Throw Away the Script: How Media Bias Is Killing Black America

The American people are being force-fed a media diet of stereotypes and misperceptions, overcriminalizing and marginalizing African Americans through language, images and omissions.

Mourners gather during a funeral service for Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a choke hold outside a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes.  
Mourners gather during a funeral service for Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a choke hold outside a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes.   James Keivom-Pool/Getty Images

Media injustice, which leads to both the erasure and criminalization of marginalized communities, has had dire consequences for both the psyches and lived experiences of black people in the United States since at least the 18th century, when newspapers ran lost-and-found ads for runaway slaves.

In 1964 it compelled Malcolm X to stand before a crowd in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom, where he would be assassinated less than one year later, and make it plain as only he could:

“This is the press, an irresponsible press,” he said. “It will make the criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Fifty years later, these words are just as true now as they were then. What has not been fully addressed, however, is whether the press deliberately supports a white supremacist agenda, as some people believe, or has media’s complicity mutated into something less intentional but equally dangerous—perhaps even more so.

Many studies have tackled implicit racial bias in law enforcement, health care and the legal field. In recent years, the phrase has become a buzzword used to broadly frame bigotry and racism as something so entrenched that some people aren’t aware that they subconsciously harbor racist feelings, associating black skin with negative behavior. Put simply, their “conditioning has been conditioned,” and marginalized groups are often left to pick up the pieces in the wake of brutality and/or neglect by those in positions of power, trust and influence.

There are also studies, such as “Not to Be Trusted” (pdf), a news-accuracy report card compiled by civil rights organization ColorOfChange.org, which tackles media bias (pdf) and how it indiscriminately pathologizes communities of color for mass consumption. Separately, these issues can wreak havoc and destruction on their own, but we haven’t really focused on the ways in which implicit racial bias can potentially infest newsrooms.

“Implicit bias impacts the way black communities are treated across practically all sectors of life in America, from courtrooms to doctors’ offices,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, tells The Root. “The media is no different, whether it be the use of pejorative terms like ‘thug’ and ‘animal’ to describe protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore, or the widespread overreporting of crime stories involving black suspects in New York City.”

Media bias not only negatively impacts black America’s relationship with law enforcement and the judicial system (pdf) but also extends to how African Americans are perceived in society at large. Couple the findings of Harvard’s Project Implicit, which determined that approximately 88 percent of white Americans have implicit racial bias against black people, with a racially homogeneous media industry, and the toxic environment that leads to media injustice is thrown into stark relief.

“Television newsrooms are nearly 80 percent white, according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, while radio newsrooms are 92 percent white,” writes Sally Lehrman, former chairwoman of the diversity committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. According to the American Society of News Editors, “The percentage of minority journalists has remained between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade.”

This lays the groundwork for an intrinsically racist media structure that, according to The Atlantic’s Riva Gold, means “news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and—especially in cases where language ability is crucial—even to report on minority populations in their communities.”

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