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Do photos of police-civilian interactions influence public opinion about the police? A multimethod test of media effects

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To test whether exposure to news images depicting law enforcement affects public attitudes toward the police.


Participants drawn from a national online panel were randomly assigned to view one of three pictures that depicted a range of hostile to friendly police-civilian interactions (compared to a control group who saw no pictures). Dependent variables were perceptions of police officers’ effectiveness, misconduct, and bias. Moderating variables were respondents’ experiential, ideological, or demographic characteristics. As a follow-up to the results of the experiment, regression analyses were employed to explore other factors that may influence perceptions of police or interact with the media effects.


Image exposure did not directly affect any dimension of attitudes toward the police, but there was one significant moderation effect. Respondents who had been recently stopped by an officer and saw a picture of a friendly interaction between officers and a civilian perceived more frequent police misconduct than respondents in the same experimental condition who were not recently stopped. Routine media consumption was significantly related to perceptions of police in the non-experimental analysis.


Findings indicate that brief exposure to static images of law enforcement disseminated by the media does not independently affect people’s opinions about the performance of police in society. Rather, people’s global opinions about the police are shaped by their own beliefs, prior experiences with officers, and cumulative, self-selected media consumption.

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  1. Some studies jointly examined the effects of news and TV show (both fictional and reality) consumption: Callanan and Rosenberger (2011), Dowler (2002, 2003), and Dowler and Zawilski (2007).

  2. Some of the studies that we review here are framed as examinations of procedural justice rather than media effects. We consider laboratory- or survey-based experimental studies whose treatment stimuli were either videos or pictures of police-civilian interactions to be sufficiently comparable and pertinent to warrant comparison to self-identified studies of media effects. We do not consider studies of procedural justice that employed field experiments in which the behavior of police officers was manipulated in the context of in-person interactions with civilians (for a review of pertinent studies, see Johnson et al. 2017).

  3. In reality, of course, “community policing” is an umbrella term that is used to refer to a wide variety of quite disparate policies and practices (many of which do not involve positive interactions between police and citizens). Our intent was not to capture response to community policing broadly but rather response to one idealized and abstract image of a seemingly positive interaction between a police officer and a citizen, given how few prior studies have shown people depictions of officers acting in a friendly or helpful manner.

  4. The treatment images may be viewed on the following websites, which are the sources from which we copied the pictures: militarized policing (Topaz 2014), community policing (Mirko 2013), and stop and frisk (Post Editorial Board 2015). The original stop and frisk image depicted an officer training exercise, and the officers were carrying bright blue model side arms. We digitally altered the picture in order to color the handgun hilts black so that they would look like regular guns, thereby depicting a typical stop and frisk.

  5. The full factorial ANOVA results are available upon request.

  6. This null result is not for lack of racial diversity in stops. Twenty percent of white respondents, 13% of black respondents, 19% of Hispanic respondents, and 8% of Asian respondents reported being stopped within the previous 12 months.

  7. We did ask four follow-up questions to measures respondents’ perception of the presence or absence of procedurally-just behavior on the part of the officer(s) who stopped them. However, while 169 respondents reported being stopped within the past 12 months, unfortunately only eight of those respondents answered the follow-up questions, giving us too little data to use these measures. We suspect an implementation flaw; we programmed a skip function into the survey so that only respondents who reported being stopped would be asked the follow-up questions, but it looks like only a handful of respondents were presented with those items.

  8. A number of the coefficients generated p values between 0.051 and 0.059, just above the commonly accepted threshold of p ≤ 0.05. We report these effects as marginally significant. We employed robust standard errors because a Breusch-Pagan test indicated that four of the five models demonstrated heteroscedasticity. We also estimated variance inflation factor (VIF) scores to test for the presence of multicollinearity; no variable in any model generated a VIF greater than 2.42, which falls below the standard thresholds of concern for multicollinearity (Fox 1991).

  9. The study was fielded just before the wave of protests in the summer of 2016 but well after the widely covered protests in Ferguson beginning in 2014 and Baltimore in the spring of 2015.

  10. To our knowledge, content analyses of news coverage of police are rarely paired with analyses of public opinion; see, for example, Chermak and Weiss (2006), Cowart et al. (2016), Hirschfield and Simon (2010), and Potterf and Pohl (2018).

  11. As we discussed above, the image represents a necessarily abstracted and idealized version of community policing, meaning our test gauged reactions to this idealized positive image rather than to the full breadth of quite disparate community policing activities implemented in different departments (some of which may in fact produce negative interactions simply by bringing police and civilians into increased contact).

  12. Simpson (2017) presents a potentially pertinent finding. His respondents evaluated police officers presented in civilian clothing as less approachable, accountable, and respectful than officers presented in uniform. Together with our finding that some respondents “backlashed” against the community policing image, this raises the possibility that citizens may, under some circumstances, react negatively if they perceive that police officers are trying to be overly friendly rather than professional and authoritative. This evidence supports the hypotheses of Lowrey et al. (2016) regarding “overaccommodation.”


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This research was supported by a Joseph P. Healey research grant from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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Correspondence to Kevin H. Wozniak.

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Table 2 Analysis variable operational definitions and descriptive statistics

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Wozniak, K.H., Drakulich, K.M. & Calfano, B.R. Do photos of police-civilian interactions influence public opinion about the police? A multimethod test of media effects. J Exp Criminol 17, 1–27 (2021).

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