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This Project On Law Enforcement And Popular Culture Is So Good I Want To Call It Data

You’re reading Back of the Envelope, an experiment that aims to bring shorter, quicker content to FiveThirtyEight.

Over at The Washington Post, popular culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg1 has written an incredible series on the role and portrayal of police in pop culture called “Dragnets, Dirty Harrys and Dying Hard.” Rosenberg notes the intersections of law enforcement and culture historically, such as New York police shutting down theaters in the city in 1908 (long before filmmaking was considered protected speech) and Hollywood’s role in the war on drugs. From there, she discusses the many ways such intersections are reflected — or not — in how culture has portrayed police activity itself, including idyllic early police shows (like “Dragnet”) and the family friendly dystopia in “Zootopia.”

On the other hand: It has no charts. And this is FiveThirtyEight. So why am I bringing it up?

While not data-driven per se, its depth of detail and painstakingly careful consideration of every angle of every issue it touches gives it a rigor that even the most hard-core data analysts can envy, complete with narrative logic that data analysts can normally only dream of. Taking a wealth of information, parsing and filtering it skillfully, analyzing its implications and conveying meaningful insight — this is basically the core goal of “data journalism” in a nutshell.

So get to reading, nerds. The full undertaking includes almost 18,000 words in the main stories plus supplemental materials. Here are links to each of the pieces:

Part 1: How police censorship shaped Hollywood

Part 2: How pop culture’s cops turned on their communities

Part 3: In pop culture, there are no bad police shootings

Part 4: The drug war’s most enthusiastic recruit: Hollywood

Part 5: Blue lives: Pop culture’s minority cops

Great work, Alyssa! Now please organize and assemble all of your research and results in JSON format and let us know when you’ve posted it on GitHub. Thank you.


  1. Full disclosure: Alyssa is an old friend of mine from college. Though I think she’s lowkey one of the best cultural critics working today.

Benjamin Morris is a former sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.