Police Use of Force and Its Video Coverage: An Experimental Study of the Impact of Media Source and Content on Public Perceptions

Terance D. Miethe, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Olesya Venger, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Joel D. Lieberman, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Purpose To explore the influence of media source, suspect's alleged criminal activity, and the rater's socio-demographic attributes on public ratings of video incidents of police use of force (PUF). Methods A national online sample of 581 adults viewed and evaluated four different PUF videos in a 3 × 3 experimental design.Study participants were randomly assigned to experimental conditions involving differences in (1) media sources and (2) suspect's alleged criminal activity.The dependent variables included ratings of the credibility of the video's media source (i.e., trust in the source and accuracy of its video account) and the officer's conduct (i.e., excessive force, justifiable force).The independent and moderating variables included the experimental conditions, personal salience of PUF incidents, the rater's use of different media sources, and other socio-demographic attributes. Results Three major results were found in this study: (1) video accounts of PUF are rated as more trustworthy when the video is attributed to “national TV news” source than “social media” outlets, (2) ratings of excessive force are more likely in PUF incidents when they involve a more dangerous offender (i.e., an alleged murder vs. shoplifter), and (3) the impact of the individual's socio-demographic characteristics on these public perceptions are strongly moderated by the personal salience of PUF incidents to the rater and their pattern of daily usage of conventional and social media. Conclusions The visual content in short, video clips of PUF incidents strongly influences public attitudes about the officer's conduct as excessive and unjustifiable.However, by the timely release of the video images and framing them within their wider context, police departments may better demonstrate transparency and help overcome various cognitive biases that may underlie adverse public reactions to PUF incidents.