The exclusion of Black writers and other writers of color from television writers’ rooms has far reaching consequences, especially when it comes to the scripts of crime procedural shows, Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color Of Change, told DiversityInc.
“Race In The Writers’ Room: How Hollywood Whitewashed the Stories that Shape America,” released by Color Of Change last week, found that 65 percent of all writers’ rooms had zero Black writers, and less than 5 percent of writers were Black. Across all 18 networks, 91 of showrunners, who make the hiring decisions, were white and 80 percent were men.
Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American Studies at UCLA, was commissioned to conduct a study examining all 234 of the original, scripted comedy and drama series airing or streaming on 18 networks during the 2016-2017 television season.
Robinson said the lack of diverse writers in crime procedural shows should be alarming because it has been proven that audiences form opinions of the criminal justice system based on these shows.
From “Race in the Writers’ Room”
Out of nine different crime procedural series examined, Black writers were largely excluded in these writers’ rooms and not one had a Black showrunner.
The crime procedural series examined included “Criminal Minds,” “Elementary,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Homeland,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Quantico,” “Rosewood” (the only crime procedural with more than two Black writers) and”Law & Order: SVU.”
“Ninety percent of arrests never go to trial because of our bail system and plead system, people are forced into pleads,” Robinson said.
“But, you would not know that by watching a ‘Law & Order’ episode. You see all these cases, and all these trials.
“And, yes, that’s entertaining. But, at the same time, we have to recognize the damage it’s doing to people’s understanding about the justice system. And, if the justice system is made to seem infallible, or if the justice system is made to seem overly fair, that’s going to make it harder for us to make changes.”
Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have widely been proven. A recent study, “Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining,” by Carlos Berdej, a researcher at Loyola University, examines the differences in the way prosecutors handle misdemeanor crimes. Berdej found that white defendants are 25 percent more likely than Black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime. And, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than Black defendants to be convicted of a felony.
Robinson said it’s important to think about how often these shows are depicting Black communities and Blacks in relation to the criminal justice system.
“There are so few people in those rooms that are shaping the stories, especially given the national conversations we’ve been having around criminal justice, and policing in this country,” he said.
A widely popular crime procedure show, “Law & Order,” debuted in 1990, with spin-offs such as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“When I first pitched [‘Law & Order’],” executive producer Dick Wolf told People magazine in an interview, “[then-NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff asked, ‘What’s the bible for the series’ I said, ‘The front page.'”
The show debuted in 1990 and “now, more than 1,000 episodes later, the wildly popular cops-and-courts drama, which ended in 2010, and its many ongoing spin-offs have spun countless tales from true events.”
The magazine released a book in August titled, “PEOPLE True Crime Stories: 35 Real Cases That Inspired the Show Law & Order.”
Robinson said that in actual court cases, presiding judges have had to prompt jurors not to make decisions based on something they’ve seen on TV.
“We’ve seen story after story in newspapers and other places about how flawed DNA evidence is,” he said. “But now, we have judges trying to explain to juries, in their instructions before they go back to deliberate, not to believe what they see on ‘CSI.'”
A 2011 study, “Jury’s still out: How television and crime show viewing influences jurors’ evaluations of evidence,” sought to explore what became known as the “CSI effect,” examining whether jurors’ crime show and television viewing habits interact with the amount of forensic evidence available at trial to affect a verdict.
“Results indicated an interaction between level of forensic evidence and crime show viewing in that those who watched crime shows were more likely to favor the defense than those who did not in some evidence conditions,” according to the authors.
“Less-diverse product underperforms in the marketplace, and yet it still dominates,” said Ana-Christina Ramn, co-author of the Hollywood Diversity report.
Robinson noted that based on “Race in the Writers’ Room,” the people who are telling these stories about the criminal justice system do not “represent our communities.”
“Hollywood has a lot of work to do to create and develop an environment that actually hires, nurtures and creates space for Black writers,” he said.
Other findings from the report includes:
- AMC stands out as the worst on overall inclusion (race and gender), while CBS and CW stand out as broadcast networks with a “Black Problem,” hiring women and other people of color writers but not Black writers
- Only 13.6 percent of shows led by white showrunners had two or more Black writers in the writers’ room. By contrast, every writer’s room led by a Black showrunner had multiple white writers.
Color Of Change offers the following recommendations for television networks and streaming companies:
- Network executives must change hiring practices by mandating genuine inclusion in the outreach, application, interview and assessment process (like the NFL’s Rooney Rule and law firms’ Mansfield Rule)
- Networks must set public goals for inclusion in hiring and cultivating talent and the content they produce supported by real budgets, concrete shifts in practices and transparency
- Advocates and industry influencers must also rally and work together to once and for all rid the most egregiously inaccurate and harmful stereotyping with respect to race and gender
- Networks and showrunners must develop a more regular, credible process and set of protocols for engaging outside expert groups when sensitive issues of race are at play in storytelling, especially for rooms that remain below a basic threshold for inclusion