Television Racism

Television plays a central role in perpetuating the four-centuries-old white racist framing of African Americans. I was reading today a 2008 article by Travis Dixon (Travis Dixon, “Crime News and Racialized Beliefs,” Journal of Communication March 2008).
Creative Commons License photo credit: Orin Optiglot

Dixon did a Los Angeles county survey of 506 respondents in 2002-2003 and found that a person’s time spent viewing local television news programs’ overrepresentation of black criminals, as well as his or her attention to crime news and trust of local news, predicted well stereotypes of blacks as criminals. This was true after controls were applied for local neighborhood diversity and local crime rate. Those who paid most attention to television crime news were the most likely to be obsessed with local crime and to give harsher culpability ratings of hypothetical black criminal suspects as compared to white criminal suspects. Television exposure was also found to be directly related to racially stereotyped images of blacks as violent. Dixon has concluded that “News viewing may be part of a process that makes the construct or cognitive linkage between Blacks and criminality frequently activated and therefore chronically accessible.”

Numerous other studies by Dixon and various researchers show similar patterns. (See chapters 7-8 here) Today, one major source of many negative images of black Americans (and other Americans of color) is television. Eight in ten Americans watch local television news at least four nights a week. These local news programs, now the major source of information for a majority, often accent violent crime. One study of fifty-six cities found that crime was the subject of one-third of such local programming. Studies also show that local violent crimes get extensive coverage, while local nonviolent crimes such as fraud and embezzlement usually get little. Black suspects are commonly over-represented relative to actual arrest rates, while the opposite is true for whites.

In an earlier 2002 study Dixon and D. Linz suggested that this media criminality imagery likely influences the way many whites view their chances of being victims, as well as the way they might decide guilt or innocence on juries in cases involving black defendants. The media theory called “cultivation theory” argues that heavy exposure to television content about the social world tends to influence how people see the outside society, even if that outside world is not at all like that in the television programming.

Television thus constantly reinforces four-centuries-old stereotypes from the white racist framing of African Americans and other Americans of color like the Latino whose death we blogged on recently –which is one major reason that there cannot be a “post-racial America” any time soon. At a minimum, the white racial frame’s constant perpetuation and reinforcement in the media will have to come to an end before whites’ racist views of African Americans can come to an end.