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Study shows impact TV crime dramas have on perception of police use of force

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Thomas Gibson as Aaron Hotchner, Joe Mantegna as David Rossi, Matthew Gray Gubler as Dr. Spencer Reid in the CBS series Criminal Minds.
Cliff Lipson
Thomas Gibson as Aaron Hotchner, Joe Mantegna as David Rossi, Matthew Gray Gubler as Dr. Spencer Reid in the CBS series Criminal Minds.

A recent study shows that fictional TV crime dramas have a significant impact on our attitudes about police, specifically when it comes to use their use of force.

This segment is part of The Frame's #CopsOnTV series about how police are portrayed in both scripted and unscripted television, and how TV can impact the public’s perception of law enforcement. Click here to see the rest of the series.

Separating fact from fiction in TV crime dramas, well, it isn’t always easy.

The most recent episode of This American Life features the voice of Tammy Burdine, a paralegal who works on civil cases for a personal injury lawyer named Jack Bailey in Shreveport, Louisiana. Her firm was assigned to a criminal case by the Public Defender’s office, but Bailey's firm was not used to prosecuting such cases. Here's Burdine in an excerpt from the episode:

If you watch the TV shows, the Law & Order, the Criminal Minds, they have evidence. We have evidence in the civil matters. So I assumed the rest of it was coming, maybe in a box or a big envelope. And it never came. It just didn't.

Her reference to procedures depicted in TV crime dramas illustrates the way fictional TV shows can skew our perceptions about how the justice system — and law enforcement — work. Even for people who work within the justice system.

And the majority of citizens don’t ever have to interact with police in a major way. So what many of us understand about police is learned through what we see or read in the news. But a recent study shows that fictional TV crime dramas also have a significant impact on our attitudes about police, specifically when it comes to use their use of force.

Kathleen Donovan has been researching this topic. She’s a professor of political science at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York and co-author of the study called "The Role of Entertainment Media in Perceptions of Police Use of Force," published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior. 

When she joined The Frame, she shared her research about how most people form their perceptions of police.

Interview Highlights:

On entertainment media as an educational resource:

If people are going to be learning about the reality of crime then hopefully they're learning about it from news stories that are reflecting reality. What we brought to the table was the fact that, no, a lot of folks are spending a lot more time watching entertainment media than they are watching news programming, and they're getting a lot more in-depth stories. You follow these characters and you get invested. That leaves a mark on people. So we weren't going against the grain in terms of saying the media is shaping how people view crime and offending and the police. But we were adding to the fact that it's not always coming from sources that maybe we would normatively like it to be. 

On the biggest misconceptions sparked by watching TV crime dramas:

By far the largest impact was on perceptions of how effective the police are. In the content analysis, the way police are shown in these shows is that they're incredibly effective. They're really really good at their jobs. The clearance rate is the official statistic used by police departments, which is that you make an arrest for a crime. These police departments in these shows are having clearance rates of 90 percent and above. The reality is that it's nowhere near that. It's no fault of the police department, it's just that crime is complicated. Murder, which tends to be the most popular crime committed on these shows,  the police departments do have pretty good clearance rates on that 50-60 percent. If you're looking across all crimes, you're looking more like 25 percent. So people who watch these shows tend to think that police are a lot better at their job in terms of clearing crimes than they are in reality.

The other big thing we looked at was specifically use of force and misconduct. A lot of the shows were showing police officers engaging in force and the way that force was portrayed was such that it was necessary: the suspect is a bad guy, we just need to beat it out of him. It's almost always portrayed in a justified light. Again, not to say that the police department is not doing that, but that they're engaging in force a lot more in these fictional shows and it's shown as an appropriate approach. The ends justify the means. We also found that people who watched these shows also thought that these police officers were likely to use force only when necessary and that misconduct is not really a problem particularly when it comes to false confessions. So in general, viewers of these shows tend to have very pro-police attitudes.

On cops portrayed as heroes on TV:

The interesting thing is that these cops are often shown doing bad things, but always for the right purpose. One of my favorite instances in one of the crime dramas that was analyzed in, I believe it was the "Mentalist," where the main character actually kills somebody. He ends up spending no time in prison for this because it was somehow justified. you look, Gallup for example, asks every once in a while for trust in various institutions like the government, courts, things like that. And the police is one of them. The police and the military tend to rank very highly. Writing storylines like that is comfortable for people. 

On the accuracy of shows and distinguishing between real life law enforcement:

I think that if you ask most people about crime dramas and whether they thought these shows were accurate, they'll say, oh I know that it's fictional. But the problem is, they don't have other places that they're getting this information from. They're not getting a lot of interaction with the police officers on a day to day level. So that's sort of what's at the top of their head when they're answering questions, these survey questions about police departments.

These shows, to some extent, have bolstered the notion that they are not wildly inaccurate. "NYPD Blue" used to tout the fact that the plot lines of their shows were ripped from the headlines...The problem was that those headlines were always sensational. That's really the fundamental problem here is that they're showing these really rare types of offenders and really rare crimes when that's not what the reality of offending and police departments look like. 

On why the entertainment media shows mostly white offenders: 

Pretty much all the survey data out there shows these big gaps between blacks and whites in particular. If you talk about use of force and discrimination in police departments, blacks are much more likely to think that's a problem or to perceive it as happening in their area than whites are. So in terms of the analyses and the paper, absolutely they are overwhelmingly white. Their offenders in general are fairly inaccurate in a couple of different ways: race is a big one and they also tend to be middle-class to upper-class. They often have stable jobs, seemingly no previous criminal history and they're either just a total psychopath or they think that committing a crime is a good solution to a problem they have. They're even too male. Females are overrepresented as victims and males as offenders. So it's skewed in all these dimensions.

But the race aspect is very interesting because other scholars have spent a lot of time looking at, in particular, local TV news. Some of those content analyses find that blacks are either overrepresented in crime news stories or they're portrayed in a more negative stereotypical light. Then we've also got these crime dramas in which all the offenders are white and sort of normal in other respects — like I said, had a job and no previous criminal history. What you were saying before about producers of these shows wanting to show police officers in a positive light. I think that same thing applies to offenders. If they were showing too many minority offenders that, again comparing to national statistics on race, are being overly cautious in trying to not come across as racializing crime. And — I have to give credit to my sister for pointing this out to me as she works in Hollywood — there's also a dearth of minority actors. They're underrepresented in Hollywood, so she said that's probably part of the problem too.

On the effect of skewed perceptions of law enforcement:

One of my favorite series of questions that I like to show my students is the Gallup perceptions of crime question. Crime has been going down since the mid 1990s steadily. Now, some cities obviously have had problems, Chicago being an obvious example. But nationally we live in an era that's as safe as it was back in the early 1960s and people just don't know that. Gallup asked them, is crime going up or down or stayed the same nationally, and people think it's up or stayed the same. That has been fairly unresponsive to crime rates. This isn't a problem just for the police or crime. It's a problem more generally for people understanding important political issues. When those misperceptions are informing attitudes on policies and choices for politicians, that's when we have problems. So it is a bit troubling, but, again as we noted already, people do overwhelmingly support the police so if I were a police officer out there I wouldn't be worrying about how they're being portrayed in crime dramas.

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