Docuseries Can Teach Empathy and Understanding

I publicly sobbed while watching “When They See Us” and “Unbelievable.” Both of these shows are docuseries, television series that follow real events. I was left with a deep-seated frustration and despair towards the American justice system. These two cases are each about rape with different perspectives, yet the police fail to be just on both ends. “When They See Us” and “Unbelievable” highlighted the harms of coerced confessions and stereotyping in the most empathetic and nuanced portrayals I have ever seen. “When They See Us” and “Unbelievable” have an invaluable role in public discourse because they present flaws in the criminal justice system through the stories of compelling and sympathetic individuals. The characters in these docuseries are representative of the many people who have been mistreated by the justice system and have yet to get help. Media, especially television, has a unique ability to create empathy and understanding. These shows intentionally use the visual medium to evoke empathy and drive viewers to action. If you haven’t watched these shows, I strongly encourage you to watch them and if you have, you should suggest them to someone else in order to better understand the emotional devastation the criminal justice system inflicts on the guilty and the innocent.

“When They See Us” tells the story of the Central Park Five: Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise, five Black and Hispanic boys who were wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white woman. Thirteen years later, the real perpetrator confessed and they were exonerated. One of the most impactful scenes in the docuseries shows how the police coerced five boys into confessing to assault. Anyone who has said they would never confess to a crime they did not commit needs to watch this show. The viewer is with the boys as the police slowly break them down and force them to confess. In the end, all five boys were charged and the only thing the police cared about was their version of the truth. The show leaves you wondering how many other children have been wrongfully convicted based on coerced confessions.

“Unbelievable” is the true story of a girl, Marie, who was pressured by police into saying she had lied about being raped. It is impossible to watch “Unbelievable” and still wonder why women don’t report assault. The viewer follows Marie as she is asked to repeat the details of her assault again and again. Little inconsistencies are questioned in excruciating detail. You can feel the despair everytime she has to say she made up the assault. The confession scenes in “When They See Us” and “Unbelievable” are very different but both show the effect police stereotypes about lying women or violent black men have on the criminal justice system and help bring attention to the underlying flaws that lead to wrongful convictions and dismissed rape cases.

The portrayal of the five boys in “When They See Us” intentionally emphasizes the media’s dehumanizing treatment of them in 1989. The New York Post described the children who were in Central Park as “packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence.” Trump took out four full newspaper ads demanding the death penalty. This contrasts with the five young boys “When They See Us” portrays. Even the name of the show tells the viewer that it’s time to finally see the individuals as human. This framing models the empathetic and nuanced approach that reporters should take.

“Unbelievable” models an empathetic and understanding view of assault that viewers and police should take to heart. The rapist targets women of all ages, races and shapes. The reactions to trauma are as diverse as the women themselves. One woman has no visual memory while another remembered every detail. In the days following their assaults, one woman acts happy and relaxed, another is angry, and a third is withdrawn. These diverse narratives and reactions rebut the mentality that there is a right way to act after trauma. This mentality made the police suspicious of Marie and still makes police question women. The two female detectives are an empathetic counterpoint. They show what police should do and what the criminal justice system could be.

By the end of both shows, the truth has been revealed and the characters redeemed. Some viewers and reviewers have taken this message to heart, and they shouldn’t. After detailing how the media still engages in the same racist narratives as in the Central Park case, an article in the Atlantic says that racist ideas must change “otherwise, the history of the Central Park Five is likely to repeat itself. ” The ended has made some people think that the problem is solved but it isn’t. The story of Marie, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise has been repeated time and time again. The difference is that the innocence was not revealed in those cases, so we don’t know their names or their stories. In neither of these stories did the truth come out because the justice system is effective or works to correct underlying prejudices. Instead, the truth was revealed due to exceptional and deeply unlikely circumstances. The message of these tales is larger than that of the individual character; it is the story of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been victims or a prejudiced justice system and whose truth may never be revealed. 56% of incarcerated people in 2015 were African American or Hispanic. Men of color are still viewed as less human by the justice system. Between 2003 and 2012, the police department from “Unbelievable” categorized 21.3% of their rape reports, including Marie’s, as false reporting. This is five times higher than the national average. That gap reveals women who went through the same trauma as Marie, but have never gotten the closure of the truth. Just because the Central Park Five were exonerated and Marie was proven correct doesn’t mean the justice system has fixed itself or changed. 

The American justice system is fundamentally broken. Before any political change, there needs to be a shift in public will. “When They See Us” and “Unbelievable” have wrapped critiques of the criminal justice system in great dialog, compelling storylines and genius acting. Many people know the justice system is broken but are too emotionally detached to actually try to make change. These two television shows are critical to public discourse and criminal justice reform because they force viewers to empathize with the devastation that a flawed criminal justice system can create. Because of their availability and quality, shows like this have a unique ability to break through echo chambers and make people reexamine their assumptions and views on the justice system. “Unbelievable” and “When They See Us” show that truly amazing media can tell a great story while carrying a powerful message.

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