Controversy Erupts Over Newspaper's Use of Photos In Reporting Two Similar Crimes

Iowa newspaper The Gazette ran two articles last week about two burglaries, written by the same author, and published a day apart. Blogger Rafi D'Angelo took to his blog, So Let’s Talk About , to point out a major discrepancy between the reports: The one featuring white suspects used college yearbook photos, and the one featuring black suspects used mug shots. Suggesting that the paper was exercising racial bias in its use of images, D'Angelo asks, “Which story plants the seed into a potential jury pool that this is a group of good kids versus this is a group of criminals?” KCRG, a news network affiliated with The Gazette, has since issued a statement denying any racial bias in its coverage of the incidents.

On its face, the inconsistency in the images looks problematic: Same newspaper, similar types of crime, same reporter, same week. White suspects portrayed as suit-wearing, school-attending athletes. Black suspects portrayed as criminals. Although one could argue that the black suspects may not have had college yearbook photos readily available (I have not been able to obtain information about the suspects’ educational backgrounds), the white suspects certainly had mug shots taken when they were arrested, so why not use those?

KCRG, which also used the yearbook photos and mug shots, argues in a statement that the discrepancy is due simply to police regulations regarding mug shots. According to the network, the decision to use different types of photos was motivated by accessibility; the police station where the black suspects were being held allows immediate media use of mug shots, while the station holding the white suspects requires media outlets to issue a formal request for the images. The network claims to have requested the mug shots for the white suspects, but while waiting for approval, it went ahead and used the suspects’ college yearbook photos, which were available online. The original post about the white burglary suspects has since been updated to include their mug shots in place of the yearbook photos that were initially used.

KCRG denies that racial bias influenced its coverage of the burglaries, insisting:

At no time in this process or in our policies does race factor into coverage decisions. The availability of pictures differs in each story and our policy is aimed at getting the best images and information available to the public in a timely manner.

KCRG's explanation is plausible, and this episode would seem to be the result of an unfortunate series of coincidences.

Nevertheless, the basic issue raised by D'Angelo — that media depictions of black people shape public perceptions of guilt and innocence – bears examination. Research has shown that media representations of black men, in formats ranging from fictional TV shows to video games to the news, exaggerate traits like criminality, poverty, and unemployment, while at the same time limiting their portrayal of more positive characteristics. These representations have a serious effect on public perceptions of race, leading to heightened negative associations with black men, including exaggerated assumptions of their criminality and a decreased ability to identify with their lives.

In short, media representation matters. D'Angelo is not the first to point out that African Americans are often portrayed in news reportage in ways that highlight criminality and violence. The biases, conscious and unconscious, that lead some media outlets to implicitly portray black suspects in a negative light, emphasizing their supposed criminality over their humanity, accumulate to create a culture in which people of color are declared guilty from the moment their pictures appear in the media, while their white counterparts — shown in yearbook and graduation photos, with family, or simply smiling — are given the benefit of the doubt.

Image: Ramzi Nasir/Twitter