Racial bias in criminal news in the United States

Racial biases are a form of implicit bias, which refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect an individual's understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass unfavorable assessments, are often activated involuntarily and without the awareness or intentional control of the individual. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.[1][note 1] Racial bias in criminal news reporting in the United States is a manifestation of this bias.

Racial bias in U.S. criminal news

Racial bias has been recorded in criminal news reporting from the United States, particularly with regard to African American individuals, and a perceived fear of African Americans among European and White Americans.[2]

Racial bias against African Americans

Historical racism towards African Americans consists of beliefs about African American intelligence, ambition, honesty and other stereotyped characteristics, as well as support for segregation and support for acts of open discrimination.[3]

Dana Mastro's research on racial bias in the United States reveals persistent racial prejudice among Caucasians, characterizing African Americans as violent and aggressive. These beliefs have been found to manifest in a heightened fear among Caucasians of victimization at the hands of racial minorities, specifically African American males. Both theory and empirical evidence indicate that media exposure contributes to the construction and perpetuation of these perceptions by disproportionately depicting racial/ethnic minorities as criminal suspects and Caucasians as victims in television news. Further consuming these messages has been shown to provoke prejudicial responses among Caucasian viewers.[4]

Robert Entman suggests that today's media environment suggests that old-fashioned racial images are socially undesirable and stereotyping is now subtler and stereotyped thinking is reinforced at levels likely to remain below conscious awareness. Rather than grossly demeaning distortions of yesterday's stereotyping now there is a grey area allowing for denial of the racial component. The phrase "threatening black male" allows for a negative attribute rather than an attack on racial identity.[3]

The study conducted in the article Race and Punishment states that current crime coverage strategies aim to increase in the importance of a crime, thus distorting the public sense of who commits crimes, and leads to biased reactions. By over-representing Caucasians as victims of crimes perpetrated by people of color it exaggerates crimes committed by African Americans and downplays victimization of African Americans. For example, the majority of US homicides are intra-racial, but media accounts often portray a world in which African American male offenders are overrepresented.[5]

African American suspects presentation in news

A study by the Sentencing Project reports that African American crime suspects were presented in more threatening contexts than Caucasians; to specify, African American suspects were more often left unnamed and were more likely to be shown as threatening by being depicted in physical custody of the police.[5]

Analyses of television news consistently indicate that African American males are overrepresented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims, compared to both their Caucasian male counterparts on TV as well as real-world Department of Justice arrest reports. In these news stories, African American suspects are more likely than Caucasians to be portrayed as nameless, menacing, and in the grasp of the police.[5] Some evidence also suggests that audiences know the news they watch misrepresents the reality of race and crime in the United States, and that news executives know their broadcasts scare their audiences.[6]

Dana Mastro reports that African Americans are nearly four times more likely to be represented as criminals than police officers on television news—a proportion inconsistent with U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Alongside their overrepresentation as criminals in the news, African Americans also are underrepresented as victims compared with their on-air counterparts. Further, the text of crime-related news stories also has been found to vary depending on the race of the perpetrator. For example, Dixon and Linz's research reveals that statements containing prejudicial information about criminal suspects, such as prior arrests, were significantly more likely to be associated with African Americans as opposed to Caucasians defendants, particularly in cases involving Caucasian victims. Exposure to biased messages has consequences. When the public consistently consumes the persistent overrepresentation of African American males in crime-related news stories it strengthens their cognitive association between Blacks and criminality in their mind such as the connection "Blacks and crime" and thus becomes chronically accessible for use in race-related evaluations. Notably, as the research on media priming illustrates, even a single exposure to these unfavorable characterizations can produce stereotype-based responses.[4]

Accused of Crimes in Selected Visual Depictions for all CrimesAfrican AmericansCaucasian
Accused named in still photo48.9%65.3%
Accused not named in still photo51.1%34.7%
Accused shown in motion52.3%66.3%
Accused not shown in motion47.7%33.7%
Accused well dressed45.6%69.4%
Accused poorly dressed54.4%30.6%
Accused physically held37.6%17.6%
Accused not physically held62.2%82.4%

Journalistic practices

Studies conducted by The Sentencing Project found that journalists gravitated towards cases where Caucasians were the victims and cases where the assailant was African American. Studies drew the conclusion that newsworthiness is not a product of how representative or novel a crime is, but rather how well it can be "scripted using stereotypes grounded in racism and fewer of African American crime."[5] Robert Entman believes it is crucial to understand that journalists may not support modern racism. The news personnel shape reports in accordance with professional norms and conventions rather than their own perspective. Furthermore, journalistic practices yield to dialogue that fit audience stereotypes. For example, select sound bites for a story about African American political activity will often choose those that convey trauma and conflict. Entman suggests that African American leaders produced ample supply of such quotes because the structure of social political power often maximizes them.[3]

The table done by Robert Entman in his article Blacks in the News: Television, Modern Racism and Cultural Change shows that 11% of the stories about African Americans compared with 29% of those stories about African Americans accused of crimes were less likely to allow them or their defenders to present information in their own voices. This suggests that African Americans are treated less humanely and in a less individualistic way than Caucasians.[3]

Race of Police Speaking On ScreenAfrican American Accused of CrimeCaucasian Accused of Crime
African American Police Official32.3%4.0%
Caucasian Police Official48.4%94.7%
Both African & Caucasian Police Official19.4%1.3%

Media outlets and racial bias towards African Americans

Fox News

Media Matters for America, a "progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media"[7] is an outspoken critic of Fox News, frequently accusing the channel of including racial overtones in news coverage. Furthermore, an MMFA article claims that a shooting of an Australian teen was labelled a racial hate crime by Fox News. MMFA was particularly outraged over an incident where Fox News' show On The Record With Greta Van Susteren, guest Pat Buchanan claimed that "racial hate crimes [are] 40 times more prevalent in the black community than the white community."[8]

Media Matters for America also asserted that the March 12 edition of Fox & Friends, regarding the case of the Ferguson shootings, reporter Peter Doocy described the DOJ's finding of racial bias, emphasizing that Attorney General Eric Holder "floated the possibility" of dissolving the Ferguson police department as a result, while co-host Steve Doocy linked the DOJ report and Holder's response to the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson. Doocy described the shooting, saying, "a new wave of violence comes one week after Attorney General Eric Holder vowed to dismantle that city's police department", and questioned whether it was "what he wanted."[9]

ABC News

ABC News has been seen to falter within the topic of journalism and to have a certain bias that has been painted by third parties that swayed their viewpoint. In the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia journalist and activist who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of a police officer, ABC News formed a specific argument for their audience to see.[10] Tom Gardner, a professor at Westfield State University, decided to look deeper into this case and saw many valuations within the trial that needed to be reassessed. The Media Education Foundation took this case under their wings and decided to tell the story of this controversial case with Gardner and asked "important questions about the responsibility that journalists have when it comes to issues of life and death."[11]

The documentary Framing an Execution: The Media & Mumia Abu-Jamal looks at the way Sam Donaldson from the ABC program 20/20 covered the case. Many scholars believe that Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner and is only in jail because of his specific views and criticisms of how police have dealt with the black community. This case only got recognition after people continued to dispute that Abu-Jamal's trial was fair or lawful, to the extent that it reached national and international attention.[11] 20/20 told this case as an emotional story, minimalizing its importance. Sam Donaldson began his interviews with the widow, Maureen Faulkner. She was portrayed as a damsel in distress, making her a more sympathetic figure. From the beginning the specific angle of ABC News and the direction of Sam Donaldson's bias could be seen.[10] ABC stated in their letter sent to the Pennsylvania prison authorities when trying to get an interview with Abu-Jamal that they were "currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of the Police."[11]

Framing has a couple of meanings; to the filmmakers, the one that best described the behavior of 20/20 is "to falsely set someone up to look as though they are guilty." Because of the unfairness of the trial proceedings, many have argued that it is impossible for anyone to know if Abu-Jamal is guilty or not, but the way the media has framed his trial says otherwise. Mike Farrell believes that it is important to look at "the political context, the tone of the time in Philadelphia, at that period before and after to understand the context of this trial."[11] When Mike Farrell and Ed Asner were interviewed on 20/20 by Donaldson, he had to portray them as "know-nothing dupe celebrities" once they started to sound knowledgeable. Donaldson believed that the trial wasn't unfair but that Mumia was unfair to the trial. He continues to put down Abu-Jamal and those standing up for him by negatively accusing them of taking on the behavior of a religious cult.[11]

Thomas Gardner opined that the 20/20 program "was never really journalism to start with. It was an exercise in persuasion, in rhetoric, really unadulterated propaganda masquerading as journalism."[10] Amnesty International stated that "numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings", and "believes that the interest of the justice would best be served by the granting of a new trial of Mumia Abu Jamal."[12] Angela Davis, an activist, scholar, and author believes that the media purposely prevented people from understanding the case of Abu-Jamal, and that they wanted to keep the public unaware to make sure there would not be large numbers of people supporting his campaign.[11]

Search engines and racial bias against African Americans

Professor Latanya Sweeney from Harvard University identified "significant discrimination" in Google search terms that included names typically associated with black people, and were more likely to yield results relating to criminal activities, which according to Prof. Sweeney, may expose "racial bias in society".[13][14]

Police bias

The United States Department of Justice concluded that the police department of Ferguson, Missouri has been racially biased against African Americans and that the police have routinely violated the constitutional rights of African Americans in Ferguson,[15] following a civil rights investigation investigating the shooting of Michael Brown by the department, which sparked protests and riots in the area.[16] Although three-quarters of the city's population is African American, the police department is almost entirely white. This city, like many other major cities has begun making changes in the past year to try to better its racial fairness.[15]

See also


  1. See racism (synonym for "racial bias") for more information.


  1. Staats, Cheryl. "State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review 2014" (PDF). Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.
  2. Martin, Michel (30 March 2015). "Fear Of The Black Man: How Racial Bias Could Affect Crime, Labor Rates". NPR.org. National Public Radio. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Blacks in the News: Television, Modern Racism and Cultural Change
  4. 1 2 Mastro, Dana (December 2009). "The Influence of Exposure to Depictions of Race and Crime in TV News on Viewer's Social Judgements". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. doi:10.1080/08838150903310534.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Ghandnoosh, Nasgol. "Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies" (PDF). The Sentencing Project.
  6. KLEIN, ROGER D.; NACCARATO, STACY (1 August 2003). "Broadcast News Portrayal of Minorities: Accuracy in Reporting". American Behavioral Scientist. 46 (12): 1611–1616. doi:10.1177/0002764203254617.
  7. "About Us". Media Matters for America.
  8. Powell, Brian. "Fox News' Racial Crime Coverage is Hurting People". Media Matters For America. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  9. Power, Lis. "Fox & Friends Only Acknowledges Racial Bias In Ferguson Police Department To Blame Holder For Police Shooting". Media Matters For America. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 Gardner, Thomas N. (November 5, 2009). The Media Rhetoric of Law and Order: How ABC Framed the Mumia Abu-Jamal Story. Edwin Mellen Press.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Jhally, Sut (Director) (2001). Framing An Execution: The Media & Mumia Abu-Jamal. Northampton, Massachusetts: Media Education Foundation.
  12. Amnesty International (2011). The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Life in the Balance. Seven Stories Press.
  13. "Google searches expose racial bias, says study of names". BBC News. 4 February 2013. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  14. Sweeney, Latanya (28 January 2013). "Problem Statement: Given online searches of racially identifying names, show that associated personalized ads suggestive of an arrest record do not differ by race" (PDF). Harvard University. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
  15. 1 2 Apuzzo, Matt. "Ferguson Police Tainted by Bias". The New York Times.
  16. "Ferguson police racially biased says US Justice Department". BBC News. 3 March 2015. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
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