MCD: Primetime War on Drugs

In Primetime TV Dramas, Drug Users Are Not Arrested

Read the Report | Read the Press Release
Watch the Primetime War on Terror Video

The Primetime War on Drugs & Terror report is part of the Rights/Camera/Action project of the American Civil Liberties Union, determined to better understand the kinds of narratives about the War on Drugs and the War on Terror being presented on popular TV shows and to assess how these stories reflect or re-imagine reality.

The Lear Center also commissioned an online video by digital artist/storyteller Joe Sabia, who remixed snippets from the TV episodes we studied in order to convey the flavor of our findings to a broad online audience.

Listen to Johanna Blakley discuss the report with radio host David Sirota.

We collaborated on this with Princeton Survey Research Associates International, who carried out a content analysis of 49 primetime shows using an instrument we designed. We selected episodes that addressed our focus from ten highly-rated one hour network dramas: 24, CSI, CSI: Miami, The Good Wife, House, Law & Order, Law & Order: Los Angeles, Law & Order: SVU, NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles. The aim was to analyze how terror or drug-related plots were portrayed rather than to assess how frequently these plots appeared. Each episode was subjected to a codebook with 145 variables and over 800 sub-variables.

Major findings include:

1. In TV storylines about the War on Drugs, drug users are not arrested and drug suspects are often portrayed as morally ambiguous or even heroic.

2. In these TV shows, 65% of drug suspects are white, accurately reflecting that the vast majority of drug users (and likely offenders) in the U.S. are white.

3. Despite the predominance of African-Americans and other minorities in U.S. prisons for drug violations, most drug manufacturers and dealers in the series studied were white.

4. Prescription drug abuse and methamphetamines were depicted three times more often than recreational marijuana.

In an effort to contextualize this research and how it might come into dialogue with other conversations about the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, we included recent public opinion survey data about these wars as well as data about how the government and the justice system, in particular, are conducting them. We think viewing these three types of data together — that is, depictions on television, public opinion and statistics about real world practices — is the best way to begin an informed conversation about how these wars are being carried out and understood in America.

Funding for this work was provided by the ACLU, but the report was written independently of the ACLU, reflecting only the analysis of its authors, Lear Center researchers Johanna Blakley and Sheena Nahm.