Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(1) (1995) 1-20
Connie L. McNeely
Department of Sociology
University of California, Santa Barbara
Our examinations within the sociology of law and related criminal justice studies tend to be concerned, to varying degrees, with the autonomy of the criminal justice system, or aspects of it, as socially determinant (or vice versa) and how it functions (or is supposed to function); we tend to primarily study the features that characterize law enforcement and the legal system. However, I would like to pose a slightly different issue than is usually addressed in this area of study. I suggest that we look more specifically at perceptions of criminal justice and law enforcement and the way in which it penetrates social life and social thinking (cf. Lempert and Sanders 1986) -- that is, not necessarily how the criminal justice system actually works, but rather how people think that it works, whether accurate or not. Given that the criminal justice system presides over, is embedded in, and is largely defined by and in relation to the wider society, a crucial matter that arises for consideration is actual public knowledge of the operation of the criminal justice system. Public knowledge and perceptions and the social forces that cause and shape them must be understood if we are to gain a clearer understanding of the broader relationship between law and society.
Before we can draw a meaningful picture of criminal justice and law enforcement in society, we must seriously probe the nature of public knowledge and perceptions of social control processes, especially the legal system (Saney 1986, p. 8). In other words, what is the image of the criminal justice system in the public eye? How is the system perceived by different segments of society, and by society as a whole? How much concrete knowledge does the public actually have of the criminal justice system? That is, to what degree does the public understand the workings of the system? Moreover, from where do their impressions and knowledge of the criminal justice system derive? These are crucial questions, delineating important dimensions of the relationship between the criminal justice system and the society of which it is a key component.
Despite possible impressions to the contrary, most members of the population actually have few opportunities for direct interaction with the criminal justice system. Yet, given its centrality and determinant role, the public must somehow become "socialized" to it on one level or another. While certainly there are other sources of information, [End page 2] research has suggested that a majority of people in the United States receive much of their impressions and knowledge of the criminal justice system through the media, in particular through entertainment television viewing (Surette 1992). Indeed, in some ways, the most direct "contact" that most persons have with the criminal justice system is through the "television experience." This point is very much in keeping with depictions of increasingly "postmodern" life in which the authority of the family and school has greatly waned (Saney 1986), and television is progressively the principal means of (or replacement for) "social contact" and socialization (Giddens 1981; Laywood 1985). Furthermore, research on television as an agent of socialization and source of knowledge and information has indeed been very suggestive along these lines, for both children and adults (Gerbner and Gross 1976a, 1976b; Altheide 1985; Roberts and Doob 1990; Drucker 1989). We know that the average household in the United States has a television turned on for almost eight hours a day, with the average individual watching it for approximately four hours a day (Papazian 1988; Roper Organization 1983). Moreover, television penetrates almost 99 percent of the population; i.e., virtually the entire United States population has access to television. Next to the family and school, television is the one agent that reaches virtually all segments of the population almost from birth and, although most people ostensibly watch television primarily for entertainment, there is growing evidence that this activity, in and of itself, has considerable social, behavioral, and psychological effects, far beyond pure leisure and entertainment (Oskamp 1984), and that television is a key source of social information.
With this in mind, I suggest that we give serious consideration to the "social learning" effects of television, in terms of the transmission of information (Spring 1992), in our investigations of public knowledge about the criminal justice system, and of the relationship between law and society in general. Taking the lead from studies in the sociology of culture and mass communications and media studies, we can conceptualize television programs in the whole as a cultural product and social force, affecting society and involved in the process of social development, or socialization. What we see in these programs is both socially and historically situated and delineated, and at the same time capable of effecting socialization and, to some degree, social construction, reproduction, and change. This perspective allows for two separate [End page 3] but highly interrelated approaches to examining public impressions and knowledge of the criminal justice system. It can give us a sociological insight and understanding both of 1) the general study of the system itself, as an expression of a social phenomenon and social facts, and of 2) its complex, mediated relationship with the wider society.
How then is the legal system, or crime and law enforcement, portrayed on television? We can use answers to this question to determine and develop an overall social image or depiction of the legal system. As a cultural product, television programs and images are conceived as reflections of society. This reflection theory, in its most essentialist expression, posits that cultural products mirror aspects of society and of the social order that gives rise to them (Griswold 1981). While there are several variants of reflection theory, this is in fact the basic idea on which they all rest, i.e., that culture is the mirror of social reality (Griswold 1994, p. 22). Thus, the cultural product or object reflects the social structures and patterns of the wider society. In the most straightforward functionalist version of reflection theory, in which cultural products reflect social reality, there is the assumption that both creators and audiences are passive, without self-interests. In addition, the functionalist model allows no place for the independent influence of cultural production organizations (e.g., broadcast companies, networks, production companies, etc.). However, a more critical approach assumes cultural products that reflect, and reflect on, social meanings that are grounded in the social structure in terms of hierarchical relations, interests, and the status quo. In other words, while some perspectives posit that the media simply reflect society, other more critical perspectives maintain that they also uphold and extend the societal status quo.
In any case, this idea of culture reflecting society or the social structure provides us with models of the connection between cultural products and society, and suggests the use of cultural products as social evidence in order to understand broader societal influences and images (Griswold 1994). Thus, we must consider the whole idea of reflection and its related implications when we think about television programs as cultural products reflecting images of reality. These reflected aspects contain more than just the characters and their attributes, and associated story lines. They include specific subject matter, format, and scheduling [End page 4] and duration conventions, thus contextualizing the images that are presented. All of these factors provide specific information from which social images and knowledge can be determined. As such, television portrayals of crime and law enforcement provide a concrete image of the system and its operation as seen through the public lens.
Moreover, these factors provide information from which conclusions can be drawn (and thus provide important areas for research and study in their own right). Just as these aspects of television programming come together as a representative image of the system, they also act to transmit information and influence the perception of the system in actuality. This is a subtle, yet important distinction. People use the knowledge that they obtain from the media to construct an image of the world (Surette 1992); these television portrayals give viewers (and others participating in their production) clues about society and, thus, also act to "socialize" the public to a particular image of the criminal justice system. The depiction of the system that is seen on television is that which is most widely presented and available to the viewing public -- and thus to the population as a whole. Therefore, it is an image of the legal system that we might expect to be most prevalent among the public and most influential in their perception and knowledge of how it works.
In short, television programs provide an entire array of information that is contextualized through the various related aspects of television production. Together, these aspects form a cultural representation of the criminal justice system and provide the public with information and guidelines about it, whether factual or not. Thus, future analyses might consider them in conjunction with one another and with society in general. Drawing on this understanding of the reflexive nature of the relationship between television programs and society, we can elucidate, at least, in part a number of dimensions in the public perception of the operations of the criminal justice system.
However, we must keep in mind that television programs are not created in a vacuum, and it would be misleading to treat them in isolation from society (Adler 1976). Particularly in relation to presentations of the legal system, television programs are complex products that incorporate societal attitudes and atmosphere (Wolff 1981), and they use shared symbols and conventions in the production of [End page 5] images (Griswold 1987). These symbols and conventions incorporate ideas that any "well socialized" member of society can recognize and understand (Becker 1982). Thus, by reflecting some image of the criminal justice system in a way that is, by plan and design, understandable by the general public, television programs also convey information and messages that the general public can use in "understanding" this important component of society.
While there exists numerous debates on the influence of television, claims that it is a major socializing agent in society are relatively undisputed. Although specification of this process remains a matter of speculation and research, social scientists have discovered that people do take cues about behavior and values from what they see on television. As a cultural product, television provides information about society, supplying "tools" that enable people to be integrated into and "know" it (cf. Swidler 1986). Therefore, we must determine what the overarching television portrayals of criminal justice and law enforcement are and how they affect public perceptions of the system as a whole (Theberge, in Lichter and Lichter 1983, p.vii; Surette 1992; Gerbner 1993). (Of course, this implies that an important research task should be the tracing and documenting of content and categorical trends and patterns in the presentation of crime and criminal justice to determine the overall social depiction in the first place.)
Furthermore, television presents both explicit and implicit, intended and unintended images and messages, that can in turn differentially affect viewer perception. Despite recent arguments on the possible antisocial (read "anti-institutionalized social order") consequences of television viewing, growing evidence indicates that television programming is generally supportive of the status quo (Stark 1987). Some of the most extensive and influential work in the area of media effects has been done by Gerbner and his associates (e.g., 1978, 1980, 1993). Despite criticisms of this research (Hirsch 1980; Hughes 1980), there has been consistent and somewhat convincing evidence that television viewing cultivates or, at the very least, influences certain views of society, particularly those supporting the "dominant beliefs and values" of society. Indeed, throughout history, the primary function of the cultural media has been the legitimation and maintenance of authority; it has always reinforced established authority, teaching that when rules are broken, retribution is visited [End page 6] upon the violators. The importance of the existing order is always implicit in media messages and programs (Gerbner and Gross 1976b, pp.89-91). This must, of course, be a crucial consideration in the related study of the criminal justice system.
Television programs tend to portray and support perspectives supportive of the status quo, both explicitly and implicitly. Thus, we might expect that related programs typically have projected images and information about the criminal justice system that contribute to the maintenance of the social and political order and to social control. Television programs, especially those explicitly dealing with aspects of the legal system, promote "social stability and control by reinforcing the perceived legitimacy of current power arrangements" (Carlson 1985, p. 2; Weigel and Jessor 1973). That is, they reproduce and reflect the current social order, with broader implications for reflecting and influencing public perceptions.
However, again, most of the work in this area has been concerned more with the formation of opinions and attitudes, i.e., with the effects of the information on social attitudes, rather than with the actual information, or "knowledge," itself. Here, I suggest that we take a step back and ask what that transmitted information is and what it tells us about the actual operation of the criminal justice system. Rather than making any a priori assumptions, public knowledge of the system in relation to television portrayals is the problem for investigation.
However, on the other hand, many analysts find television programs to be poor sources of accurate knowledge regarding even the formal operation of the legal system, due to omission and distortion of information and the higher priority of dramatic necessity. For example, most police crime shows depict a criminal investigation process ending with apprehension, arrest, or violent death of the suspect. The stories often include legal and illegal searches and seizures, and arrested suspects are often "read their rights." Postarrest procedures -- e.g., arraignments, pretrial hearings, jury selection, bonding, plea bargaining, trials, sentencing, etc. (Alpert 1985) -- are rarely shown. Even on courtroom [End page 8] drama series, these procedures are rarely seen; neither are instances where cases are resolved before going to trial. In addition, in reality, criminal trials seldom end in courtroom confessions as they frequently do for dramatic effect on television (Carlson 1985; Daley 1972; Lewis 1974; Winick and Winick 1974; Drucker 1989).
The subject matter of programs provide information about the types of issues confronting like characters in "real life." This point is even more dramatically expressed in so-called "reality-based" shows, of which there has been an increasingly burgeoning number in recent years (Cavender and Bond-Maupin 1993). In actuality, these shows are typically, to a large degree, "programmed and staged" (even if only to accommodate technical requirements). Yet, they are presented as "real," and are often produced in a format and style associated with documentary or news reporting, about which questions of social presentation and accuracy can also be posed (Altheide 1985). Despite some descriptions as "tabloid" television, these shows are evidently perceived in the manner in which they are presented and thus, although currently not dominant in prime time viewing slots, require serious consideration in terms of the "information" they present for public consumption and perception.
Of course, there are also some very compelling arguments that maintain that television information and messages are, in fact, not meant to facilitate accurate learning about the criminal justice system, but rather are intended to make it less understandable and clear (Katsh 1983), in support of social control. Crime and law enforcement programs show television characters, not rules or laws, as solving the conflicts; i.e., "television personifies the law.... By portraying the law in this way, television makes the legal system and the very foundation of the law less understandable" (Carlson 1985, p.36). This argument corresponds to assertions that television supports the wider system and ties into arguments that the legal system functions better with a relatively ignorant citizenry.
Briefly, television programs on crime and law enforcement are typically characterized by omissions or distortions on information about the legal system. (I might also mention here that programs focusing on prisons are almost nonexistent in the overall scheme of television programming production and content.) In any case, while there are scenes where suspects are read [End page 9] their Miranda rights and search warrants are served, some researchers maintain that little other accurate information is forthcoming from television portrayals of the formal operation of the legal system. As Surette (1992, pp.245-246) argues, "in every category -- crimes, criminals, crime fighters, the investigation of crime, arrests, case processing, and case dispositions -- the media present a world of crime and justice that is not found in reality." Of course, more longitudinal documentation of related television program content is clearly required in this regard, to determine these trends over time and to provide a basis for further theoretical and empirical analysis.
First, television criminals are often given a wide variety of "negative character traits" in addition to their criminality, and their motives are typically greed or base wickedness or cruelty. On the other hand, law enforcers are depicted as relatively moral. Although they may be independent and conflict with the bureaucracy, they are always clearly on the side of the law and conventional morality. Character depictions are highly important, especially in regard to broader social attitudes and relations. The character attributes convey messages about different "kinds" of persons and segments of the population. In terms of social learning, these messages help to define the function, usefulness, abilities, and other features of various groups of people (Gerbner 1993). These characteristics need not be obvious. Indeed, "we are usually not aware of the relative shadings of each role because each is rationalized by the particular plot.... We are even less aware of the associations common to [End page 10] large numbers of characterizations that we do not perceive to be parts of a wider pattern" (Gerbner 1993, p.1).
Second, violent resolutions to criminal activities are overrepresented in television crime programs (Gerbner 1972; Dominick 1973). A violent end makes clear who is winner and who is loser, who is superior and who is inferior. Third, while high levels of police and court effectiveness in television programs may be unrealistic, their portrayal as such arguably encourages certain perceptions of the system in operation. Police almost always get their way; crimes almost never go unsolved; murderers are almost always caught; and courts and juries almost never let crooks go free (Acuri 1977, p. 240). In short, crime does not pay.
Compliance is clearly central to television portrayals of crime and law enforcement. However, it has been argued that, while television programs ostensibly support legal compliance, the real message is that people, not the law itself, insure compliance (Katsh 1983). An emphasis on personalities resolving disputes, rather than the law, obscures the very basis and rationalization of the legal system. Television apparently presents a distortion of reality in terms of both compliance and the nature of the criminal justice system.
First, with our focus on entertainment programs, we look to track and document related programs over time in which the main themes and protagonists are concerned with various dimensions of crime and law enforcement (e.g., police, lawyers, and judges). These can be categorized and examined along five specific dimensions, i.e., character and characterizations, subject matter, format, ratings, and scheduling (cf. Turow 1981) in order to discern trends and patterns in their presentation. More importantly, we can use them [End page 13] to develop a longitudinal content and discourse analysis of top-rated, prime time (and thus reaching the most people) television programs concerned with crime and the criminal justice system, in order to obtain a perspective on portrayals of criminal justice and law enforcement, and transmission of related information, over time in the entertainment medium. An overall strategy that covers the period from the early 1950s to the present would allow a consideration of the development of the television industry along with changes in society and social attitudes in general. Analysis of the programs can look to a number of competing theoretical approaches (behavioral, functional, critical, and institutional), considering both explicit and implicit portrayals and messages regarding the various aspects of the television program in relation to depictions of the system of criminal justice in action. This would mean, in particular, attention to and gathering descriptive information on the story lines and on the behavior, appearance, and relationships of the active characters, and others. The programs might also be assessed in light of target audiences. For example, who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys"; what are their profiles? To what degree do they reflect stereotypical portrayals (or not)? Analyses can provide a sociocultural and political image of the "players" in the criminal justice system in relation to society. More to the point, they can also provide us with a comparative conception of the legal system to use as a foundation in examining public opinions and attitudes, which brings us to the next research objective.
Second, we look to the public. Extensive national survey research on knowledge of the legal system and an understanding of how it works, along with questions on general television viewing habits and on the specific related television programs, is clearly needed in this area. Moreover, a comprehensive survey would cover a variety of demographic factors and other social, cultural, and political elements (e.g., age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, occupation, family, place of residence, religion, political affiliation, region, etc.). Such survey data would allow us to determine general population profiles and perspectives, and to make inferences about those profiles and perspectives relative to their television viewing habits, and ultimately in relation to perceptions and knowledge of criminal justice and law enforcement in the United States. [End page 14]
The third strategy builds upon the cumulative findings of the other two, and provides a blanket, sweeping approach to the general problem. It is a combined comparative examination, presenting an integrative relational model that links media portrayals of the criminal justice system to general public perceptions. This kind of model ties the specific television portrayals and messages delineated in the first strategy to the population perceptions and profiles found in the second. To more fully understand the relationship between criminal justice and society, we must ask a variety of questions concerning who learns what from where or from whom, under what conditions, and with what effects. Thus, we must look to compare that which is provided through the media with that which the public perceives in their consumption of the media along several dimensions, including knowledge of criminal legal procedures, and images of police and of the courts, in relation to crime and the role of the legal system in general.
Supplying clues to images of the criminal justice system and the impact of television viewing on public perception and knowledge, the combined aspects of these strategies provide for an investigation of the television program as a cultural product, both as a socializing, educating force and as a social reflection. The overall approach is aimed at delineation of and insight into the socialization of the public to the system of criminal justice and its related implications.
This does not necessarily mean, at this point, a perfect mapping of television portrayals onto public perceptions, or that the two are perfectly coupled, depending on what those portrayals are in relation to other sources of information. However, we might expect to find a relative match and a growing amount of influence on public knowledge. Ever increasing levels of television viewing by the "postmodern" individual may lead to more television-defined public perceptions of criminal justice and law enforcement. While the accuracy of these perceptions is another issue, it is also an especially important one since an increasing number of social scientists argues that the legal system may function best when citizens are not well informed about or interested in its operation (Sarat 1975). In addition to being separately interesting and suggestive, the substantive areas and research strategies proposed here, especially in terms of their interactive examination, can lead to a somewhat different and compelling investigation of the relationship between law and society, with important theoretical and empirical implications for related cultural, political, and criminal justice studies in general.
2. Indeed, the broader effects of television-influenced perceptions are generally seen as supportive of the status quo. See discussion and related citations in Surette (1992). See Griswold (1994), especially Chapter 2, for a general review and critique of perspectives on reflection theory.
3. Here we have a kind of "cybernetic feedback" relationship.
4. See Lodziak (1986) for a critique of these perspectives.
5. See Saney (1986) and Lodziak (1986) for summary reviews of different perspectives. [End page 16]
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