How Primetime TV Influences Perceptions of Police

by 
from Pacific Standard

Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T in Law and Order: SVU. (Photo: Will Hart/NBC)
Mariska Hargitay and Ice-T in Law and Order: SVU. (Photo: Will Hart/NBC)

The majority of Americans learn about the criminal justice system not through personal experience, but via the media. And in the wake of an alarming number ofreports of unarmed black men murdered by police officers, the news has not painted a particularly rosy picture of the police profession. But it’s not like everyone is watching the news: The majority of the nearly three hours of television that Americans enjoy every day is dedicated to entertainment media. In fact, a new study, published this month in Criminal Justice and Behavior, has found that fictional crime dramas can also influence how viewers feel about police officers’ conduct.

Crime dramas are consistently ranked among the most-watched shows by Nielsen Media, according to the authors. What’s more, as many as 40 percent of Americans believe that such shows are somewhat or very true to real life. So to find out how the simplistic portrayal of police officers on television might influence public opinion of the profession, researchers from St. John Fischer College and Wayne State University first had to analyze how popular crime shows portray police work. In what may be the best undergraduate research job ever, two students watched entire seasons of the Mentalist, Criminal Minds, and NCIS. They recorded, among other things, the number of times police used force, whether the use of force was considered justified and necessary, and the frequency of police misconduct.

“The typical formula of these shows is to follow the lives of passionate and well-intentioned police officers in their quest to solve what are often heinous crimes.”

The fictional officers, according to the report, were wildly successful at identifying and apprehending criminals, were rarely involved in any misconduct themselves, and frequently resorted to using force against offenders (though the force was nearly always justified by the disrespectful or dangerous behavior of the fictional suspects). In other words, not at all true to real life, where as many as 70 percent of crimes go unsolved and officers infrequently use force. “The typical formula of these shows is to follow the lives of passionate and well-intentioned police officers in their quest to solve what are often heinous crimes,” the study authors write. “And while some break from this tradition (e.g., the Wire), the vast majority paint relatively simplistic portraits of good guys and bad guys.”

The researchers also surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 2,000 Americans. They found that those who watched crime shows view police as better behaved, more successful at combating crime, and relatively responsible in their use of force, than those who don’t partake in, say, 24-hour marathons of Law & Order: SVU.

While these crime dramas may not accurately reflect reality, the authors suggest that, by changing viewers’ perceptions, they might also influence real-life behavior. “In general,” they write, “the positive attitudes of viewers may translate into other interesting facets, such as greater compliance with police commands and reports of higher satisfaction and better experiences after police–citizen interactions.”

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