When Reality TV Creates Reality: How “Copaganda” Affects Police, Communities, and Viewers

77 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2023 Last revised: 9 Nov 2023

Date Written: October 30, 2023


Television shows with police officer protagonists are ubiquitous on American television. Both fictional shows and reality shows portray a world where criminals are nearly always apprehended. However, this is a distortion of reality, as crimes mostly go unsolved and police officers infrequently make arrests. What does the omnipresence of this genre mean for the general public's conception of police, for the practice of policing, and for the communities being policed? I use department-level and officer-level arrest data to find that arrests for low-level, victimless crimes increase by 20 percent while departments film with reality television shows, concentrated in the officers actively followed by cameras. These arrests do not meaningfully improve public safety and come at the cost of the local public's confidence. I then document quasi-experimentally and experimentally that these shows -- particularly their overrepresentation of arrests -- improve non-constituent viewer attitudes towards and beliefs about the police. The results are consistent with "copaganda" shows inflating trust in police nationally while subjecting some to harsher but not more effective enforcement. I consider the implications for police reform.

Keywords: television, police, arrest, beliefs, cameras, propaganda, criminal justice, media, difference-in-difference, experiment

JEL Classification: D73,H4,H76,J01,K42,Z11

Suggested Citation

Rackstraw, Emma, When Reality TV Creates Reality: How “Copaganda” Affects Police, Communities, and Viewers (October 30, 2023). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4592803 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4592803

Emma Rackstraw (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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