Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: Jul 1 2022
Last Edit: Jul 1 2022
(7 min read)
A common point of stress for police officers is the inaccurate way they are portrayed within the media. Graziano (2018) points out the association between negative media depictions and resulting negative attitudes towards police, particularly since the death of Michael Brown (Nix & Pickett, 2017). A timely example is Newiss’ (2022) study, in which officers discussed feeling disheartened due to the media portrayal of them during the pandemic, and the resulting public perception of them. In fact, something that I have noticed is that police officers tend to know which media outlets will depict them in a positive way, and which ones will paint them in a negative way. Understandably, many officers that I know tend to follow the sources that take a more positive view of law enforcement, while avoiding other, more negatively biased, sources of information.
People also find police work to be an exciting source of entertainment, as several shows/movies are based on this profession; some take a more comical perspective, such as The Other Guys, while others are more serious, such as Law and Order. In general, I think that people are genuinely curious about what police work entails, however, the information that they receive from the media is not the most accurate way to learn about this career. While some shows and media outlets are better than others, it seems that there is a wide consensus among officers that the media does not do a great job of demonstrating their career.
Police officers and the media have always had a tense relationship. As reported by Gramlich and Parker (2017), 81% of police officers who work in departments consisting of 100 or more officers perceive the media as treating officers unfairly. Police officer portrayals in media outlets such as the news are often not as accurate or positive as many officers would prefer, and tend to differ depending on the program. Especially in recent days, media portrayal of police officers seems to have polarized, and the ways in which they are shown varies greatly. It seems that officers are depicted as either good or bad, with very few being shown as somewhere in between. This is an important issue to think about, as these platforms are extremely influential in the ways that people feel about the police, which, in turn, influences police officer well-being. Even in our own needs assessment for the ACPD, we found that two of the top three stressors for officers were negative media coverage and public views of the police.
Officers talk about media outlets showing footage of police officers doing something wrong; however, when the body cam footage was released, it was obvious that the news outlet had not shown the full story. Fridkin et al. (2017) conducted an interesting experiment in which they manipulated how an incident between an African American woman and a white police officer was described. From there, participants viewed a dash-cam video of the incident, then their beliefs and attitudes about the event were measured. Ultimately, the findings of this study suggest that by changing the tone of how the dashcam footage was introduced, people’s perceptions on the incident were influenced.
Officers in Newiss’ (2022) study state that news outlets tend to report mostly the negative incidents involving police officers, as these stories are more likely to interest the public. News outlets are powerful in this regard, as Graziano (2018) conducted a review and found that exposure to negative news about police officers is highly related to the public’s attitudes related to law enforcement. Weitzer and Tuch (2004) also reported that people who heard about negative police behavior on the news believed that police misconduct occurred more frequently than those who did not engage with news media.
From my experience, this is extremely frustrating and upsetting to police officers and, as one officer said, “in the media there is definitely a distinct line as to who supports police and who doesn’t support them at all. Which then sparks debates online and snowballs into a bunch of false information being spread around about things people don’t really know anything about”. This officer brings up a great point, as the job of a law enforcement officer includes specific requirements that most civilians cannot understand. As a result, police officer actions are often misunderstood, or even villainized. Also, people tend to group police officers together, and seem to generalize the negative actions of one officer to the rest of them.
This negative media coverage ultimately influences police officer well-being, and Nisar et al. (2018) reports that this form of attention is highly associated with the stress experienced by those within this profession. To further support this, Edwards et al. (2020) found that both operational and organizational stress were higher in officers that were affected by negative news coverage. Additionally, news coverage can affect community-police relations, as it leads officers to believe that civilians have more negative views of them, influences officers to feel more distrustful of the public, and can increase police officer anxiety related to possible false allegations being made against them (Nix & Pickett, 2017).
As reported by Gramlich and Parker (2017), 81% of police officers who work in departments consisting of 100 or more officers perceive the media as treating officers unfairly.
Police related TV shows are among the most watched within the United States (Donovan & Klahm, 2015). In forms of entertainment media, such as TV shows, police officers are typically portrayed in different, but still potentially harmful ways. Interestingly, most people have limited experience with the police, and the U.S. Department of Justice (2020) reports that in 2018, about 24% of Americans had an interaction with police officers. Therefore, based on their lack of personal interaction with the police, an individual’s perception of this group is likely influenced by what they see in the media. If someone is consuming media that paints police officers in an inaccurate way, this person is going to ultimately draw false conclusions about them. This is supported by the fact that 40% of Americans believe that police officer depictions in crime dramas are either somewhat accurate, or very accurate (Dowler & Ziwilski, 2007).
Broadly speaking, police officers within crime dramas are frequently depicted as breaking the rules, however, they do so in order to do what is best for the greater good. Although officers in these scenarios are doing something that is considered “good”, it sends the message that police officers are above the law, and are allowed to do whatever they want. A prime example of this is a scene in True Detective in which one of the detectives hits an uncooperative civilian with a toolbox to further his investigation, and find the killer. Although many shows and movies tend to give inaccurate idea of what police work is, some shows do get it right. When asked about a movie/show that falls into this category, one officer said, “End of Watch does a decent job. It’s still exaggerated, but probably the closest you can get.”
It also is apparent that, compared to news media, officers believe that entertainment media takes a more positive approach to depicting police work. One officer stated, “entertainment-wise, I feel like movies/tv shows support police or will walk the gray line in the middle showing both sides of an argument.” As explained by Donovan and Klahm (2015), police officers in movies and TV shows are typically shown as being great at their jobs, almost never shown to make mistakes, and only use force when justified. Law enforcement officers are oftentimes shown as the “hero” who always solves the case, or, in shows like Law and Order, have the ability to crack the case in an unreasonably short amount of time.
As a result of plot lines like this, Donovan and Klahm, (2015) report that individuals who watch crime related TV shows have notably different views of police officers than individuals who do not watch these shows. Specifically, individuals who watch crime dramas are more likely to feel that the police are effective in fighting crime, and that use of force is usually justified. Also, while these shows often demonstrate police officers in a more positive light, this can have a concerning influence on an officer’s sense of identity (Rantatalo, 2016). For example, officers may identify with positive media depictions; however, this can become harmful when officers begin overly abiding to these portrayals.
TV shows tend to make police work seem like an exciting and action-packed career, which can be misleading for individuals who watch these shows, and frustrating for the officers who have real life experience with this career. First of all, these shows can create unrealistic expectations of police officers. To illustrate, within Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, 100% of crimes are solved, which is highly disproportionate to reality (Britto et al., 2007). These shows also fail to show what police work actually entails, such as completing mundane tasks like writing reports or going to court on their days off. Instead, they usually tend to follow a complex and thrilling series of events, usually involving a murder, with several twists, and an eventual arrest. As one anonymous police officer said, “Hollywood rarely shows them in a realistic atmosphere- These portrayals are fictitious and all about entertainment.”
From my experience, police officers often do not watch these shows due to the major inaccuracies that are found among them, although Huey and Broll (2015) report that officers are able to understand why the public is interested in these shows. Despite the fact that some shows, such as CSI, do sometimes consult with experts in the field, there is still an element of dramatization within them. These shows also tend to romanticize police work. In reality, though, police work is difficult, emotionally taxing, and sometimes traumatizing. As a result of the media’s portrayal of law enforcement as an exciting and interesting career, individuals may want to become police officers, but begin to lose enthusiasm as they learn more about the profession (Huey & Broll, 2015).
40% of Americans believe that police officer depictions in crime dramas are either somewhat accurate, or very accurate (Dowler & Ziwilski, 2007).
Police officer portrayal in the media varies, and police officers do not typically seem to trust these outlets. The ways in which the media depicts officers does influence their well-being, and I have heard police officers express the frustration of being portrayed in an inaccurate way while watching these programs. Ultimately, it seems that news outlets portray more negative views of police officers, while entertainment outlets show officers in a more positive, yet unrealistic way. Although both types of media have different outcomes, each can be harmful to both the public and to police officers.
Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.
Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology
Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.
This post does not provide medical or clinical advice and is no substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is intended for informational purposes only. Visitors who access the post and rely on its content do so at their own risk. This post represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. If you are feeling lost or hopeless, or someone you know is feeling lost or hopeless, call the national suicide prevention hotline at (800) 273-8255.
© 2022 The Cummings Foundation for Behavioral Health. All Rights Reserved.