Respect Diversity + Inclusion

TV crime shows present a warped view of our criminal justice system: report

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Story at a glance

  • A new study analyzes multiple popular crime series for their portrayals of the criminal justice system and representation of race.
  • The report says inaccurate portrayals of crime and the criminal justice system are impacting how viewers see reality.
  • One of the findings reveals the absence of black writers, especially women, working on these shows behind the camera.

Crime television is often described as a guilty pleasure — but what exactly are we guilty of? Normalizing injustice, says a new report by Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, through inaccurate depictions of a justice system from a mostly white point of view.  

“Americans’ perceptions of crime are very much at odds with the reality of crime in America,” the report argues, citing statistics that show the number of people who say crime is going up is increasing despite the fact that the crime rate has dropped over the last 20 years. 

From long-running classics “NCIS” and “Law & Order: SVU” to newer series “How to Get Away with Murder” and “Orange is the New Black,” the study reviewed 353 episodes from 26 different scripted shows across different networks and streaming platforms between 2017 and 2018.

Their findings revealed internalized misconceptions of crime and the American justice system that have found their way into political rhetoric. 

Good guys vs. bad guys

Good against bad, right against wrong: It’s a storytelling dynamic as old as time. But what happens when the good guys do bad things?

The study found that 18 out of 26 series showed criminal justice professionals as “good guys” committing more wrongful actions than the ones framed as “bad guys.” These included coercion and intimidation, violence and abuse, lying and tampering, corruption, overt racism, illegal searches or violating rules. Out of 453 of these cases, only 13 were shown to be investigated — and only 10 characters were either charged with crimes or suspended. 

“Almost all series conveyed the impression that change is not needed: they depicted a system that does not actually have serious problems related to race, gender, violence and the abuse of power,” the report said. 

And when it came to admitting that their actions were wrong, 64 percent of the time the acknowledgement came either from a woman or a person of color, leaving white men off the hook. 

Removing race from the equation

At the same time, the depictions did not show people of color or women as being disproportionately wronged by criminal justice professionals. 

“By shying away from explicit depictions of racial profiling and other racially biased practices — including explicit discussions about their prevalence, consequences and wrongfulness — series writers erased an important reality and missed an important opportunity to bring viewers into contact with that reality in a productive way,” the report said. 

Viewers were least likely to see victims of crimes portrayed as women of color, with black women portrayed as victims of only 9 percent of all crimes in the shows and 6 percent of the primary crimes in the episodes. 

Instead, they were shown to be complicit, with the worst offenders being “Luke Cage,” “9-1-1,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” “Lethal Weapon” and “Elementary,” which had the highest rates of people of color committing wrongful actions as criminal justice professionals.

Lack of representation behind the scenes

Behind the scenes, however, people of color were conspicuously absent. 

Of the 27 showrunners, or leading producers, 81 percent of them were white men. Another 81 percent of writers were white, with 9 percent of them being black; 37 percent of writers were women, with 11 percent being women of color. Twenty series had either no black writers or just one, and three had all white writers: “NCIS,” “Blue Bloods” and “Mindhunter.” 

The report also took aim at CBS and NBC as the two leading networks in the genre based on the number and popularity of their shows, saying they aired 8 of the 11 least diverse series. 

As a result, we’re missing out, the study claims.

“Myriad opportunities were missed. In the fictional worlds of the majority of these series, reform and system change — or even debates about new ways of thinking — had no dramatic or comedic currency. Nor did the realities of the system and the problems they cause,” the report says. 

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