Machines Watching Television News: We're Seeing Police More And More In The News

Using Google's Cloud Video API to watch a decade of television news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC using the Internet Archive's Television News Archive, we can begin to explore the visual narratives we see when we turn on the television.

How often do we see police officers depicted in the evening news? The timeline below shows the percentage of airtime across the three evening news shows over the past decade that contained a police officer somewhere in the scene.

Looking at this graph, it appears to be trending steadily upwards. The timeline below shows the same data with a 7-day rolling average to smooth it out.

Indeed, television news is depicting the police more and more over the past decade.

A closer look at some of the clips with the longest depiction of police suggests many of these police appearances may be in the form of press conferences in which a police official is reading a statement to the press or is standing behind an elected or other official at such a press conference, presenting police as an ever-present image of authority.

What does it mean for the police to be a growing theme of our television news coverage? Does this reflect a more unstable world, a greater focus on police action, a shift towards relying more on government officials for commentary or some other shift?

Machines can point us to fascinating trends like this, leaving it to human scholars to debate why these changes are occurring.


The timelines above took just a single SQL query in BigQuery:

select DAY, SUM(EntitySeconds) TotEntitySeconds, SUM(AllSeconds) TotAllSeconds, (SUM(EntitySeconds)/SUM(AllSeconds))*100 PercEntityAirtime from (
SELECT DATE(date, "America/Los_Angeles") DAY, sum(entity.numSeconds) EntitySeconds, 0 AllSeconds FROM `gdelt-bq.gdeltv2.vgeg_iatv`,UNNEST(entities) AS entity where'police' group by DAY
SELECT DATE(date, "America/Los_Angeles") DAY, 0 EntitySeconds, count(1) * 60 AllSeconds FROM `gdelt-bq.gdeltv2.vgeg_iatv` group by DAY
) group by DAY order by DAY asc

Similarly, surfacing the top clips featuring the most police footage required just the following query:

SELECT DATETIME(date, "America/Los_Angeles") date, iaShowId, iaClipUrl,entity.numSeconds airtime FROM `gdelt-bq.gdeltv2.vgeg_iatv`,UNNEST(entities) AS entity where'police' order by entity.numSeconds desc

See what interesting results you can find!