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Objective. Researchers have found a distinct difference between expressed support for the death penalty (which garners a majority of Americans) and expressed preference for the death penalty over other sentences (which attracts only a minority). Despite the strength of this finding in academic circles, the media tend to cover the death penalty as if it were indisputably favored by a majority of Americans. This article tests the effect of this disparity in coverage. Methods. Using an experimental design, respondents were placed in three groups: Condition 1 read a typical media portrayal depicting widespread support for the death penalty, Condition 2 read a realistic portrayal of the mix of preferences for the death penalty and an alternative sentence, and Condition 3 (the control group) read an article unrelated to the death penalty. Results. Compared to the control group and Condition 1, those who read a more realistic account of public opinion on the death penalty (Condition 2) were less supportive of capita l punishment, more likely to think death penalty opponents would talk comfortably about their position, and believed the death penalty would become less prevalent in the future. Conclusions. These findings suggest that the unrealistic media portrayal of public opinion on the death penalty is bolstering a sense of inevitability about the issue.
In 2000, just five countries accounted for more than 90 percent of the world's government-sanctioned executions: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and the United States (Amnesty International, 2001). While the death penalty is slowly being eliminated as a criminal sentence in most countries of the world, in the United States it is riding a "wave of public enthusiasm" (Haines, 1996:3).
How popular is the death penalty? Read a newspaper article on public opinion and the death penalty and one will likely be told that it is among the most popular issue positions in American politics (Bowers, Vandiver, and Dugan, 1994). Consider this unremarkable depiction from a Florida newspaper that appeared under the headline "The Death Penalty is so Popular in Florida that Few Elected Officials Would Dare Betray Any Opposition or Even Ambivalence":
Indeed, the death penalty is so popular in Florida that pollsters have generally stopped asking questions about it. In several statewide surveys conducted during the past decade by Florida International University's Institute for Public Opinion Research, about 85 percent of respondents said they favored capital punishment.
"It never changes," said Hugh Gladwin, the poll's director. (Judd, 1997)
There have been literally thousands of newspaper articles written in this vein over the last five years. Even as death penalty support has dropped slightly from the mid-1990s to 2002, newspapers continue to assert its impressive popularity. This article assesses the effects of media coverage of the death penalty's popularity on how Americans think about the death penalty its support, and their willingness to discuss the issue.
Public Opinion on the Death Penalty
On the surface, the death penalty is indeed one of the most popular issue positions in American politics (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994). Support for capital punishment in some polls tops 80 percent, and is quite frequently reported to be at least 70 percent (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994; Warr, 1995). The death penalty is even more popular among whites, men, southerners, and young people (Anthony, 2000; Barkan and Cohn, 1994; Borg, 1997; Stack, 2000; Lester, Maggioncalda-Aretz, and Stark, 1997; Whitehead and Blankenship, 2000).
Yet, Justice Thurgood Marshall (in Furman v. Georgia, 1972) argued that public opinion polls on the death penalty were misleading because the average American was ignorant of the basic details of the death penalty debate. Indeed, scholars responded to Marshall's argument and were able to document the severe lack of information undergirding death penalty opinion (Thomas and Foster, 1976; Ellsworth and Ross, 1976, 1983; Haas and Inciardi, 1988; Sarar and Vidmar, 1976). Moreover, both opponents and proponents of the death penalty are found to be resistant to information that undercuts the premise of their support. Which is to say, when told that their reasoning for supporting or opposing the death penalty is factually inaccurate, opponents and proponents tend to attack the information rather than reconsider their positions (Ellsworth and Gross, 1994; Roberts, 1984; Lord, Ross, and Lepper, 1979).
Nevertheless, for the media it seems clear that the people have not only made up their minds, but that the vast majority support the death penalty. The San Francisco Chronicle summed up the issue with the words of pollster Mervin Field, whose work is contracted for by a variety of media outlets and whose thoughts and analyses are widely covered in that state: "I don't know any issue where the public opinion is so fixed and hardened as it is in favor of the death penalty now" (Matier and Ross, 1998). The reality of the issue is, however, tremendously more complicated.
Researchers find that despite the oft-expressed fear of victimization that many Americans voice, reaction to the death penalty is not actually driven by a fear of crime (Tyler and Boeckman, 1997). Instead, it is a symbolic commitment signifying little about the reality of the public's daily life or direct concerns. Tyler and Boeckman (1997) find that views on the death penalty reflect an anger over declining morality and therefore should not be viewed as a concrete response to a concrete problem. If that is the case, support for the death penalty is not set in proportion to any reality, such as the crime rate. Rather, it would be subject to the vicissitudes of the portrayal of the abstract notions of our morality and the death penalty's place in our culture.
Support for the death penalty is not only less fixed than the media suggest, it is also less universal. In academic research, the scope of popular support for the death penalty was redefined by the inclusion of sentencing alternatives into survey questions asked on the subject. Instead of the commonly worded, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?" a question used by Gallup, a number of researchers posed the question of whether the respondent supported the death penalty or life without parole for convicted murderers. Some other researchers provided further additional alternatives, including sentences of life without parole plus restitution, in which the convicted murderer would be forced to work in a prison job and the proceeds of that work would go to the victim's family or to a victims' fund. When alternatives were added to the question, the notion of wide majority support for the death penalty disappeared.
Indeed, what appeared to be 80 percent support in some polls dropped to half that with alternatives added. In short, when asked if convicted murders should get the death penalty, 70 to 80 percent agreed. When asked if convicted murderers should get the death penalty or life without parole plus restitution (LWOP+R), less than half chose the death penalty and, in many cases, a clear majority chose LWOP+R (Bowers, Vandiver, and Dugan, 1994; Bowers and Dugan, 1994; Sandys and McGarrell, 1995; Dieter, 1993; Bowers, 1993; Bowers and Steiner, 1998; Thomas and Hutcheson, 1986). Bowers, Vandiver, and Dugan (1994) find LWOP+R is more popular than the death penalty by an average of 29 points in a series of state polls and that LWOP+R is preferred even in crime-ridden areas. Moreover, by a two to one margin, former jurors who have previously voted to impose a death penalty sentence on a defendant have reported in later surveys that they would have preferred to impose a sentence of LWOP+R if it had been available (Bowers and Steiner, 1998:37). Support for LWOP+R reflects the notion that the search for morality that triggers support for the death penalty is also capable of garnering a positive response to the thought of a life time of imprisonment and hard …