New research from the University of Kansas has found that true crime movies, podcasts and TV series that focus on wrongful convictions can change public opinion.
The research study finds that while facts can reduce support for capital punishment and trust in the justice system, hearing the personal stories of wrongfully incarcerated inmates has more pronounced effects on attitudes toward the death penalty and police reform.
“Death penalty attitudes are pretty entrenched for most people. They tend to think about the death penalty in terms of morality, constitutionality, deterrence, and financial arguments,” said Kevin Mullinix, assistant professor of political science. ”Wrongful convictions and the possibility of innocence introduce a new consideration and way of thinking about the issue.”
According to Mullinix, one of the researchers on the project, shows like Netflix's "When They See Us" that depict the stories of the wrongfully convicted do more to change the viewers’ opinions on the death penalty.
Mullinix and Robert J. Norris, assistant professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University, began the research when they each noticed the rise in interest in wrongful conviction stories.
"As a public opinion and public policy scholar, anytime I see an important problem in society increasingly receiving media attention, I want to know the consequences for people's attitudes and policy preferences,” Mullinix said.
Mullinix and Norris surveyed individuals after giving them different levels of information on wrongful convictions. The people surveyed either received no information, statistics on wrongful conviction, a narrative of an individual wrongfully convicted or both statistics and narrative.
Each person was then tested on how they felt about the death penalty, support for policy reforms to lower the likelihood of wrongful convictions and trust in the justice system.
Megan Bartlett, a senior studying management, is an avid listener to true crime podcasts. Her favorite podcast, Serial, tells the story of a true crime over the course of a season and has shown stories of wrongfully convicted people. Shows like these can make lasting impressions on listeners, Bartlett said.
“Shows like Serial where they do their own in-depth investigative research make people think twice about the truths they were told in the original rulings of the case and even the media coverage at the time,” Bartlett said. “It makes you realize this isn’t just a criminal, it’s still a person with a story.”