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Normalizing Injustice: New Landmark Study by Color Of Change Reveals How Crime TV Shows Distort Understanding Of Race and the Criminal Justice System

Television’s Most Popular Genre Excludes Writers of Color, Miseducates People about the Criminal Justice System and Makes Racial Injustice Acceptable. NCIS, Lethal Weapon, Elementary, The Blacklist, Blindspot, Blue Bloods, Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Among Worst Offenders
NEW YORK, NY — Today, Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice group, released Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations that Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre, a first of its kind study of crime television shows, and their depictions of the criminal justice system. Normalizing Injustice finds that the Crime TV genre, which reaches tens of millions of Americans annually, plays a considerable role in advancing distorted representations of crime, justice, race and gender in media and culture, with deeply troubling implications for society. These fictitious depictions build on false perceptions of the criminal justice system and how it intersects with race and gender while ignoring many important realities.
Because many viewers experience these depictions as realistic representations of the criminal justice system, they have the potential to influence viewers’ understanding of the criminal justice system and turn the public against critically overdue reform efforts.
The report also reveals that the Crime TV genre stands out as one of the least diverse in terms of the race and gender of its showrunners and writers:
  • 81% of showrunners (21 of 26 series) were white men, the exceptions being Criminal Minds, Shades of Blue, Orange is the New Black, Seven Seconds and Luke Cage.
  • At least 81% of writers were white, with only 9% Black; across the genre, 20 of 26 series had either no Black writers or just 1 Black writer.
The report concludes with recommendations to address the issue at the systemic level, charting a path forward for producers and industry executives. These viable and urgent recommendations include a call for an independent industry auditor and more diversity in the genre.

 

“We already knew that television plays a significant role in shaping people’s perception of the world,” said Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change. “Now we know just how dangerous the role of scripted television is when it comes to distorting people’s understanding of crime, race and justice. Instead of the truth-telling role they could play, and the positive influence they could have, these shows encourage the public to reject reform and support the worst behavior of police, prosecutors and others—practices that destroy Black people’s lives.”
The report found that NCIS, Lethal Weapon, Elementary, The Blacklist, Blindspot, Blue Bloods, Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit stood out as some of the most problematic within the genre.
The report creates three new metrics to track how the entertainment industry is performing:
  • The “Good Guy” Endorser Ratio compares the number of wrongful actions committed by “Good Guy” Criminal Justice Professional characters (CJPs) to the number of wrongful actions committed by “Bad Guy” CJP characters.
  • The Person of Color Endorser Index highlights the series that depicted a relatively high number of wrongful actions going unacknowledged, while at the same time prominently featuring the presence of people of color CJPs.
  • The Racial Integrity Index ranks each series by the number of its depictions of featured people of color characters relative to the percentage of people of color writers in its writers’ room.
“Normalizing Injustice creates metrics and categories that we can track over time, with clear data and indices demonstrating how television is responding to these concerns,” said Johanna Blakley, Managing Director of the Norman Lear Center at USC. “Clearly the Crime TV genre has a long way to go in racial integrity, accuracy about the criminal justice system and people of color in the position where it counts the most—the writers’ room.”
The study included 26 different scripted series focused on crime from the 2017–2018 season, broadcast on both networks and streaming platforms. All episodes examined were broadcast on 1 of the 4 major networks, or first made available for viewing on streaming services, between March 2017 and July 2018. The research team coded 353 episodes across 26 crime-related scripted television series in the 2017–2018 season, tracking over 5,400 variables and 1,983 individual characters, and collecting other information relevant to the series. For each series, a randomized selection of 70–80% of its episodes were selected for analysis (rounding to the nearest whole episode).

 

Diversity data for creators, showrunners and writers were examined both for the 2017–2018 and the 2018–2019 seasons.

 

“These findings reveal a serious and systemic problem, which traces back to the decisions of network executives and producers,” said Robinson. “We need new standards and a new way of auditing the practices of this genre. But we also need a new set of incentives that reward responsible hiring and storytelling, and ensure accountability for propagating inaccurate, inauthentic and harmful myths—including those about race.”
# # #
This study is the product of a collaboration between Color Of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. The Lear Center sampled and coded series episodes to create the dataset for the study, and Color Of Change performed both the quantitative analysis of the episode content and the gender/race analysis of the series creators, showrunners and writers.
About Color Of Change
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. Driven by over 1.5 million members, Color Of Change builds power for Black communities, enabling Black people to challenge injustice wherever our lives and well-being are at stake: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, Washington, prosecutor offices, capitol buildings and city halls around the country.
About The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project
The Norman Lear Center, home to the Hollywood, Health & Society Program and the Media Impact Project, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan center of research and innovation at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Our goal is to prove that media matters, and to improve the quality of media to serve the public good.

 

Background Information
  • Normalizing Injustice is a collaboration between Color Of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project.
  • The study analyzed 26 different scripted series focused on crime from the 2017–2018 season, broadcast on both networks and streaming platforms.
    • All episodes examined were broadcast on 1 of the 4 major networks, or first made available for viewing on streaming services, between March 2017 and July 2018.
    • The research team coded 353 episodes across 26 crime-related scripted television series in the 2017–2018 season, tracking over 5,400 variables and 1,983 individual characters.
    • For each series, a randomized selection of 70–80% of its episodes for that season were selected for analysis (rounding to the nearest whole episode).
  • The research team identified and analyzed the race and gender of the 41 creators, 27 showrunners (1 series had 2 showrunners) and 275 writers for the 2017–2018 season of all 26 series.
    • The research team also analyzed the race and gender of the showrunners and writers for the 19 series that continued into the 2018–2019 season and had aired by May 2019.
  • The research team identified two important elements of series production: the shooting locations and expert consultants (e.g., hired police or military consultants) for each series.

 

Main Points
  • Normalizing Injustice is a first of its kind study of crime television shows, and their depictions of the criminal justice system.
  • Normalizing Injustice finds that the Crime TV genre, which reaches hundreds of millions of people in America and worldwide, advances debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women.
  • The report shows in painful detail what we have suspected all along, that the crime genre by and large acts like a PR department for the police, miseducating tens of millions of Americans, day and night. People are led to believe crime is going up (when we know in reality it’s going down), that the things police and prosecutors do are always helpful (when we know they are often deeply harmful), that people of color are inherently dangerous, and that the police and prosecutors should have more authority (right when communities are trying to say their authority is too great and too abusive and corrupt).
  • This genre influences the public to grant even more authority to police than they already have: to break the rules, to violate our rights, to cage the beast of crime (as they would see it, racial overtones and all).
  • Across shows, race was largely invisible as an issue in the workplace and lives of characters, though several series featured central characters played by people of color.
  • 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.
  • Because many viewers experience these depictions as realistic representations of the criminal justice system, they undermine the need for reform and legitimize debunked policies, discredited arguments, corrupt decision makers and (what should be) indefensible actions.
  • As a result, viewers are led to believe critically overdue reform efforts and policy measures are unnecessary.
  • Exposure to consistent inaccurate portrayals may also serve to increase or decrease the empathy viewers have for different types of people and the different realities and experiences they face.
  • Many of the most popular shows reinforced the most negative practices of misrepresentation and normalizing injustice, let alone diversity, whether Blue Bloods, Chicago P.D., The Blacklist, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or the NCIS franchise.
  • NBC and CBS as genre leaders performed poorly on metrics for diversity, and stood out badly on metrics for misrepresentation and normalizing injustice. Currently, CBS has only expanded its footprint in this genre and ABC has joined CBS and NBC in investing heavily in it.

 

Diversity Statistics
  • The report also examines staff diversity data among these shows to find that the Crime TV  genre stands out as one of the least diverse in terms of the race and gender of its showrunners and writers:
    • There were 275 writers, 27 showrunners and 42 creators who were credited for the 26 series examined in the 2017–2018 season.
      • 81% of showrunners (21 of 26 series) were white men, the exceptions being Criminal Minds, Shades of Blue, Orange is the New Black, Seven Seconds and Luke Cage.
      • At least 78% of writers were white, with only 9% Black; across the genre, 20 of 26 series had either no Black writers or just 1 Black writer.
      • There were 3 series that had 100% white writers (NCIS, Blue Bloods, Mindhunter) and an additional 5 series that had, or likely had, more than 90% white writers (The Blacklist, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Blindspot, 9-1-1, Criminal Minds). There were 18 series that had about 80% white writers or more. Seven Seconds and Luke Cage were the only series with more than 50% people of color writers.
      • Only 37% of writers across the genre were women; just 10–11% of writers were women of color. Only 5 series had 50% or more women writers: Orange is the New Black, Bull, Mindhunter, How to Get Away with Murder and Criminal Minds.
    • On CBS:
      • NCIS was 100% white and 80% male.
      • Blue Bloods was 100% white and 75% male.
      • NCIS: Los Angeles was 82% white and 82% male.
      • Elementary was 80% white and 80% male.
    • On NBC:
      • The Blacklist was 93% white and 80% male.
      • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was 93–100% white and 57% male.
      • Blindspot was 92% white and 58% male.
      • Chicago P.D. was 80–90% white and 60% male.
  • In the 2018–19 season, 84% of the writers across the 19 series we profiled for that season were white, and only 4 series had less than 80% white writers. There were 5 series with 100% white writers: The Blacklist, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (also nearly 60% male), Blindspot, NCIS, and Blue Bloods. An additional 5 series had or likely had 90–92% white writers: Bull, Criminal Minds, NCIS: Los Angeles, Chicago P.D. and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. All series except for S.W.A.T. had 15% or less Black writers. There were 9 series with no Black writers at all, 5 on CBS and 3 on NBC.

 

New Metrics to Track Series and Industry Practices
  • A new metric, the Racial Integrity Index ranks each series by the number of its depictions of featured people of color characters relative to the percentage of people of color writers in its writers’ room.
    • Narcos on Netflix had the worst Racial Integrity Index score, with an average of 11.5 depictions of featured people of color characters per episode and 80% white writers. The series that had the worst Racial Integrity rankings were: Narcos (NETFLIX), 9-1-1 (FOX), Chicago P.D. (NBC), Hawaii Five-0 (CBS), Criminal Minds (CBS), The Blacklist (NBC) and NCIS (CBS).
  • The “Good Guy” Endorser Ratio compares the number of wrongful actions committed by “Good Guy” Criminal Justice Professional characters (CJPs) to the number of wrongful actions committed by “Bad Guy” CJP characters. Across the 18 of 26 series that depicted “Good Guy” CJPs committing more wrongful actions than those CJPs depicted as the “Bad Guys, the ratio was 8 to 1. Blue Bloods and Lethal Weapon had “Good Guy” Endorser Ratios of 36 to 1 and 34 to 1, respectively, while Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Elementary had “Good Guy” Endorser Ratios of 20 to 1 and 19 to 1, respectively. Only 3 series bucked that norm: Seven Seconds, Goliath, Orange is the New Black.
  • The Person of Color Endorser Index highlights the series that depicted a relatively high number of wrongful actions going unacknowledged, while at the same time prominently featuring the presence of people of color CJPs. The series that exhibited this pattern the most were Lethal Weapon, Elementary, The Blacklist, Blindspot, Blue Bloods, Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The series with the highest rates of people of color CJP characters committing wrongful actions were Luke Cage, 9-1-1, How to Get Away with Murder, Lethal Weapon and Elementary.
Recommendations for Series Practices
  • Shows must audit, track and correct what they’re doing wrong/what is harmful:
    • Writers and showrunners need to internalize the checklist of the most dangerous depictions that define genre convention, commit to avoiding them, and continuously track and take responsibility for what they are putting on air.
  • Shows must rely on more diverse info and experiences:
    • Networks should implement clear hiring policies to foster more diversity in the writers room and among showrunners.
    • Shows must hire more diverse people and must consult with a diverse pool of people to reflect (expertise—people on the  ground, advocates, etc.),
  • Television needs an independent industry auditor
    • No industry has proven to be able to regulate itself when it comes to the interest of the public, and corporate media is no exception.
    • Network, platform and production company executives must embrace the role of an independent industry auditor who can collaborate with all interested parties to set industry standards.
    • The independent auditor must be empowered to make reasonable and firm recommendations on behalf of the public
    • Network, platform and production company executives must be transparent about how they are addressing the auditor’s recommendations.
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