The Powerful Influence of Media Storylines

Trump’s classification of “fake news” may have some elements of truth. While he’s accused left-leaning news companies of promoting “alternative facts” to denigrate his character and downplay political “achievements,” others criticize the news cycle for sensationalism on the opposite side of the aisle. From [a] Black perspective, the media often portrays Black people – particularly men – as lawless thugs, choosing to promote a narrative that lends itself to an increase in views as opposed to the truth. For instance, Blacks and Latinos are significantly more likely than Whites to be portrayed as lawbreakers on television news. And, since “the public agenda in effect is set by the media,” the images used, text written, and stories selected have a direct impact on public psyche. This psyche runs counter to our attempts for justice and equality.

Crime predominates news cycles, making up a significant percentage of a 30-minute local newscast (and even more on the weekends). This creates a misperception that crime is a bigger problem than it actually is. According to Vox, “69% of US voters think there is more crime in the US than there was two decades ago,” when in actuality, crime rates (including murder and violent crime) have plummeted since the 1990s. These misperceptions are fueled by inaccurate portrayals of victims, perpetrators, and law enforcement that over-represent African-Americans and reinforce negative stereotypes.

African Americans are overrepresented in crime stories. Not only does the media’s disproportionate focus on crime make it seem more prevalent than in actuality, people of color are also overrepresented in those crime stories. According to Travis Dixon of UCLA, “mug shots and jumpsuits are more likely to be shown in TV reports when the accused is a person of color.” Also, a follow-up study found that in New York City, the percentage of African-American suspects in certain crimes was well above the percentage of those actually arrested for those crimes.

This overrepresentation impacts public image and both reinforces and recreates racial stereotypes. Researchers have demonstrated how racial stereotyping elicits certain emotions and behaviors:

“The racial stereotyping of Blacks encouraged by the images and implicit comparisons to Whites on local news reduces the latter’s empathy and heightens animosity, as demonstrated empirically by several experimental studies.”

Without empathy and with animosity, it’s particularly easy to characterize or typecast individuals based on a stereotypical role. Empathy makes us consider, or identify with, another’s perspective. Without empathy, we can never be sympathetic to that which the public has deemed as violent, unruly, and criminal.

While these stereotypes were created during the slave trade to justify inhumane treatment and subjugate captives, stereotypes have continued to position the formerly enslaved as inferior, untameable, barbaric, and deviant in multiple ways.

“The stereotype of blacks, particularly black males, as criminals has been around since slavery, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the threat turned from the image of a sexual deviant to one with an extreme criminal nature. Legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown calls the recent association with the Black male as an inherently deviant criminal, the mythical “criminal black male”. She notes that while media representations of black men have gotten better, “regardless of race, the person most people fear is a young, black man.”

This fear continues today and can be demonstrated in the media coverage of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland.

The New York Times insisted that “Mike Brown was no angel.” In the day following his death, the media focused more on the lawlessness of a group of protesters than the actual facts of the case. The real story seemed to take a back seat to that which was sensational. During Trayvon Martin’s coverage, some media outlets chose to run images of Martin wearing “fake gold teeth” alongside “rumors of school suspensions and marijuana use” to push a storyline counter to the bullying menace and innocent child portrayed across airwaves.

While Trayvon’s family described him as an “easy-going teenager,” conservative media outlets went to “shocking and disgusting lengths to impugn [him].” Similarly, Eric Garner was smeared as a “career criminal,” while the circumstances surrounding Sandra Bland’s death were muddied with media harping on “weed in her system” – as if this had any relevance to her death. Presently, media coverage of Jordan Edwards has proven surprisingly positive, however, it’s quite likely that stereotyping played a major role in his death.

“Like smears against protestors that almost always turn out to be bogus, smears against police victims are more about managing public outrage than they are about truth.”

While media dictates the public agenda and media companies often set targets based on “what sells,” or what headline gains clicks or views, not all media outlets promote profit over truth.

Organizations like PushBlack (hey – :)), Everyday Feminism, and Essence promote a positive agenda more grounded in the true lived experiences of their respective target group and audiences. Despite this, we urge our readers to remain critical and well-informed as we must seek to dictate a public agenda that promotes justice and equality over racism and social unrest.