is one of the features that most distinguishes violence from other social problems or adverse life events. In the United States, the proportion of citizens who suffer a violent victimization each year is rather small (e.g., U.S. Department of Justice, 1992; Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1993). In American culture, however, news and other forms of communication about violence are ubiquitous and unrelenting, with the result that one is far more likely to hear about, read about, or watch violent events than to experience them. To use an example, the crude annual probability of being murdered in the United States is roughly 1 in 10,000 (9.3 per 100,000 in 1992 according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data). According to the 1988 General Social Survey (National Opinion Research Center, 1988), approximately 10 percent of the adult population of the United States personally knew a victim of homicide during the year preceding the survey. The probability of knowing a victim of homicide is therefore about three orders of magnitude (or 1,000 times) greater than the probability of being a victim. Similarly, the proportion of Americans who worry about being murdered (22% by one estimate; see McGarrell and Flanagan, 1985) is far greater than the proportion who will actually be murdered.
These observations have two immediate implications. First, the social consequences of violence cannot be fully understood by focusing exclusively on victims; investigators must look beyond those who are directly victimized to those who suffer forms of indirect victimization. Although the plight of victims is not to be discounted, an exclusive emphasis on victims is a little like rushing to aid those caught in an apartment fire and ignoring those who jumped from the windows. Secondly, because indirect information on violence is far more prevalent than direct information, it is imperative that investigators examine the information on violence to which the general public is exposed, including the sources, accuracy, and consequences of such information.
This paper examines the current state of evidence on public perceptions and reactions to violent offending and violent victimization. The first topic on our agenda is public fear of victimization, including the individual and social consequences of fear. Next, we examine the images and information on violence to which the general public is exposed. Following this, we consider social evaluations of violent behavior, specifically, the perceived seriousness of offenses. Then we conclude with an examination of public opinion concerning legal sanctions and criminal justice.
The literature we consult in this paper falls for the most part