Good guys, bad guys and TV news

How television and other media promote police violence

The media are enamored by pictures of police drug busts, chases and arrests. Do these images subtly encourage excessive police force?

By David Zurawik and Christina Stoehr

David Zurawik is television critic for The Baltimore Sun. Christina Stoehr, former TV critic for the Detroit Free Press, is now working on a novel.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


Television pictures can right wrongs and do good with an immediacy that’s awesome.

That’s the lesson many television news executives think we should learn from the reaction to the videotape of motorist Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police. The amateur videotape of the March 3 beating, which first aired on KTLA-TV, has led to local and national calls for reform and investigations of similar police actions.

But along with the self-congratulatory message, there is another one that some journalists and educators say the TV news industry should be thinking about in connection with the King incident.

The question is this: Has television, with hundreds of thousands of highly dramatic pictures in reports celebrating the use of force by police officers, helped create a mindset among police officers and others that excessive force is okay? In other words, did television help make what happened in Los Angeles possible?

Ernie Sotomayer, deputy metropolitan editor of Newsday, says, “That’s absolutely the question that television news managers have to ask themselves. Some have splattered those images (celebrating police subduing suspects) night after night on the screen without any thought of the consequences. What about the impact of those images?”

Sotomayer has been involved with police coverage both from within and without. As a newspaper editor, he has supervised print reporters on the police beat in Dallas and New York. As an official in the Network of Hispanic Communicators, he has sometimes challenged portrayals of Hispanics in the print and electronic media.

The images Sotomayer and others are talking about are the ones that we have seen regularly on our screens the last few years — the ones showing police “fighting the war on crime.”

The most familiar sequence involves jumping and jerky hand-held images of a police SWAT team or elite drug squad ramming down the door of a suspected drug house and throwing occupants inside the house face-first on the floor.

Such dramatic pictures — usually accompanied by the unedited sounds of yelling, slamming and banging as the police went in — have led innumerable local newscasts the past few years in virtually every major city in the country.

Many stations became so enamored of the pictures that they built whole news series around them. The series almost always involved a reporter and camera crew riding with police on a drug raid or a dangerous mission at night. The drama was usually simple and visceral. The police were the good guys. The bad guys were whomever the police said they were. Too often, the police were white and the people they singled out for the cameras as criminals were black or Hispanic.

The potential impact of one such series — “Blues,” a l988 effort by WFAA, the ABC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth — was summed up this way by a city official:

“’Blues’ did a great disservice to the city,” Dallas City Councilwoman Diane Ragsdale said. “It reinforced a lot of racism and stereotyping.” Ragsdale said the message some viewers got from the series was: “That’s why we have to abuse those people over there (in a black part of town), because they’re so criminal.”

Television news isn’t the only offender.

“I don’t think you can criticize the television stations without talking about newspapers,” Newsday’s Sotomayer says.

“Newspapers do the same things — go out on raids with police, for example. I don’t think we should be doing that kind of thing, because it . . . leads to too cozy a relationship.”

The seduction for journalists is that police have the power to give them page-one quality information and access to the front lines of that “war on crime.”

“It’s a practical problem and an ethical problem for anybody who reports or edits,” says John Oppedahl, managing editor of The Arizona Republic.

“Not just with police, but with many agencies. One way you can get access in a hurry is by ‘cooperating.’ If you see it their way, you can get information.”

It is an especially tough offer for television journalists to refuse because of those great pictures police can provide if you play ball, said David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In Miami, for example, police have scheduled drug raids at 11 p.m. so that the local stations could have live pictures of the busts to lead their late newscasts with.

The trade-off is basic: The law enforcement agency gets favorable coverage for its work, which is often crucial to funding. The television station gets access to the information and the photo opportunities. “There’s always a danger in the search for pictures,” Bartlett said. “You can wake up and find yourself co-opted.”

One such report by KXAS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, ended with the camera showing pictures of the drugs seized in a raid and handcuffed suspects being loaded in paddy wagons, while the reporter praised the police work and then told viewers that such work was in jeopardy because funds were about to run out. The only thing the reporter did not do was give viewers a phone number they could call to vote for more funding.

The problem extends beyond local news. Network and syndicated news and “infotainment” programs started doing specials on crime fighting in the middle-1980s. The shows were often more skewed to entertainment values than those of news. And that’s where the locals often learned how to do it.

Remember the 1986 Geraldo Rivera special which featured Rivera accompanying police on a live drug bust in Channelview, Texas? Rivera and crew went right through the front door with the police officers and showed us the live arrest of a “major drug dealer” in prime time.

Only it turned out that the woman identified by police and Rivera as a dealer was a house painter working in the home of a suspected dealer. So much for civil rights.

The airwaves are flooded with such “reality” shows today. Some occasionally celebrate police action, like “48 Hours” on CBS. Some do nothing but chronicle police busts week in and week out — like “COPS” on Fox and “Detectives” on ABC.

And what about all the entertainment programs, like Steven Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues,” with the literal message from the duty sergeant to his troops: “Do them before they do you.” The “them” being any suspects or citizens the police label “slimeballs” or “dirtbags.”

Bochco’s dark vision — of an urban jungle out of control and a court system where justice was a joke — celebrated the precinct house on “the hill” as a beacon of decency in a sea of slime. That skillfully-rendered vision has affected the way too many of us see police work today. You can hear

Bochco’s cynical dialogue in the real-life radio transmissions from the LAPD officers who beat King, as they joked of “playing hardball” with him and others they referred to as “lizards.”

The industry response from local news operations like WFAA in Dallas to Geraldo Rivera and CBS News, is that they are simply “reflecting society,” holding a mirror up and showing what’s out there.

Bartlett says, “That’s part of the answer: We don’t make it up, we merely report it.” But he says the job of the good television journalist goes beyond merely showing. It starts with responsibly deciding what to show.

Oppedahl says meeting that responsibility — in print or TV — starts with discussion. But it needs to be an ongoing dialogue, not just deadline discussion with the clock ticking.

“That’s the first thing: People need to talk about it.” Oppedahl says. “It’s an important ethical issue and it needs to be discussed.”

Sotomayer says one of the things news directors and editors have to ask themselves is whether what they’re showing is truly representative or whether it’s offering a skewed picture of reality.

For example, is the actual percentage of criminals who are black or Hispanic proportionate to the percentage of blacks or Hispanics identified as criminals in their newscasts?

And, sometimes, the discussion has to go beyond the newsroom. WFAA, for example, organized and broadcast a town hall meeting on “Blues” after black and Hispanic groups criticized the series.

“Whether it’s newspapers or the highest tech television,” Bartlett says, “the issue comes down to the fundamental act of journalism: deciding what stays in, what goes out and what order you put it in. If you abdicate that, you are no better than a flack for the police.”

Bartlett says journalists have to keep questioning themselves in this regard.

Some questions we might consider: With all the reports now coming in of police dispensing their own brand of curbside justice, why are we seeing so many pictures and reading stories only celebrating police action? In the King case, was it just coincidence that an amateur shot the pictures that had such great impact? Or was it that too many professionals were too close to the police to see the point where the war on crime became criminal in its execution?