By Jael G.
In the past few years, police officers have become more concerned about “a few highly publicized incidents” in the media and their potential effect on the community’s view of police officers (Ashcroft, 2003). However, while it is true that smart phones have enabled victims of police brutality (or other forms of injustice) to share their stories, viral negative images of policemen on social media have little to no effect on the way minorities perceive law enforcement in general (Ashcroft et al., 2003). Though mass media feeds ideas to the general public, their overly positive portrayal of law enforcement actually hinders the media’s influence on the minority community’s view towards law enforcement, since it is not in accordance with what the community experiences firsthand (Dowler, 2003). This means that, despite the tendency to believe the information supplied by TV, news, and other forms of media, minorities in dense, poor, and heavily-policed communities, through their own experiences, understand that the truth is far often different from what is shown by the media (Ashcroft et al., 2003).
A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice showed that, primarily in the Los Angeles area, only 35% of residents had opinions about law enforcement that were influenced by the media, whereas 65% of residents were influenced by personal encounters with police officers (Ashcroft, 2003). According to a US Census Bureau survey from 2011, the LA County is not only the most populous county in the country, it is also a minority majority county, meaning that the total population of non-white residents outnumber that of white, non-Hispanic residents (US Census, 2003). Out of the subjects interviewed, those with only informal police contact (primarily whites) had high approval of police performance and officer demeanor whereas those with formal police contact (primarily non-whites) had low approval of them. Additionally, community members who have only had informal contact with the police are typically more reliant on the news and other forms of media when it comes to their perception of law enforcement, and because of their heavy reliance on the media, their perception of law enforcement is much more positive and distorted than that of minorities (Ashcroft, 2003). Television shows and movies such as COPS, 21 Jump Street, and End of Watch show the more humane side of law enforcement and provoke a feeling of catharsis in their audience, but they are not an accurate representation of reality. As with any TV show, large pieces of reality are left out, and what remains is merely a false truth.
Mainstream media is largely in favor of law enforcement tactics and is hardly critical of any police action. Media researchers believe this is so because police officers and the media have a mutually beneficial relationship that perpetuates the dramatization of policing effectiveness. Mass media relies on police officers for information, stories, and reliable information about crime and the community, while the police benefit from the media’s positive portrayal of their work (Dowler, 2003). In other words, the police benefits from the media because their heavy influence on the white majority in the US is what helps police officers maintain their positive public image. In return, the media works together with law enforcement when it comes to reporting on specific community events or incidents. While there are many police officers and departments that deserve the media’s praise, the media often generalizes the victories of these individuals and praises law enforcement in general, including the individuals who don’t deserve it. This positive generalization by the media is interpreted by reliant communities as a fact that can be applied to any police officer, and that’s usually what they do.
As we’ve established, communities with less formal contact with the police are more likely to rely solely on the media, thus making them hold more a more mainstream, positive towards police, such as the views popularized by mass media. Minority communities, however, are the ones that have had formal contact with police and know that many individual policemen are prejudiced, condescending, and discriminatory when it comes to dealing with community problems. Therefore, due to the high levels of formal police contact within minority cities, the mass media does not have such a heavy influence on the views of minorities (Ashcroft, 2003).
In short, overly positive, and possibly unrealistic, portrayal of police officers is most likely why the media has such little influence on the minority community’s view towards policing, which means that, despite the spread of negative or positive media messages, the reputation of law enforcement rests largely in the media’s influence on the majority community. As long as the media holds the power to impose a positive police image on the majority (in other words, the white community), then the false truth of highly effective law enforcement officers will remain.
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