More Executions, Less News, Little Public Knowledge: News Coverage and Public Awareness of Executions in the U.S., 1977-2003

Joseph E. Jacoby, The Bowling Green State University
Eric F. Bronson, Quinnipiac University

For executions to have any effect on potential murderers--either deterrence or brutalization--information about executions must be widely disseminated. Similarly, for the public to participate nationally in discussions about the death penalty, they must be knowledgeable about it. This paper tests two hypotheses related to public knowledge of executions: (1) As executions have increased in frequency, they have received less news coverage, and (probably as a consequence) (2) the public is currently unaware of the actual frequency of executions.

To test the first hypothesis, network television and newspaper coverage of executions imposed since 1977 were analyzed nationally and within several states that had many, few, or no executions. To test the second hypothesis a national mail survey of the American public was conducted to assess knowledge about the frequency and recency of executions nationally and within respondents' state of residence.

The data are consistent with both hypotheses: As executions have increased, news reports about them have become less frequent, shorter, and less prominent in both national and local news media. The results of the survey reveal that people substantially underestimate the actual frequency of executions nationally, but have more accurate perceptions of execution frequency within their home state.

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Updated 05/20/2006