Do people learn about society from TV shows, and is this bad for society?

21 January
27 February

Studies have shown that people do learn a lot from TV series, and that TV series, in turn, are often based on public perceptions of reality. This cycle of social knowledge that travels between audiences, television series, and anyone who is depicted in series has been dubbed the “feedback loop” by media scholars. This term is based on the idea that the relationship between media and society is dialectical: shows feed into society and vice versa. Interestingly, studies show that not only lay people are involved in the feedback loop – professionals whose jobs are depicted on shows are part of it as well.

This cycle of social knowledge that travels between audiences, television series, and anyone who is depicted in series has been dubbed the “feedback loop.”

Let’s take law shows, for example. In the USA, everyone has to do jury duty. So jurors are laypeople, some of whom may have watched law shows. NPR conducted an investigation into this, and they found that prosecutors have complained that shows like CSI make their job harder, since jurors demand unrealistic and non-existent testing procedures to convict suspects. Prosecutors fear that when they don't show the kind of technology that TV shows have depicted, juries might let criminals get away with murder. But shows also affect what investigators do - some investigators run extra tests that are useless just to show the jurors that they used various technologies to obtain lots of high-tech evidence. This has been called “the CSI effect.” It’s taken so seriously that some US states now allow lawyers to strike potential jurors based on their TV habits. Yet online we can find recommendations for law students to watch law shows, for example here. Alongside this, projects like this one have emerged that battle the CSI effect by training law practitioners to be wary of it. Below is a video from this project for judges.

Video: Part of the CSI Effect Theory online training for officers of the court at NFSTC

Other studies on the feedback loop have focused on cop shows. Recently I carried out a study of how people discuss police shows in Russia on forums dedicated to Russia’s most popular cop show (called Glukhar, a show from the 2000s). I also examined the content of a forum where real policemen talk about the show.

I found that the forum threads dedicated to the fictional show contain many accounts of real-world issues related to the police. When viewers referred to real-world police-related issues they talked about their personal experience, stories heard from others, stories from news media, their expectations from and their normative positions towards the police, and, finally, what they saw as common knowledge, what “everybody knows”. They also refer to the fictional show as to a source of factual information. Many users of these discussion forums state that the show explains life, gives them criteria by which to measure real life events and people, and proposes a justification of corruption and crime. The same was true for the forum used by police department employees! So my research confirmed that this popular police show actually frames not only what ordinary viewers think and expect from the police, but also what police chiefs expect from their employees (you can read my paper for more on this).

Research confirmed that this popular police show actually frames not only what ordinary viewers think and expect from the police, but also what police chiefs expect from their employees

But is it “bad” for society that people learn about the world through shows? This is a hard one to answer. I would say that showrunners should take the evidence above seriously and perhaps should keep it in mind while producing seemingly “realistic” shows about doctors, lawyers, the police, politicians. While it would be worrisome to think that doctors actually draw from what they saw on the show “ER” in their treatment of patients, there is no evidence to suggest that any have done this. But it is possible that viewers who are not trained medical professionals can apply what they heard on the TV screen to their judgments about their own health. And it is certainly the case that viewers tend to draw conclusions about professions depicted in shows and apply those to real-life professionals. But people gain knowledge from a variety of sources in all areas of life, so it would be hard to single out TV shows and to say “this knowledge is bad for society.” And while we are seeing a real golden age of shows about various professions today, there is also a lot more information available today to viewers who want to find out if the shows depict “reality.” For example, here’s a surgeon who offers his take on medical shows. Then again, there is also a lot of misleading information on the internet. So perhaps the question about the influence of TV shows is actually a question about the influence of any kind of knowledge – it can lead to good or bad things. And we can’t really control or predict that.

Arsenii Khitrovcan answer your questions in a Conversation
27 March

Years later i am convinced that people really do learn about society and most other important things from media, not friends or parents anymore. My message is that "media" isn't limited to TV shows, or any other "separate" kind of information delivered to masses, it includes high-quality but still "underground" movies, music or books, Internet and Internet media. Attempt to limit "classic" media to TV only is a big manipulation.

Sometimes named as "free exchange" or "free forum" by its users, selected as a primary source for most trusted information, Internet is a big sea for large groups of young people and future professionals. Some of us, however, are fans of purely "underground" culture, which is invisible for mass media at all (that is why i put Internet and TV to the same row in the role of world-in-eye-building). This group of people was generally small in the past, but it will grow much more in next years, and it is already a fact that word "geek", used to mark such groups of people before, this logic is now outdated.

Don't think about TV shows separately from media, and certainly  do not think of media separately from Internet culture, this is my call. So, is this all a problem? No. The problem, in my opinion, is a regular successful attempt to avoid responsibility for the information created, fake news as an example.

Dmitrij Igorevichcan answer your questions in a Conversation
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