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.
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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.”
Cosmetic diversity, however, won’t save the day. According to the Harvard Implicit-Association Test, 48 percent of African Americans also have implicit racial bias against black people. That’s what you call deep conditioning, and with the number of African Americans in media slowly increasing, it’s important that cultural diversity and awareness are present and fully accounted for as well.
A 2014 Sentencing Project report (pdf) points to media as a source of racial perceptions and misconceptions about crime in the United States, specifically suggesting that stereotypical expectations of journalists and producers, i.e., implicit bias, shape media narratives:
A study of television news found that black crime suspects were presented in more threatening contexts than whites: Black suspects were disproportionately shown in mug shots and in cases where the victim was a stranger. Black and Latino suspects were also more often presented in a nonindividualized way than whites—by being left unnamed—and were more likely to be shown as threatening—by being depicted in physical custody of police. Blacks and Hispanics were also more likely to be treated aggressively by police officers on reality-based TV shows, including America’s Most Wanted and Cops. Mass media are therefore a major contributor to Americans’ misconceptions about crime, with journalists and producers apparently acting based on their own or expectations of their audiences’ stereotypes about crime.
In recent years, the obviousness of this bias has rendered some mainstream outlets caricatures of trustworthy and impartial news sources. Of course, Fox News pundits such as Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly are no better than propaganda peddlers seemingly committed to the asinine concept of white superiority. This would make them guilty of explicit racial bias because they are fully aware of the narratives they push to their consistently uninformed viewers.
It’s always the implicit racism, though—that elusive racism without racists (pdf)—that’s harder to define, thus harder to dismantle, even as recent events—such as the Great Keene Pumpkin Riot of 2014 and the Waco, Texas, biker-gang shootout—have made it more difficult to conceal.
In both of these instances, and many more like them, white rioters, looters and (alleged) murderers have often been discussed as if by public relations firms for white supremacy as opposed to an unbiased media. It makes little difference that whites riot, maim and kill over someone being fired, a team losing or winning, a surfing contest or, perhaps, a run-over toe. Black protesters uprising against the savage snatching of black lives by law-enforcement agencies are the ones framed as wild looters out to “ruin their own communities,” while the (in)justice system allows violent police officers to hop, skip and jump out of any responsibility.
“This [Waco] biker incident has been more sensational, like Sons of Anarchy live, and real spectacle,” Jared Ball, associate professor of media studies at Morgan State University, tells The Root. “Scary like a horror movie, but not scary like Muslim terrorists or black people.
“Yet, a few young black schoolkids, who, again, it must be made clear, were set up and drawn into so-called ‘violence’ against property, are described as threats worthy of full-riot-gear police, National Guard and wall-to-wall media coverage whose goal was to demonize anti-police violence … all while using the old and still usable formula of black = danger.”
It is clear that the fight for justice that has taken over the streets of America has made continued media bias impossible to ignore. This has forced a necessary shift in the ways in which mainstream media discusses racism, even if implicit bias still whispers beneath the surface.
According to a 2000 study (pdf), “Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public,” media is complicit in fostering a “crime script” that encourages blatantly biased policing tactics that target African Americans, particularly those who are perceived as being “out of touch with the cultural mainstream.” Not surprisingly, there is a direct link between exposure to the “crime script” and fear and prejudice against African Americans.
Each day, we are witnessing that prejudice play out in classrooms (pdf) filled with chalk and streets lined with it. It is how protesters fighting against police brutality become “thugs” and unarmed children like 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice are placed on trial and found guilty from their graves.
“Biased coverage perpetuates a dangerous cycle, by helping to create and affirm explicit and implicit biases in the minds of audiences,” Robinson tells The Root. “People in everyday situations—personal and professional—then act out those biases, treating black people as if the media’s stereotypes are real.”
If institutionalized racism is the poison, then mainstream media is the hypodermic needle that pushes it deeply into the veins of society, rendering the humanity of black people invisible. And an increased awareness tells us that some media professionals don’t even realize they’re dealers. Relying on a well-worn template that frames black people as thugs and cultural malignancies by default is not news; it is propaganda that serves only to reaffirm for many Americans what they think they know about black people.
And as long as media continues to stick to a script influenced by racial bias, our communities will continue to pay the price.