Crime Shows Are Skewing T.V. Viewers’ Perceptions of the Criminal Justice System

Supermajority Education Fund

January 27, 2020

The crime drama is one of the most popular cable television genres. But a new report from the nonprofit organization Color of Change entitled “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” sheds light on how these shows present a skewed vision of the criminal justice system, which likely shapes the way viewers of these shows view that system.

The report found crime dramas often inaccurately depict crime victims, perpetrators, and law enforcement officials. While victims of crime on television are overwhelmingly white adults, the Bureau of Crime Statistics states that children and teens of color are statistically more likely to be victims of crime. These shows also disproportionately portray African Americans as the perpetrators of violent crimes and depict police officers and other officials of diverse backgrounds as more likely to bend the rules on the job. Additionally, while crime rates have dropped across the country, many television viewers of these shows believe the opposite.

Crime dramas also often portray heroic cops as white men and routinely dismiss the need for any police accountability at a time when grassroots movements are pushing state and local governments towards criminal justice reform. Instead of facing the consequences for poor or racist decision making, the fictional cops on television “made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic,” the researchers wrote.

Almost all of the decision-makers behind the scenes on the sets of these shows, including writers, tend to be white and male, the study also finds. What’s more, these people in positions of authority also don’t often talk to people of color or reform advocates while scripting their shows. They do, however, frequently work closely with former law enforcement officials while developing their storylines. The researchers found that police, military, or FBI personnel were consulted on more than half of the shows studied.

“The crime TV genre miseducates tens of millions of Americans, leading them to believe that people of color are inherently dangerous, that crime is going up, that the things police and prosecutors do are always helpful, and that the police and prosecutors should have more authority,” said Arisha Hatch, Color Of Change’s Vice President and Chief of Campaigns, in a statement to Supermajority News.

Hatch added that more should be done to highlight the realities communities of color face due to over-policing. “At a time when so much innovative work is being done to counteract the harmful effects of the criminal justice system on Black communities, we expect more from the TV shows that shape America’s understanding of the issues,” she said.

To reflect the criminal justice system more accurately, “networks should implement clear hiring policies to foster more diversity in the writers’ room and among showrunners,” Hatch added. “Network, platform, and production company executives must embrace the role of an independent industry auditor who can collaborate with all interested parties to set industry standards.”