TV viewers struggle to detect fact from fiction

Thursday, 22 May, 2014

TV VIEWERS are struggling to separate fact from fiction because of police dramas’ portrayal of officers and detectives, according to a new study.

Research suggests that television police shows could be distorting the public’s view of how law officials actually go about their real-life work.

Academics believe that viewers can be influenced to believe police work is high-octane and dynamic through many of the well-known programmes.

But by interviewing retired police officers, the team from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) found that the opposite is true. Investigations - even for high-profile crimes like murder - are often mundane and routine, and too boring to be broadcast.

The former officers believe that public perception of policing has changed because of the star-studded TV series, with fictional officers regularly making serious policing blunders.

The study concluded that ‘if we rely on TV drama for our understanding of their work and roles, we will be seriously misled’.

Dr Martin King, Principal Lecturer in the Department of Social Care and Social Work at MMU, said: “Cops on TV serve a particular function: to reassure the public that safety can be restored within a one-hour slot with all the loose ends tied up.

“Participants in the study felt that this bore little resemblance to their experiences of policing and pointed to procedural errors and a focus on the confession as the key to solving crime as just two examples of the way in which much crime drama misleads the public.

“What was common with all the interviewees is that they all had a traumatic story around a case they had been involved in and they felt that the pain felt by victims and investigating officers was not dealt with well in crime drama.”

Researchers argue that when people have little contact with the criminal justice system then cultural representations of institutions, such as the police, become more important and possibly influential.

The team interviewed retired police officers whose careers spanned from the mid-1960s up to the present day. The officers all had with more than 25 years of experience across the UK. 

The officers labelled the shows as completely improbable and full of factual errors.

But the research concluded that despite the increased use of violent crime in the TV shows, the majority of the genre gives audiences a comforting narrative where perpetrators are brought to justice and victims and families re-establish their previous lives.

The research was conducted by Dr Martin King and Dr Marian Foley, from MMU, and Ian Cummins from the University of Salford and published in Policing: A journal of policy and practice.

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