Fear and Loathing

The social costs of reality TV

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Cheap to produce and popular among audiences, reality TV shows like Cops and America's Most Wanted exploded in the 1980s. But while they present themselves as informative and even helpful, critics say the shows promote racial stereotypes and celebrate police efforts to hustle the disenfranchised off to jail.

As Robin Anderson argues in Alternative Press Review (Summer 1995), reality shows advance a law-and-order ideology by presenting crime outside of a larger economic and political context. Blacks, Latinos, and inner-city residents are routinely depicted as criminals, while themes of prevention, education and the elimination of poverty -- not to mention white collar crime -- are ignored. The brutal message, says Anderson, is that aggressive behavior by cops toward suspects is necessary to protect law-abiding (white) citizens from dangerous minorities.

While COPS provides viewers with the vicarious thrill of watching their tax dollars in action, AMERICA'S MOST WANTED drags the police state through the tube and into the living room by inviting viewers to dial the FBI with tips about criminals on the lam. According to Anna Williams in Camera Obscura (Vol. 31) the show reinforces white suburban fear by focusing on violent attacks against white heterosexual women, even though domestic abuse within the home is far more prevalent. Hate crimes, including racist attacks on people of color and gay bashing, have no place on the show.

As Mark Jurkowitz reports in MediaCulture Review (Summer 1994), serious crime is not skyrocketing in this country, but one would be hard pressed to reach that conclusion after viewing a night's worth of reality TV. But given that in our media culture perception can be everything, it's safe to say that the social cost of shows like COPS and AMERICA'S MOST WANTED is what media scholar George Gerbner calls the mean-world syndrome, or a general feeling of insecurity and dependence which leads to a demand for protection and punishment. No wonder public concern about crime is on the rise. It's just too bad that the shows about it don't accurately portray that facts about how safe we really might be.

Original to Utne Reader Online, September 1995.