As issues of crime and race again came into the national spotlight, many social scientists and communications scholars sought to study the portrayal of racial minorities within news media. Numerous studies documented the high rate at which persons of color were typically portrayed as violent or dangerous in newspapers and television.
For example, in a paper published in the Journal of Communication — which has been cited hundreds of times subsequently — Travis L. Dixon, then at the University of Michigan, and Daniel Linz of U.C. Santa Barbara sampled local television news broadcasts in Los Angeles and Orange counties in California and found that, when compared against relevant crime data, “African-Americans were overrepresented as perpetrators, and Latinos and whites were underrepresented as perpetrators.” Further, the study showed that whites were overrepresented as police officers on television, despite significant numbers of racial minorities in law enforcement in the counties examined.
This fit in with other research findings that suggested these problems were long-standing. In 1996, Martin Gilens, then at Yale, published an important paper in Public Opinion Quarterly that looked at portrayals of African-Americans with regard to poverty. He examined news magazine coverage in the late 1980s and early 1990s and concluded:
If 560 people were selected at random from America’s poor, we would expect 162 to be black. But of the 560 poor people of determinable race pictured in newsmagazines between 1988 and 1992, 345 were African-American. In reality, two out of three poor Americans are nonblack, but the reader of these magazines would likely come to exactly the opposite conclusion. Although the newsmagazines examined grossly overrepresent African-Americans in their pictures of poor people as a whole, African-Americans are seldom found in pictures of the most sympathetic subgroups of the poor. I found that the elderly constitute less than 1% of the black poor shown in these magazines (compared with 5% of the nonblack poor) and the working poor make up only 12% of poor blacks (compared with 27% of poor nonblacks).
Gilens noted that, long ago, the journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that societal feelings, beliefs, opinions and actions are responses to “pictures in our heads,” not to the world itself. Mass media now provide most of these pictures, giving news outlets a substantial responsibility for shaping discourse and the context for policy — and a strong ethical imperative to ground their reporting in the best available knowledge.
Culminating in seminal books such as Robert Entman’s and Andrew Rojecki’s The Black Image in the White Mind (2000), this line of academic inquiry continued into the 2000s, but there have been relatively fewer major updates in the research literature on race and media (although journalism institutions such as the Maynard Institute have continued to audit and monitor media content in this way). However, Travis Dixon, now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has revisited these core questions in a 2015 study published in Communication Research, “Good Guys Are Still Always in White? Positive Change and Continued Misrepresentation of Race and Crime on Local Television News.”
The study examines a sample of news broadcasts in Los Angeles between 2008 and 2012, including Spanish-language broadcasts (Univision), to evaluate how representations may be changing. Dixon notes the following with respect to the study’s methodology: “Television portrayals are compared with the perpetration and victim rates contained in data published by the California Department of Justice (CDOJ) and the Los Angeles Times. In addition, television portrayals of Los Angeles officers are compared with employment records published by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.” News media reports were coded according to the racial portrayals within them.
The study’s findings include:
- The data indicate some progress in terms of how frequently different races are portrayed in various roles in the context of crime: “Black depictions have greatly improved in this investigation compared with prior research. Blacks are accurately portrayed across all roles including as perpetrators, victims and officers.” This is an “unexpected set of findings” given that “African-Americans were greatly overrepresented as criminals in prior work.”
- Dynamics with regard to Hispanics have also changed: “Latinos have previously been underrepresented as criminals; however, they were accurately presented as perpetrators in the current study. They also remain underrepresented in more sympathetic roles as officers and victims.” One explanatory hypothesis is that demographic shifts “have led the Los Angeles news stations to focus more on Latino crime and less on African-American criminality.”
- Whites, however, continue to be given a dominant role as representing authority and police on television in this news market: “Whites were more likely to be portrayed as police officers on television (73%) than to be employed as officers in Los Angeles and Orange counties (53%). Given the confidence interval of 6% on either side of the estimate of white television officers on the news, this is a statistically significant 20 percentage-point difference.”
- “Conversely, Latinos were less likely to be portrayed as officers on television news (16%) than to be employed as officers in Los Angeles and Orange counties (30%). There were no statistically significant differences for Blacks or for “Others” on these programs. Blacks comprised 9% of the officers portrayed on television news and 12% of those employed as officers according to county records.”
- Further, “whites were more likely to be depicted as homicide victims on local television news (35%) than to be victimized by homicide according to crime reports (13%)”; and “‘Others’ (e.g., Asians) were more likely to be portrayed as homicide victims on television news (18%) than to be victimized according to crime reports (4%).”
Dixon acknowledges that a “larger sample of news shows and topics need to be explored in future work” to help confirm these apparent changes in patterns of coverage. Further, he notes that “perhaps the focus of the news media has moved on to external threats such as immigration and terrorism, neither of which was directly explored in the current study…. Recent studies on both of these issues suggest that Latinos are linked to undocumented immigration while Muslims are linked to terrorism in the news.”
A parallel 2015 study published in the Journal of Communication and also authored by Dixon as well as Charlotte L. Williams of the University of Arkansas, “The Changing Misrepresentation of Race and Crime on Network and Cable News,” looked at a wider sample of national news broadcasts. It found that African-Americans are now actually being underrepresented as both perpetrators and victims, while new, troubling dynamics were apparent for Latinos and Muslims.
Related research: While social media and other newer technologies are changing overall information consumption patterns, television is frequently the primary way Americans still get local news, and even the audiences for national network evening news broadcasts have grown in the past couple of years.