Racially Motivated Narratives: Mass Media Representation of Policing

Media coverage directly influences the community’s attitude toward profiling and police relations. It is the primary source for citizen’s perception of police legitimacy and impacts the social reality and fuels stereotyping. The current media climate focuses on negative interactions with minority groups. Most recent research points to the “Ferguson effect” as the cause. Citizens are becoming “less compliant, more resistant, and more likely to assault police officers over the last two years” (Nix, Wolfe & Campbell, 2018). The Ferguson effect originated after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. This powered a new movement of activists called Black Lives Matter. Riots, looting and arson filled the television screens around the country. The shooting was believed to be unwarranted. Since this incident, media coverage of use of force against minorities has increased dramatically, while police confidence has decreased.

What We Know

Recent publicized police misconduct and use of force has led to vengeance on police officers. Despite police agencies attempts at open lines of communication, confidence in officers is decreasing. One study appraised the social distance of attitude toward police, including negative experience with police, media coverage of police, and criminal victimization (Lee, Lim & Lee, 2015). The more familiar a person was with an officer, the higher their confidence and trust. The study found that media had the power to change attitudes toward police by looking at unjust coverage of police actions. Officers are losing confidence and shifting away from community policing because they are fearful of false accusations as civilians’ attitudes decline. They believe citizens become more disrespectful and hostile due to media exposure (Nix, Pickett, 2017). This leads to higher crime rates, and therefore builds on the negative view of police responsibility to their community. Technology has led to a new perspective of police. The current exposure to police activity has extended to citizen journalists and images captured on body cameras. Citizen journalists wanted to look past what the elitist media is sharing and capture their own version of events. The intended effect was to promote accountability and expose misconduct, but the image and power of the camera to prevent scenes was an unintended benefit (Bock, 2016).

Dominant races see police as allies, whereas African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to believe racial bias exists. Whites overwhelmingly agree that the system operates impartially and are skeptical of police discrimination as a serious problem (Weitzer & Tuch, 2005). African Americans are more likely to perceive that improper action was conducted by the police. Traffic stops were the primary sources of data, but research affirmed that other venues can experience bias as well (Ioimo, Becton, Meadows, Tears & Charles, 2009). Police are frequently called to low-income and high-crime neighborhoods that tend to have a higher minority population which leads to increased interactions. Higher confrontation in these neighborhoods leads to a more likely use of force. The perception of police fairness was the largest indicator of police trust (Zhao, Lai, Ren & Lawton, 2015).

Adult studies have indicated that watching news, fictional police shows, and reality police shows are a positive predictor of an adult’s belief of police performance. Juveniles are less influenced because of their lack of direct police contact and the ability to recall police encounters (Dirikx, Gelders &Bulck, 2013). Also, television viewers who watched the news more frequently are more likely to assume the criminal was African American and the officer White than those who view less. “Contact with police is largely an experience shaped by media exposure” (Dixon, 2007).

What We Need to Know

Researchers do not fully understand why racial differences exist, but results show that race is the largest indicator of attitudes toward police. “Repeated exposure to media reports on police abuse” is secondary (Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). Perceived occurrence frequency of abuse was consistent across minority groups, and those with heavy exposure of media accounts were especially likely to believe that misconduct was happening in their neighborhood and elsewhere. Where do these racial differences originate? Is it because more crime exists in minority neighborhoods? Change will not occur without finding the source and tackling the misconceptions and bias before it reaches communities.

Most citizens believe that transparency would benefit the relationship between community and police agencies. Coverage is clearly one sided in the media, with little mentioned about officer’s routine stops and procedures. Several news outlets have set up data collection websites and social media outlets to document the use of force and number of use of force incidents resulting in death (Brucato, 2017). Transparency isn’t the only solution but seems to be the common denominator. Will it evoke enough confidence to change the narrative though?

Major Gaps

Police agencies need to evaluate their relationship with media organizations and how best to use media as a mechanism to communicate goals and objectives (Chermak, Scheer & Wilson, 2014). Research focuses solely on the victims and community but lack any findings on actual officers. Future studies need to be guided by science rather than emotion. The coverage of police in the news leads to stress on officers that are influencing their decisions. They can no longer act without consideration of winding up on the news, being criticized, or being falsely accused before they react. Those seconds of indecision can be the difference between their life and the perpetrator. “What cops think about their world and how the world treats them ultimately affects the lives of millions of others, both “perps” and victims.” They witness the world through a different lens due to their experiences and their interaction with the public is usually in relation to crime and deviance with little respect from the community (Perlmutter, 2009). Officers are no longer willing to proactively police due to possible implications, which lead to higher crime rates, and worsening police and citizen interactions that can lead to violent encounters (Nix & Pickett, 2017). Research needs to move past Black Lives Matter, rioting and focus on day to day policing. If citizens are not persuaded to change their opinion, and the media stands by its coverage of use of force then the focus must shift to the officers where change can be implemented.

Impact on Mass Media

The racially motivated narrative must change. Most police encounters do not result in use of force. The media is responsible for creating both trust and suspicions of police agencies simultaneously (Pollack & Allern, 2014). They are currently driving the hostile environment that is causing the shift in society to disregard authority and the ease with which violence is used amongst members of society. This change in narrative needs to be on a personal, professional and societal level. If the media would choose to report the stories that are deemed less “newsworthy” and allow for both sides of the argument, it would allow for broader impact.


Bock, M. A. (2016). Film the police! Cop-watching and its embodied narratives: Film the police. Journal of Communication, 66(1), 13-34. doi:10.1111/jcom.12204

Brucato, B. (2017). Big data and the new transparency: Measuring and representing police killings. Big Data & Society, 4(1), doi:10.1177/2053951717696332

Chermak, S., McGarrell, E., & Gruenewald, J. (2006). Media coverage of police misconduct and attitudes toward police. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 29(2), 261-281. doi:10.1108/13639510610667664

Dirikx, A., Gelders, D., & Bulck, J. V. d. (2013). Adolescent perceptions of the performance and fairness of the police: Examining the impact of television exposure. Mass Communication & Society, 16(1), 109.

Dixon, T. L. (2007). Black criminals and white officers: The effects of racially misrepresenting law breakers and law defenders on television news. Media Psychology, 10(2), 270-291. doi:10.1080/15213260701375660

Ioimo, R., Becton, J. B., Meadows, L. M., Tears, R. S., & Charles, M. T. (2009). Comparing the police and citizen views on biased policing. Criminal Justice Studies, 22(2), 123-140. doi:10.1080/14786010902975408

Lee, J., Lim, H., & Lee, H. (2015). Differential social distance and confidence in the police. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 17(3), 147-154. doi:10.1177/1461355715596305

Nix, J., Wolfe, S. E., & Campbell, B. A. (2018). Command-level police officers’ perceptions of the “War on cops” and de-policing. Justice Quarterly, 35(1), 33. doi:10.1080/07418825.2017.1338743

Nix, J., & Wolfe, S. E. (2017). The impact of negative publicity on police self-legitimacy. Justice Quarterly, 34(1), 84-108. doi:10.1080/07418825.2015.1102954

Perlmutter, D. D. (2000). Policing the media: Street cops and public perceptions of law enforcement. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Pollack, E., & Allern, S. (2014). Criticism of the police in the news: Discourses and frames in the news media’s coverage of the Norwegian Bureau for the Investigation of Police Affairs. Nordicom Review, 35(1), 33.

Weitzer, R., & Tuch, S. A. (2004). Race and perceptions of police misconduct. Social Problems, 51(3), 305-325. doi:10.1525/sp.2004.51.3.305

Weitzer, R., & Tuch, S. A. (2005). Racially biased policing: Determinants of citizen perceptions. Social Forces, 83(3), 1009-1030. doi:10.1353/sof.2005.0050

Zhao, J. S., Lai, Y., Ren, L., & Lawton, B. (2015). The Impact of race/ethnicity and quality-of-life policing on public attitudes toward racially biased policing and traffic stops. Crime & Delinquency, 61(3), 350-374. doi:10.1177/0011128711398028

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