June 2, 2020

Have TV Crime Shows Helped Normalize Injustice?

Film and television are the most important tools in fostering change, but they can also be part of the problem. 

If I asked you to name me a TV show about police officers you probably wouldn't have a hard time coming up with one. In the chaotic world, the depictions of these officers and the storylines they follow have an incredible influence over the people watching the stories. 

Enter The Color of Change, an initiative that studied all the cop shows on the air from 2017-2018, to see how these shows may have normalized the injustice we see on the world today. They also studied who's writing these stories in general. 

Some of the overarching findings are both shocking and disheartening.  

"There were 275 writers, 27 showrunners and 42 creators who were credited for the 26 series examined in the 2017–2018 season. And 81% of showrunners (21 of 26 series) were white men. Only 37% of writers across the genre were women; just 11% of writers were women of color." 

Obviously, these viewpoints only reflect a small window of what our vast society holds. 

The simple answer is to pressure companies into hiring more diverse voices, but that's not a perfect solution. 

What does The Color of Change want? 

"We need new standards to be socialized and implemented across the industry. Those standards must be backed up by meaningful incentives that reward responsible storytelling, as well as by real consequences that hold executives accountable when they enable (or even encourage) demonstrably harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies to go unchecked."

Let's go over some of the key findings of the report and detail how change can happen. 

VIEW THE ENTIRE REPORT HERE 

How has Television Helped to Normalize Injustice? 

Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color Of Change, had this to say in the forward of the study, "In the world of television, everyday people of color are generally perpetrators, not victims. People of color are generally supportive of the system and endorsers of the status quo, not agitators for changing it. Those accused by the police are the ones who cunningly manipulate the system, rather than being manipulated and coerced by it. Junk science like “bite-mark” analysis, and other debunked forensics, infallibly identifies the guilty rather than bolstering cases against the innocent (or even serving as the pivotal blow against them). None of that is true in the real world, but in the world of scripted television these are founding principles." 

This is obviously an issue. 

And there are hard facts to back it up. 

Let's dig into one of the more specific numbers. 

Credit: Color of Change

The Good Guy Endorser Ratio 

What is the "Good Guy Endorser Ratio?" It refers to wrongful actions depicted by the Good Guy in the story versus the actions depicted as the Bad Guy in the story. These numbers are important because they expose how many crime shows teach use to react to police and their actions. 

What rogue behaviors are seen as okay or enjoyable to the viewer? 

And how are those behaviors directed toward the people within the story? 

How does embracing those behaviors change the way we see reckless behavior in real life? 

Credit: Color of Change

Most series show that whatever a cop does is inherently right, and therefore we shouldn't question it. 

But that does not translate into the real world. All it does is skew the facts we look at in real life and lessen the impact of what may actually be poor decisions. Thus affecting the way we view policing in modern society. 

How can we change? 

Talk is cheap, and action requires a lot more than just viewing the results. 

As Color of Change states, "The many showrunners and writers who want to do better must be supported in doing so. They must be given the time, talent, resources, and approval required to break convention and change course."

So, how do we implement those goals? 

I think diversity initiatives are a good start, but we also have to hold the creators we revere and their networks accountable. Make sure they hire showrunners with diverse backgrounds and people representative of all genders and all background experiences. 

I want to stress that this will result in better television. More people will be able to see their own stories projected onto screens and we'll develop deeper empathy for people that we may never encounter in daily life. 

Things can and will get better, but only if we are brave enough to look at these numbers and not to settle for them. 

Only if we promise to change them. And actually do it.      

Your Comment

8 Comments

As an African American filmmaker it frustrates me that the majority of movies and television shows don't reflect the society in which we live in. For every one black person on the screen there are 10 caucasians and we would be lucky if the one black person on screen isn't a stereotype or killed off in the first scene. The data shows it in this article. There is not enough diversity behind the scenes. Writers, Directors, Producers, etc. We need to be heard. If you're an ally of the movement demand and help us fight to get in the room. No more silence, no more avoiding our stories calling it a "Black Movie" moving forward demand that our voices be heard. #Blackstoriesmatter

June 2, 2020 at 6:40PM

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Toroes Thomas
Director
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Thank you for this article. I want to help to be the change in the world, even through TV. I think us as regular people who aren't in charge of the shows and the hiring could make a change by frequently watching and supporting shows with more diverse writers, casts, and crews. I know of a few, but does anyone know of more? A list of these shows would assist in helping as much as we can. I'll start my list with the show Atlanta. Anyone have anymore?

June 3, 2020 at 8:07AM, Edited June 3, 8:07AM

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Davis Steen
Director, Producer, Editor, and Writer
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"Ramy" on Hulu is a great show. Second season just launched last week.

June 3, 2020 at 8:40AM

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Thanks for bringing our attention to this important document. However, I'd say that calling out The Wire in the headline image is a little misleading. Sure, McNulty was one of the main leads and he's white, but the show was a treatise on the failures of the justice system and it helped to highlight systemic racism, at least in Baltimore. The show is used as a teaching tool in universities and also helped to usher the way for many black dramas. No television show is perfect, but it shouldn't be called out as normalizing injustice. Also, The Color of Change report only mentions it once when praising one of the episodes for showing the virtues of community policing (Page 129).

June 3, 2020 at 8:38AM, Edited June 3, 8:40AM

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"...just 11% of writers were women of color." You realize that only about 13% of the US population is a person of color right? So if "just 11%" of writers were women of color then they are pretty much proportionally represented. In fact, if you take into account that 13% of the population is a person of color (with roughly 1/2 of them being men, and 1/2 of them women) then that 11% women of color is represented almost TWICE a many proportional to their population.

This article also assumes that an equal number of women want to be writers/showrunners/creators. This may be the case, but it also may not. Men are grossly underrepresented as hospital nurses. For every 9 female nurses there is only 1 male nurse. Is this because men are systematically discriminated against? I think we all know that is not the case. Who's to say writing/showrunning/creating is not similarly affected by different interests from different genders?

June 3, 2020 at 9:15AM, Edited June 3, 9:18AM

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Jim
87

I think one of the points the report makes is that cop shows usually feature a multitude of POC characters and the writer's rooms are overwhelmingly white. If it was a show about the US in general then it would make sense to have a writer's room that represented the population of the US with 13% POC.

June 3, 2020 at 9:28AM

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Jim, I think it depends on how they define people of color in the study. White people were 72.4% in the 2010 census and falling. They haven't been 87% since the 1970 census. Depending on whether all Hispanic people are considered people of color, it could be as low as 60%. But either way, it's certainly far higher than just 13%. And then you also have to consider the fact that in most of the places where the shows are actually made, they actually have a higher number of minorities than the country as a whole. So when judging what is a 'proportionate' percentage of people working on Hollywood films for example, should be basing it on the demographics of the USA, California, or Los Angeles itself? People come from all over the country, and indeed the world, to work in Hollywood, but you'd still expect a certain bias towards local people.

I'm not sure how the study defines POC because it doesn't appear in the key terms and definitions section, and I don't really have to time to read the full length report to see if it appears elsewhere.

June 3, 2020 at 12:13PM, Edited June 3, 12:14PM

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The 2019 census counted the Black /African American population in the US as 13%.

If Hispanics are indeed counted as POC, I was unaware of that. I guess they aren't talked about much in Hollywood. I don't even remember the last time I heard (I might have NEVER heard) about the under representation of Hispanics in Hollywood. You make a good point though. If Hispanics are counted as POC then the ratio would be skewed towards whites.

In the end though, I think the solution is not to force the Hollywood gatekeepers or whoever is in charge to put people of whatever ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation in their films. I think the REAL solution is to get to a place where filmmaking can be somehow be given back to the people, a place where you don't need to have a committee approve of your idea and the marketing people don't need to be certain they can "sell" your movie. Hollywood would crash and burn so fast if that ever happens because they don't REALLY know what people want. As William Goldman pointed out, in the film industry "Nobody knows anything". They THINK they know what will sell, but they don't. If they did they wouldn't be spending $200 million to make "Cats". They only make money because they have a monopoly.

If Hollywood is hiring people based on ANY criteria other than best storytelling ability, they will lose when faced with films that hire based on merit. If they hire cast and crew because they are white, or male, or straight or whatever, and I hire ones because they are a phenomenal storytellers, my movie is going to be better. But this all assumes we can find a place where everyday people with amazing stories to tell can find a way to have their work seen.

As anyone who has been paying attention can see Hollywood is not a great place, and DEFINITELY not conducive to good cinema or TV. The sooner we can get rid of the tired old systems and start working in a new and less studio/executive centric way to make films, the better.

IMHO

June 4, 2020 at 6:24AM

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Jim
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