Many Americans enjoy watching television shows,especially crime-related series. A nationally famous show that comes to mind for many is Cops. Cops has been on television since early 1989 airing over one thousand episodes. Cops is just one of the several ‘reality-based’ crime shows that are popular because of its live broadcast of police on the streets. Many wonder how these shows affect our daily lives, our attitudes toward crime, criminals, and police.
In a 1994 study conducted by Penn State Professor of Communications and Psychology Mary Beth Oliver aimed to investigate how reality-based police shows can influence public attitudes of crime, race and aggression. She believed it was important to understand that the portrayals of crime-related topics in news and fictional police programs may serve to cultivate perceptions of a dangerous world, to intensify racism, reduce support for civil liberties, and promote positive opinions of police. Within her study,Oliver explored the portrayals typical in this genre that researchers identified as potentially important in relation to viewers’ attitudes and believes. She specifically investigates a) the types of crimes typically portrayed, (b) the resolutions most frequently featured, (c) the ethnic and racial representation of police officers and criminal suspects, and (d) the incidence of aggressive behaviors (p. 180).
For her actual research, Oliver recorded five programs including America’s Most Wanted, Cops,Top Cops, FBI, The Untold Story, and American Detective. Seventy-six programs were recorded in a year and a half, almost 57.5 hours’ worth including commercials. These shows were analyzed by five of Oliver’s students. Their behavior was coded and counted within the results. Using the unit of analysis for her method, Oliver programmed the characters on all five shows and coded them depending on their airtime. This included the main police and the main suspects. For example, “back-up” officers were not coded, and individuals associated with the main suspect but were not questioned by police were not coded either. Gender, race, and character portrayal were then coded for each character on the shows. With this, four types of aggressive behaviors were then coded: verbal aggression (insults, cursing, or negative affective reaction),threat of physical aggression (cause physical harm to a person, like physically holding a knife against someone, saying “if you don’t give me your money, I’ll kill you” or “stop or I’ll shoot”), unarmed physical aggression (kicking,punching, or attaching another), and armed physical aggression (use of a gun,knife, or club, for instance (p. 182). These groups helped categorize the next code: the committed crime. These included selling or buying drugs, robbery,rape or sexual assault, kidnapping, theft, loitering, drunk driving, murder,etc.
The Five undergraduate students performed as coder. There were two females and three males. Reliability of the coding scheme was measured by having all five coders individually analyze three randomly chosen pre-season episodes. With this, they had to make 76 decisions concerning the crime type and 96 decisions whether the presence of the infliction and receipt of aggressive behavior was there or not, which was then categorized further.The results showed very interesting data. Of the index crimes depicted in these programs, 87% of criminal suspects were associated with violent crimes;whereas, FBI data classified only 13% of all crimes as violent (p. 185). The show is contrary to the reality, because in reality, crime is less violent.
Oliver noted other differences between the portrayals and reality along racial lines as well in terms of success. The five programs tended to portray a high frequency of successful resolutions for the police. Additionally,in regards to racial representation, 88.3% of the police were white, 9% black,and 2.6% Hispanic. White characters more often appeared as police officers than as criminal suspects; however, black and Hispanic characters more frequently appeared as criminal suspects than they did as police officers. In terms of aggressive behaviors, at least 50% of officers used at least one type of aggression. A larger percentage of criminal suspects at 38.5% were represented as receiving at least one type of aggression, compared to the 21.7% for police officers.
In conclusion, these programs not only overrepresentviolent crime, but they also overrepresent the percentage of crimes that are cleared or solved by law enforcement personal. These programs also underrepresent blacks and overrepresent whites as police, in comparison to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Finally, police enforcement also uses aggressive behavior more than the criminal suspects.These results demonstrate that these stereotypes portrayed on reality-based police shows can heavily influence one’s attitudes and perceptions.
Oliver, M.B. (1994). Portrayals of crime, race, and aggression in “reality-based” police shows: A content analysis. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 179-192. Retrieved November 15, 2018, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08838159409364255