Scholarly Articles

By Santa Monica College Associate Professor Michael Gougis and Researcher Doshiniq Green
Special op-ed contribution to Understand Media

“Interreality” comparisons of lawbreakers (TV news vs. crime reports from the California Department of Justice) revealed that blacks are overrepresented as lawbreakers …”

                 - Travis L. Dixon and Daniel Linz, “Overrepresentation and Underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as Lawbreakers on Television News.”

Dixon and Linz’ study, published in the Journal of Communication's Spring 2000 issue, looked at the racial breakdown of those arrested in Southern California and compared that to the racial breakdown of those shown on television news as criminals.

The study showed that in the mid-1990s, black people were overrepresented in television news as criminals - compared to real-world arrest rates.

In teaching Media 10 – Journalism, Gender and Race, I am asked by my students something along the lines of, “Is this stuff still true?” Only constant research prevents obsolete beliefs from distorting our view of reality. So Santa Monica College student Doshiniq Green reviewed a local Los Angeles television station’s representation of criminal behavior and race. Her data was compared to the data analyzed by Dixon and Linz a decade and a half earlier.

The short answer to the question, “Is this stuff still true?” is yes. In television news, black people remain over-represented in terms of all crimes, felony crimes and particularly murder to a greater degree than any other ethnicity, compared to real-world criminal statistics.

Dixon and Linz cited 1995 and 1996 arrest records from the California Department of Justice that showed that in Los Angeles and Orange counties, black people made up 21 percent of those arrested, white people made up 28 percent, Hispanic people made up 47 percent and people from other ethnic groups made up 4 percent. In television news stories on crime, 37 percent of the criminals portrayed were black, 21 percent were white and 29 percent were Hispanic, the researchers found. Black people represented the smallest percentage of those arrested (excluding the small number of “others”) in the real world and represented the largest percentage of criminals on the television screen.

Fast forward to 2012. According to California Department of Justice statistics, Hispanic people made up 47.6 percent of all arrests, white people made up 25.5 percent, black people made up 20.7 percent and all other ethnicities made up 6.1 percent. Hispanic people made up 48.4 of all felony arrests, white people made up 23.6 percent, black people made up 22.5 percent and all other ethnicities made up 5.3 percent.

It must be remembered that arrest records do not reflect the amount of criminal behavior a group of people engage in; they tell you how many members of that group got arrested. But arrest records and prosecutions are the pool from which broadcasters choose the crime stories that they air.

Green reviewed news stories broadcast on KCAL (Channel 9) in the 10 p.m. time slot from Wednesday, June 11, 2014 to Monday, June 16, 2014. The station broadcast 25 crime stories. Of those stories, 11 featured suspects or convicts who were race-identifiable.

Of those 11 race-identifiable suspects or convicts, four were white, four were black, one was Hispanic, one was Asian and one was bi- or poly-racial. In percentage terms, white people and black people each made up 36.3 percent of the suspects or convicts, Hispanic people made up 9.0 percent, and other ethnicities (Asian and bi- or poly-racial) made up 18 percent.

The data demonstrates that the gap between the arrest rate of black people and the prevalence of black people as criminals on television news remains substantial - in fact, the data shows that the difference between the percentage of arrests of black people and their over-representation as criminals on television news is almost exactly the same as it was nearly 20 years ago.

Of the white suspects, only one was charged with a deliberately violent offense, which ended with no harm to the victim. Every story involving a black person linked the suspect/convict to a death and in three of the four cases - 75 percent - linked the suspect to murder. (State records show that black suspects made up 25.9 percent of all homicide arrests in 2012, or roughly one-third of their prevalence on TV as murderers.)

A comparison of the crimes shown on the television news reports studied leads to a clear difference in the way white and black people are portrayed. White people are petty criminals, women who use sex to swindle, wealthy people who fling poo. Black people are lethally dangerous.

The data set is deliberately small. This was intended to spot-check television news in 2014 to determine if there were any deviations from the previous patterns identified by Dixon and Linz nearly 20 years ago. And there was no significant change.

It could be that this research coincidentally selected a week when the news directors accidentally replicated almost exactly the pattern of depiction identified by Dixon and Linz.

However, it more like reflects a concept expressed by Stuart Hall and colleagues in the 1978 publication Policing The Crisis. "Social identification, classification and contextualisation of news events” takes place within the "maps of meaning" which already form the basis of our cultural knowledge (or stereotypes), they wrote. KCAL's news reports likely were chosen because they fit existing stereotypes of race and crime and tell the story the largest audience - white people - is most attracted to.

"While the news station is manufacturing these stories, they are also making sure that it is something that will be understood by the audience. The news must be formatted to fit the culture it will be exposed to," Hall and colleagues wrote.

Still true, all these years on.

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