Sep 1 1998

Media Blackface

'Racial Profiling' in News Reporting

Racial profiling–the discriminatory practice by police of treating blackness (or brownness) as an indication of possible criminality–has lately been the focus of frequent legal or legislative action, resulting in a significant amount of coverage in the mainstream news media (e.g. New York Times, 5/8/98, 5/10/98; Nightline, 5/31/98; Time, 6/15/98).

The coverage of police racial profiling has been fairly accurate and balanced. Yet while the mainstream media continues to cover police racial profiling, they have generally failed to acknowledge their own practice of media racial profiling. And when it has, the result has been more cover-up than coverage.

Issues in Blackface

There is need for a broader understanding of “racial profiling.” As a general concept and not just a specific police policy, racial profiling may best be understood as the politically acceptable and very American practice of defining a social problem in “blackface”–i.e., in racial terms–through indirect association. Once portrayed in blackface, the “blackness” of the problem encourages suspicion, polarizing antagonism, and typically leads to the targeting of the racial group for punitive (public policy) action.

The link between the stereotypical profile and the public policy is key. In police racial profiling it is direct: Individual officers act on racial stereotypes against racial minorities, especially African-Americans. But when it comes to the news media, the racial profiles projected are indirectly related to punitive public policies, thus giving the mainstream news media the “out” of deniability. When the news media over-represents the number of black people in the category that is at issue, the issue becomes “black,” stigmatized, linked to some form of always-justified politically punishing behavior, and, in turn, further racialized.

Examples of issues defined in blackface and subjected to a racial profile include the black drug abuser and drug dealer, the threatening and invasive black criminal, the black welfare cheat and queen, and the undeserving black affirmative action recipient. The punitive actions associated with drugs, crime, welfare and affirmative action policy are self-evident, and involve punitive action disproportionately affecting African-American people.

The brilliance of racial profiling as an instrument of modern, deniable racism is that the issue–be it crime, welfare, drug abuse or what have you–is seen by many as a real issue that is only coincidentally about race. The trait of blackness associated with the problem is viewed as nothing more than an unfortunate reality that is secondary to the public hostility and the punitive measures. So it’s not really racist, is it?

By looking at the ways in which the mainstream news media has covered (or failed to cover) several recent studies/stories involving the news media and race, we can begin to get a better understanding of this practice of racial profiling as it relates to the news media.

Racial Profiling as the Missing Link

In March 1998, two studies on U.S. drug policy were released by two prominent groups of physicians within a day of each other. The first study was issued by Physician Leadership on National Drug Policy (PLNDP), a high-profile group of doctors composed, in part, of high-ranking health officials from the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations. The voluminous and exhaustively documented PLNDP study concluded that drug treatment for drug addiction was not only an effective health measure but that it was much more cost-effective then the criminalizing policies of the current “drug war”.

One section of the study showed how, contrary to popular perception, drug addicts are not primarily members of minority racial and ethnic groups. “The research we are releasing today,” the PLNDP announced at its press conference, “shows, conclusively, that drug addiction is very treatable and that it reaches across all strata of society, with affluent, educated Caucasians being the most likely drug users, and the most likely to be addicted.” Looking at adult drug users, the PLNDP study found that more than half of those who admitted using heroin last year are white and 60 percent of monthly cocaine users are white. (Also, 77 percent of regular marijuana users are white, while one in six is African-American.) Youth drug use followed similar patterns.

Paralleling this point about the public misperception of drug use were the results of a survey of 50 years of public opinion called the “The Public and the War on Illicit Drugs,” which was featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) (3/11/98). The study found that although Americans did not think the so-called “War on Drugs” was succeeding, they did not want to abandon the criminalization approach pushed by the government. The study also found that there was weak support for increasing funding for drug treatment.

One of its key conclusions was that public opinion polls indicated the overwhelming majority of Americans had “relatively little firsthand experience with the extent of the problems associated with drug use,” and that “the majority of Americans report getting most of their information about the seriousness of the illicit drug problems from the news media, mainly television.” In fact, the PLNDP presented the JAMA study at its press conference to emphasize how public opinion and the judgment of seasoned physicians were at odds with each other, and how the news media was playing a leading role in misinforming the public about the health and financial issues at the heart of “Drug War” policy.

The powerful findings of these two reports were not covered by any of the three major newsweeklies (Time, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek), nor were they covered by the New York Times or Washington Post. When the story was covered, moreover, the dominant media focused on the disconnect between the views of the public and the research of the physiciansbut said nothing about the role of the news media in fostering the stereotypes fueling the bad drug policy (CNN Today, 3/17/98; Associated Press, 3/17/98; USA Today, 3/18/98).

The role of the news media in promoting racial stereotypes was the missing link between the two studies. Even when Nightline (3/18/98) began its coverage of the story with the acknowledgment that, when it came to the issue of drug addiction and drug policy in the U.S., “most Americans get their information from the new media,” the show glossed over the central problem of news media misinformation. Nor did Nightline host Ted Koppel refrain from reinforcing the very misconceptions his show could have been debunking: Koppel’s repeated emphasis on how “society does not want to spend money on rehabilitation”–when a main point of the PLNDP report was that treatment saves money–amounted to a brief for the very media-enforced ignorance the doctors’ groups sought to dispel.

Almost alone in its coverage of this story was an article by Raja Mishra written for the Knight Ridder News Service and appearing in the Denver Post (3/19/98). Mishra went to the heart of the story when reporting how “the doctors said the public had been misled by media accounts.” The role of the news media in promoting racial stereotypes was the missing link between the two studies. Given the nature of the studies, an obvious conclusion. But it was all but obvious to the mainstream press.

No Surprise

Another study, “Crime in Black and White: The Violent, Scary World of Local News” appeared in the academic journal Press/Politics at the end of 1996 (Spring/96). Although appearing in a scholarly journal on journalism, this study received almost no attention in the media, except for its coverage in the Washington Post (4/28/97) by its media correspondent, Howard Kurtz.

Done by UCLA professors Franklin Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar, “Crime in Black and White” found through a content analysis of local television station KABC in Los Angeles that coverage of crime featured two important cues: “crime is violent and criminals are nonwhite.” The real revelation, however, was that television viewers were so accustomed to seeing African-American crime suspects on the local news that even when the race of a suspect was not specified, viewers tended to remember seeing a black suspect. Moreover, when researchers used digital technology to change the race of certain suspects as they appeared on the screen, a little over a half of those who saw the “white” perpetrator recalled his race, but two-thirds did when the criminal was depicted as black. “Ninety percent of the false recognitions involved African-Americans and Hispanics,” Gilliam said.

To his credit, Kurtz acknowledged the public policy implications of the study when he stated that “support for punitive law-enforcement policies was highest when the stories featured black suspects or provided no information about race and was lowest when the suspects were white.” But his response to the “riveting” findings was fatalistic: “This is not the first complaint about coverage of minorities and crime, and most local stations have not seen fit to change their approach,” he wrote. And when he said that the study placed a “surprisingly harsh light on television and racial attitudes,” one might ask: To whom should this be surprising?

When, a few months later, Kurtz addressed another study of racism in the news media, he again expressed surprise. The study by Yale University professor Martin Gilens, entitled “Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media,” was published in Public Opinion Quarterly (vol. 6, 1996) and found that while African-Americans make up 29 percent of the nation’s poor, they constitute 62 percent of the images of the poor in the leading news magazines, and 65 percent of the images of the poor on the leading network television news programs. Not only were the poor disproportionately portrayed as black, but they were also portrayed in the most unsympathetic fashion. The most sympathetic groups of the poor–i.e. the elderly and the working poor–were under-represented and the least sympathetic group–unemployed working-age adults–was over-represented.

Kurtz, who did not discuss these findings in the Washington Post, was part of a discussion of the study on the CNN “media watch” program Reliable Sources (8/24/97). “Who Put the Black Face on Poverty,” the show asked. Well, the mainstream media “whiteout” of the story provides a clue. Gilens’ study specifically looked at the coverage of Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and ABC, NBC and CBS news. Unsurprisingly, none of these big media outlets covered the release of the study results. Neither did the New York Times. USA Today (8/9/97) and the Washington Post (5/15/97) covered it in a mere paragraph or two.

It was left to the Associated Press (8/18/97) and CNN‘s Reliable Sources (8/24/97) to really cover the story. AP‘s coverage stood out because it addressed Gilen’s point about the news media perpetuating racist misperceptions of the poor that are associated with greater opposition to welfare policy among whites.

But in “Who Put the Black Face on Poverty,” CNN‘s Reliable Sources succeeded in avoiding this point altogether–and in denying that racism was the reason the “black face” was on poverty in the first place. The problem, according to Kurtz, was one of “video wallpaper”–“the pictures that automatically get thrown up” when big city media outlets use photos from, well, big cities with inner cities populated by high concentrations of poor black people.

The fact that Gilens explicitly addressed and refuted this claim in his study never came up. Also unmentioned was Gilen’s point about how “apparently well-meaning, racially liberal news professionals generate images of the social world that consistently misrepresent both black Americans and poor people in destructive ways.” Surprised?

Spooking the Public

Given the prevalence of racial profiling documented here and elsewhere, it only makes sense that a recent survey of young people found that they not only recognized that racial stereotyping was rampant on television, but that TV news was a worse perpetrator of racial stereotyping than TV’s entertainment programming.

The poll, sponsored by the child advocacy group Children Now, interviewed 1,200 boys and girls aged 10-17, with 300 children coming from each of the four largest racial groups. White and African-American children said they see people of their own race on television, while Latino and Asian children were much less likely to see their race represented.

Across all races, children are more likely to associate positive characteristics with white characters and negative characteristics with minority characters. “A Different World: Children’s Perceptions of Race and Class in the Media” reported that “children of all races agree that the news media tend to portray African-American and Latino people more negatively than white and Asian people, particularly when the news is about young people.” In addition, “large majorities of African-Americans (71 percent), Latino (63 percent) and Asian (51 percent) children feel there should be more people of their race as newscasters, while most white children feel there are enough white newscasters (76 percent).”

Again, there was a virtually complete news media white-out of this critical finding. All CNN Newsnight (5/7/98) could say was that the study found that children were “influenced by television news.” The Associated Press (5/6/98) did no better.

On a Nightline (5/6/98) program about the study, guests complained of disproportionately negative images of people of color. The children said they wanted to see television reflect the “realities of their lives,” to “feature more teenagers,” to be “real,” and most importantly, to show more people of all races interacting with each other. The Nightline guests echoed this sense. In response, Nightline host Ted Koppel asked if it was the function of the media to present things “as it is or as we think it should be?”

The children’s perception that the news media were the worse perpetrator of racial stereotyping was indeed mentioned but was never really addressed in the show. Clearly, then, news media are not presenting things as they are–but rather as racial fears project them to be. And a racialized policy agenda is being served up and served. The news media’s practice of racial profiling gives the news consumer no real choice: Too often, we don’t get the reality of what really is, or the dream of what should be, but an imaginary nightmare in blackface.