The assorted collection of murderers, thieves, robbers, rapists, adulterers, victims, detectives, criminalists, forensic scientists and everyday people look like America on TV’s hot new documentary channel Investigation Discovery. These real-life characters are White, Black, Latino, Asian and, occasionally, Native-American. They include men and women, boys and girls, young, old and in between.
Yet, according to two new studies commissioned by The Heinz Endowments and a one-day summit of experts sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Affairs this month, young black men and boys rarely appear in daily national and local American news media. But, when they do, the tendency is to present them as the focus of crime coverage, replete with mug shots and perp walks.
One of the Pittsburgh studies, “African-American Men and Boys Pittsburgh Media Audit” by Meyer Communications, reports that in a three-month period in 2010 fewer than one in 10 front-page newspaper stories featured Black males; one-third of print coverage that did feature Black men and boys focused on crime, while 86 percent of the television news did. Crime coverage depicting African-American men was usually presented prominently above the fold in print and led broadcasts on television news.
Pew Center research a year later found much the same imbalances in print and television news media, with Blacks overemphasized in crime and sports. The Pew study also vindicated my own interpretation of news coverage—which has ignited more than one hostile response by smug opposition—that news media negatively depict African-Americans without necessarily mentioning their race, relying instead on visually presenting their Black visages to illustrate the scary news.
In this regard, Pew reported that on television, 97 percent of the stories involving African-American males offered visual references, including negative portrayals, without direct discussion of their ethnicity or racial identity. In print, where the number of photographs is limited, the proportion—81 percent—was still enormous.
At Pitt’s Evolving the Image of African-American Males in American Media Summit, University of Texas journalism professor and summit consultant Paula Poindexter ignited a robust exchange with Post-Gazette executive editor David M. Shribman regarding his claim that he personally was not enamored of crime stories appearing in the pages of the region’s largest daily. All the same, Ms. Poindexter countered, Post-Gazette coverage of Black males does focus on crime coverage. Mr. Shribman pledged improvements.
Whether it was a post-Halloween trick, an affirmation of independent news judgment or an untimely coincidence, the next’s day’s excellent reporting on the summit in the Post-Gazette was surrounded, ironically, by images of two young African-American convicts on the occasion of their being sentenced to life terms for murder as well as a large photo of a Black Pittsburgh Steeler.
Also at the summit, Larry Davis, a Pitt psychologist and dean of the School of Social Work, presented a grim update on the 1940s Kenneth Clark studies of Black children who preferred “good” White dolls—studies that figured in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education. Bombarded by an American world of Black negativity that includes the documented media portrayals, Mr. Davis reported, Black children in 2009 studies still chose White dolls, rejected Black dolls and pointed to the “bad” Black dolls as most resembling themselves. Few eyes at the summit failed to fill with tears, whether they welled from Black or White men or women.
Since 1827—when John Russworm and Samuel Cornish founded America’s first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal—the African-American press has been on the right track of attempting to improve the portrayals and self-image of Black people. In reporting on Black communities, newspapers such as the New York Amsterdam News, the St. Louis Argus and the New Pittsburgh Courier figured out how to balance crime and sports coverage with political, educational, social, economic and international coverage. Readers of these publications over time might conclude that the noteworthy victories, victors, villains and victims of Black America mirror broader America.
One also might conclude that American communities that want to embrace all of their members must make concerted efforts to move away from deleterious news media portrayals of African-American men and boys toward depictions that are fair, balanced and accurate.
(Robert Hill is the University of Pittsburgh’s vice chancellor for public affairs.)