By Sally Lehrman | April 11th, 2012
Once again we find ourselves caught short. Why did it take news media across the country a couple of weeks to notice that a black teenager had been shot by a vigilante in a gated community? In our sometimes clumsy efforts to catch up (see NBC’s hideous editing error), some accuse the media of hyping the racial element.
That’s absurd, and here’s why. When three-quarters of black people surveyed consider racial bias a factor in the killing and in the non-arrest of the shooter, you’d better believe race is important to this story. It’s no secret that black parents fear for their children, knowing that suspicion routinely follows young males with black skin, wherever they are. In a study of unconscious racial reactions, experimental psychologists found people of all backgrounds more likely to “see” a weapon in a black person’s hand when it’s actually a harmless object like a can of soda.
Distressingly, our own work is part of the reason why. Decades ago, communication theorist George Gerbner first described the “Mean World Syndrome.” In his studies, he discovered that people exposed to heavy doses of violence on television developed an overblown sense of danger and fear about the world around them. Despite our best intentions, we’re part of that picture.
In the crime stories so favored by the local news, multiple studies have found that race plays a predictable but inaccurate role. White people disproportionately play the victim. People with darker skin disproportionately flash on the screen as suspects. News audiences have become so conditioned that even when no suspect is shown at all, viewers assume one — and he is black.
In one influential study, Frank Gilliam of UCLA and Shanto Iyengar of Stanford University altered the suspect’s race in crime news clips that they showed to about 2,300 participants. In the test group whose clip included no suspect at all, 44 percent recalled seeing a black perpetrator. Regular news watching also increased audiences’ support for punitive remedies to crime.
Separately, researcher Travis Dixon, now also at UCLA, found that African Americans are consistently overrepresented as perpetrators in local crime news. Not surprisingly, he also found that regular crime news watchers tended to perceive black people as violent.
In this moment, it’s important for the news media to step up to our responsibility to cover and spur conversation about America’s racial climate. Let’s also use this moment to consider hard questions about how we help to create it.
Digging Deeper into a Story
Some things you can do, based on experimental psychology research and other sources:
- Avoid snap judgments in your reporting; that’s when reactive biases are most likely to emerge.
- Form anti-bias strategies, like consciously pursuing stories about young African American men who are heroes or protectors of safety.
- Evaluate crime stories by the level of community impact, and place them in social context of root causes and potential solutions.
- Cross-check victim/perpetrator ratios by race within your own news reports. Do they reflect actual police statistics?
- Check your sources. Are you including perspectives across the fault lines of race, gender and age? Who is the affected community? Is there more than one?
Sally Lehrman is a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee. She holds Santa Clara University’s Knight Ridder — San Jose Mercury News Endowed Chair in Journalism and the Public Interest. Sally is also an author and independent journalist who specializes in covering identity, race relations and gender within the context of medicine and science.