Compared to the percentage of crimes they actually commit, African Americans are grossly overrepresented on local news broadcasts about criminal activity, according to a new report from Media Matters for America. In New York City alone, black people make up 75 percent of criminals discussed on local channels, whereas they only make up 51 percent of the actual arrest rate.
Between August and December last year, WABC, WNBC, and WCBS overrepresented black people in theft, assault, and murder coverage. On WABC, WNBC, and WCBS, respectively, 82 percent, 73 percent, and 70 percent of all wrongdoers were black. However, data from 2010–2013, shows that black people only account for 55 percent of murders, 49 percent of assaults, and 55 percent of thefts in the city. Out of all murders covered on WABC, which Media Matters assigned an “F” grade, 78 percent were committed by a black person. Similarly, 82 percent and 85 percent of assaults and thefts, respectively, involved black perpetrators. On average, WNYW/FOX5, which received a “B” rating, reported far fewer criminal incidents than other mainstream outlets, but 100 percent of reported thefts were committed by black perpetrators.
Summarizing the report, the Color of Change, a black advocacy organization, concluded that all four channels failed to contextualize the crimes that were reported, making no mention of discriminatory policing that targets African American communities or systemic factors that contribute to crime, such as unemployment. By portraying black people as the vast majority of perpetrators, the news stations detracted from criminal activities perpetrated by non-black persons and fueled racial bias.
Unfortunately, media bias parallels extensive research that shows how African Americans are far more criminalized than their white counterparts, nationwide. One study about “who looks criminal” determined that police officers frequently associate black faces with criminal behavior. According to a 2010 survey, white people overestimated African Americans’ participation in burglaries, illegal drug sales and juvenile crime by 20–30 percent. Additionally, white people support stricter criminal justice policies if they think that more black people are arrested as a result.
Despite widespread racial bias, though, social media has begun to take traditional media to task on its misrepresentation of black criminals — and victims. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, national news outlets shared a photo of the deceased in a jersey, jeans, and making a hand gesture that could be perceived as a gang sign. Shortly thereafter, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown became a trending topic on Twitter, as people shared side-by-side photos of traditionally acceptable and stereotypically unacceptable poses. News stations were also called out for their silence surrounding the NAACP bombing in Colorado.