It is no secret that for a long time the news media in this nation has projected blacks through the lens of misery — sometimes in ways that minimizes their humanity — and deliberately offers no context to the underlying issues they face when compared to their white counterparts.
It is no secret that the kind of imagery and language used in the media to describe blacks and their living conditions often have helped to create perceptions and stereotypes that to this day have an impact.
Even politicians — including the current U.S. president — have given in to these perceptions.
“You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed,” Donald Trump said during the 2016 campaign about the black community.
Then he added, “I say this to the African-American community. Give Donald Trump a chance. We will turn it around. We will make your streets safe so when you walk down the street, you don’t get shot, which is happening now.”
Trump did nothing new in replaying old stereotypes about blacks that are held as truth in the media.
But what is surprising is that in 2017, some of those practices still exist in the media.
A new study, “A Dangerous Distortion of our Families: Representations of Families by Race in News and Opinion Media,” written by Travis L. Dixon, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, was commissioned by the groups Color of Change and Family Story, whose missions include working on racial justice, equity and diversity issues.
For the report, the study authors examined about 800 stories regarding black families that were published or aired by the national media from January 2015 through December 2016. The researchers found incidents of inaccurate or biased coverage by such outlets as CBS, MSNBC, ABC, Fox News, CNN, USA Today, the Washington Post and The New York Times.
“News and opinion media over-represent black family poverty by 32 percentage points while white family poverty is underrepresented by 49 percentage points. That is, black families represent 59 percent of the poor in news and opinion media but make up just 27 percent of the poor, according to official reports, while white families represent 17 percent of the poor in news and opinion media but make up 66 percent of the poor, according to official reports,” the study stated.
The study also listed what it determines to be misrepresentation in coverage regarding blacks and the welfare system.
“News and opinion media over-represent the proportion of black families receiving welfare by 18 percentage points. That is, black families represent 60 percent of welfare recipients in news and opinion media but make up just 42 percent of welfare recipients, according to official government reports,” the study noted.
“Moreover, fewer than 10 percent of the news stories we coded cited any data referencing structural, historic or systemic barriers to black wealth acquisition. Instead, black people tended to be depicted as lazy and inept welfare recipients in news broadcasts.”
And when it comes to crime, the report found that black families are overrepresented while white families remain underrepresented.
Nicole Rodgers, the executive director of Family Story, explained the dichotomy of how context of the stories shift based on the race of the subject, in the study’s foreword.
“When a four-year-old black boy fell into the gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016, media outlets were quick to focus attention on the criminal history of the boy’s black father, an unrelated detail that served no discernible purpose other than to invoke a stereotype that would criminalize the whole family and thereby justify blaming them for the tragic event,” Rodgers said.
“When a two-year-old white boy was snatched up by an alligator in front of his parents just a week later at a Disney resort, there was no media scrutiny of the parents and a vastly more empathic response overall. This is typical of a widespread pattern of racially biased reporting and racially biased norm-setting, which this report expands on in detail.”
Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, noted that the report comes at a time when the nation is seemingly divided.
“This latest report contains an important snapshot of the two years of media coverage of black families during the last election cycle, across various news outlets on television, in print and online,” Robinson said. “It is an important canon to reference, as we continue to unpack the various elements and cultural conditions that enabled the election of politicians — from the presidency to governors and others — who exploit good old ol’ boy dog whistle rhetoric, masquerading as economic populism.”
This report should serve as an invaluable lesson and a guide for how media gatekeepers as well as reporters need to be conscious not to continue to feed into negative stereotypes that divide communities. Sometimes the persistence of the kind of troubling and unbalance coverage highlighted in this report, is chiefly among the reasons why some in the black community have a great distrust of mainstream media.
As journalists we are used to asking tough questions. Now we must challenge ourselves about the coverage we provide in the black community and other communities where the socioeconomic problems are begging for balanced reporting, not competing narratives that tend to miss the facts. And the obligation to do justice to these stories is even more so the responsibility of the local media as the late journalist and media critic Ben H. Bagdikian explained in his book, “The Media Monopoly.”
“No national paper or broadcast station can report adequately the issues and candidates in every one of the 65,000 local voting districts. Only locally based journalism can do it, and if it does not, voters become captives of the only alternative information, paid political propaganda, or no information at all,” Bagdikian wrote.