Media has shown tremendous positive and negative effects on the public perception of police. The influence of television shows varies depending on the level of exposure. Knowledge of crime and understanding of law enforcement for most people come through media rather than from direct experience (Prosise and Johnson, 2004). Heavy viewers of television are likely to believe that the real world reflects the media compared to light viewers (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). Most television shows are believed not to cause crime itself but to cause exaggerated public alarm about law and order which in turn supports repressive solutions which include policing. Broadcast media portray crime more than print media. Commercial channels air higher proportions of crime news than state-owned channels. Police and criminal justice systems, in general, have been portrayed in a positive light in popular fiction, as protectors of victims against extensive harm and violence.
A study by the U.S. Department of Justice (2003), indicated that media has a negative influence on views on police based on publicized incidents. Most police supervisors who were interviewed in the study concluded that the performance of police in a real-life situation especially in highly publicized incidents, is total opposite of the success stories displayed in the television shows. However, the percentage of respondents in the study who took issue with the police due to media reports in Los Angeles was only 35% compared to 65% who thought media had nothing to do with the police performance. This means the study had some errors or was not representative of total cross section of public. It is believed that some media reports are not portraying real situation on the ground. In some towns/cities police enjoy positive coverage from the media in exchange of first hand news on crime. In this arrangement, media does not cover unsuccessful operations conclusively in these towns so as to cover up police ineffectiveness. The successful real life stories of police rescue and apprehending of criminals seen in news has had tremendous positive effect on police and policing in public view.
Crime based on television programming is not aimed at educating the public about criminology and sociological understanding of the cause of crime. It is based on the recognition of the crime not being primarily the result of Crazy individuals. These programs portray some crimes as to be overrepresented in the society. Crime portrayed in television is more random, dangerous and violent than in real world (Surette, 1992).
Popular television shows portray police as effective, with majority of the crime cases being solved and criminals apprehended (Surette, 1998). However, police are overdramatized and romanticized in these shows, while in news the police are heroic, professional crime fighters (Surette, 1998). Basing on Reality show COPS, the American society, regards police as white people while black people are regarded as mainly perpetrators. The white men are over represented as police officers while blacks are overrepresented as violent criminals. This has caused a perception of white police officers from the point of view of black people (especially those living in neighborhoods with prevalent crimes). In most of these televisions shows, police are viewed to be using excessive force on black perpetrators (Prosise and Johnson, 2004). In Cops, women are not well represented as police. This may create a notion that police job is not woman job especially in the United States.
Television shows like CSI or Law and Order, give skewed understanding of forensic science and practice (Stinson, Patry and Smith, 2007). This has in turn had effect to the public on the image of the police. The effect of these shows on the image of the police is increased expectation on criminal justice system, which has in turn resulted in bias jury decisions in court proceedings. The fact that these shows are based on real life criminal cases, which are engaging, scientifically-grounded and theoretically viable forensic techniques and procedures, most viewers assume that the police in real life portray the same techniques and efficiency. The effect has been seen in some instances where lawyers lost cases because juries or magistrate expected the level of investigation carried out by police to be of the same level as those on shows in television. The effect has been popularly known as the CSI effect (Stinson, Patry & Smith, 2007). As a result, police officer who performs his/her duties poorly is regarded as a failure because most people expect them to perform their duties like the police portrayed in these television shows. There has been a positive image of police portrayed by these television shows especially in the youth. The increase of the number of students pursuing forensic science courses in colleges with the hope of becoming police detectives in future, confirms it.
Television shows have portrayed police as effective and efficient. Most of the shows have only success stories. Criminals are arrested and cases are successfully concluded with police are on the winning side and the criminals being punished. Presentation of crime in news increase public pressure for more effective policing and more punitive responses to crime (Garofalo, 1981). Crime news feature police as ineffective and incompetent. This has resulted in support for more police, more prisons, and more funding for criminal justice systems (Surette, 1998). Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics on crime has been questioned by experts. The real crime reported on the ground is far much more than that which is documented by police. However, this fact is not common in the public domain, thanks to the media reports and television shows. The media mostly report the successful arrests, patrols, solved cases and timely responses, leaving out incidents with poor police success (Garofalo, 1981)
Most televised crime shows like CSI, Law and Order, America’s Most Wanted and Cops have portrayed controversial police practices like racial profiling among others (Prosise and Johnson, 2004). Police are seen to be using excessive force when the perpetrators are young and of racial minorities (Dana, Mastro, Amanda & Robinson 2000). These media images of police using excessive force has been used by many as source of information of criminal justice system in United States (Surette, 1992). Violence tend to be over represented in most television shows, this increase the perception of use of force by police on citizen compared to actual rates of use of force (Mastroa, & Robinson, 2000). Violent crimes create fear among most people who live in neighborhoods with prevalent crime rates or have been exposed to criminal activities; television show has made them to believe that police are effective while fighting crime. This notion has been caused by fear which in turn has made them to have great support for police and their activities.
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