Characteristics,” appears in Social Forces. It proposes and tests a model describing how news exposure might shape support for punitive criminal justice policies. Instrumental theories of punitiveness propose that opinions are the result of individuals’ perceptions of crime. In contrast, expressive theories suggest that punitiveness is a socioemotional response to the unsettling processes of modernity; in other words, people support punitive crime control measures as a way to reestablish social order in a world undergoing transformation. I argue that news exposure might affect instrumental and expressive concerns, and thus audience members’ punitiveness. I further propose that this process varies based on audience members’ characteristics. Using data from an original, nationally representative survey, I replicate previous research demonstrating that expressive concerns outweigh instrumental concerns in predicting punitiveness. I further show that local, cable, and radio news exposure are positively associated with punitiveness, and print newspaper and Internet news exposure are negatively associated with punitiveness. Moreover, I demonstrate that these relationships hinge on audience members’ characteristics. Although news exposure shapes whites’ punitiveness, it has no impact on non-whites’ attitudes. In addition, news exposure generally decreases punitiveness among liberals while increasing it among conservatives. I discuss the results in the context of the social construction of reality, highlighting the interplay between experienced and vicarious sources of knowledge, and in terms of selective exposure, emphasizing that audience members’ news outlet choices have profound implications for their worldviews.

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