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ARE REALITY TV CRIME SHOWS CONTINUING TO PERPETUATE CRIME MYTHS?

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This article examines the portrayal of gender and race in the USA reality television program COPS. Fifty one police officers apprehending sixty perpetrators were content analyzed into four categories including race (of both officer and perpetrator), gender (of both officer and perpetrator), US Uniform Crime Report (UCR) type offense (type I or type II), as well as the specific type of crime depicted. The vast majority of police officers shown on COPS were white male (92%) and the majority of offenders were nonwhite males (62%). Black men were most likely to be shown engaging in a crime of burglary or theft or crimes involving drugs. Hispanic men were most likely to be involved in UCR Part I offenses; however, they were in a distinct minority on these episodes. On the other hand, the most likely scenario for white offenders is to be shown committing an alcohol related offense or causing, or being part of, a domestic disturbance. Few white women were included on the show. One was a police officer and among the other five, one was looking for a lost child and the others were picked up for a variety of relatively minor violations (driving under the influence, drug possession, stolen bike, animal disturbance). No minority women were shown on COPS during this period of evaluation - as either an officer or perpetrator of a crime. The authors argue that media images depicted in COPS are at odds with UCR official crime statistics and reinforce stereotypes and myths about the nature of crime in the United States.
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ARE REALITY TV CRIME SHOWS
CONTINUING TO PERPETUATE
CRIME MYTHS?
By ELIZABETH MONK-TURNER, HOMER MARTINEZ,
JASON HOLBROOK, & NATHAN HARVEY
1
ABSTRACT
This article examines the portrayal of gender and race in the USA reality television
program COPS. Fifty one police officers apprehending sixty perpetrators were content
analyzed into four categories including race (of both officer and perpetrator), gender (of
both officer and perpetrator), US Uniform Crime Report (UCR) type offense (type I or
type II), as well as the specific type of crime depicted. The vast majority of police officers
shown on COPS were white male (92%) and the majority of offenders were nonwhite
males (62%). Black men were most likely to be shown engaging in a crime of burglary or
theft or crimes involving drugs. Hispanic men were most likely to be involved in UCR
Part I offenses; however, they were in a distinct minority on these episodes. On the other
hand, the most likely scenario for white offenders is to be shown committing an alcohol
related offense or causing, or being part of, a domestic disturbance. Few white women
were included on the show. One was a police officer and among the other five, one was
looking for a lost child and the others were picked up for a variety of relatively minor
violations (driving under the influence, drug possession, stolen bike, animal disturbance).
No minority women were shown on COPS during this period of evaluation - as either an
officer or perpetrator of a crime. The authors argue that media images depicted in
COPS are at odds with UCR official crime statistics and reinforce stereotypes and myths
about the nature of crime in the United States.
1
All authors are members of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Old Dominion University,
Norfolk, Virginia, USA
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INTRODUCTION
There has been a considerable interest in how real “reality” television shows are as well
as how such programming creates and reinforces gender and racial stereotypes (Cavender
and Bond-Maupin 1993; Eschhotz et al 2002; Estep and Macdonald 1983; Oliver 1994;
Prosise and Johnson 2004). Many researchers focus on crime-based reality television
because this type of television programming blurs the line between entertainment and
fact. Televised police offers are theoretically sent on real life calls to interact with actual
criminals. More than two decades ago, Sheley and Ashkins (1981) documented that the
officer and perpetuator most likely depicted on police television dramas was far from
reality (see too Oliver 1994; Oliver and Armstrong 1998). Oliver (1994), in a content
analysis of reality based police shows, found that white characters on these shows were
more likely to be portrayed as police officers than perpetrators of crimes; whereas, black
and Hispanic characters were more likely to be shown as criminals than police officers.
If viewers appreciated that this was Hollywood entertainment albeit it docudrama, such
images might not be so troublesome. However, as Prosise and Johnson (2004) write,
most people report that their knowledge of crime, as well as their understanding of law
enforcement generally, comes through the media rather than from direct experience (see
too Oliver & Armstrong 1998).
This work analyzes differences in gender and racial portrayals of officers and perpetrators
shown on the television crime reality show titled COPS. We note differences in
representation of officers and perpetrators by gender, race, Uniform Crime Report (UCR)
offense (type I vs. type II), as well as the specific type of crime depicted. We also look at
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how accurately this compares to UCR crime statistics by race. We expect that white
police officers will continue to be over-represented on COPS and that blacks will be
over-represented as perpetrators of crime. Further, like others have observed, we expect
that UCR Type I offenses (violent crimes) will get more airtime than Type II or property
offenses (see Anderson 1994; Carmody 1998). We also expect that black men will be
more likely than white or Hispanic men to be shown engaging in a violent crime.
Reality based television shows have gained such popularity in the United States that
every major station has at least one reality based program. ABC has offered Average
Joe, Extreme Makeover and the Apprentice; CBS featured the Survivor series; NBC ran
Fear Factor, For Love or Money and the Bachelor series (Fox television contributed The
Simple Life and Joe Millionaire). These shows often portray average” citizens placed in
extraordinary circumstances, situations they would not typically face in their ordinary
routine. Despite such contradiction, this type of programming has drawn a strong
audience. One sign of the significance of this television genre is the introduction of
university classes designed to better understand this modern phenomenon.
In the 1990s, crime based reality television, including shows like COPS, were leaders in
ratings (Coe 1994; Eschholz et al 2002). COPS premiered on the FOX network in March
1989 to critical acclaim and record ratings. The program continues to rank number one in
its time period. The series has received four Emmy Award nominations and, in 1993,
won the first American Television Award for best reality show (Audition Agency 2000).
COPS brings the viewer into the arena of action as actual police officers are called out to
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apprehend real life criminals. Because this show helped give rise to popular crime
television dramas, it has been critically acclaimed, and because it is not geographically
restricted (like LAPD: Life on the Beat), we chose COPS to explore gender and race
stereotypes in one reality television crime drama.
Many researchers (Graber 1980; Oliver 1994; Prosise and Johnson 2004) note the
overrepresentation of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated
assault (all UCR Type I offenses) on reality television. Nationally, approximately 29%
of crime arrests make up violent crime; whereas, the vast majority of crimes the UCR
tracks are property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, arson, forgery,
fraud, embezzlement, stolen property, weapons violations, sex offenses, gambling and
drug offense violations) (U.S. Department of Justice 2003).
Race-specific arrest rates for nonwhites are higher than for whites for both violent and
property crimes (510.2 for all other races vs. 164.7 for whites for violent crimes in 2001
with an average of 230.9 for all races; and 1,024.7 vs. 450.4 respectively for property
crimes with an overall average of 560.4) (U.S. Department of Justice 2003). Clearly, of
those arrested, nonwhites are over-represented in official UCR crime statistics data.
Criminologists and sociologists have long debated how representative arrest data is of
crimes actually committed (Hanby, 2005; Geekan 1994). The question we want to better
understand is this: given official arrest data, do reality television programs dramatize
this race difference in their programming? In other words, are minority men, black men
in particular, more likely to show up on COPS as perpetrators of crime to an extent that
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we know is unrepresentative even of the considerable race and ethnic biases that are
reflected in the official crime statistics? We are also curious about how women
perpetrators are depicted on televised crime drama. Little research addresses this
concern. While female officers are in a distinct minority nationally, we expect that their
representation on televised crime drama will be even lower. In 2000, in cities with a
population over 250,000, women comprised 16.3% of the police force (up from 12.1% in
1990) (U.S. Department of Justice 2003). These questions merit further investigation, in
part, because the stereotypes we hold, which are nurtured by images on reality television,
may well shape actions taken. Thus, Prosise and Johnson (2004) suggest that televised
imagery on crime based reality television implicitly builds support for controversial
police practices like racial profiling. If viewers continually see minority men depicted as
perpetrators of crime, then public support for suspecting these men as possible criminals
is established. Thus, as Rogers (2000) notes, although blacks comprise about 13% of the
population in the United States, they make up almost three-fourths of all routine traffic
stops.
Carmody (1998), Fishman (1999) and Kappeler et al (1996) have argued that crime based
reality television reinforces myths of crime and law enforcement. The primary myth is
that black men commit more crime than others, which leads to fears of being victimized
by African-American men (see Oliver and Armstrong 1998; Robinson 2000). Crime
based television programming does not aim to educate the general public about
criminological and sociological theoretical understandings of crime causation which are
based on the recognition that crime is not primarily the result of crazed individuals. It
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does not make for good entertainment to explain to audiences that crime rates are heavily
influenced by social and economic conditions. Thus, it is important to track the types of
crimes depicted in such crime based reality television shows, as well as how the
perpetrators of these crimes are portrayed. Finally, Oliver and Armstrong (1998) argue
that such shows reinforce fears of being a victim of violent crime by over-representing
the occurrence of violent crime in the society. This is especially troublesome, perhaps, in
light of the fact that violent crimes have generally declined in the past ten years (see too
Merlo & Buenos 2000; Oliver 1994).
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METHODS
Our analysis rests on a content analysis of the television drama COPS. During a week in
June 2004, we taped all of the half-hour television episodes of this program resulting in
eight hours of airtime. These episodes included fifty-two different police officer and
perpetrator combinations. Our unit of analysis was the character and we coded the race
and gender of the police officer and the perpetrator. We defined the police officer as the
individual who was driving the squad car that included the camera crew. The perpetrator
was the individual the police officer was called out to apprehend or the person the police
officer approached during normal duties. If a police officer apprehended more than one
perpetrator while out on a single call, the characteristics of each perpetuator were
recorded. The race of both the officer and the perpetrator were coded as either white or
nonwhite (we did distinguish between African Americans and Hispanics). This is in line
with how the UCR data is recorded. The type of crime committed was coded as either a
UCR Part I offense (murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-
theft (over $500), motor vehicle theft and arson. Part II UCR offenses include all other
crimes.
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RESULTS
In our eight hours of programming, we noted the presence of 50 police officers and 61
perpetrators. The majority of the characters shown were white (62% of all characters on
the show) and most of these characters (67%) were portrayed as police officers. Among
our nonwhite characters on COPS, the vast majority (90%) were shown as crime
perpetrators. Virtually all (93%) of the black and Hispanic (83%) characters on these
episodes were offenders. We found a significant difference in the representation of type
of character portrayed (officer vs. perpetuator) and the race of the individual (whether
that was recorded as white and all others or white, African-American and Hispanic) (x
2
=
34.78; p = <.0001). Virtually all of the police officers shown (92%) were whites (4%
were black and another 4% were Hispanic). A little over a third of all offenders shown
were whites (38%). The most likely offender was black (45% of all offenders).
The vast majority of the characters on COPS were male (94%). We recorded one white
female officer among six women shown on these episodes of COPS. One female officer,
out of the fifty officers shown on eight hours of network programming, leaves the
televised representation of female officers at odds with their actual proportion in police
forces nationally. The vast majority of women on COPS were depicted as offenders not
officers. There were no minority women characters on these episodes whether officer or
perpetuator.
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Table 1. UCR Offenses Committed on COPS among Male Characters by Race
Racial Ethnic Group
White African-American Hispanic N
Type I Offense 7 18 7 33
39% 64% 70%
Type II Offense 11 10 3 28
61% 36% 30%
N 18 28 10
100% 100% 100%
Most (54%) of the crimes shown on COPS were UCR Part I offenses. Most (55%) of the
perpetuators of these crimes were African-American men; while, white and Hispanic men
committed another 21% each. Among African-American perpetuators shown on these
episodes, 64% were shown committing UCR Part I offenses. The most common offenses
shown were burglary and grand theft. There was one murder committed, by a black man,
during this period of programming. Of Part II UCR offenses committed by black men,
most were possession of drugs, domestic disturbances or soliciting a prostitute. When
white offenders were apprehended, they were most likely (61%) involved in a UCR Part
II offense. Interestingly, the most likely offense for these men is related to cars and
alcohol (DUI, drag racing, and two were driving with a suspended license). Drinking in
public, drug possession and domestic disturbances round out the offenses that white men
tended to find themselves in trouble for committing. While Part I UCR crimes among
black offenders on these episodes tended to be burglary and grand theft, white men were
shown in a variety of situations (aggravated assault, vehicular battery, felony fleeing).
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Even though there were fewer Hispanic men on these episodes, and only ten portrayed as
offenders, than African-American or white men, when they appeared Hispanic men were
most likely (70% of the time) to be shown committing a Part I UCR offense (felony
fleeing, evading arrest, grand theft). When women were shown as perpetrators, they
were white and most likely (80% of time) engaging in a Part II UCR offense (possession
of drugs, DUI, animal disturbance).
We expected our data to show that black men were over-represented as perpetuators of
crime. In the COPS episodes analyzed, this pattern holds. Black men are shown most
often as violent offenders and viewers see little representation of black men as police
officers. Women are under-represented as either police officers or offenders. As
expected, UCR type I offenses were over-represented on COPS.
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DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION
Our data support the hypothesis that police officers on television crime based drama
continue to be depicted as white males; perpetrators of crime were most likely black
males. When African-American characters were shown, they were portrayed as
offenders 93% of the time. Most of the characters on these shows were white and their
most likely role is to appear as a police officer (67% of the time). Only one of the 50
officers observed was a non-white female. No other minority women appeared as police
officers. Even fewer (4 overall) of the perpetrators were women. Thus, women were not
featured in a major role of any type on COPS. Ten of sixty-one offenders shown were
Hispanic men, which put them in a minority role on this show. When shown offending,
Hispanic men were most likely engaged in UCR Part I offenses. This pattern holds for
black offenders as well. Only among white offenders were crime perpetuators shown
primarily engaging in UCR Part II offenses.
If televised images on crime based “reality” television shape the public perception of who
commits crime, as well as what types of crime they tend to commit, then “reality
television is doing a poor job relating the facts. If one based their understanding of
crime, law and law enforcement on “reality” television, one would believe that virtually
all police officers are white men. They would also believe that black men committed
most crimes as well as the most serious ones. Hispanic men might be perceived as a
threat because, even though their representation is low, the types of crimes they commit
are more serious ones (Type I offenses vs. Type II URC offenses). White men, one
might imagine, engage in what might be perceived as less serious offenses (including
being drunk in public, driving with a suspended license and drag racing). One would
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have to recognize that white men did commit some serious crimes, such as assault and
battery, but it would not seem like all that much comparatively. Finally, women would
not be perceived as either police officers or crime victims. On COPS, the few less
serious offenses women engage in get lost in the midst of all those other crimes being
committed by men. Neither should one forget that most of the crimes that are committed
are serious offenses. Luckily, police officers appear rather efficient at quickly and
entertainingly wrapping up problems of crime.
Knowing that COPS has received critical acclaim as one of the best crime dramas on
television, one does not have to wonder long why myths about crime persist in the United
States. The big myth, as noted earlier, is that black men are the typical offender, that
black offenders are most likely engaged in serious offenses and that offenders break the
law for reasons known only (usually) to themselves (certainly one does not appreciate
any larger structural problems that may shape the incidence and pattern of criminal
activity). If one is interested in women and crime, reality based television dramas like
COPS are at a loss to provide any understanding of this issue. Women, as either officers
or perpetuators, are largely ignored on COPS.
Still, it was surprising to us that crime myths continue to be portrayed in such starkness
on COPS. We did not expect to observe as biased a representation of either race or
gender on this critically acclaimed series in the early part of the twenty-first century. It
was not surprising to see an over-representation of UCR Part I offenses depicted on
COPS. Future researchers must continue to track race and gender representation of
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police officers and offenders in televised crime dramas. If these shows shape public
views about crime, it is important to understand what kind of images viewers tune into
each week.
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