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The History of Racism in Journalism

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

'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."

Media Matters for America also asserted that the March 12 edition of Fox & Friends, regarding the case of the Ferguson shootings, reporter Peter Doocy described the DOJ's finding of racial bias, emphasizing that Attorney General Eric Holder "floated the possibility" of dissolving the Ferguson police department as a result, while co-host Steve Doocy linked the DOJ report and Holder's response to the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson. Holder, at a press conference stated it was revenue rather than law enforcement that drove officers to target African-Americans in the community. Doocy described the shooting, saying, "a new wave of violence comes one week after Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to dismantle that city's police department", and questioned whether it was "what he wanted."

ABC News

ABC News has been seen to falter within the topic of journalism and to have a certain bias that has been painted by third parties that swayed their viewpoint. In the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia journalist and activist who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of a police officer, ABC News formed a specific argument for their audience to see. Tom Gardner, a professor at Westfield State University, decided to look deeper into this case and saw many valuations within the trial that needed to be reassessed. The Media Education Foundation took this case under their wings and decided to tell the story of this controversial case with Gardner and asked "important questions about the responsibility that journalists have when it comes to issues of life and death."

The documentary Framing an Execution: The Media & Mumia Abu-Jamal looks at the way Sam Donaldson from the ABC program 20/20 covered the case. Many scholars believe that Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner and is only in jail because of his specific views and criticisms of how police have dealt with the black community. This case only got recognition after people continued to dispute that Abu-Jamal's trial was fair or lawful, to the extent that it reached national and international attention. 20/20 told this case as an emotional story, minimalizing its importance. Sam Donaldson began his interviews with the widow, Maureen Faulkner. She was portrayed as a damsel in distress, making her a more sympathetic figure. From the beginning the specific angle of ABC News and the direction of Sam Donaldson's bias could be seen. ABC stated in their letter sent to the Pennsylvania prison authorities when trying to get an interview with Abu-Jamal that they were "currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of the Police."

Thomas Gardner opined that the 20/20 program "was never really journalism to start with. It was an exercise in persuasion, in rhetoric, really unadulterated propaganda masquerading as journalism." Amnesty International stated that "numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings", and "believes that the interest of the justice would best be served by the granting of a new trial of Mumia Abu Jamal." Angela Davis, an activist, scholar, and author believes that the media purposely prevented people from understanding the case of Abu-Jamal, and that they wanted to keep the public unaware to make sure there would not be large numbers of people supporting his campaign.

African American suspects presentation in news

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.

A study by the Sentencing Project reports that African American crime suspects were presented in more threatening contexts than Caucasians; to specify, African American suspects were more often left unnamed and were more likely to be shown as threatening by being depicted in physical custody of the police.

Analyses of television news consistently indicate that African American males are over-represented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims, compared to both their Caucasian male counterparts on TV as well as real-world Department of Justice arrest reports. In these news stories, African American suspects are more likely than Caucasians to be portrayed as nameless, menacing, and in the grasp of the police. Some evidence also suggests that audiences know the news they watch misrepresents the reality of race and crime in the United States, and that news executives know their broadcasts scare their audiences.

Dana Mastro reports that African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be represented as criminals than police officers on television news—a proportion inconsistent with U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Alongside their over-representation as criminals in the news, African Americans also are underrepresented as victims compared with their on-air counterparts. Further, the text of crime-related news stories also has been found to vary depending on the race of the perpetrator. For example, Dixon and Linz's research reveals that statements containing prejudicial information about criminal suspects, such as prior arrests, were significantly more likely to be associated with African Americans as opposed to Caucasians defendants, particularly in cases involving Caucasian victims. Exposure to biased messages has consequences. When the public consistently consumes the persistent over-representation of African American males in crime-related news stories it strengthens their cognitive association between Blacks and criminality in their mind such as the connection "Blacks and crime" and thus becomes chronically accessible for use in race-related evaluations. Notably, as the research on media priming illustrates, even a single exposure to these unfavorable characterizations can produce stereotype-based responses.


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