And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. -Philippians 1:9-10 ESV
This week, I’ve been reminded of how important it is to be media literate. A recent New York Times story on the white supremacist history of lynching came under fire for neglecting to speak specifically about who was doing the lynching, Professor Angus Johnston tweeted: “The word “white” only appears in the article to describe women and girls the lynched men were accused of attacking.” By erasing the white actors from history, the Times made the systematic, premeditated, persistent perpetration of violence against black people seem inevitable, and it rendered the white killers invisible and unaccountable for their crimes.
This kind of skewed reporting isn’t limited to historical events. It happens frequently in how crime and violence are reported, and how the media talks about issues related to race, class, and gender. According to a survey of media studies conducted by Robert M. Entman and Kimberly A. Gross
1. Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to appear as lawbreakers in news—particularly when the news is focusing on violent crime. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to appear as perpetrators than victims. Blacks are overrepresented as perpetrators of violent crime when news coverage is compared with arrest rates. Work that engages in “inter-reality” comparisons suggests the media portrayal is somewhat less distorted than the comparison of the number of black, white, and Latino perpetrators might imply. Nonetheless, the picture is troubling, suggesting that news cultivates the perception of blacks and Latinos as lawbreakers.
2. In contrast, whites are overrepresented as victims of violence and as law-enforcers, while blacks are underrepresented in these sympathetic roles.
3. These patterns are more disturbing when one considers that blacks and Latinos may not appear as frequently as whites outside the crime-news context. Because of the values that define the newsworthy, blacks in criminal roles tend to outnumber blacks in socially positive roles in newscasts and daily newspapers. In some areas, at least, Latinos may receive even worse treatment than blacks. Chiricos and Eschholz examined three weeks of local-news programming in Orlando and found that one in twenty whites appearing on the local television news was a criminal suspect compared with one in eight blacks and one in four Latinos.
4. Studies of local news in Chicago and elsewhere suggest that depictions of black suspects (mostly young men) tend to be more symbolically threatening than those of whites accused of similar crimes. Black defendants in one study were more likely to be shown in mug shots. In the ubiquitous “perp walks,” blacks were twice as likely as whites to be shown under some form of physical restraint by police—although all were accused of scary and generally violent crimes. In some notorious, highly publicized crimes—such as the 1989 alleged rape of a wealthy, young white woman in Central Park by a “gang” of Latino and black young men—young men of color appear particularly susceptible to portrayals that associate them with extreme threat and less-than-human traits. Narratives routinely used such words as “savage” and “wild.”
5. Violence and youth, especially male youth, are closely linked: most stories that feature young people on local news depict violence they commit or suffer, and in those stories, older white men are the dominant speakers. Local news does not often portray young persons as positively contributing to society.
6. People of color are more likely to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity. One study found that black and Latino defendants are twice as likely as white defendants to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity and that defendants who victimized whites were more likely to have prejudicial information broadcast about them than defendants who victimized nonwhites.
7. Several studies show that black victims are less likely to be covered than white victims in newspaper coverage of crime. But unlike studies focused on local television, studies of newspapers do not indicate that minorities are overrepresented as perpetrators. Newspaper coverage is somewhat better than local television news on some dimensions, if only because it does not follow the “if it bleeds it leads” norm and devotes much less of its news space to crime. Stories themselves are often longer and, on average, perhaps more likely to contain more context than TV. On the other hand, the additional words devoted to crime by newspapers might yield a greater net volume of negative pretrial information.
8. Aside from crime, perhaps the most frequent and disproportionate association made with persons of color in the news media is poverty. In stories featuring poverty as a topic, newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek overrepresent blacks, while underrepresenting whites, Latinos, and Asians. At the same time, the magazines overrepresent the nonworking poor and the urban poor in their illustrations of poverty. In this way, not only do media encode poverty as an especially black trait, but they undermine potential sympathy, especially among the white majority, for antipoverty programs. Poverty can be portrayed as a condition that merits sympathy, but it more often appears associated with threats in the form of crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and aimless activity.
Such messages not only stereotype the blacks and Latinos who are featured in them, but also contribute to a stereotypical association between blacks, criminality, and guilt that can influence evaluations and behavior. These messages also reinforce negative emotions and a sense of social distance that may promote a belief in inherent group conflict between blacks or Latinos and whites. Moreover, these stereotypes arise not merely from the news, but from TV and film entertainment, advertising, and sports programming as well.
In an age where we are inundated with information, we have to be vigilant in what we consume and how we receive it. When we are reading headlines or watching local news, here are some elements to keep in mind about the portrayals of marginalized people (this is not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination):
- Violence in marginalized communities is usually written about in terms that make it sound random or commonplace: “Teen shot in Somewhere.” Communities responding to the violence (looking for information, comforting family members, or waiting to answer police questions) are portrayed as chaotic mobs, “crowds gathered” or “residents stood in the street.” Context, including events leading up to and following the crime, is not given.
- Victims’ names are buried until the end of the story. Perpetrators aren’t named at all.
- Race, religion, sexuality, gender is only mentioned if the person isn’t white, Christian (or atheist/agnostic), or heterosexual/cisgender. Transgender people are often misgendered. If a person is white, whiteness isn’t mentioned.
- When the victim is a person of color, media choose photos or background details about the victim that implicate the victim in their own demise (see the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown for examples of how this works).
It’s important that we become media savvy if we are to advocate for justice, contend for truth, and love our neighbors well. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be “wise as serpents and gentle as doves” as they navigated their communities and culture. For more ways you can consume media more critically, visit Fair.org.