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The History of Racism in Journalism

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

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'The History of Racism in Journalism' Racial bias has been recorded in criminal news reporting from the United States, particularly with regard to African American individuals, and a perceived fear of African Americans among European and White Americans.


Chimp-Stimulus Cartoon Raises Racism Concerns BY SEWELL CHAN AND JEREMY W. PETERS FEBRUARY 18, 2009 12:04 PM

Racial biases are a form of implicit bias, which refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect an individual's understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass unfavorable assessments, are often activated involuntarily and without the awareness or intentional control of the individual. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Police officers come from all walks of life and they too have implicit bias, regardless of their ethnicity. Racial bias in criminal news reporting in the United States is a manifestation of this bias.


Historical racism towards African Americans consists of beliefs about African American intelligence, ambition, honesty and other stereotyped characteristics, as well as support for segregation and support for acts of open discrimination.

Dana Mastro's research on racial bias in the United States reveals persistent racial prejudice among Caucasians, characterizing African Americans as violent and aggressive. These beliefs have been found to manifest in a heightened fear among Caucasians of victimization at the hands of racial minorities, specifically African American males. Both theory and empirical evidence indicate that media exposure contributes to the construction and perpetuation of these perceptions by disproportionately depicting racial/ethnic minorities as criminal suspects and Caucasians as victims in television news. Further consuming these messages has been shown to provoke prejudicial responses among Caucasian viewers.


The controversy centered on two photos and their respective captions. One from Associated Press photographer Dave Martin showed a young black man wading through water while holding a bag and a case of soda. The accompanying description stated that he was “looting.” A second photo from Chris Graythen for Getty Images showed a similar scene, but this time it was a white couple clutching bags of food. Their actions were labeled as “finding.”

Robert Entman suggests that today's media environment suggests that old-fashioned racial images are socially undesirable and stereotyping is now subtler and stereotyped thinking is reinforced at levels likely to remain below conscious awareness. Rather than grossly demeaning distortions of yesterday's stereotyping now there is a grey area allowing for denial of the racial component. The phrase "threatening black male" allows for a negative attribute rather than an attack on racial identity.

Twitter, one of the more widely used forms of social media, with over 271 million active users, is the choice of the Millennial generation to get breaking news. Using hashtags, such as #michaelbrown, when they post allows for individuals to find information in a simpler manner.


The study conducted in the article Race and Punishment states that current crime coverage in media strategies, aim to increase in the importance of a crime, thus distorting the public sense of who commits crimes, and leads to biased reactions. By over-representing Caucasians as victims of crimes perpetrated by people of color it exaggerates crimes committed by African Americans and downplays victimization of African Americans. For example, the majority of US homicides are intra-racial, but media accounts often portray a world in which African American male offenders are over represented.


The New York Times Archives: Crack and Punishment: Is Race the Issue? By Charisse Jones Oct. 28, 1995 This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive, before the start of online publication in 1996. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.

Journalistic practices

Studies conducted by The Sentencing Project found that journalists gravitated towards cases where Caucasians were the victims and cases where the assailant was African American. Studies drew the conclusion that newsworthiness is not a product of how representative or novel a crime is, but rather how well it can be "scripted using stereotypes grounded in racism and fewer of African American crime." Robert Entman believes it is crucial to understand that journalists may not support modern racism. The news personnel shape reports in accordance with professional norms and conventions rather than their own perspective. Furthermore, journalistic practices yield to dialogue that fit audience stereotypes. For example, select sound bites for a story about African American political activity will often choose those that convey trauma and conflict. Entman suggests that African American leaders produced ample supply of such quotes because the structure of social political power often maximizes them.


The table done by Robert Entman in his article Blacks in the News: Television, Modern Racism and Cultural Change shows that 11% of the stories about African Americans compared with 29% of those stories about African Americans accused of crimes were less likely to allow them or their defenders to present information in their own voices. This suggests that African Americans are treated less humanely and in a less individualistic way than Caucasians.



Fox News

Media Matters for America, a "progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media" is an outspoken critic of Fox News, frequently accusing the channel of including racial overtones in news coverage. Furthermore, an MMFA article claims that a shooting of an Australian teen was labelled a racial hate crime by Fox News. MMFA was particularly outraged over an incident where Fox News' show On The Record With Greta Van Susteren, guest Pat Buchanan claimed that "racial hate crimes [are] 40 times more prevalent in the black community than the white community."