Clinton School professor alleges pervasive racial bias in media

Mass media is guilty of implying that blacks commit more crimes than the factual record bears out and that whites are more frequent victims of crime than the statistics show, according to a professor from the Clinton School of Public Service who spoke in Pine Bluff Thursday night.

Travis L. Dixon, associate professor of communication studies at the University of California Los Angeles and Clinton School Center on Community Philanthropy Visiting Philanthropy Faculty Scholar, gave a presentation on Race in the Media at the Donald W. Reynolds Center that attracted around 50 people.

“One of the things we want to do tonight is speak about media literacy,” Dixon said. “We are talking about educating yourself about the function and impact of the mass media. Scholars have found evidence that African-Americans are over-represented as criminal suspects in news programs compared to the actual crime reports. In addition, African-Americans are associated with the most negative possible roles and situations in crime news. Furthermore, whites are over-represented in more positive roles as police officers and crime victims.”

Dixon encouraged discussion on the topic of whether these biases are present in Pine Bluff media outlets.

“Television news is important because we expect it to reflect reality,” Dixon said. “But often it creates its own version of reality. We have not looked directly at Pine Bluff in our research but these images come up everywhere we look.”

Dixon said these media biases cause very different reactions from white versus black consumers of news media.

“White viewers are more likely to support tough crime policies including three strikes, the death penalty, stand your ground laws, and trying juveniles as adults,” Dixon said. “They support Republican political candidates and don’t support social programs like food stamps and welfare. Black viewers don’t support tough- on-crime policies and do support social programs.”

Dixon said the news media focuses on what he termed blue-collar crime, because it is easier to cover than white-collar crime.

“It’s easy to go out and cover a shooting or a robbery,” Dixon said. “White-collar crime takes more time to cover and is not seen as sexy.”

Dixon said the profit motive encourages an emphasis on the kinds of crimes blacks are more likely to commit, such as robbery; instead of crimes more likely committed by whites such as corporate embezzlement.

“Exposure to biased media portrayals triggers a negative mental image of black male criminals,” Dixon said. “This stereotypical association then leads to biased judgments that may be made even without the news viewers’ conscious awareness. One deadly consequence of this could be police shootings of unarmed black men, or the profiling of black shoppers. Research suggests that those who watch lots of news tend to think that blacks are dangerous and that black crime is out of control.”

After Dixon’s presentation the audience was divided into groups of six to 10 and encouraged to discuss what can be done to address racial bias in the news and to come up with ideas on how to combat it.