What you see on television has the potential to shape your opinion and worldview for better or for worse. A new report says the negative images of Black people make up a disproportionate amount of news coverage, and these negative representations of Black people in the media are hugely inaccurate, and the implications are further-reaching than you might think
“News and opinion media set the agenda for what we know and influence how we make meaning of what we see and experience in the world around us," Nicole Rodgers, founder and executive director of Family Story, said in the forward of the report. For decades, scholars have documented how racialized and gendered stereotypes reinforced by news media shape our perceptions and, therefore, the decisions we make. The power of the news media to shape what millions of people feel is normal or abnormal is incredibly strong,” she continued.
The report, entitled "A Dangerous Distortion of our Families: Representation of Families, by Race, in News and Opinion Media," was published by Color of Change. Led by Dr. Travis L. Dixon, professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the report examined how inaccurate media representation are negatively skewing public perception of Black Americans. If you happen to own a television or smartphone, you’ll see images of Black people who are overwhelmingly criminals, absentee fathers, and welfare-dependent, but those images are disproportionately negative compared with government statistics.
The report found Black families represent 59 percent of portrayals of poor people in news and opinion media, despite making up only 27 percent of poor people in real life. White families represent 17 percent of the poor in news and opinion media but make up 66 percent of the poor population in the United States, according to the report. Similar patterns exist in portraying welfare recipients in media. Black families represent 60 percent of welfare recipients in news and opinion media but make up just 42 percent of welfare recipients, according to the report.
There are structural reasons why many Black people find themselves living in poverty, but those reasons are hardly ever addressed in the media. Dr. Dixon’s analysis found that fewer than 10 percent of news stories cited data referencing structural, historic, or systemic barriers to Black wealth acquisition.
“This leaves people with the opinion that Black people are plagued with self-imposed dysfunction that creates family instability and therefore, all their problems,” Dr. Dixon told the Washington Post.
Inaccurate media portrayals have consequences that reach beyond the entertainment value of a show or movie. According to Dr. Dixon, portraying Black people as dysfunctional on television can negatively impact public policy, especially when the people making the decisions don’t personally know many Black people. Instead, they look to news reports and popular movies and television shows and think, “It’s all their fault. They just need to get their ducks in a row,” Dixon said to the Washington Post. Dr. Dixon points to Congress’ consideration to “gut social safety net programs” as a tangible example of racial stereotypes fueling politics.
You may think this phenomenon is only a problem perpetuated by certain news outlets, but that’s not the case: "It is not only the ideologically-driven news sources" that fell into these patterns, says the report.
There are ways to represent Black people appropriately and fairly. The report lays out five recommendations, which include advertisers taking responsibility for their role in promoting certain television programs. “Corporate advertisers must take responsibility for sponsoring the steady campaign of misinformation and inaccurate representation led by right wing media outlets and revise their media buying protocols to incorporate standards of accuracy in assessing news platforms,” the report reads. Dr. Dixon and his team also recommend revising standards and protocols for reporting on families.
Representation does matter, and portraying an entire group of people as problematic is dangerous and irresponsible. As this report shows, inaccurate portrayals can have serious implications.