What Primetime TV Says about the War on Drugs & Terror


Would it surprise you if I told you that Primetime TV is not depicting the racial and religious stereotypes that we generally associate with the War on Terror and the War on Drugs?

It sure surprised us.

Our new report, The Primetime War on Drugs & Terror, offers a unique glimpse into how these wars are depicted in popular culture at a key historical moment: not only are we nearing the tenth anniversary of 9/11, this year also marks the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs.

[Before you do anything else, have a look at Joe Sabia’s amazing video about our findings on the War on Terror. Just go watch.]

Soon after Jane Mayer’s piece about 24‘s impact on interrogation practices in the U.S. military appeared in the New Yorker, we began talking with the ACLU about how those two wars look on TV We were convinced that depictions of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs were helping shape public dialogue and private opinion, but we just couldn’t be sure how. We determined early on that a content analysis would be the best way to find out what was actually being depicted in primetime. We knew that there were a lot of stories being told about these topics, but without the rigorous application of a coding instrument, it would have been impossible to say whether most terrorists were Muslim; whether most drug dealers were black; or whether primetime was depicting as much prescription drug abuse as we see in the real world.

Working with Princeton Survey Research Associates International, we developed a complex coding instrument with 145 variable and over 800 sub-variables in order to capture as carefully as we could the depictions of these wars. We selected episodes that addressed the War on Terror or the War on Drugs 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, NCISand NCIS: Los Angeles. All of the episodes aired during 2010, except for eight shows which aired in late 2009 as part of the network 2009-10 season. Unlike a lot of other studies of this type, the aim was to analyze how terror or drug related plots were portrayed rather than how frequentlythey appeared.

Here are some of our key findings:

    • In the public’s mind, terrorists are mainly Middle Eastern, Arab and Muslim. But in the scripted shows studied, terrorists were white Americans most of the time.
    • Despite a majority of Americans supporting racial profiling at airports, not one single drug or terror suspect was racially profiled in these episodes.
    • Despite 63% of Americans supporting the use of aggressive interrogation tactics to get information, government actors rarely used them. Not surprisingly, Jack Bauer on 24 was the exception to this rule.
    • Drug users in these shows were not always portrayed as bad guys, and they were never arrested or tried.
    • 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.
    • In the 49 episodes monitored, Miranda rights were never read to drug or terror suspects who were under arrest.

While it wasn’t our task to evaluate the accuracy of these depictions, we were concerned with establishing a baseline for understanding what exactly is depicted. When we compared what we found to statistics about the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, we discovered that TV depictions adhered more closely to reality than to common stereotypes about what terrorists and drug users look like and what drugs Americans are really using. However, what appeared to have been left on the cutting room floor were depictions of the basic mechanisms of our justice system: the reading of Miranda rights; the presence of lawyers at interrogations; trials and punishment.The Lear Center has produced a lot of research demonstrating the profound impact that televised entertainment can have on audiences. Whether we like it or not, people are moved by entertainment content and, if the depictions seem realistic, there’s a good chance they will apply what they see on the screen to their lives. While the primetime dramas in our sample are obviously fictional – often based on reality, but not necessarily constrained by it – they intertwine with news coverage to create a compelling portrait of how these wars are being waged.

Read the press release
Watch Primetime Terror, Joe Sabia’s brain-bending video about our findings

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