The public's perception about shooting victims—including what punishment their killer should get—is largely shaped by what the media says about them, according to a new study conducted by researchers from Duke and Simmons College.

The study, led by Sarah Gaither from Duke and Kristin Dukes from Simmons, found that whether the media relays positive or negative information about a shooting victim affects how people assign levels of blame, empathy and punishment. Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, noted that their research is the first of its kind in examining the relationship between the type of description given and blame assigned for shooting victims.

“This is something that I think is a broader problem for media to be considering in that it doesn't really matter what race the person is,” she said. “Negative versus positive information is really going to 'color' that shooting victim.” 

To collect their data, Gaither and Dukes took random participants and told them they were role-playing jurors. Each participant read a mock press release where the victim was either portrayed in a favorable light—high GPA, good family member, etc.—or in a stereotypical, unfavorable way—involved in gangs, history of violence, etc. Victims and shooters could be black or white, regardless of their good or bad description, though all were male.  

After reading the scenarios, participants were asked how they felt about the case and what the shooters should be charged with. When presented with positive information about the victim, they placed less blame with the victim and suggested harsher penalties for the shooter. When presented with negative information, they tended to blame the victim more.  

Surprisingly, Gaither noticed that the language used to describe victims affected people’s opinions on the shooter’s culpability as well, which could extend the implications of this study to the courtroom. She said law studies have shown a correlation between jurors who are exposed to biased media coverage of a shooting and their rulings. Consequently, Gaither hopes members of the press will adjust their training protocols and reporting methods.

She said she encourages the media “to really consider the information they are releasing about shooting victims in particular,” and advised that they should “only release information that is actually pertinent to that specific shooting incident.”

Recent highly-publicized shootings—including those of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin—inspired the study, Gaither noted.

Their research was published in a special December issue of the Journal of Social Issues on police violence against racial and ethnic minorities.