Media and the Public Opinion of Torture

From the September 2020 Desktop News | According to Dr. Erin Kearns, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Alabama, recent polls say that about half of adults in the United States think torture is acceptable in counterterrorism. The academic understanding is that torture is not effective, so why does the American public think this way? In her new book Tortured Logic, Kearns and her coauthor, American University professor Joseph Young, explore why people support torture, and how media influence correlates to that.

Before 9/11, Americans did not think torture was something worth debating about, Kearns said. The culture shift that came after the attack coupled with the soon after the debut of the popular television show 24, which often depicts the protagonist torturing a suspect with successful results, facilitated a more positive public perception of torture.

Kearns and Young conducted research for the book by having participants watch clips of the use of torture and rapport building in 24, all with varying success rates. They found that when people see torture succeed, they are more likely to support it. However, when people see it fail, their support isn’t weakened.

“People who just saw general violence were less supportive of torture, so this suggests it’s more about torture specifically than media priming people for violence,” Kearns said. “Our best guess is that, as this scene had a fist fight, we can all empathize with getting hit by something. We don’t have the capacity to empathize with a terrorism suspect.”

The influence of media does not stop at the average citizen, however. Even public officials, such as late Justice Antonin Scalia, have referenced 24 in their political decisions.

“You have members of Congress, former presidents, and Supreme Court justices who are all lauding the show in various ways, and that can ultimately influence justification for policy,” Kearns said.

Kearns said one of the most impactful interviews of experts for the book came from Tony Lagouranis, an interrogator in Iraq in the mid-2000s. He noted that he and his colleagues would have tapes of 24 sent to them, and despite their training, they would watch and get ideas of what to do to prisoners from the show.

Because Tortured Logic focuses on the perception of the public, Kearns and Young wanted to make it accessible to a broad audience that might not have their methodological expertise. Kearns wants people to understand their own opinions and know this is more prevalent in entertainment media than they realize.

“Torture might feel good in the sense that they harmed us, so we harm them, but that’s actually strategically harmful and counterproductive,” Kearns said. “I want people to think more critically about their own views and where those views come from. Think about the influence the media can have on perceptions and support for policy.”