by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.
Both fictional and non-fictional depictions of crime and justice abound on television, film, and throughout the media, yet nearly all exist in an alternate reality ignoring racism and balance. Americans have developed a boundless appetite for such fare in our society, yet they are being fed a skewed and unrealistic version of the criminal justice system.
Recently, Color of Change, a not-for-profit civil rights organization studied 26 scripted series that focused on crime and justice in the 2017-2018 season. The study claims that many of these productions advance “distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender in media and culture.” According to Valencia Gunder, a Miami community activist, “the media continues to represent preconceived notions based on stereotypes.” She goes on to suggest, “The crime genre glorifies, justifies and normalizes the systematic violence and injustice meted out by police, making heroes out of police and prosecutors who engage in abuse, particularly against people of color.”
Non-fiction shows like Live PD and Cops, which follow the “reality” show format, often portray police as beleaguered defenders and public servants who sometimes overstep constitutional limits in order to promote safety. This simplistic idea of “justice” heralds back to childish notions of “cops and robbers” and “good guys and bad guys,” stereotypes that have, after several generations, taken deep roots in the American imagination. Often these so-called “reality” shows are punched up with music, editing, and an on-going or post-facto commentary which is meant to rationalize and justify the actions.
Other shows like 60 Days In, and countless similar offerings on the A&E and History Channel, purport to depict “real” life in prison when nothing could be further from the truth. These shows are also underscored with dramatic music and voice-over theatrics. Prison officials are shown as faithful and dedicated servants called upon to perform a heroic task or to “help” or “guide” the prisoner through the difficult time of incarceration.
Most prison reality shows are shot on location in the worst possible facilities and feature the most hardened offenders, all while the cameras are rolling so that these “non-actors” may enjoy a moment in the spotlight. The point being made is that prison is a necessary evil existing in order to keep these violent people out of society, forever if need be. There are no prison “reality” shows about the squalor of small jails and county lock-ups where many, unable to afford bail, sit and wait for months with little more than cards or dominos while awaiting trial.
According to the study by Color of Change, “television and streaming shows always ignore racial disparities in the criminal justice system.” Racial and gender “misrepresentations often skew public perception of how the criminal justice system works.” Fictional shows are out of touch with the pervasiveness of police brutality and prosecutorial predation. Racial bias is rampant. Realty cop shows simply avoid these issues and present “good guys verses bad guys” scenarios replete with dangerous car crashes, exciting foot chases, and unruly suspects who struggle in their cuffs, and each episode seems to end in police officer “high-fives” following a bust. This format often follows a consistent theme, first a series of violent confrontations, then an officer assisting an inebriated driver get home safely and concluding as the good Samaritan.
In fictional crime shows, blacks and persons of color, even when depicted as criminal justice professionals, are often shortchanged or misrepresented. The Netflix show Luke Cage portrays illegal acts having been committed 100% of the time by a person of color. ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder portrays crimes by persons of color 67% of the time. These fictional depictions then go on to normalize misconduct and give a pass to problematic law enforcement characters who may throw someone against a wall or conduct an illegal search to get the truth.
According to Color of Change, only six discussions surrounding prison reform occurred in more than 350 episodes associated with 25 television and streaming programs. Such discussions are totally absent from prison and cop “reality” shows. In addition to these deficient scripts, there also exists an exclusion of women and of people of color behind the camera. According to Guardian.com, of more than 275 writers, more than 75% are white, and only 9% are black.
Radad Robinson, president of Color of Change, notes that the mostly white writers of these crime and justice shows often receive their creative ideas from local and national news media outlets that clearly align with law enforcement. This stilted relationship between news organizations and the cops has its roots in an “old boys club” mentality, each feeding off of the other for public sentiment. The media needs law enforcement to provide them with material and verifiable incident reporting in order to feed the unquenchable public thirst for “crime” news. As such, they cannot afford to antagonize their source or challenge law enforcement’s take on what happens in the street. This distance from real events is further amplified by the writers receiving the distorted story and spinning it further. It is fiction feeding on fiction. As Valencia Gunder proclaims, “imagine [if the author could say] [this] happened to me. It’s happened to my daughter, my mother.”
Crime and prison shows, fictional and non-fictional, are “cash cows” for the media conglomerates that produce them. Their purpose, like the supposed purpose of an “objective” news show, is foremost to sell soap (product). Ratings drive themes and themes tend to follow the pre-conceived notions of the viewing audience, an audience whose views are now steeped in an alternate reality.
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