Racial representations and “whiteness” on America’s favorite TV show, NCIS.

This final research paper was originally intended to examine only the representation of criminals in the hit TV show NCIS. However as my research progressed it became evident that there was a pattern emerging more evident than that of criminal stereotypes alone. I quickly began to notice a whiteness in the show that was never apparent to me before, this led me to shift my research towards investigating the racial representations of all characters in NCIS rather than criminals alone.  I now intend to examine the representation of race in the popular American crime drama NCIS. NCIS was named America’s favorite television show in 2011 after airing on CBS in September of 2003 to over 11 million viewers, and subsequently enjoying nine successful and wildly popular seasons (The Harris Poll, 2011). The show is a fictional American crime drama television series, revolving around a team of special agents who are forced to work together under high stress situations in effort to solve crimes involving the Navy, Marine Corps, and their families.


All the main and recurring characters in NCIS season two were white. These characters include team leader and former marine Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. Gibbs is portrayed as a man of few words whose skills as an investigator are unparalleled. The team also includes Senior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, accompanied by Special Agent Caitlin Todd, and Special Agent Timothy McGee. Medical examiner Dr. Donald Mallard, and forensic specialist Abby Sciuto round out the main cast members in season two of NCIS. From murder and kidnapping to terrorism and espionage, this team of special agents travels all around the world to investigate crime involving the Navy or Marine Corps.

The main goal of my research was to find out if NCIS is biased in the representation of race in their show. More specifically if the show tends to cast characters of one race, thus failing to have diversity amongst the characters. It is important to uncover any biases the show might be presenting because, according to Armstrong and Oliver (1995) there is a potential for crime dramas to cultivate attitudes and beliefs about important social issues, such as race. Popular shows such as NCIS can have far reaching effects on their millions of loyal followers beyond just simple entertainment, rather they have the power to influence how viewers see and perceive the world around them.

I argue that NCIS heavily under represents all minorities; the show portrays a society heavily dominated by whites and fails to include characters of other races into its episodes. This is important because the attitudes and perceptions of the show’s viewers can be affected by this lack of diversity. The show NCIS is a fictional take on the United States’ real NCIS, or Naval Criminal Investigative Service, so then it is reasonable to argue that the show’s viewers may make judgments and form attitudes about the real NCIS based on what they see in the show’s portrayal. In that case a lack of diversity in the show could influence the audience’s attitudes and perceptions regarding the races of real life NCIS agents. It also can be said that NCIS does not portray non-whites in a negative light, however this is only true because non-whites are not represented in the show at all, so then no real progress is made towards equality in racial representation and perception.

Racial stereotypes are a reality in society today. Whether intentional or not, people often hold certain predispositions toward those of another race by which they might pass judgments on others (MacLin & Vivian, 2006). What we watch in the media and on popular sources can feed into these dominant race ideologies (Sturken & Cartwright, 2011). The current research pertaining to race and crime dramas holds that in general whites are overrepresented. However, when non-whites appear in shows they more often than not play the role of a criminal (Dominick, 2001).

For my research I watched and performed a character analysis on ten episodes from NCIS season two. I began with season two episode one, and then subsequently watched every other episode up to the 19th. In watching these episodes I looked for the race of all characters, focusing on characters that were vital in the advancement of the plot of each episode. I took particular note of all the investigators, victims, criminals, suspects, and witnesses present in each episode, and based my race classification on each character’s physical appearance. In my analysis I looked for patterns that showed NCIS characters tended to be of one race more so than another, such a pattern would be present if, for example most or all of the characters in a particular episode were white. In my analysis I also wanted to see if one type of character, for instance a criminal or victim is more likely to be of any certain race or if non-whites were more likely to be portrayed as criminals.

It was strikingly evident to me after watching just the opening credits of each episode from season two, that whites were dominant in the show. I believe that whites are portrayed as dominant both in the sense that there were just so many more than non-whites, and also dominant in the sense that all positions of power in the show were held by a white character. From watching the opening credits, which highlight each main character, primarily the team of NCIS investigators, you can see that each main, recurring character is white. Not one person shown in the credits is of any race other than white, indicating the prevalence of white characters over those of any other race in the show.

Findings of my research include that in the ten episodes I viewed, 100% of all central characters were white. In each episode, every investigator, criminal, victim, suspect, and witness was white. Six of the ten episodes were completely devoid of any character, even in a minor role that was of a non-white race. Four of the episodes did include characters of non-white races, however these characters held extremely minor or insignificant roles, that were not vital to any substantial advancement of the plot. One of the four episodes including a non-white character was episode nine, entitled “Forced Entry”.

In this episode a Marine’s wife shoots an intruder in self-defense when he enters her home over night and attempts to rape her. While both the wife, and her intruder were white, the Marine who was a first responder to the scene was an African-American. His only role in the episode was to arrive at the scene, secure the scene, and then hand over the investigation to Gibbs and NCIS once they arrived. The African-American Marine was unnamed, had very few lines, and overall did little to influence the plot of the episode. This role is comparable to the roles of the different non-white characters in the three other episodes that had such a character. They are insignificant and very much under represented in comparison to whites in the show.

Another component of my analysis included the viewership of each of the episodes I analyzed. In order for the show to significantly affect its audience, it must have a large enough audience to make a difference. I found that the viewership for the episodes I analyzed ranged from 12.74 million (episode 13 “The Meat Puzzle”) to 15.4 million (episode 11 “Black Water”). The average number of viewers of all the episodes I watched was 14.26 million. While these numbers reflect viewership of each episode’s premiere, there are not figures that take into account the millions of additional viewers who watch the show when it re-runs on different networks such as USA. When you take into account the high numbers of initial viewers, plus the re-runs, it is obvious that a very large number of people may be affected by the show’s representation of race.

These results support my argument by clearly indicating the over representation of whites in NCIS. The show presents a world dominated almost completely by whites, failing to include any significant characters of other races.  When the show did choose to include non-white characters, they held minor roles, with no main or recurring characters being of a non-white race. Another example of a non-white in a minor role was in episode 13, “The Meat Puzzle”. In this episode three bodies are identified after being stuffed in barrels and reassembled. A deliveryman was hired by an unknown suspect to deliver the barrels to Bethesda Naval Hospital, the NCIS team tracks down the deliveryman. He was an African American male who was paid cash and knew nothing of the contents of the barrels, he had a short interview with Agent Gibbs in which no pertinent information was given, and then he never returned in the episode. The inclusion of non-white characters in such unimportant roles could speak to underlying racial ideologies that reflect negatively on non-whites. This impact can be seen in the millions of people that watch this show; crime dramas such as NCIS have the power to influence the ideas and attitudes of their viewers towards important issues. Even unconsciously, a viewer’s perceptions of non-whites as insignificant could be forming in response to racial representations on the show (Armstrong & Oliver, 1995).

Although I myself have watched this show for many years, I never really took notice to the whiteness that the show portrayed until I decided to take this closer look. This pattern often goes unnoticed yet still influences audiences even if unintentionally. These findings could be projecting a false picture of parts of the world onto the show’s millions loyal viewers.

The complete lack of diversity in NCIS could lend itself to implications on people’s views towards the armed forces and governmental organizations such as NCIS. Although NCIS may not claim to portray a representation of the entire world, the depiction of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is certainly a reflection on the armed forces and governmental agencies in the United States. Americans rely so heavily on our armed forces for safety, peace of mind, and security. We hail members of the armed forces as heroes and depend on their commitment to protect and serve our country. The show’s failure to include any diversity, especially in the investigative team could imply to viewers that whites are to be more trusted in such power positions. The whiteness depicted in NCIS, a governmental agency, could suggest to the audience likelihood to more heavily rely on whites more so than minorities for important power positions in government and the armed forces. This is certainly furthering negative racial ideologies because in reality, a white or nonwhite person earns a high ranking position in such governmental agencies based on experience and merit regardless of race. Yet a complete lack of characters of any non-white race in a show embodying a governmental agency can affect the views people have on parallel real life agencies and those associated with these agencies, including the armed forces.

NCIS exhibits a complete lack of diversity amongst characters in its shows, portraying a predominant whiteness, with minor at best non-white characters appearing few and far between. Each week an audience of millions gather somewhere around a TV to watch America’s Favorite TV Show, most of these people as I was are probably entirely unaware of the whiteness the show portrays. Given the great popularity and availability of crime dramas on television in the United States, and the ability these shows have to unconsciously affect racial attitudes it is important to identify instances that could be affecting such a large audience (Armstrong & Oliver, 1995).

My research varied from a study done by Dominick (2001) that found that non-whites in crime dramas are more likely to be a criminal than any other type of character; rather I found that non-whites in NCIS were unlikely to be any type of main character. This difference is important to note not only because of the implications I have discussed that it may have on the audience’s racial perceptions, but also in moving forward this information could prove to be valuable to the shows writers and producers. If these people become aware of their failure to diversify the characters in NCIS it is possible that moving forward they may be able to make a more conscience effort to include non-white characters in more significant ways, including positive, powerful characters.

Overall my research highlights an important issue facing the makers of popular dramas on television today. The importance of including diversity in the cast of shows is not to be overlooked. It would be interesting for me to do a similar analysis on a more recent season of NCIS to see if the show has made progress towards including more diversity in a positive way into its episodes. The millions of people that watch are influenced by what shows like NCIS are choosing to put in their episodes. Issues such as race play such a vital role in society today, and it is vital that popular media work towards accurate representations of race in order to reduce the formulation of negative racial attitudes in their viewers.

Works Cited

Oliver M.B. and G.B. Armstrong. 1995. Predictors of viewing and enjoyment of reality-based and fictional crime shows. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 72(3), 559-570.

MacLin, M. and H. Vivian. 2006. The Criminal Stereotype. North American Journal of Psychology, 8(2), 197-207

Dominick, J.  2001. Crime and Law Enforcement on Prime-Time Television. Public Opinion Quarterly, 37(2), 241-250.

Sturken, M. and L. Cartwright. 2009. Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture (2nd ed.). Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Coroso, R. A. 2011, May 4. NCIS is America’s Favorite TV Show. Harris Interactive. Retrieved from <http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/768/Default.aspx>>

NCIS Season 2 Opening Credits [Television series]. Retrieved from <<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8YNZYZFE-w>>

NCIS, season 2(2004)

-See No Evil, Episode 1

-Vanished, Episode 3

-The Bone Yard, Episode 5

-Call of Silence, Episode 7

-Forced Entry, Episode 9

-Black Water, Episode 11

-The Meat Puzzle, Episode 13

-Caught on Tape, Episode 15

-An Eye for an Eye, Episode 17

-Conspiracy Theory, Episode 19


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