Crime TV Series Distort Your Understanding of Law Enforcement, Survey Says

As police violence erupts nationwide, it's an opportune moment to revisit a landmark Color of Change report released at Sundance 2020.
Chicago P.D.
"Chicago P.D."

As America contends with riots across the country sparked by the death of George Floyd, another unarmed black man who died at the hands of the police, a report released earlier this year suggests that TV’s most popular genre — the police procedural — may lull the public into believing that racial injustice is acceptable.

In January, nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change released “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations that Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre.” It reported that crime shows, which often enlist police departments and retired officers as consultants, overwhelmingly presents a complimentary depiction of police officers as complex, nuanced, and valorized characters. The result is a dishonest cycle that miseducates the public about the criminal justice system by advancing distorted representations of crime, race, and gender.

“Black people suffer greatly from the messages put out by the Crime TV genre and it’s far time for it to be taken into account,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. “Seeing President Trump tweet ‘Law & Order’ was a sick irony, because not only are law and order policies disastrous, but the program, and ones like it, are worsening conditions for black people. Our research has shown how the crime TV genre creates and advances distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender in media and culture, while glamorizing police. The past week makes clear how disastrous and deadly the consequences are.”

Among scripted TV series that make the prime-time broadcast networks’ top 10 every week, crime shows dominate. These include “NCIS” (just renewed for its 18th season), “Blue Bloods” (renewed for its 11th season), and “FBI: Most Wanted” (recently premiered, already a hit). A public that loves police procedurals, the report concludes, is unlikely to also be one that hates police procedures.

“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 stated. “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 is exhaustive: It studied 353 episodes across 26 different scripted crime television series from the 2017–2018 season (March 2017 to July 2018), on both network and streaming platforms, along with diversity data for creators, showrunners, and writers. It also tracked 1,900 individual characters and over 5,400 variables which helped analyze aspects of each show’s characters, setting and plot. Variables include demographic data points such as race and gender, the framing of characters as a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” and interactions with the criminal justice system (e.g. whether a character was arrested, charged, convicted, sentenced, etc.), among many others.

The Color of Change study provides a complex look at how the system is portrayed, correlating the real-world consequences to easily digestible series that feature “good guys” stopping “bad guys.” It found that series normalized bad behavior from criminal justice professional characters; depicted a system without serious problems related to race, gender, violence, and the abuse of power; and an almost total absence of depicting the racial bias that is common in the American legal system.

it also found that crime television showrunners and writers are overwhelming comprised of white men. Among showrunners, 81% are white men, as are 78 percent of writers; only 9 percent of writers are black. Across the genre, 20 of the 26 series had either no black writers or just one black writer.

In contrast to the current nationwide protests against police brutality, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey  found that two thirds of all Americans (64 percent) had a favorable view of the police. However, only 30 percent of black Americans expressed favorable attitudes toward officers, while that figure rose to 74 percent among whites.

This time, maybe it’s different. The brutal death of black men like George Floyd (and Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile, and Ahmad Arbery) has inspired protesters to the streets, and numerous videos show police officers around the country responding with disproportionate force. The press is not immune from attack, whether they represent CNN or Fox. Law enforcement officials, and even right-wing Fox News host Sean Hannity, have publicly criticized former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s actions in Floyd’s death as entirely unacceptable. Chauvin now faces third-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

The report concluded with a call for an independent industry auditor, and more diversity within the crime television genre. Read the full 70-page Color of Change report here.

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