There has been a dramatic increase in media and public attention to police brutality and racial bias. By some measures, the volume of media references to these topics has been greater over the past decade than ever before.
Americans are consuming this messaging and their attitudes toward police have responded accordingly. Confidence in police has never been lower,[while antipolice sentiment,[perceptions of police brutality and racism, and support for defunding the police have never been higher, says the Manhattan Institute in a new report.
Fears of the police among black people have increased to the point that, in 2020, roughly 74% of black respondents to a Quinnipiac University poll said that they “personally worry” about being the victim of police brutality, compared with 64% and 57% who said so in 2018 and 2016, respectively.
These trends in media coverage and public perceptions seem divorced from empirical reality, the institute argues.
A 2019 survey by the Skeptic Research Center found that nearly 33% of people thought that 1,000 or more unarmed black men alone were killed by police in 2019. In fact, according to the Mapping Police Violence (MPV) database, the number was 29.
The institute says that instances of police use of force remain exceedingly rare and that rates of fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS) in major U.S. cities are generally lower in the past 10 years than in decades past.
"Rather than a response to actual increases in use of force, the swing of public opinion against the police appears to be a largely media-driven phenomenon—one apparently facilitated by the rapid adoption of smartphones and social media and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement," the institute says.
The report concludes that "inadvertently or otherwise, news organizations, journalists, and political elites may be contributing to misperceptions about police use of force—misperceptions that could have, and likely have had, significant social costs."
It says that negative media portrayals of police and the public outrage that those portrayals foster can cause police officers to engage in less proactive policing, which, in turn, can lead to increases in crime.
Negative media portrayals can weaken the morale of police officers and decrease the desirability of the profession, making it harder for police departments to retain and recruit quality personnel and forcing them to lower hiring standards.
Some of these negative consequences could be mitigated, if not avoided, if news organizations and political leaders covered or discussed policing incidents more responsibly, the report contends.
Police use-of-force incidents afflict people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and many of them should be treated as human tragedies, the report acknowledges.
The institute says news organizations "should be pressured to cover policing issues in a more responsible and balanced fashion."
Also, the report says, "civic groups, nongovernment organizations, and even police agencies concerned with the spread of misinformation and misperceptions need to use social media fact-checking tools."