Perceptions can often affect expectations and, consequently, how one responds to certain stimulus. This may read like a description of classical conditioning in a basic Introduction to Psychology course. But the impact of continuous exposure to the stimulus will have a long term implications on behavior, according to a daylong Pitt Summit on Black male stereotyping by the media.
Closer examination of two media audits of Pittsburgh media reporting of Black men and boys reveals that coincidently or unintentionally, news reporting has been engaging in classical conditioning via pandering to stereotype.
What is widely acknowledged within the Black community is now verified and quantified by independent research: the disparity in portrayal of Black men in media is not paranoia; it is fact was the conclusions drawn by the various panels at the summit.
The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Paula Poindexter termed the findings as “borderline journalism malpractice.”
“I, too, am interested in crime in the neighborhoods and on the streets of our community. However, balance those stories with some positive stories,” said one respondent. “Non–African-Americans think that we are all like that. They have no other frame of reference.”
The studies, by Miami-based Meyer Communications and by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., used different statistical approaches but had similar findings regarding stories published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and broadcast by television stations KDKA, WTAE and WPXI.
The Meyer content analysis found that during three months last year, the largest block of news stories involving Black men and youth were about crime—86 percent of the news broadcasts and 37 percent of the newspaper stories.
“And crime coverage featuring Black men tended to get more prominent play in the news, with the stories more likely appearing atop the news page or at the beginning of the newscast,” the report said.
The Pew report found that the most frequent topics for news broadcasts involving African-American men were sports (43 percent) and crime (30 percent). In the newspapers, crime led all topics involving Black men at 43 percent.
Once crime stories were excluded, the content analysis found there were few other stories about Black males and the majority of them focused on sports and stories on coincidence, i.e. because the President or the police chief is a Black male.
“Quality of life” topics, such as education, business/economy, environment, leadership or the arts, represented significantly smaller percentages of the coverage. Those results helped to explain the distrust of the media by survey participants, nearly all of whom expressed deep dissatisfaction with what they perceived to be the media’s negative focus on Blacks in connection to crime and indicated that they want a change.
The following is cited in the section of the report titled, “Key Findings:”
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo on May 30, 2010, showed the cast of Richmond High School’s “Bye Bye Birdie” performing “Healthy, Normal American Boy.” The display photo was part of the coverage of the 20th annual Gene Kelly Awards at the Benedum Center. Ten days later, local media documented a dangerous and destructive car chase led by Sean Wright of Homewood, a crime suspect who had escaped earlier in the day from a local hospital. Before being subdued and taken into custody, Wright, 21, endangered dozens of lives, rammed three police cruisers with a Lincoln Navigator and injured three police officers during the lunchtime pursuit. A front-page Post-Gazette photo showed him in police custody, handcuffed and wearing a hospital gown. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review played the story above the fold with this headline: “Menace to Society.” The headline’s quote came from Pittsburgh’s African-American Police Chief Nate Harper. “He appears to be and wants to be a menace to society. He’s someone that needs to be locked up for a very long time.”
These two examples show the extremes of how Pittsburgh’s mainstream media present the lives of the region’s African-American men and boys. The first is mentioned for its rarity. The photo includes Antonio Paris, a young African-American actor participating in a school-related, artistic activity. It is rare given the near absence in local mainstream media of articles or images showing young African-American males in normal, everyday activities—anything outside of the context of crime.
The second demonstrates the way local media more frequently associate African-American men and boys with violent crime—an association documented in research nationally.
“We just aren’t portrayed well as people who are intelligent or thoughtful or interested in things like the environment or social causes,” said Pittsburgh Psychologist Walter Howard Smith Jr. during an interview included in the Meyer study. “It’s not as if you never see images of us in those areas. It’s just that you don’t see them, I think, at the level at which we [have] interest in those realms…We are interested, and we are complex people.”
For local media in Pittsburgh, as elsewhere, presenting a fair reflection of the lives of Black American males certainly starts with the hard realities of urban life, among them the city’s historically segregated neighborhoods; high crime statistics involving Black men and teens; Black students on the short end of educational equity; and chronic unemployment continuing as a regional concern in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades.
The audit project is driven by the task force’s mission to identify and increase educational, economic, social and leadership opportunities for Black men and boys in the Pittsburgh region and improve their life outcomes. As one of the Endowments’ special initiatives, the Task Force has identified the media’s portrayals of Black males as a leading contributor to the way the region views itself. Commissioning the audit is a step toward a deeper and more informed understanding of these issues.
Although the Courier’s weekly circulation is comparatively small, including it in the study gave the Meyer team a basis of comparison with the two dailies to illustrate the kind of coverage of Black men and boys that is possible, and to point out the broad range of stories featuring this group. But the scan of all media in the Pittsburgh region, including online outlets, found that the Courier was bearing much of the responsibility for inclusive coverage of Black males.
Staff from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism evaluated the same newspapers and television outlets that were in the Meyer study, but did so for two months in 2011. The Pew examination was limited to only those media and focused on quantitative analysis without including a qualitative component. The Pew researchers’ story-selection process and their statistical methodology offered an approach that differed from the Meyer group.
Among the Pew results was the finding that, for local television stories involving Black men, the most frequent topics were sports (43 percent) and crime (30 percent), while for newspaper stories, crime led all news topics at 43 percent. Despite the different procedures, the two studies’ general findings were the same.
“In either medium, however, African-American males only rarely were present in stories that involved such topics as education, business, the economy, the environment and the arts,” reported the Pew staff. “Of the nearly 5,000 stories studied in both print and broadcast, less than 4 percent featured an African-American male engaged in a subject other than crime or sports.”
These findings join a body of similar research conducted in other communities and on a national level that demonstrates a pervasive problem across the nation.
Full inclusion of local Black men and teens in the media’s reflection of the overall community remains an unmet and frustrating goal.
(This is the second in a series of articles from the Pitt Summit on Black male stereotyping by the media.)