Seeing is Believing: How video of police action affects criminal justice beliefs


It is well established that the news media both shapes and distorts how citizens view issues of crime and justice in the U.S.. Media coverage in the U.S. is at best loosely related to local crime conditions (Graber, 1980; Lowry, Nio and Leitner, 2003) and often reinforces stereotypes of black criminality (Gilliam and Iyengar, 2000; Gilliam et al., 1996). Yet the growing availability of video footage of citizens interactions with the police, recorded by both individuals and police departments, may fundamentally change this process. By providing a more direct account of what happened, it is possible such footage leads citizens to rely less on their preconceived notions of race and crime and more on the specific facts of situation. In this study, we explore the consequences of viewing citizen-police interactions on the interpretation of those encounters and attitudes about crime, justice, and politics more generally. First, we explore the extent to which evaluations of the same unedited police body-worn camera footage of traffic stop that resulted in a citizen’s complaint can be influenced by changing the justification for the release of that footage. By manipulating the title of the video, participants are informed that the released footage either confirmed or refuted a charge of officer misconduct. Participants responses in these conditions are compared to those in control condition in which no justification for the release of the footage is given. Second, we explore the effects of such footage when mediated through the frames of local news. Again, we compare participants evaluations of the interaction when it is framed as either confirming or refuting the charge of officer misconduct to a neutral presentation of the information. We find that interpretations of this footage depend both on how it is framed and the format in which it is presented, as well as the prior beliefs and experiences of the viewer.