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Public Perceptions of Police Misconduct and Discrimination: Examining the Impact of Media Consumption

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The media portrayal of policing is juxtaposed with both positive and negative representations. As a result, a complex relationship exists between media consumption and public attitudes towards the police. The purpose of this study was to test the impact that media consumption had on attitudes toward police misconduct and discrimination. The findings revealed that heavy consumers of network news were more likely to believe that police misconduct was a frequent event. This was especially true for minority respondents. Similarly, minority respondents that frequently viewed network news were more likely to believe that Whites received better treatment by the police. Finally, the findings revealed that frequent viewers of police dramas believed that the wealthy received preferential treatment from the police. Conversely, frequent viewers of crime solving shows believed that the wealthy did not receive preferential treatment.
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Public perceptions of police misconduct and discrimination:
Examining the impact of media consumption
Kenneth Dowler
a,
, Valerie Zawilski
b
a
Department of Criminology, Wilfrid Laurier University at Brantford, 73 George Street, Brantford, Ontario, Canada N3T 2Y3
b
Department of Contemporary Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University at Brantford, 73 George Street, Brantford, Ontario, Canada N3T 2Y3
Abstract
The media portrayal of policing is juxtaposed with both positive and negative representations. As a result, a complex
relationship exists between media consumption and public attitudes towards the police. The purpose of this study was to test the
impact that media consumption had on attitudes toward police misconduct and discrimination. The findings revealed that heavy
consumers of network news were more likely to believe that police misconduct was a frequent event. This was especially true for
minority respondents. Similarly, minority respondents that frequently viewed network news were more likely to believe that Whites
received better treatment by the police. Finally, the findings revealed that frequent viewers of police dramas believed that the
wealthy received preferential treatment from the police. Conversely, frequent viewers of crime solving shows believed that the
wealthy did not receive preferential treatment.
© 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Introduction
The popular media is of fundamental importance in the
construction of attitudes toward criminal justice and
criminal justice agents. The majority of public knowledge
about crime and justice is derived from media consump-
tion (Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1987; Graber, 1980;
Roberts & Doob, 1990; Surette, 2007). As such, the
perception of victims, criminals, and law enforcement
officials is largely determined by their portrayal within the
media. There was a plethora of research studies that
examined attitudes toward the police (Schafer, Huebner,
&Bynum,2003). There were, however, relatively few
studies that examined the media impact on those attitudes
(Weitzer & Tuch, 2004, 2005a, 2005b). There was even
less research on media's influence on citizens' attitudes
toward police misconduct and discrimination. As a result,
the purpose of this research study was to address the gap
by testing the impact of media consumption on public
attitudes toward the police.
The majority of research conducted on the police-
media relationship was centered on determining the
portrayal of police within the media. Literature on media
portrayals of police revealed two contradictory observa-
tions. Some research revealed that the police were
presented favorably, while other research implied that
the police were negatively represented (Surette, 2007).
Various researchers posited that the news media engaged
in negative presentations of policing. For example, print
and broadcast media characterized the police as in-
effective and incompetent, while reality police shows
and news tabloid programs presented the police as heroes
who fight evil (Surette, 2007). The media offered little
information to evaluate police, and the focus was on
Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193 203
Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 519 756 5372x5754.
E-mail address: kdowler@wlu.ca (K. Dowler).
0047-2352/$ - see front matter © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2007.01.006
negative events rather than positive or successful crime
prevention (Graber, 1980). Essentially, crime presented
by the media was punished; however, the police were
rarely the heroes (Lichter & Lichter, 1983).
Nevertheless, the majority of research suggested that
the police were favorably presented. For instance, in
crime dramas, crimes were solved and suspects were
successfully arrested (Carlson, 1985; Dominick, 1973;
Doyle, 2003; Estep & MacDonald, 1984; Kooistra,
Mahoney, & Westervelt, 1998; Zillman & Wakshlag,
1985). Similarly, television news exaggerated the pro-
portion of arrests, which portrayed the police as more
effective than official statistics exhibited (Marsh, 1991;
Roshier, 1973; Sacco & Fair, 1988; Skogan & Maxfield,
1981). Public relation strategies endorsed by police
agencies might partially explain a favorable view of the
police. The presentation of proactive police activity
builds the image that the police were effective and
efficient investigators of crime (Christensen, Schmidt, &
Henderson, 1982). The media-police relationship is
mutually beneficial. The police have an interest in
preserving a positive public image, while the reporters
require quick, reliable, and relatively easy sources of
crime news (Ericson et al., 1987; Fishman, 1981; Hall,
Critcher, Jefferson, Clarke, & Roberts, 1978).
More recent research suggested that images of
policing created unrealistic public expectations about
real policing and disappointment when police did not
perform like their media portrayals (Perlmutter, 2000).
Surette (2007) revealed nine police narratives within
fictional police images, which included rogue cops,
corrupt cops, honest cops, buddy cops, comedy cops,
action comedy cops, female cops, and aging cops.
Surette (2007) argued that with the exception of female
police narratives, hyper masculinity was the familiar
pattern within the narratives and the narratives were
individualized. In addition, police reality programs have
become highly popular in television programming and
provided different images of policing. According to
Cavender and Fishman (1998), the popularity of police
reality programs was due to the social context, in which
crime was viewed as a serious social problem that was
getting steadily more problematic and dangerous, while
Surette (2007) reported that the attraction of these shows
was voyeuristic. The final edit of these shows was
controlled by the cooperating police department, thus
any negative portrayals of the police would not be
included in the final product. Donovan (1998) suggested
that reality television programs recreated the law and
order ideology and that the police were portrayed as
knowledgeable, sensitive, caring, and competent. More-
over, Doyle (2003) argued that crimes of violence and
the proportion of crimes solved were overrepresented on
these shows. Other research argued that stereotypes
about racial minorities and crime were common in police
reality shows (Kooistra et al., 1998; Oliver & Armstrong,
1998). Finally, Surette (2007, p. 108) argued that the end
result was that crime control is applauded, due process
is disparaged. Individual causes of crime, assumed guilt
of suspects, and an usversus them portrait dominates
the construction of crime and justice.
Although there were mixed views about whether the
police were negatively or positively presented by the
various media types, some researchers posited that
public attitudes toward the police were influenced by
exposure to media (Huang & Vaughn, 1996; Maguire,
1988). There were very few studies, however, that tested
this assumption. In one study, viewing police reality
shows and television news increased confidence in
police. Racial differences, however, existed among
respondents. White viewers of realitypolice programs
were more likely to have positive attitudes toward the
police, while there was no relationship with African
American viewers. Conversely, an increase in confi-
dence towards the police was exhibited in both African
Americans and Whites after viewing the news (Eschholz,
Blackwell, Gertz, & Chiricos, 2002). Moreover, Dowler
(2002) found that media consumption had a limited
impact on attitudes toward the police. Heavy television
viewers with previous police contact were more likely to
have negative attitudes toward the police.
In terms of police misconduct, there were a handful
of important studies that examined public attitudes
toward police transgressions. Many of these studies
tested the impact of a single, publicized incident of
police corruption or misconduct on public perceptions
of police. In brief, they found that news coverage of
brutality incidents or police corruption increased neg-
ative attitudes toward the police (Kaminski & Jefferis,
1998; Sigleman, Welch, Bledsoe, & Combs, 1997; Tuch
& Weitzer, 1997; Weitzer, 2002). To further test this
relationship, Weitzer and Tuch (2004) examined the
impact that frequent exposure of separate incidents of
police misconduct had on citizen attitudes toward the
police. They found that repeated media exposure to
police abuse increased respondents' beliefs in the fre-
quency of police misconduct. This was true for Whites,
African Americans, and Hispanics, however, minorities
were more strongly affected. In another study, Weitzer
and Tuch (2005b) found that exposure to media ac-
counts of police misconduct increased perception of
police bias against minorities. Despite the importance
of their findings, Weitzer and Tuch (2004, 2005b)
employed a single-item self-report measure of media
194 K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
exposure. It is vital that a media exposure is measured
with a multi-measure item that explores different types
of media. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to test
the impact that varying types of media consumption had
on attitudes toward police misconduct and discrimina-
tory practices in policing.
Theoretical orientation
The textual encoding of a media presentation and the
subsequent polysemic decoding of the text by the
audience generated an array of diverse interpretations by
the viewing audience (Hall, 1980). Media reception
research proposed that the cultural system of codes and
conventions used by media producer and audience
needed to be understood. Fiske (1986), however, took
this further, by suggesting that there were eight positions
of subjectivity that should be considered when studying
an audience reaction to the media. These positions
included: self, gender, age, group, family, class, nation,
ethnicity, and sexual orientation (Fiske, 1986). In
contrast, earlier approaches to media studies such as
the hypodermic needle theory that regarded audiences as
passive and heterogeneous and the two step flow or
limited effects model in which opinion leaders acted as
mediators which interpreted media texts and events for a
mass audience, underestimated the intellectual capabil-
ities of its viewers (McQuail, 1987).
Blumler and Katz (1974) proposed that while the
media essentially entertained its audience, it also served
as an important tool of cultural transmission that was
employed by corporations and the state to teach indivi-
duals about the hegemonic values of the state, interper-
sonal relationships, individual and collective identities,
and the identities of the other(s).This complex process
of interpreting, regulating, and appropriating meaning
from multimedia texts was an imperfect process which
M. M. Bakhtin described as heteroglossia (Maybin,
2001).
Since the 1980s, reception research had focused on
heteroglossia or the meaning of television messages that
were mediated by the subjectivity of its viewers (Carra-
gee, 1990; Fiske, 1986; Gunter, 1987; Jensen, 1990;
Perse, Ferguson, & McLeod, 1994). Multimedia view-
ers constructed meanings according to their social lo-
cation in society, which in turn informed and activated
its meaning for them. Thus, social location research
analyzed the relationship between the subject's life
circumstances, demographic characteristics, and media
presentations (Fiske, 1986).
Four categories of social location research have
been identified and they included the following areas
of research: the vulnerability thesis, the substitution
thesis, the resonance thesis, and the affinity thesis.
Research studies concluded that the vulnerability the-
sis, which stated that women and elderly populations
were generally more likely to feel at risk than younger
males, had not been well supported (Skogan & Max-
field, 1981). Conversely, there was some support for
the substitution thesis which suggested that people
such as high income elderly women who have not been
exposed to criminal situations, might, after watching
the news or crime shows, substitute the reality of their
lives with the idea that they will be future victims of
criminal behavior (Gunter, 1987). Other studies had
found substantially significant findings, which sup-
ported the resonance theory, that male viewers from
low income backgrounds exposed to criminal situa-
tions would have greater feelings of resonance with
people involved in arrests on television than other
people (Chiricos, Padgett, & Gertz, 2000; Doob &
Macdonald, 1979; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Sign-
orielli, 1980). Finally, the affinity thesis had been
supported by evidence that individuals that viewed a
preponderance of characters with similar demographic
characteristics, that were victimized on television, sub-
sequently would be more likely to fear being victims of
criminal behavior themselves (Chiricos, Eschholz, &
Gertz, 1997; Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-
Fox, & Signorielli, 1978).
While social location research examined the viewer's
interpretations of a media text in relation to his or
herself, the mirror image of social location research
might be found within the framework of ecological
theorizing. This area of research inquiry examined the
roles that social economic status, residential stability,
and the racial/ethnic/cultural composition of a neigh-
borhood's population might have on an individual's
perceptions about crime rates and criminal activity in the
area that they reside. Several studies had concluded that
there was a significant positive correlation between the
percentage of minorities in a neighborhood and the rate
of police brutality and aggression. Social conflict theory
explained this social phenomenon by proposing that
threats to the status quo by minority males who pose a
psychological threat to the White male dominated
hegemonic state was played out in the power relation-
ship between police forces and subordinate groups
(Kane, 2003).
Other factors such as crime rates in a community, the
size of the population living in a community, and the
general rental and residential turnover rates indicated
that poverty indicators in combination with police
workload issues and the percentage of minorities living
195K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
in a community contributed to the development of the
minority threat hypothesis that was outwardly mani-
fested in the social construction of the symbolic as-
sailant. The symbolic assailant was most often identified
by the general public as a low income African-American
male who lived in a community that had high crime
rates. While Americans were confounded by a multi-
tude of media images of the symbolic assailant, mem-
bers of this minority group might, due to perceptions of
resonance and affinity, feel antagonistic towards the
police force in their neighborhood. Essentially, they
might regard the police as an occupying army. These
feelings of antagonism precipitate conflict as the autho-
rity of the police force was challenged on a community
level. Subsequently, evidence that supported the mino-
rity threat thesis and the police response to minority
threat thesis was perpetuated by the multimedia in-
dustry and consumed by a mass audience (Jackson &
Boyd, 2005).
Methodology
Sample
The data were derived from the 2000 Law and Media
Survey. The Law and Media Survey was a nationally
representative, random telephone survey of adults (n =
1,011) who resided in the United States. The project was
designed and conducted by the Center for Survey
Research and Analysis, and the Roper Center for
Opinion Research provided the data. The purpose of
the Law and Media Survey was to examine American
attitudes toward crime and justice, exploring issues such
as courts, corrections, and police. In addition, the survey
provided a comprehensive assessment of respondents'
media consumption. This was essential, as prior research
on attitudes toward police lacked a detailed measure of
media consumption (Dowler, 2002).
Measurement
Independent variables
There were several different media forms, and each
type might portray the police in different manners. As a
result, this research was unique in that media consump-
tion included different types of crime shows and
television newscasts. Exposure to media was separated
into crime show and news consumption. Crime shows
were measured with three questions which included:
(1) Some shows on television feature police officers
and prosecutors such as NYPD Blue and Law and Order.
How often do you watch shows like these: more than
once a week, about once a week, one to three times a
month, less than once a month, or never?(2) Some
shows on television try to solve actual crimes, such as
America's Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. How
often do you watch shows like these: more than once
a week, about once a week, one to three times a
month, less than once a month, or never?(3) Some
shows on television feature footage of police situation
and chases, such as COPS,Highway Patrol,andWorld's
Wildest Police Chases. How often do you watch shows
like these: more than once a week, about once a week,
one to three times a month, less than once a month,
or never?The frequency of television news consump-
tion was measured by asking respondents how often
they watched each of the following television news
programs: (1) network newscasts such as NBC Nightly
News,CBS Evening News,andABC World News
Tonight, (2) local newscasts hosted by anchors from
your own area, (3) Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS,
(4) news magazine programs like 20/20,60 Minutes or
Dateline, and (5) all news cable stations like CNN,
MSNBC, or FOXNEWS. Each of these variables were
reverse-coded, to have the higher number represent
increased consumption.
Dependent variables
Attitudes towards police were divided into two distinct
areas, which included police misconduct and discrimi-
natory police practices. Attitudes toward police miscon-
duct were measured with three questions: (1) How often
do you think police officers distort the truth while testi-
fying in a trial to help get a conviction? Is it often,
sometimes, rarely, or never?(2) How often to do you
believe police officers will bend the rules to get a
confession from a person accused of a crime? Is it often,
sometimes, rarely, or never?(3) How often do think
police officers physically abuse those who are accused of
a crime? Is it often; sometimes, rarely, or never?The
responses were employed to create a composite measure
of attitudes toward police misconduct, which ranged from
3 = low degree of police misconduct to 12 = high degree
of police misconduct. The alpha reliability coefficient for
the respondents' perception of the amount of police mis-
conduct was .70.
Discriminatory police practices were measured with
two questions: (1) Please tell me whether you strongly
agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the
following statement. Police officers are more likely to
treat Whites better than minorities.(2). Police officers
are more likely to treat wealthy people better than the
196 K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
Table 1
Descriptive characteristics of the sample
Variable f % Mean Variable f % Mean
Race Crime drama 2.74
White 807 79.8 Never 358 35.5
Non-White 204 20.2 Less than once a month 124 12.3
One to three times a month 134 13.3
Gender About once a week 212 21.0
Male 494 48.9 More than once a week 181 17.9
Female 517 51.1
Age 45.55 Crime solving 2.54
1829 201 20.2 Never 386 38.2
3039 190 19.1 Less than once a month 131 13.0
4049 223 22.4 One to three times a month 190 18.8
5059 169 17.0 About once a week 169 16.7
60+ 212 21.3 More than once a week 134 13.3
Education 3.97 Police reality 2.43
Grade school (08) 17 1.7 Never 430 42.6
Some high school 73 7.2 Less than once a month 115 11.4
High school 305 30.2 One to three times a month 184 18.2
Some college 269 26.6 About once a week 159 15.7
College graduate 218 21.6 More than once a week 122 12.1
Post-graduate 127 12.6
Income 2.62 Network news 3.37
Less than $30,000 200 23.1 Never 176 17.4
$30,000 to $50,000 260 30.1 Less than once a month 122 12.1
$50,000 to $70,000 181 20.9 One to three times a month 161 15.9
$70,000 to $100,000 115 13.3 About once a week 250 24.8
$100,000+ 108 12.5 More than once a week 301 29.8
Victim of crime Local news 3.90
Yes 492 48.7 Never 109 10.8
No 519 51.3 Less than once a month 82 8.1
One to three times a month 105 10.4
Victim of violent crime About once a week 215 21.3
Yes 76 7.5 More than once a week 498 49.4
No 935 92.5
Charged or arrested News magazines 2.71
Yes 215 21.3 Never 186 18.4
No 796 78.7 Less than once a month 257 25.4
One to three times a month 286 28.3
Concern for violent crime 2.44 About once a week 230 22.8
Not at all 179 17.7 More than once a week 51 5.0
Not too concerned 367 36.3
Somewhat concerned 301 29.8 Cable 3.05
Very concerned 163 16.1 Never 254 25.2
Less than once a month 141 14.0
Concern for property crime 2.81 One to three times a month 159 15.8
Not at all 82 8.1 About once a week 202 20.1
Not too concerned 314 31.1 More than once a week 250 24.9
Somewhat concerned 359 35.5
Very concerned 256 25.3 PBS 1.56
Never 716 71.0
Serious crime in country 3.65 Less than once a month 134 13.3
Not at all serious 3 0.3 One to three times a month 73 7.2
Not too serious 39 3.9 About once a week 53 5.3
(continued on next page)
197K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
less well-off.To conduct logistic regression, these
questions were divided into two categories, which re-
presented either agree (coded 1) or disagree (coded 0)
with the statement about preferential treatment.
Control/demographic variables
There were several demographic variables that
were included in the analysis, which included race (1 =
White, 0 = non-White), gender (1 = male, 0 = female), age
in years, household income measured on a five-step ladder
ranging from less than $30,000 per year (coded 1) to more
than $100,000 per year (coded 5), education measured
on a six-step ladder ranging from grade school or less
(coded 1) to post-graduate (coded 6), victim of crime (1 =
victim, 0 = non-victim), victim of violent crime (1 = violent
crime victim, 0 = nonviolent crime victim), and charged/
arrested for a crime (1 = charged/arrested, 0 = never
charged/arrested), concern about property crime and fear
of violent crime measured on a four-step ladder ranging
from not at all concerned (coded 1) to very concerned
(coded 4), perception of serious crime in America and
within the neighborhood measured with a four-step ladder
ranging from not at all serious (coded 1) to very serious
(coded 4), and accuracy of crime shows measured on a
four-step ladder ranging from very inaccurately (coded 1)
to very accurately (coded 4).
Analytic induction
Linear regression (OLS) was employed to test the
relationship between media consumption and police
misconduct. Binomial (or binary) logistic regression
wasusedtotesttherelationshipbetweenmediacon-
sumption and discriminatory practices toward minor-
ities and the poor. To check for multicollinearity,
all models included collinearity diagnostics. None
of the variance inflation factors (VIF) were greater
than 2, indicating the absence of multicollinearity
(Lewis-Beck, 1990).
Results
Table 1 provides the descriptive characteristics of the
sample.
Table 2 presents multivariate results. Model 1 exa-
mined the full sample and the results indicated that two
media variables were related to perceptions of police
misconduct.
Frequent viewers of network news and crime solving
shows were more likely to report that police misconduct
was a common or frequent occurrence. The findings also
revealed that race and experience within criminal justice
system were significant predictors of attitudes toward
police misconduct. White respondents were more likely
to report that police misconduct was rare, whereas
respondents that had been charged or arrested believed
that police misconduct was common. In addition, male
respondents, higher educated respondents, and respon-
dents concerned about property crime were more likely
to perceive lower levels of police misconduct. Con-
versely, respondents who reported that there were se-
rious crime problems within their neighborhood were
more likely to believe that police misconduct was
plentiful.
To enhance the analysis, interaction effects for race
and income were examined more closely. The results for
race were presented in Models 2 and 3, and revealed that
non-White respondents that were frequent viewers of
network news were more likely to believe that police
Table 1 (continued )
Variable f % Mean Variable f % Mean
Serious crime in country PBS
Somewhat serious 269 26.7 More than once a week 32 3.2
Very serious 695 69.1
Serious crime in neighborhood 2.66 Preferential treatment of Whites
Not at all serious 71 7.0 Yes 560 70.1
Not too serious 369 36.6 No 239 29.9
Somewhat serious 395 39.2
Very serious 173 17.2 Preferential treatment of wealthy
Yes 761 77.6
Accuracy of crime shows 2.27 No 220 22.4
Very inaccurate 187 21.6
Somewhat inaccurate 313 36.2 Perceived police misconduct 8.68
Somewhat accurate 308 35.6
Very accurate 56 6.5
198 K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
misconduct was common. The findings for income were
presented in Models 4 and 5. The results showed that
respondents that earned more than $50,000 who
watched crime solving shows were more likely to
believe that police misconduct was frequent. Similarly,
respondents that earned less than $50,000 who watched
high levels of network news were more likely to be-
lieve that police misconduct was frequent. Interestingly,
income level had no effect for White respondents, who
regardless of income level, believed that police mis-
conduct was infrequent.
Tab l e 3 presents the logistic regression results.
Model 1 included the full sample and the results showed
no significant relationships between preferential treat-
ment of Whites and media consumption. There were,
however, significant relationships between race, gender,
education, charged/arrested, and preferential treatment
of Whites by the police. Not surprisingly, White res-
pondents believed that Whites were not treated pre-
ferentially by the police, while non-Whites disagreed.
Male respondents believed that Whites received no
preferential treatment, while higher educated respon-
dents disagreed. Finally, respondents charged or arrested
were more likely to agree that Whites were treated better
by the police. Interaction effects were examined in
Models 2 and 3. Interestingly, minority respondents that
frequently watched network news were more likely to
believe that Whites were treated favorably by the police,
while non-White respondents that frequently watched
police reality programs disagreed that Whites were
treated favorably by the police.
Model 4 examined perceived treatment of the wealthy
by the police. Multivariate findings revealed that fre-
quent viewers of police drama shows were more likely to
Table 2
OLS estimates for the regression of perceived police misconduct on predictors
Model 1
Full sample
Model 2
White
Model 3
Non-White
Model 4
N$50,000
Model 5
b$50,000
SE βSE βSE βSE βSE B
Crime shows
Police drama .03 .01 .04 .02 .08 .08 .06 .02 .04 .02
Crime solving .05 .08.05 .06 .10 .13 .07 .16⁎⁎ .06 .03
Police reality .05 .04 .05 .04 .10 .06 .08 .04 .06 .03
Television news
Network .04 .09.05 .01 .09 .35⁎⁎ .07 .02 .06 .12
Local .04 .04 .05 .04 .09 .09 .07 .06 .06 .01
News magazines .05 .02 .06 .05 .12 .14 .09 .01 .02 .02
Cable .04 .01 .04 .00 .08 .07 .06 .00 .05 .01
PBS .05 .03 .06 .03 .11 .04 .08 .03 .07 .03
Demographic
Age of respondent .00 .00 .00 .01 .01 .02 .01 .05 .00 .07
White .13 .18⁎⁎ –– –– .21 .23⁎⁎ .17 .15⁎⁎
Male .11 .07.12 .08.25 .05 .18 .09 .14 .06
Years of education .05 .09⁎⁎ .05 .09.11 .12 .08 .02 .06 .11
Income .05 .03 .05 .02 .12 .07 –– ––
Control
Victim of crime .11 .03 .12 .01 .25 .16.17 .00 .14 .05
Victim of violent crime .20 .03 .22 .04 .46 .02 .35 .02 .24 .05
Charged or arrested .13 .16⁎⁎ .15 .18⁎⁎ .29 .10 .21 .16⁎⁎ .17 .15⁎⁎
Concern for violent crime .06 .03 .07 .01 .11 .07 .35 .02 .07 .02
Concern for property crime .05 .12⁎⁎ .06 .13⁎⁎ .13 .06 .08 .17⁎⁎ .07 .08
Serious crime in country .10 .04 .11 .04 .21 .06 .15 .02 .13 .06
Serious crime in neighborhood .07 .09⁎⁎ .07 .08.14 .12 .10 .10 .09 .08
Accuracy of crime shows .06 .04 .07 .05 .15 .05 .10 .01 .09 .06
R-square .14 .10 .19 .16 .14
Adjusted R-square .12 .08 .10 .12 .11
N 996 796 199 397 598
pb.05.
⁎⁎ pb.01.
199K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
believe that police treated the wealthy better, while
frequent viewers of crime solving shows believed
that there was no preferential treatment given to the
wealthy.
Other significant relationships included education,
charged/arrested, and perception of crime in the country.
Respondents that were charged by the police, highly
educated, and believed that crime was a serious problem
in the country were more likely to believe that the wealthy
received better treatment by the police. Interaction effects
for income were examined in Models 5 and 6, and
revealed that the previous media effects were stronger for
respondents who earned more than $50,000. Respondents
who earned more than $50,000 who frequently watched
police dramas were more likely to agree that the wealthy
were treated better by police, while those that frequently
watched crime solving shows disagreed.
Discussion
Overall, the results suggested that the media had little
impact on attitudes toward police misconduct and
discrimination. Nevertheless, there were several find-
ings that require further explanation.
Compared to other types of news, the consumption of
network news had the most impact on respondents'
attitudes toward police misconduct and discrimination.
Heavy viewers of network news were more likely to
believe that police misconduct was a frequent occurrence.
Police abuse or misconduct was frequently reported by the
media (Lawrence, 2000). It was highly likely that heavy
viewers of network news would be more aware of these
incidents. In terms of non-White respondents, it appeared
that the consumption of network news influenced their
attitudes more than White respondents, which was
Table 3
Odds ratios (Exp. B) for perceived preferential treatment of Whites and the wealthy on predictors
Whites treated better by police Wealthy treated better by police
Model 1
Full sample
Model 2
White
Model 3
Non-White
Model 4
Full sample
Model 5
N$50,000
Model 6
b$50,000
Crime shows Exp. B Exp. B Exp. B Exp. B Exp. B Exp. B
Police drama 1.06 1.07 1.03 1.131.241.08
Crime solving 0.98 0.94 1.19 0.850.770.89
Police reality 0.89 0.95 0.661.01 1.23 0.91
Television news
Network 1.07 0.99 1.561.01 0.89 1.08
Local 0.91 0.91 0.80 1.02 1.03 1.05
News magazines 1.13 1.19 0.87 1.00 1.04 0.95
Cable 1.12 1.10 1.17 0.99 1.06 0.98
PBS 0.92 0.89 1.16 1.00 1.13 0.94
Demographic
Age of respondent 0.99 1.01 0.971.01 1.03 1.00
White 0.43⁎⁎ –– 0.78 0.32⁎⁎ 1.15
Male 0.690.651.16 1.31 1.68 0.98
Years of education 1.201.25⁎⁎ 1.09 1.22⁎⁎ 1.23 1.19
Income 0.97 0.96 0.98 0.89 ––
Control
Victim of crime 0.92 0.89 1.10 1.23 0.83 1.72
Victim of violent crime 0.88 0.90 0.85 0.80 1.43 0.61
Charged or arrested 1.571.83⁎⁎ 0.96 1.561.60 1.76
Concern for violent crime 0.89 0.93 0.75 0.91 0.75 0.97
Concern for property crime 0.92 0.89 1.26 0.88 0.760.96
Serious crime in country 1.25 1.21 1.47 1.391.44 1.50
Serious crime in neighborhood 0.97 0.97 0.90 1.02 1.29 0.88
Accuracy of crime shows 1.00 1.01 1.25 0.87 0.42 0.85
Cox and Snell R-square 0.06 0.05 0.12 0.04 0.11 0.05
Nagelkerke R-square 0.08 0.07 0.20 0.07 0.16 0.09
N 790 628 162 969 393 576
pb.05.
⁎⁎ pb.01.
200 K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
consistent with prior research (We i t ze r & Tuch, 2004 ).
Many high-profile incidents of police misconduct in-
volved non-White victims. Consequently, it was possible
that non-White audience members might be more affected
by these incidents. In essence, including race was an
important element in the examination of media effects.
The results showed that minority respondents who
reported heavy consumption of network news were
more likely to believe that the police treated Whites better
than minorities. This finding was very important and
might partially explain the gap between White and
minority attitudes toward the police. Consequently, it is
vital that future research include media consumption as a
possible determinant within racial differences in attitudes
toward the police, as it is often overlooked (Weitzer &
Tuch, 2004).
As previously suggested, the minority threat hypoth-
esis and the subsequent police response might create
hostility and antagonism towards police by minority
community members. The findings revealed that non-
Whites that watched television news were more sus-
ceptible to these messages, in that they were more likely
to believe that police misconduct was frequent and that
Whites were treated better by the police. As a result,
both the resonance and affinity thesis might partially
explain the racial differences in media effects.
Conversely, the resonance/affinity thesis was reversed
for non-White viewers of police reality shows. Non-
Whites who frequently watched police reality shows were
more likely to disagree that Whites were not treated better
by the police. The content of police reality shows might
partially explain why non-Whites felt this way. The law
and orderapproach was a prominent theme within this
genre (Cavender, 1998; Cavender & Fishman, 1998;
Donovan, 1998; Doyle, 2003; Surette, 2007). In effect,
Doyle (1998) argued that viewers who watched police
reality shows saw these types of programs as more
informative than as entertainment. As mentioned previ-
ously, the common theme in these realityshows was that
aggressive law enforcement was required because of the
increasing dangerousness and prevalence of crime
(Surette, 2007). As a result, non-Whites that watched
these types of shows might believe that society needed to
have tougher crime control and that due process and civil
rights might be part of the problem. In addition, a highly
satisfying form of justice was played out within these
shows, essentially these reality shows provided a form of
justice that lulled the general public into thinking the
police officers were not biased, and treated all criminals in
a similar manner regardless of race. The producers of
these shows, however, could easily manipulate the seg-
ments to make it appear more balanced (Donovan, 1998).
As a result, these types of shows might reproduce the
minority threat hypothesis in a manner that seemed fair,
unbiased, and palatable to some minority viewers.
In a similar vein, older non-Whites were more likely
to disagree that Whites were treated better by the police.
This supported both the minority threat hypothesis and
the resonance/affinity thesis. Generally, older minorities
do not experience as much negative contact with the
police, which might explain their more positive view of
police treatment towards minorities and helped support
the resonance/affinity hypothesis. Similarly, as younger
minorities were often considered the symbolic assailant,
older minorities might also subscribe to these stereo-
types and believe that non-Whites were not treated un-
fairly within the system, which supported the minority
threat hypothesis.
The viewing of crime shows had little impact on
attitudes toward police misconduct and discrimination.
There was, however, an interesting relationship between
the viewing of police dramas, crime solving shows, and
attitudes toward police treatment of the wealthy. Respon-
dents that were heavy consumers of police dramas were
more likely to believe that the wealthy were treated fa-
vorably by the police. Conversely, respondents that were
heavy consumers of crime solving shows were less likely
to believe that the wealthy were treated favorably by the
police. Interestingly, the media effects were stronger for
respondents who earned more than $50,000, which sup-
ported the resonance/affinity thesis. Wealthier respon-
dents might have a better understanding of their treatment
by the police and might be more impacted by media
presentations because they could relate to characters that
had higher social status.
The difference in media effects between police drama
and crime solving shows was an interesting contradiction,
which might be explained by the varying content within
crime shows. Crime solving shows such as America's
Most Wanted or Unsolved Mysteries might provide
audience members with economically diverse suspects
or offenders. The viewing audience might believe that
higher social class offenders were not provided with any
legal breaks or favors. Essentially, the purpose of these
programs were to apprehend suspects, therefore, prefer-
ential treatment would be absent. Conversely, crime
drama audience members might be exposed to episodes in
which wealthy or high status offenders received better
treatment. For instance, the suspects/offenders might have
received better legal representation or the police/prose-
cutor had more difficulty in the arrest or prosecution.
There had been a number of important studies
that examined the content of police related dramas
(see Dominick, 1973; Eschholz, Mallard, & Flynn,
201K. Dowler, V. Zawilski / Journal of Criminal Justice 35 (2007) 193203
2004; Inciardi & Dee, 1987; Lichter & Lichter, 1983;
Soulliere, 2004) and police reality shows (see Doyle,
2003; Fishman & Cavender, 1998; Oliver, 1994). There
is, however, a need for more research within this area,
especially given the proliferation of crime shows on
television (Eschholz et al., 2004). Therefore, it is pru-
dent to conduct systematic content analyses of tele-
vision crime shows, to help explain the validity of the
above conclusions. Essentially, theories about televi-
sion police portrayals need to be fully developed within
the context of police dramas, police reality, and crime
solving shows.
In conclusion, any examination of media impact on
public attitudes is complicated by the perception of
media content. It is inherently difficult to sort through the
complexities in police portrayals on television. Without
doubt, police portrayals are juxtaposed with both nega-
tive and positive images, and it is within this contradic-
tory framework that public attitudes toward police abuse
or misconduct are shaped. Interestingly, this study found
that media consumption, in the form of network news,
was related to attitudes toward the frequency of police
misconduct. Similarly, consumption of crime drama and
crime solving shows had opposite effects on attitudes
toward the preferential treatment of the wealthy.
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The increasing use of social media like YouTube as a news platform provides new opportunities for the public to react to news reporting. This convergence produces multi-narrative framings of police violence-related evidence that requires further attention, especially given the potential impact on state accountability processes. Using a frame analysis of news outlets and content analysis of comments on YouTube, we identify frames, responses, and the multi-narrative framing that results from this converging environment. Our findings suggest a triumvirate of competing frames around police brutality, with mistrust of media complicating the role news media plays in accountability.
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This study explores retrospective social media experiences of college students from the St. Louis area and their level of engagement with content on police use of force, using qualitative semi-structured interviews (N = 32). Participants were asked about their online experiences with content showing the police use of force, the extent of their engagement with the content, and the types of police force they approve of. The study revealed that most participants who use social media experienced emotions of sadness, anger, and frustration when they observed the police use of force online, making them question police legitimacy. Although a majority of participants acknowledged police use of force news on social media helped them form opinions about law enforcement, only a small portion chose to share this content on their social media platforms. This is possibly due to the fear of negative backlash and/or employment and other opportunities they may be denied. Use of force approval rationales also varied by race when participants imagined hypothetical instances. The findings have implications for theories of media and race relations.