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Representations of policing in media

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    Representations of Policing in the Canadian Media.

                Media plays an indispensable role in entertaining people, providing information and spreading knowledge in the modern society.  Most people, both young and old in the contemporary society are exposed to at least one form of media.  The term media here is all inclusive of both electronic and print media.  Print media mostly refers to written information in form of newspapers, magazines and articles, while electronic media refers to television, radio and films.  Recently, computer technology has brought other variants such as video and internet media which have presented faster forms of information transfer.  Television is arguably the largest form of media and it provides an easy way of spreading information since it is widely accessible by the public.  Media reports thus play a big role in shaping, influencing and framing the public perception of different issues affecting the world today.

                In Canada, there has been much debate on how media affects the public view on policing and law enforcement in the country.  Many people have argued that media has the potential of influencing people’s beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviors towards policing as well as influencing the course of criminal court cases in Canada.  With some calls for censorship as a means of controlling media, a great struggle exists between balancing the control of media and the public right to freedom of speech and expression.  However, in order to understand best how to control media reports on policing, it is important to first understand how accurate or inaccurate are the media representations of Canadian policing.

    This research paper is thus highly important as it seeks to establish whether the Canadian media accurately represents policing in the country and it also provides detailed examples to show why or why not.  The paper mainly supports the argument that, there is a lot of misrepresentation of policing in the Canadian media which highly affects public perception of crime, police work and policing in general.

    Policing in Canada.

                Policing in Canada is a highly dynamic and multi factorial industry where many law enforcing organizations work together to ensure safety for all Canadians (Cooley, 2005).  In a country which is known to be highly multi-cultural and bilingual, most Canadian police organizations are highly diverse and nuanced beyond the image created by the red coated RCMP police officers.   Canadian police forces have never subscribed to any particular policing principles but the rules and principles they follow are more or less similar to those of the British police forces.

                The complexity of Canadian policing emanates from the highly integrated police organizational framework.  First of all, there are three main levels of police forces which comprise of the municipal level, provincial level and the federal level (Curt, 2008).  Each of this police organizations have individual jurisdictions which govern their law enforcement operations.  Law enforcement in Canada is perceived to be the sole responsibility of the provincial level police force.  Most urban areas have been given the authority by the provincial police force to maintain their own local police forces.  Moreover, small municipalities often contract the provincial police force to maintain law and order within the municipality, while larger municipalities have their own independent police forces.

                All provinces have in turn contracted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which is a federal police force, for all their provincial law enforcement duties.  There are also a few private police forces which posses same powers as those of the federal police forces.  For instance, the Canadian Pacific railways has its own police force which helps to prevent any illegal transit of goods on the rail system as well as guarding the railways from any crime threat.

                Policing in Canada and most other western democracies can be classified into two major aspects.  These two aspects according to Forcese (1999) include; the macro and the micro levels.  These two levels are used to analyze Canadian policing from both a neo-Marxist perspective and from an interactionist perspective.  The macro-level approach suggests that, policing is an institution which is used by the elite individuals in the society to protect their own personal interests hence reinforcing the aspect of social stratification.  On the other hand, the micro-level approach suggests that, police officers represent a group of individuals who are faced with one of the most difficult and demanding societal tasks which exposes them to significant psychological expenses.

                Based on these two aspects of Canadian policing, it is clear that whether police officers put too much or too little efforts in law enforcement, they are still faced by severe criticisms especially from media and the larger public.  This criticisms mainly emanate from the negative image and stereotypes created by various media reports regarding police relationships with the public, crime and criminal activities in the society, the role of police in law enforcement, excessive use of force by the law enforcers, racial profiling and the issue of policing in general.

    Media representation of policing.

                Whether related to the overall nature of policing, the perceived extensive use of force by the police, or the overall media representation of police work, policing in Canada is an issue which has been widely studied, debated, criticized and evaluated in many ways.  Media reports have been accused of exaggerating the level and extent of crime in the society as well as over representing policing in Canada.  There is a clear trend of criticism and exaggeration in law enforcement in terms of justice, honesty and effectiveness of the Canadian police force.

                Apart from having a great impact on shaping the public concept of crime and police force, media portrays many pictures in matters pertaining to law enforcement in Canada (Greene, 2006).  When experiences of individuals or public offenders are reflected in the media, they are bound to trigger a big social issue.  In this case, media representation of law enforcement news play a crucial role in the transformation of private matters into public issues.  Media often frames particular crime rates to fit into certain situations or to explain certain happenings (Reiner, 2002).  For example, media emphasizes on reports covering crime investigations, prosecutions and administration of sentences especially those involving the minority groups of Canadians.  On the contrary, such framed reports rarely focus on the positive aspects of policing such as effective drug rehabilitation, proper weapon control, social equities and so forth.  This biased media framing results in what is commonly known as the ‘super-predator’ script (Gilliam & Iyengar, 1998).

                A super-predator script refers to the outrage directed towards a certain minority group in the society which results from the negative representations of that particular group in the media.  This super-predator frame affects the public perception on how police force is used extensively against members of one ethnic group and not another.  According to Gilliam (1998), certain visual reports which portray incidences of how suspects from a particular ethnic group are harassed by the police tend to create a negative picture on the public.  This  is the main reason why police officers are constantly viewed as ruthless people who are biased against the minority groups in Canada.

    Media representations of crime.

                There has been a wide spread notion that media provides a ready coverage of various crime issues all over the world.  Different surveys in Canada show that, television is particularly a favorite source of reliable information concerning crime rates and how law enforcers deal with different forms of crime prevalent in the society today (Reiner, 2002).  However, many people have expressed concern on how media covers crime with most people especially those in the police force arguing that, media has a way of distorting and exaggerating the actual level of crime in the society.

                Major concerns are especially focused on the terseness of media reports, the extent of visual images portrayed from crime scenes and the degree of selectivity in media coverage.  Most people have argued that such misrepresentations of policing are bound to negatively affect the public attitude in issues concerning the extent and nature of crime in the society, major perpetrators of crime and the response of police force to crime.  For instance, most media reports are likely to coerce the public into the belief that, the rate of drug related crime in Canada is mainly perpetrated by a certain group of people in the society or that police officers are biased when dealing with African Canadians caught engaging in criminal activities.  However, all these are just negative stereotypes created by the media against Canadian police forces.

                The question of whether media accurately reports real crime news is highly debatable.  Previous studies carried out on the relationship between data presented by the media and actual crime data in Canada have shown that, statistical data presented by the media differs widely from the official crime statistics.  Haggerty (2001) argues that, there is substantial amount of statistical variation between the amount of crime covered in the media and that happening in real life.  However, this variation differs with time, place among other variables.  For instance, when a certain crime happens, the media is quick to report it even without actual data but as time goes by, journalists are likely to access more information on that particular crime hence giving more actual statistics.

                Some contemporary studies have shown that, media reports tend to over represent crime and acts of violence thus making non-violent crime appear violent and dangerous.  According to these studies, media reports often exaggerate certain criminal activities such as homicides, kidnapping, terrorism threats, armed robbery and sieges.  At the same time, young people are often depicted as the major perpetrators of crime while children, women and elderly people are over represented as the main victims of crime.  This media misrepresentation of crime is quite wrong since for instance, despite there being a wide media focus on criminal activities committed by the youth in the last ten years or so, actual statistics show that juvenile crime has only increased by less than 5 percent during this period (Erickson, Barenek & Chan, 2001).

                This shows that, media reports on crime are highly inaccurate and if viewers get coerced to believe them, they are likely to arrive into the wrong conclusions and estimates concerning the actual level and extent of crime in Canada.

    Media representation of police work.

                Police managers in Canada feel that media tends to focus too much on organized crime activities which involve violence with the aim of portraying the police force as unable to contain the level of crime in the society (Reiner, 2002).  Due to the great emphasis laid on violent crimes and sensationalism, other criminal activities such as money laundering, fraud and economic embezzlement are often underplayed or misrepresented by the media.              However, police managers appreciate the fact that law enforcement operations, investigations, trials and justice interventions have been receiving relatively adequate amount of media coverage.  In fact, most media reports have been found to generally create a positive image on the integrity and success of police force and the Canadian criminal justice system (Leishman & Mason, 2003).

                Nevertheless, the police use of excess force as portrayed in the media has triggered many negative public opinions regarding the Canada police force.  As in the US, Canadian policing has been criticized for some highly publicized cases of police shootings in Ontario and Quebec with numerous claims of racial discrimination within the police force.  Examples of this cases include; the Dudley George case, Buddy Evans case and the Marlon Neal case, just to name a few (Frances & Tator, 2002).

                However, regardless of the extensive media coverage of cases showing that Canadian police usually use excess force when dealing with racial minorities than when dealing with the whites, no substantial amount of empirical data has been obtained in this particular area of study.  This lack of data has made the Canadian police to allege that most claims of racial discrimination and use of excessive force are just part of media misrepresentation of police force.

    How media represents racial profiling.

                Racial profiling which is closely related to the issue of racial discrimination in policing is one issue where most police officers in Canada feel they are highly misrepresented.  In policing, racial profiling refers to the act of taking into account the race of a particular suspect when carrying out criminal investigations and enforcing law. Racial profiling has been quite prevalent in media reports and news lately.  Unlike in the US where cases of racial discrimination and profiling have been around since time immemorial, media coverage of racial profiling in Canada only became prevalent after the September 11 attacks in US.

                Some of media reports which have portrayed racial profiling in Canada include a National Post newspaper article entitled Profiles in Prudence published in September 2001 which covered a scenario whereby, Arab Canadians were being subjected to racial profiling by police officers at an airport in Canada.  Since the September 11 attacks, most Arab Canadians have reportedly been subjected to physical harassments by police officers who accuse them of being terrorist suspects (Harris, 2002).  Other media reports have also shown cases where police officers harass drivers from ethnic minority groups holding them ransom in places where white drivers are allowed to freely pass.

                While some of these accusations of racial profiling may be true, it is clear that media representation of cases of racial profiling provide exaggerated and distorted reports which often mislead the public.  By over emphasizing cases of racial profiling in Canada, most minority groups are now scared of dealing with the police for fear of being discriminated against on the basis of their skin color of ethnic background.


                Despite the scarcity of empirical data in media representation of Canadian policing, the fact that media reports provide distorted information on various parts of policing is well founded.  Being a primary source of public information, any misrepresentation of policing information in media reports confers a great impact on the larger public.  This is the main reason why there is a lot of misperception in the Canadian community regarding the level and extent of crime in the community, as well as how the police force deals with various acts of enforcing law in the community.

                Media misrepresentations have played a great role in shaping the public views on policing.  Though the impacts of such misrepresentations are quite negative in regard to Canadian policing, the effects are not all negative.  For instance, due to the fear of media misrepresentation, the police unit has been keen on doing a splendid job in their duty of protecting the citizens making sure to avoid cases on racial discrimination or negligence.  This is a positive effect of media as it has translated into a more responsible police force.

                According to the discussion above, it can concluded that most media reports are primarily concerned with making news interesting and captivating for the viewers in the case of electronic media or readers in the case of print media instead of providing accurate reports.  As a result, policing in Canada has been highly misrepresented in the media which reflects wrong statistical crime data and portrays the police force as corrupt and biased against African Canadian and other minority groups.

    Future research.

                While a lot has been done on the media representation of policing in Canada and other countries all over the world, researchers are now shifting their attention towards seeking the development of models aimed at explain the selective nature of media reports on crime, law enforcement and other policing issues.  Most of the reviewed research studies have deeply studied the impact of media on Canadian policing mainly dwelling on media reports and news.  This paper has also found that, presentation of crime in fictional programs such as police dramas and thrillers have become very prominent in the recent past, a fact which has been attributed to the new technological innovations round the globe.  However, there is limited research on the impact of such fictional dramas and how their portrayal of crime and police work is bound to affect the public perception of policing.  This is an area which needs research and proper analysis in future.

    Word Count: 2685.

    Cooley, D. (2005). Re-imagining Policing in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    Curt, T. Griffiths. (2008). Canadian Police Work (2nd ed). Toronto: Thomson Nelson.

    Ericson, R., Barenek, P., & Chan, J. (2001). Representing order: crime, law and justice in the     news media. Toronto: Open University Press.

    Frances, H., & Tator, C. (2002). Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian            English-Language Press. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    Forcese, D. (1999). Policing Canadian Society (2nd ed.). Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall.

    Gittings, C. (2002). Canadian National Cinema: Ideology, Difference and Representation.         Routledge.

    Gilliam, F.D., & Iyengar, S. (1998). The super-predator script. Nieman Reports, 52, 45-46.

    Greene, J. (2006). The Encyclopedia of Police Science. CRC Press.

    Harris, David A. (2002). Flying While Arab: Immigration Issues, and Lessons from the   Racial Profiling Controversy. The New Press.

    Haggerty, L. (2001). The Organization and Critique of Crime Statistics. The Canadian Center    for Justice Statistics.

    Leishman, F., & Mason, P. (2003). Policing and the Media: Facts, Fictions and Factions.           Willan Publishers.

    National Post Editorial . (2001). Profiles in Prudence. Retrieved on 12 November, from, <<>>

    Reiner, R. (2002). Media made criminality: The representation of crime in the mass media.         The Oxford Handbook of Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 302-340.

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