Media images of policing abound in the news and entertainment media, television dramas and reality shows, film, news broadcasts, and other media formats. The representations of policing in these venues are frequently inaccurate, providing the public with misinformation about the nature of police work and police officers. The public opinion about police is based partly upon what it sees in the media, and these opinions are likely based on images that do not reflect reality.
Police in the Entertainment Media
Police officers are portrayed in a variety of ways in the entertainment media. Movies such as Die Hard and S.W.A.T. feature characters who are over-the-top heroes with unlimited firepower and unending bravery who eventually save people from a villainous adversary. The officers in TV’s NYPD Blue and Law and Order are flawed but honest, hard-working heroes. The prime-time show The Shield portrays officers as rogues bent on administering street justice to criminals who never seem to get their due. Reality shows such as COPS largely feature patrol officers responding to the immediate needs of citizens. All of these films and shows ignore the realities of policing. In real life police resources are often limited, and officers who use illegal methods to mete out justice are the exception and not the norm. Finally, all of these venues portray police officers as crime fighters protecting the public, ignoring the service-oriented tasks police officers do as part of their job.
Analyses of prime-time police dramas demonstrate that the portrayal of policing is not accurate and paints a distorted picture of what the policing profession entails. Most of these dramas involve the officers investigating major crimes that are relatively rare occurrences in reality, ignoring the crimes that are committed the most. Rape and murder are two crimes unlikely to affect the general population, yet they tend to be the ones depicted most on police dramas (Dominick 1973, 246). This further perpetuates the crime fighting image of the police, ignoring the service functions of police officers. Real police officers frequently engage in service-oriented job tasks; very little time is actually spent as a crime fighter.
Police dramas also paint officers as being very successful in solving crimes. In reality, most crimes are not solved due to lack of evidence, unwillingness of witnesses to cooperate, or lack of a suspect. These shows also overrepresent the use of force and misrepresent the use of force against young non-Caucasian males. This can project the image that young, non-Caucasian males are dangerous and this is how the police respond to them (Mastro and Robinson 2000, 392).
One of the few accurate points in police dramas is the demographic makeup of fictional police departments. As in real life, most police-centered television dramas have primarily white male officers (Souilliere 2004, 220). Another accurate point in television dramas is the portrayal of officers as part of a team. While real patrol officers may be alone in their cars, there are usually other officers on duty at the same time. In addition, there are specialty officers that can be called in the event the patrol officer needs assistance. Frequent references to these specialty officers are made in television.
Reality-based policing shows such as COPS also provide the public with a look at the life of a police officer. Often these shows are not accurate portrayals, creating an image of policing that is more exciting and glamorous than it is in reality. Many of these shows focus on the patrol aspect of policing, misrepresenting the amount of teamwork that policing requires in solving crimes. These shows tend to depict officers as always being very busy while on duty. In reality, not all of an officer’s duty time is spent in vehicle pursuits or investigating crimes; there are many other duties to fulfill. Some television reality shows, such as The First 48, focus on the detective work that must be invested in solving a major crime. While teamwork is represented, the emphasis is on major crimes and not on the minor crimes that are more common in society, further emphasizing the crime fighting image of police.
Other forms of entertainment media depict police officers and crime in a manner not true to life. Many of these portrayals brand officers as incompetent and dishonest and focus on serial murders, rapes, or other sensationalized crimes. This limits the image of the police role to the crime fighter, ignoring the service and order maintenance functions of the profession. True crime novels often inspire, and are inspired by, other forms of media. For instance, the true crime novel Homicide inspired a television depiction of policing in the form of Homicide: Life on the Street, and other novels are inspired by news headlines about major crimes (Wilson 1997, 718).
The Internet has also proved to be another source of policing images. An online search for policing nets millions of web pages for police departments, live police scanner feeds, and videos of police chases and shootings. While police department websites frequently feature mission statements emphasizing a dedication to service, other websites feature images of the crime fighting officer, with little space devoted to service and order maintenance tasks.
Police in the News Media
Similar to the entertainment media, police officers are often portrayed as crime fighters in the news media. Television newscasts frequently feature cases that officers are working on or have successfully solved (Maguire, Sandage, and Weatherby 1999, 185). This portrayal is sometimes the result of the police department working with the news media to control what information is released to reporters. Police departments tend to provide information to the media that reflects positively on the organization or that repairs a damaged reputation (Chermak 1995, 35). In effect, some police departments are partly responsible for the image projected in the news media.
Newscasts related to policing vary by venue. It appears that national broadcasts are less likely than local television agencies to carry stories related to the police. Police-related stories on national newscasts are frequently related to the FBI and not local departments. Local and regional news stations report more frequently on policing, but the type of images projected varies by location. Newscasts in smaller cities tend to report fewer crime-focused police activities than service-oriented activities, while those in larger cities focus more on crime. The latter also tend to report more on negative things the police have done. Overall, however, positive images of police officers are more common than negative images in news stories, and most police-related stories give information about a crime or event but are not focused on the actions of the police as positive or negative.
The Impact of Video Cameras on Media Images of Police
With the advent of video cameras, police practices can now be recorded and broadcast to the public as part of entertainment and news media. Often, the events that take place involve alleged police misconduct. There is some evidence that this type of behavior is reported more frequently in large cities than in smaller areas or on the national newscasts (Maguire, Sandage, and Weatherby 1999, 178). One issue with video tapings being released to the public is that the video camera seems to rarely catch an entire event. Often taping begins in the middle of a police-citizen confrontation and the public is not privy to the entire event. An example of this is taping of the beating and arrest of Robert Davis in New Orleans in the fall of 2005. Releasing videotapes of officers in these circumstances provides opportunity for citizens to form opinions that may be negative based upon incomplete information (Jefferis et al. 1997, 391).
Effect of Media Portrayal on Public Opinion
The media portrayal of police officers likely has an effect on how the public views the police. The cultivation hypothesis states that repeated exposure to social issues on television influences a person’s view of the world (Mastro and Robinson 2000, 386). Most people have likely been exposed to police dramas, reality shows, or news stories and have therefore been exposed to images of policing that are inaccurate. The apparent success of the police in solving crimes in both entertainment and news media may cause the public to have unrealistic expectations regarding what the police are able to accomplish. Further, the overrepresentation of violent and sensational crime in the media impacts the public’s assessment of risk for that type of crime.