According to a September 2011 study, 67% of terrorist suspects are White and 57% are U.S. citizens… at least in primetime procedural crime dramas.
Conducted by the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg and published on the tenth anniversary of the War on Terror and the fortieth anniversary of the War on Drugs, “The Primetime War on Drugs & Terror” analyzes the highest-rated primetime network dramas for their portrayals of terrorism and drugs. Using “a codebook with 145 variables and over 800 sub-variables,” researchers Johanna Blakley and Sheena Hahm scrutinized 49 episodes of ten primetime shows (including all the Law & Orders, CSIs, and NCISes); these results, combined with recent public survey data, led Blakley and Nahm to arrive at six principal findings:
- “In TV storylines about the War on Drugs, drug users are not arrested and drug suspects are often portrayed as morally ambiguous or even heroic.”
- “These TV episodes reflect that the vast majority of drug users (and likely offenders) in the U.S. are white. But the episodes don’t depict the other half of the story – that people of color are disproportionately arrested, convicted and incarcerated.”
- “In these TV dramas, minorities are not depicted as perpetrators in the War on Terror. Most of the terrorists are white American citizens.” This includes teen pop singer Justin Bieber in an episode of CSI.
- “Primetime depicts a surprisingly sterilized version of the War on Terror in which torture, extraordinary rendition and racial and religious profiling rarely occur.”
- “Military force and government violence are depicted on TV as legal but often ineffective in the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.”
- “The legal system and the judicial process are rarely depicted in War on Terror and War on Drugs storylines.”
Blakley and Nahm conclude that primetime dramas “depict the struggle involved in fighting these wars, but by shifting the emphasis away from arrests, trials and convictions – the bread and butter of pre-9/11 crime shows – they rarely depict the justice ultimately being done by them.” Television ignores the judicial processes guiding the Wars on Terror and Drugs simply because viewers are more interested in the crimes themselves (drugs and terrorists are scary) and their subsequent investigations (car chases and gun fights are exciting). Furthermore, television’s futile depiction of the Wars on Terror and Drugs “reflects the deep ambivalence about these wars that can be found in public opinion polls.”
But what of television’s racially inaccurate portrayal of terror and drug suspects? Blakley and Nahm don’t provide much of an explanation for these discrepancies, but I have a couple theories of my own: either television is afraid of perpetuating stereotypes that all minorities are drug users and terrorists, or there just aren’t enough minority actors to fill those roles to begin with.
The full study, including a hilarious summary video featuring narration by Steve Zirnkilton of Law & Order intro fame, can be found at www.primetimeterror.com.