Many viewers probably think working in television news is pretty much as shown on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. Ask people who work in television news, and they’d probably laugh in your face. So-called “reality TV” has been accused by critics as skewing viewers’ perceptions of reality, encouraging an inflated view of our self-importance, reinforcing stereotypes, making us more rude and aggressive, and distorting our moral compasses. Even fictional dramas, in the interest of heightening our entertainment, over-dramatize the mundane realities most of us encounter in our lives into situations on steroids.

Police work is especially susceptible to this distortion. A show like NYPD Blue is presented as a realistic portrayal of police work in New York–and, if you doubt that, think about how it compares to an actual reality show like 48 Hours. Media and legal analysts note a “CSI effect”: due to the popularity of forensic analysis shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, jurors in major cases now expect blood analysis, DNA breakdowns, and all sorts of high-tech evidence which rarely exists in the real world. In fact, except for DNA, most of forensic analysis (including fingerprints) is being exposed as less reliable and less scientific than we are led to believe and, in some instances (including false autopsies, inaccurate evaluations of hair and fiber evidence, dog scent lineups, and the use of now disproven arson investigation techniques), out-and-out “junk science.”

In short, fictional television has changed how we perceive reality.

In the real world, the more heinous a crime is, the less frequently it happens. That correlation is very strong, and we see a very clear example of it in parricides. However, if you were to take any newspaper and count the crimes they report, you’ll find the exact opposite. There’s a distortion that creeps into everyday reporting about crime.

The more serious a crime is, the more likely it will be reported. But, in using seriousness as a news criterion, the media are more likely to over-report crimes that are least likely to occur, which presents an upside-down view of the world. As a result, people tend to exaggerate the risk of rare crimes. They think murder is far more common than it is, and they underestimate frequent crimes, such as burglary or larceny.

Based on data from a variety of measurement tools, the homicide rate in the western world has actually been declining for more than 700 years.

People are bombarded with information about crime from the media, which makes them believe the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is. This creates a climate of fear that can negatively affect the way we live, the way we go to work, the times we shop, and the precautions we take for our families and children.

One of the catalysts was the 1968 US presidential election, in which Republican candidate Richard Nixon campaigned with the promise to restore law and order-–a pronouncement now steeped in irony given the administration’s ignominious end.

During this time, the Gallup organization began tracking public opinion about crime. One question in Gallup’s annual crime survey, which measures fear of crime, asks Americans: “Is there any area near where you live, that is, within a mile, where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” Scholars were taken aback to learn that about one in three people answered yes, according to Gallup’s 1968 poll.

Subsequent research has shown the mass media are a powerful amplifying mechanism when it comes to crime coverage, Warr says. Unfortunately, this can lead to big misperceptions.

Americans might be surprised to learn they are more likely to die from suicide than homicide. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics’ 2008 report on death rates, and homicide falls even further down on the list. Americans might also be surprised to learn that children, as a group, face greater danger from swimming pools than from strangers. Drowning is the second leading cause of death (after car accidents) for children under the age of 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The failure of the media and public officials to demystify crime is not just unfortunate, it is dangerous. What makes fear of crime so important as a social problem is its consequences for our society.

“When people take precautions based on fear that restrict their life and their children’s lives, we restrict our freedom and we do so unnecessarily. Fear also undermines the civility and trust in our communities that make civic life possible, and that’s a terrible consequence for a democratic society,” says Mark Warr, Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas.

According to cultivation theory, the more time people spend “living” in the television world, the more likely they are to believe in the social reality presented on television. Developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania, cultivation theory suggests that long-time television watching “cultivates” how viewers perceive reality. For more than 30 years, Gerbner led a research group studying the effects of television viewing on the viewer’s perception of reality. Gerbner and Gross argue that “television is a medium of the socialization of most people into standardized roles and behaviors. Its function is in a word, enculturation.”

While Gerbner and Gross did not feel that television watching necessarily increased violent behavior, they did emphasize that it changed viewer beliefs and attitudes about the world. Heavy television viewers were  more likely to develop psychosocial problems including shyness, loneliness, and depression. Television watching also serves to shape how people respond in similar situations. As a result, people who watch significant amounts of television violence were more likely to be desensitized to violence while people who watch romantic programming develop unrealistic ideas about real-life romantic relationships.