Crime and Justice on Television Research Paper

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The past two decades have seen the emergence of a variety of crime-based reality television shows that purport to give watchers an insider’s view of the criminal justice system. The convergence of private and public in a mediated context, particularly in the form of infotainment, is a consequence of late modernity. It is true that we are less able to separate our lives from the mediated reality in which we exist. As Mark Deuze (2011) points out, we are increasingly living life in media as opposed to with media. For example, it is becoming ever more common for police to be active participants in the commodification of crime as entertainment. For crime-based reality television shows featuring police officers, law enforcement agencies maintain editorial control over the final product and, in the process, strive to present themselves in the best light. Unseemly police behavior has been edited from the shows before air date, leaving a rather sanitized version of police work.

The merging of crime and entertainment on TV raises interesting questions. Among them is how “real” the depiction is of criminal justice and law enforcement in reality shows, with the acknowledgement that in a mass-mediated, late-modern society reality is a fluid concept. As the role of policing and media merge, questions arise as to what responsibility the police officers who appear in them, as well as the makers of the programming, have to produce a well-rounded and honest portrayal of the system.

Generally, crime-based reality programming reinforces a “crime-control” ideology, which places its emphasis on reducing the crime in society through increased law enforcement, prosecutorial powers, and harsher sentences. The shows tend to portray law enforcement, and other components of the criminal justice system, as working as intended – successfully implementing justice for the good of local communities. However, at times, these shows depict due process as an obstacle and require the outside support of citizen-participants. Ultimately, however, the shows feature a narrative in support of the status quo, one that reinforces punitive attitudes while providing little, if any, critical analysis of the system itself or discourse conducive to questioning existing criminal justice policies.


Described on its website as “the rawest and the realest of all so-called reality shows,” COPS was a successful forerunner among crime-based reality programs. The show premiered during primetime on the Fox television network in 1989 and became one of their most successful and longest running programs. The COPS aesthetic approach, cine´ ma ve´ rite´ style camera work accompanied by a “Bad Boys” soundtrack, became an iconic representation of gritty, lifeon-the-line police work. COPS is notable for being the first crime-based reality television show in the United States “to use actual video footage as opposed to reenactments” (Doyle 1988, 96). The show is filmed in various cities around the country and features shaky, handheld camera footage of police officers responding to calls in progress and engaging in ordermaintenance policing. The viewer is on a virtual ride-along as the officers enter local communities to assist in such scenarios as spousal abuse, low-level drug busts, and alcoholinspired disorderly conduct.

Crime-based reality television shows have proliferated since the late 1980s. America’s Most Wanted, a show that enlisted the help of its audience to capture fugitives, debuted in 1988 and aired for 23 years. Since then, entire networks and cable channels have devoted their air time to crime – and justice-related programming. These shows vary in format, from the “unscripted” to the news magazine-style formatting of Dateline. They also vary in focus, with some dedicated to highlighting only federal crimes, female offenders, high-profile or celebrity cases, or corrections. Launched in 1991, the cable channel Court TV was designed to provide live coverage of trials, largely criminal, with the intention of helping inform individuals about the operations of the courtroom. The extensive, round-the-clock coverage of high-profile court cases, with attention to irrelevant and often salacious personal details of the various participants involved, has led to a media-frenzied environment characterized as “tabloid justice” (Fox et al. 2007). More recently, Court TV has been supplanted by TruTV, a cable channel self-described as “television’s destination for real-life stories told from an exciting and dramatic first-person perspective and features high-stakes, action-packed originals.” The network features a slew of crime-based reality shows, including Police POV, hyped by the network as a “groundbreaking” and “the most intense police series ever.” Discovery network’s Investigation Discovery Channel (known as ID) offers 24-h programming devoted to crime issues, featuring syndicated crime docudramas and original programming such as Deranged, Life of a Crime, and Most Evil. Further, about one-third of the shows now airing on the A&E network are crime-based reality shows such as Cold Case Files, The First 48, and Beyond Scared Straight.

Understanding the ever-increasing popularity of these crime-based shows requires a broader look at the genre of reality television. Given the diversity in format and content, it is not surprising that scholars maintain that there is no singular, clear definition of the genre of reality television. In response, Nabi et al. offered the following characteristics of reality television shows (see also Baruh 2009; Nabi et al. 2003):

(a) people portraying themselves (i.e., not actors or public figures performing roles), (b) filmed at least in part in their living or working environment rather than on a set, (c) without a script, (d) with events placed in a narrative context, (e) for the primary purpose of viewer entertainment. This definition excludes programs captured by other genres. (p. 304)

Although their definition excludes “news programming, talk shows, and documentaries, as well as programs featuring reenactments (e.g., America’s Most Wanted) and simple video clips not placed in a narrative context (e.g., America’s Funniest Home Videos)” (p. 304), other scholars hold a broader definition of reality programming. In their seminal work on crime-based reality television, Mark Fishman and Gray Cavender (1998) place reenactment shows that encourage audience participation squarely in the realm of reality television. Specifically, they distinguish two types of crime-based reality shows: reenactments and narratives encouraging audience participation (e.g., America’s Most Wanted) and ridealongs with officers (e.g., COPS). Whether scripted or unscripted, these shows share one defining feature: the blurring of fact and fiction in an entertainment context.

The “Infotainment” Factor

Regardless of their specific content or format, the proliferation of crime-based reality shows is a testament to the prominence of “infotainment,” a blending of “informative” programming (often news-like, with the purported intent of informing viewers of important social issues) with entertainment. Ib Bondebjerg points out that reality television shows elevate “private life stories” into “public discourse” while blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction (Bondebjerg 1996, p. 28). Bondebjerg does not necessarily find this hybridization troubling as long as the conditions of communication are clear. For example, the title cards at the beginning of the show could clearly delineate that the stories are based on true accounts but that the scenes consist of reenactments. For Bondebjerg, our everyday experience is being merged with more traditional forms of public service information into a hybrid form that at once informs and entertains the viewer. Shows fall on a continuum with regard to the amount of useful information given to inform the viewer versus dramatization designed to sensationalize. Scholars have generally been critical of this blurring of boundaries, pointing out that although television and other new media may afford us access to much more information – particularly with regard to the operations of the criminal justice system – we are not necessarily more knowledgeable about how the system actually operates. Given that a functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry, some scholars have pointed out that entertainment disguised as information is not just misleading but rather poses a potential danger to democracy (Gamson et al. 1992; Postman 2005).

Crime-based reality television has been found to incorporate stylistic elements that blur the distinction between fact and fiction, with the intention of making the show seems more realistic. For example, some shows such as America’s Most Wanted feature logos and set designs that are similar to official law enforcement regalia and often feature hosts that seem to have credibility either through their celebrity or personal story of victimization (Cavender 1998). Some shows rely on official police statistics, intimating that a close relationship exists between law enforcement and the hosts. (Cavender 1998) also notes that shows such as America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries usher in a sense of urgency by encouraging viewers to “call in now,” which also gives the appearance of the shows being broadcast live even though they were prerecorded. In shows such as COPS, the action appears to be occurring in real time, even though the raw footage is heavily edited; sounds are blended to give the illusion that time is continuous (Doyle 1988).

While reality television merges fact and fiction, viewers are keenly aware that the shows do not portray an unadulterated “reality.” Researchers have found that the public tends to view the reality claims made by such programs with a skeptical eye (Hall 2006; Nabi et al. 2003). Viewers recognize that although unscripted, the producers often manipulate circumstances with the intention of increasing dramatic effect. Police officers and other agents of the criminal justice system, like all participants in reality television shows, alter their behavior in the presence of cameras. In fact, in her study of viewer perceptions of reality programs, Alice Hall (2006) notes that realism is a fluid concept and that viewers acknowledge that the presence of the camera affects the behavior of participants, that circumstances are frequently staged, and that the final product has endured selective editing. Perhaps most significant, Hall found that while the viewers remarked that most situations were probably staged, they nevertheless contended the reactions of the participants were “real” and, as such, a reflection of their true nature and personality. Overall, though, scholars suggest that the more realistic the program is believed to be, the greater the effect on the viewer’s attitudes and beliefs and that viewers were significantly more likely to characterize crime-based reality shows as more realistic than fictional programming (Oliver and Armstrong 1998).

Crime-Control Ideology

Scholars have suggested that the emergence and popularity of these shows are reflective of the political climate that arose during the 1970s and continued into the following decades. This toughon-crime era is characterized by an escalating war on drugs, increased mandatory prison sentences, a shift away from rehabilitation, and the implementation of quality-of-life policing focused on reducing social and physical disorder. Crime-based reality television shows reinforce the status quo through support of crime-control policies and ultimately work to sustain crime myths. Further, like most media coverage of crime, the shows tend to over-represent violent crime and are focused heavily on lower-class street crime to the exclusion of corporate crime, white-collar crime, and crimes committed by the state. For example, Oliver (1994) conducted a content analysis of 76 crime-based reality programs, including COPS, America’s Most Wanted, Top Cops, FBI, The Untold Story, and American Detective, and found that, consistent with prior research, the shows overrepresented violent crimes, along with an unusually high rate of successful resolution.

Shows such as Dallas/Kansas City/Detroit SWAT and DEA feature paramilitary police units that are engaged in high-risk assignments such as enforcing the war on drugs, responding to barricade situations, and apprehending dangerous suspects. The SWAT franchise goes to great lengths to humanize the officers (most of whom are male), featuring on-screen mentions of their home life, including wives/girlfriends and children, and a website containing a feature where viewers can “meet the SWAT team.” The suspects, however, are portrayed as interchangeable and anonymous one-dimensional characters. There is little to no consideration given to the (continuing) failure of the war on drugs. Crime-based reality shows have long been criticized for presenting crime in a decontextualized manner, with a reliance on use of force as the go-to option for resolving conflicts (Doyle 1988; Grant 1992). By presenting crime solely from the perspective of law enforcement officers, there is little room for a critical assessment of the system and its operation. Crime-based reality television shows provide a neatly packaged narrative wherein good versus evil is on stark display, and law enforcement is on the side of the angels. That police officers serve as the thin blue line protecting citizens and ultimately restoring social order is a compelling narrative for viewers.

In her study examining the ways in which crime-based reality television shows contribute to our nation’s mythology surrounding crime control and the administration of justice, Jessica Fishman (1999) notes that the genre is not ideologically monolithic. While the worldview presented is one of dangerousness and where retributive justice prevails, the shows differ in the role of the state and civilian participants in the quest to eradicate crime. For example, in her study of COPS and America’s Most Wanted, Fishman finds that COPS portrays state agents as heroic social protectors. The restoration of social order is reserved for police officers with special knowledge, skills, and resources to tackle the crime problem. From this perspective, civilians are ill-equipped and inadequately prepared to deal with crime. Conversely, America’s Most Wanted provides viewers with a worldview in which law enforcement has initially failed in its mission to protect society and, therefore, citizens are empowered to actively participate in crime control. For America’s Most Wanted, the most important catalyst in fighting crime is the alert citizen (Fishman 1999).

Some researchers have found that viewers who exhibit personality traits consistent with authoritarianism report greater enjoyment of reality programs, including crime-based shows (Nabi et al. 2003, p. 326). For example, Oliver and Armstrong (1995) surveyed viewers of crime-related programs and tested the concept of “disposition theory,” the idea that “viewer enjoyment is strongest when liked characters are portrayed as winning and disliked characters portrayed as losing” (1995, p. 561). The researchers found that when compared to fictional programs, the crime-based reality programs were “most enjoyed by viewers who evidenced higher levels of authoritarianism, reported greater punitiveness about crime, and reported higher levels of racial prejudice” (1995, p. 565).

Researchers have also found that attitudes toward police may be impacted based on consumption of crime-based reality television shows, although the effect differs by race. For example, white viewers of crime-based reality shows reported higher levels of confidence in police compared to African-American viewers who demonstrated no increase in confidence (Escholz et al. 2002). These findings demonstrate that viewers are not simply passive recipients of manufactured ideological information. Rather, they actively interpret images of crime and justice, and as such, meanings surrounding criminal behavior and paths to justice are constantly negotiated within a cultural context.

Some have postulated that reality television, particularly crime-related programming, may be attractive to viewers because of its voyeuristic appeal. Researchers investigating the idea, however, have found mixed results. In seeking to assess the validity of the claim, the researchers first made the distinction between the clinical definition of voyeurism, which contains pathological, psychosexual elements of viewing unknowing victims, and the more common usage of voyeurism to mean watching other persons as they live their lives (Nabi 2003). While researchers have found some evidence indicating a voyeuristic gratification in the more common usage related to watching reality-based television shows, this is not necessarily the most important motivator for the viewers. In fact, Nabi, Stitt, Halford, and Finnerty suggest that for crime-based reality television, viewers may be less likely to tune in for the purposes of voyeurism and are more likely interested in learning about “criminal behavior and the criminal justice system” (2006, p. 442).

For crime shows such as COPS, the structure of the programming lends itself to what Baruh calls a “fly on the wall” approach in which camera positioning places the viewer in the position of a detached onlooker. This technique contributes to the idea that the viewer is bearing witness to a gritty reality that is often dangerous and always enveloped in larger notions of justice.

Race And Gender Stereotypes

Crime-based reality television shows have frequently been criticized for perpetuating racial and gender stereotypes. In COPS, for example, researchers found that the type of offense presented varied by the race of the offender: Whites were found to be more likely portrayed in offenses related to “cars and alcohol,” while African-Americans were more likely to be shown committing burglary and grand theft (MonkTurner et al. 2007). Researchers also found, after analyzing 8 h of episodes, that aside from the appearance of one female officer, all the police officers portrayed on COPS were white males. There was a conspicuous absence, on any episodes analyzed by the researchers, of any female minorities appearing as either police officers or offenders. Researchers have also found that while minorities remain underrepresented as cops, they are not necessarily overrepresented as suspects. However, when aggression was used by officers, minorities were “significantly more likely than white criminal suspects to suffer from unarmed physical aggression from police officers” (Oliver 1994, p. 9).

In their analysis of COPS and World’s Wildest Police Videos, Prosise and Johnson (2004) suggest that the shows serve as a means to legitimize and justify questionable police behavior such as racial profiling. For example, the authors point out that police officers often rely on hunches, or “officer intuition,” to justify police stops. These hunches are portrayed as an effective means of making a good arrest and implicating a guilty suspect. Hunches that prove to result in bad stops or arrests are likely to end up on the editing room floor.

Female police officers are more likely to be featured in their own spin-off shows, such as Female Forces and Police Women of Broward County, rather than fully incorporated into the more traditional, male-centric shows. RabeHemp (2011) examined the ways in which gender was negotiated on the show Female Forces, airing on Biography network. The show, described on the network website as “Brains, beauty, and a badge.. .,” follows female police officers in Naperville, Illinois, “as they fight a full gamut of big city crime in the suburbs of Chicago.” In contrast to other, male-dominated crime reality television shows, Female Forces was more likely to show vignettes featuring the officers engaged in order-maintenance style policing as opposed to responding to calls regarding violent crimes. While this portrayal more closely aligns with the “reality” of crime (i.e., according to official reports, there are more calls for service for noncriminal and/or order-maintenance incidents than for violent crimes), it illuminates the extent to which the male-dominated shows tend toward a macho, aggressive style of policing focused heavily on crime fighting.

In her analysis, Rabe-Hemp explores how stereotypes of female police officers are both reinforced and challenged. By virtue of portraying women in an authoritative position, the patriarchal structure that privileges males as the sole figures of authority is challenged. At times though, this resistance was negotiated through emphasized femininity. For example, Rabe-Hemp describes how the female officers insisted that it was possible to remain feminine and still be a competent police officer, all the while engaging in personal grooming such as hair brushing and applying makeup (RabeHemp 2011).

Current Issues And Controversies

Future Directions

Compared to the courts and corrections, generally, most media coverage of the criminal justice system is focused on law enforcement. The relative lack of attention to corrections is likely due to the lack of willingness on the part of correctional officials to open up the facilities to the media (Surette 2011). Surette (2011) noted that generally, prisons are presented in the media rather negatively, focusing on prison riots and misconduct by correctional officers, in portrayals that are unlikely to garner public support for the institutions. Perhaps not surprisingly, most research on crime-based reality television programs also centers on the front end of the criminal justice system, including the early, highly successful shows such as law enforcement-focused COPS and America’s Most Wanted. Other reality television shows that feature corrections, such as Lock Up or Inside American Jails, are often neglected by researchers. Future research may examine the ways in which prison-focused reality shows feature inmates as spectacle and doomed to recidivate. Researchers may explore whether the shows provide a critical discourse on the failures of the system or engage in promoting a view of criminal behavior that is reduced to a simple issue of individual responsibility, while neglecting the insurmountable obstacles that most offenders face upon reentry.

The Role Of The Media And The Role Of Law Enforcement

Other future issues for criminologists to explore may center less on the extent to which shows are misrepresenting “reality” and more on acknowledging that criminal justice is increasingly a lived experience on-camera. It is in this context that the distinction between the role of the media and the role of law enforcement has become increasingly muddled. With the proliferation of crime-based reality shows, members of police departments are taking on a more proactive role as media, while members of the media are serving as pseudo-law enforcement agents. For example, police officers who have participated in COPS have reported to researchers that they felt that the television crew was on their side, even ready to jump into a fight if necessary (Hallett and Powell 1995) [emphasis added].

The consequences of the fusion between media and law enforcement are no more apparent than in the top-rated show To Catch a Predator. As scholars have noted, in that show, the delineation between civilian vigilante group, law enforcement, and the media has become dangerously blurred. The show featured Dateline NBC correspondent Chris Hansen as he confronted alleged sexual predators who have made contact with underage participants in stings set up by the program in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies. The alleged predators were lured to the decoy house and subject to Hanson’s interrogations. Law enforcement agencies partnered with a civilian group known as Perverted Justice, whose members were dedicated to stamping out pedophilia by posing online as underage victims and exposing the adults who engage in explicit communication with the decoys. The program’s popularity stems in part from its reliance on shame and humiliation as public spectacle that has become a staple of reality television (Kohm 2009).

The show found itself the recipient of unwanted media attention as a result of the suicide of Bill Conradt, an assistant district attorney, caught exchanging explicit internet chats with a presumed underage decoy in one of the show’s sting operations. Conradt shot himself as the SWAT team and camera crews closed in on his home. Investigations into the botched sting targeting Conradt revealed the extent to which media directs and influences law enforcement activity. Though Conradt had, for whatever reason, declined to actually show up at the decoy house, Hansen pressed further, requesting the police obtain arrest and search warrants to be executed at Contradt’s home the next morning. From the hastily written arrest and search warrants that were riddled with errors to the involvement of a SWAT team – likely influenced by the show’s usage of dramatic takedowns in situations in which less a show of force would suffice – it becomes apparent that concern for spectacle was among the primary motivations for the actions of law enforcement. In fact, when determining whether to press charges on the other 24 alleged perpetrators captured in the sting, the prosecutor was forced to drop the cases citing issues of illegality in police procedure and venue problems.

A lawsuit filed by the show’s own producer alleged unethical relationships between the show, Perverted Justice, and law enforcement. The suit claimed that the Perverted Justice group did not always supply the producers with full transcripts of the chats and that the show covered up questionable police behavior. The producer alleged she was fired for speaking out about the unethical practices of the show. Although her lawsuit was eventually dismissed, a second wrongful death lawsuit filed by Conradt’s sister was settled for an undisclosed amount. The suit alleged that “the network interfered with police duties and then failed to protect her brother’s safety.” When ruling that the wrongful death case could move forward, Judge Denny Chin pointed out “that NBC had ‘placed itself squarely in the middle of a police operation, pushing the police to engage in tactics that were unnecessary and unwise, solely to generate more dramatic footage for a television show.’” Future research could continue to document the ways in which crime and criminal justice is “dangerously confounded with its own representation” (Ferrell et al. 2008).

Shame And Humiliation

One of the hallmarks of crime-based reality television shows is the extent to which suspects are shamed and humiliated on-screen. Future research may continue to explore the ways in which moral sentiments are mass-mediated and the public spectacle of punishment has been revived in the context of reality television. Crime-based reality shows have managed to merge crime and entertainment into “humiliation TV,” often airing segments with no other end than to ridicule the offender. Shows that compile caught-on-tape moments such as Disorder in the Court and World’s Dumbest.. ., highlighting the misadventures of criminals and other ne’er do wells, are prime examples. For some, such as those implicated in To Catch a Predator, the consequences of shame and humiliation may prove deadly.

In her analysis of COPS, Mariana Valverde (2006) points out that the show portrays police officers as engaged against the enemy “others” who represent stereotyped “criminal classes.” The social context from which crime emerges (i.e., larger structural constraints of poverty, race, class, and gender) is neglected in favor of a focus on the apprehension of lower-class criminals, frequently intoxicated, and virtually always surrounded by social and familial disorder. Humiliation and shame are part and parcel of the show as the camera focuses an inordinate amount of time on the incoherent speech and movements of those who are intoxicated for the viewers’ pleasure. Many subsequent shows such as Dallas/ Kansas City/Detroit SWAT, DEA, and Police Women of Broward County have replicated COPS cinema verite´ style along with other conventions and are subject to similar criticisms.

Increasingly, shame and humiliation have extended to reality shows that focus on ethical dilemmas that at times may overlap with criminal behavior. Shows such as Intervention, Celebrity Rehab, and Sober House focus on the shame and humiliation of addiction yet decouple drug use and addiction from criminal behavior, putting on full display our cultural ambivalence surrounding drug use.

Cultural criminologists have suggested that part of the pleasure of viewing reality television is that it provides a means of privately transgressing. In a vicarious manner, viewers are relating to and experiencing deviance in a socially sanctioned way – they are offered a means of reaffirming social boundaries and for condemning deviance through the humiliation and shame of the other. In fact, Hall (2006, p. 204) found that the viewers’ enjoyment of reality television shows is, in part, “a strong element of schadenfreude.” Cultural criminologist Mike Presdee suggests that watching “real” people being humiliated calls up a “different order of emotions, pleasures and desires” than that of fictional humiliation (Presdee 2001, p. 80). However, given that there is such fluidity between viewers’ perceptions of what constitutes “reality” television from fictional television, it is likely that those emotions, pleasures, and desires are not so distinct. Reality shows then are part of a larger social context in which crime, shame, humiliation, and violence are sold as commodities to a willing public eager to be entertained.


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