New Study Reveals How Crime TV Series Distort Understanding of Race and Criminal Justice System

The landmark Color of Change report is titled Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations that Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre.
Color of Change: Normalizing Injustice
Color of Change

Today, Color Of Change released a first of its kind report titled “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations that Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre.” The report is a study of how scripted series that fall under the crime television genre depict the criminal justice system and play a significant role in helping to advance what the study identifies are distorted representations of crime, justice, race, and gender in media and culture. Given that these shows collectively reach tens of millions of Americans annually, the study suggests that its findings have profoundly disturbing implications for society overall.

“These fictitious depictions build on false perceptions of the criminal justice system and how it intersects with race and gender while ignoring many important realities,” the report states. “Because many viewers experience these depictions as realistic representations of the criminal justice system, they have the potential to influence viewers’ understanding of the criminal justice system and turn the public against critically overdue reform efforts.”

The report studied 353 episodes across 26 different scripted crime television series from the 2017–2018 season (March 2017 to July 2018), on both networks and streaming platforms.

Diversity data for creators, showrunners and writers were examined both for the 2017–2018 and the 2018–2019 seasons.

For each series, a random selection of 70-80% of its episodes were chosen for analysis.

Over 5,400 variables and 1,983 individual characters were tracked, using three new metrics. Per the report:

  1. The “Good Guy” Endorser Ratio compares the number of wrongful actions committed by “Good Guy” Criminal Justice Professional characters (CJPs), to the number of wrongful actions committed by “Bad Guy” CJP characters.
  2. The Person of Color Endorser Index highlights the series that depicted a relatively high number of wrongful actions going unacknowledged, while at the same time prominently featuring the presence of people of color CJPs.
  3. The Racial Integrity Index ranks each series by the number of its depictions of featured people of color characters, relative to the percentage of people of color writers in its writers’ room.

Key findings based on these metrics include the following:

  • The great majority of series that represented CJPs committing wrongful actions did so in a way that normalized them – making bad actors seem good, and wrongful actions seem right.
  • In total, there were 3 times as many depictions of CJP characters committing wrongful actions as characters (of any type); and acknowledgment often included encouraging or excusing wrongful actions, rather than objecting to them.
  • Almost all series conveyed the impression that change to the system is not needed. They depicted a system that does not have serious problems related to race, gender, violence and the abuse of power.
  • Several series seemed to use people of color characters as validators of wrongful behavior by either depicting people of color CJPs as perpetrators or supporters of wrongful actions, or by depicting them as tacit endorsers.
  • Across almost all series, wrongful actions specifically associated with racial bias—and prevalent in real life—were conspicuously absent with respect to depictions of CJP behavior, as were general wrongful actions being carried out in a racially biased way.

The report found that “NCIS,” “Lethal Weapon,” “Elementary,” “The Blacklist,” “Blindspot,” “Blue Bloods,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” stood out as the most problematic within the genre.

Additionally, it found that the crime television genre is one of the least diverse, in terms of the race and gender of its showrunners and writers: 81% of showrunners (21 of 26 series studied) were white men; a minimum of 78% of writers were white, with only 9% black; across the genre, 20 of 26 series had either no black writers or just 1 black writer.

The report concludes with recommendations for producers and industry executives that its authors believe will address what is a systemic issue. Included is a call for an independent industry auditor, and more diversity within the crime television genre.

“We already knew that television plays a significant role in shaping people’s perception of the world,” said Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change. “Now we know just how dangerous the role of scripted television is when it comes to distorting people’s understanding of crime, race and justice. Instead of the truth-telling role they could play, and the positive influence they could have, these shows encourage the public to reject reform and support the worst behavior of police, prosecutors and others – practices that destroy Black people’s lives.”

“Normalizing Injustice creates metrics and categories that we can track over time, with clear data and indices demonstrating how television is responding to these concerns,” said Johanna Blakley, Managing Director of the Norman Lear Center at USC. “Clearly the Crime TV genre has a long way to go in racial integrity, accuracy about the criminal justice system and people of color in the position where it counts the most— the writers’ room.”

Read the full 70-page report here.

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