Race, Racism and Online News & Sports: What the Research Tells Us

Reading newspapers is, as Benedict Anderson (1991) observed, one of the primary ways that people imagine themselves part of a community, whether that’s a nation, small town or a high school.  This has not changed as the news has moved to increasingly online forms of distribution (Riley, et al., 1998, “Community or Colony: The Case of Online Newspapers and the Web,”  JCMC 4(1), page 0).   There were certainly racialized (and racist) messages in the discourse of news in traditional print (and broadcast) media.  For evidence of this, see Teun Van Dijk’s classic, Racism and the Press, Routledge 1991, and Peter Teo’s more recent “Racism in the News,” Discourse & Society January 2000 11(1): 7-49).  Alongside these old forms, the Internet has helped foster some new manifestations of race and racism in online news and sports.

Guardian.co.uk front page election coverage
(Creative Commons License photo credit: Scorpions and Centaurs)

Post Your [expletive] Comment Here. As online news has opened up the range of sources available, there’s a growing body of research that looks at online news consumption.   See, for example, this review article by Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (New Media & Society, November 2010 12(7):1085-1102).    This has had unintended consequences in terms of racism.  Around 2004, the online arms of many U.S. newspapers opened their websites for comments.  Today, some seven years into this experiment, many news sites have abandoned the practice of allowing comments because of the proliferation of offensive comments, many of them racist.  In an interview in September, 2010, Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star responded to questions about racist comments online this way:

“We’ve seen comments that people would not make in the public square or any type of civic discussion, maybe even within their own families. There is no question in my mind that the process, because it’s largely anonymous, enables people who would never speak up on Main Street to communicate their thoughts.”

The online arm of The Indianapolis Star employs moderators, people whose job it is to read all the comments posted online and then delete individual racist comments.  On some stories that editors expect will generate racist comments, the entire comments section is disabled beforehand, a practice shared by a growing number of newspapers.

The Tragedy of the Commons. The presence, indeed the preponderance, of racist comments in the public sphere highlight a problem that Howard Rheingold has referred to as a “classic tragedy of the commons dilemma.” The tragedy of the commons dilemma (first described by Garrett Hardin in 1968) is a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.  The problem with comments online is, as Rheingold describes it, one in which “flamers, bullies, bigots, charlatans, know-nothings and nuts in online discourse take advantage of open access to other people’s attention” (Rheingold, Smart Mobs, 2002, p.121).   In other words, those who are posting the offensive, expletive-filled comments are spoiling the comments section for everyone else.

Documenting Backstage Racism Online: The “Fighting Sioux” Study. So far, few researchers have taken on the task of analyzing racist comments.   One study that has systematically looked at the way comments in online forums of news sites foster and reproduce racism (Steinfeldt, J., et al. (2010) ‘Racism in the Electronic Age: Role of Online Forums in Expressing Racial Attitudes about American Indians’, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 16(3):362-371).  In their study of over 1,000 posts related to University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname and logo used for their athletic team, Steinfeldt and colleagues found that a critical mass of online forum comments represented disdain toward American Indians by providing misinformation, perpetuating stereotypes, and expressing overtly racist attitudes toward Native Americans.

The researchers explained their findings through the framework of two-faced racism (Picca & Feagin, 2007).   Drawing on Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the presentation of “front stage” and “back stage” performances of the self, Picca and Feagin developed the concept of two-faced racism to explain the hundreds of thousands of diary entries from white college students in which they document the ways that whites perform tolerance in public, mixed-race settings and explicit racism in private, white-only spaces.

The concept of two-faced racism seems especially useful for explaining the tragedy of the commons dilemma created by racist comments online.  Those who post these comments may be used to thinking of the “back stage” as a fairly welcoming space for such remarks.  The apparent anonymity of online commenting tends to blur the public and private, giving those who post comments the allure of “back stage” comfort and familiarity when, in fact, they are presenting their self in the “front stage” by posting online.

Online Reputation: Tainted by Racism? One of the hot button topics among people writing and thinking about the Internet is “online reputation.”   Online reputation systems, like those used on eBay where users rate each other on basic trustworthiness within the terms of the site, are a central feature of how online business is able to operate efficiently.   It’s a way of countering the corrosive effects of online anonymity.   In reality, we know that online anonymity is an illusion in many ways, as increasingly sophisticated software keeps track of our identity and our preferences as we move between websites.

There’s a fairly new site that offers a clever twist on online reputation.  The site is called “PWSNT” which is an acronym for “People Who Said [the N-word] Today,” with the tag line, “every morning, the hottest, freshest screenshots of white people using the n-word.”    Just as the name of the site promises, it posts the photo and full name of people who have used the n-word in their social networking site profile.

The site is problematic in various ways (e.g. it routinely uses language like “retard” and engages in fat-shaming) but it’s an interesting strategy for interrupting the unchecked flow of “back stage” racism flowing onto the “front stage” of public profiles.    It’s still too early for any sort of systematic research on what sort of effect this might have on one’s reputation online, but I suspect that research is just around the next corner.


  1. parvenu

    Racism in the public media is a huge topic. Therefore to offer my observations, I will confine location to the U.S. and American media racialist relationship with African Americans. Even with this narrow focus it remains a formidable topic. The reason I am restricting myself to African Americans is that the character of American media racialism is determined the “race” of the respective targets and the respective period of American history from which the observation is taken. For example, there have been three ethnic groups that have experienced severe racialist treatment by American media and these are Negroes, Chinese, and Japanese. But as I mentioned above I will confine my observations to Negroes/African Americans.

    It was commonly accepted practice for the American media NOT to include any mention of Negroes either in print or radio until the post World War II era. The only deviation from this practice was reports of run-away slaves or reports of some Negro arrested after supposedly committing a crime or crimes against some white person or persons. Normal reporting on citizens of respective communities did not include the activities of Negroes regardless of their achievements or any international recognition. Negro newspapers were founded at various times in different locations to provide expanding Negro communities with the information about themselves that was so sorely needed to support the commercial expansion of these respective enclaves. Some of these newspapers were founded soon after the end of the American Civil War. Others were founded during the 1920’s and 1930’s. However, the population of Negro newspapers reached a peak during World War II and provided the ONLY information to the Black communities as to the military movements of the Negro battalions during the course of the war.

    Virtually every Negro newspaper featured an extensive sports column which was the first source of information concerning the activities of black athletes across the nation. Black sports writers were the first writers to provide extensive coverage of the many Players in the famed “Negro Baseball Leagues”. along with the first black Olympians. The activities of Negro athletes provided the initial break through into the white media and much of the material written by black sports writers wound up in the white newspapers under a white sports writer’s byline during this post war era.

    The black newspapers also provided much needed reporting on the activities of the black social world. The note worthy events concerning African Americans who had achieved recognition and/or special status in some highly respected profession or persons who were well known locally provided the material for the social columns of black newspapers of the time.

    Unfortunately the arrival of television signaled the tragic decline of most of the Negro newspapers across America, with just a few regional publications able to hang on. This period also included the rise of new black mega-magazines such as Ebony and Jet which provided material and coverage of African American notables (sports figures, entertainers and black movie stars) exclusively on a national basis.

    During this period white TV media increased its inclusion of African American shows on its entertainment roster. However, the overwhelming majority of these shows were designed to cater to the expected biases and racialism of white viewers. As a result the most popular of the early African American situation comedies was the “Amos and Andy” show. The “Beulah Show” quickly followed on another network. These early shows were subsequently followed by the “Good Times” sitcom which also became very popular with white viewers and ultimately became a long running show. All of these TV shows featured non-subtle reinforcement of every well known shop worn African American stereotype going back centuries to the founding of the American colonies.

    White Television producers like to point to the “Cosby Show” as an example of a solid wholesome non-stereotype sitcom about a black family where both of the parents were certified professionals. However, it was the early entrenchment of racialist norms in the comedy material of black sitcoms which are carried forward today in Television news and sports.

    The sports world continues to erect artificial barriers against African American players citing a variety of racialist reasons. For example in professional football it was long acknowledged among white sports writers that blacks could never succeed at the position of quarter back on the team because this position required “the player to be able to think quickly while moving in order to be able to complete a pass against the other teams defense”. In the mind of most white sports writers blacks were genetically incapable of thinking fast enough to play the position of quarter back. This viewpoint was voiced frequently during the conversation of the white broadcasters during football games until Doug Williams came along and won the Super bowl from the quarter back position. Doug Williams single handedly silenced this racialist criticism and it has thus faded away.

    In baseball, at one point in the post Jackie Robinson era every African American batting champion was always compared to Willie Mays. (Mays became the darling of the sports writers because with all of his fame and accomplishments on the baseball diamond, he still knew his place and always remained deferential to the white sports writers.) Hence regardless of the African American ball players position or his batting style, once he became an outstanding player, he was always compared to Willie Mays and never compared to a white player, say someone like Ted Williams. The same racialist categorizing holds true in other sports like professional football.

    Likewise, reports of a black man seen fleeing the scene of some crime is immediately reported as fact by the Television media. Recently we have witnessed white people committing a crime and reporting it to the police as being perpetrated by some black man. After a massive police man hunt for the non-existent black man fails to produce any suspects, it is subsequently revealed that the white family member actually committed the crime. 300 years of racialist conditioning has made it seem almost reasonable for white people to believe reports concerning any crime committed by some black person.

    Currently the media is developing a new racialist stereotype, i.e., the angry black woman. This stereotype is currently being written into the material of many 2011-2012 TV shows. Thus, the racialist attitudes and customs continue to be perpetuated in “post racial” America.

  2. Will

    As a black man I don’t watch the news on television, but I do read some random news articles online, and sometimes I check out my local newspaper.

    I gathered that if a crime is committed and a black person, or black people are suspects, there is almost no doubt that the article will include mugshots. In one newspaper it was reported that SLED officers arrested members of a local gang that they believe were responsible for violent crimes in the area. There was at least 20 members listed and every one of them had his mugshot printed on the front page. Basically, all you saw on the front page were young black men.

    On another newspaper a white man was arrested for sexual abuse against his relatives. His mugshot was relatively small. However, a black suspect who was tried for kidnapping, had his picture in court at least twice the size.

    I was wondering if the race of the suspect depends on the size of the mugshot, arrest or courtroom picture, and if so, how often?

    I also noticed that when a black athlete gets in trouble with the law, there’s a great chance that it will be reported. In effect two stereotypes overlap in cases like that.

    Overall, if a black person is suspected of a crime, the media will report it. With the recent crime of that 11 year-old girl being gang raped and the suspects being black men, it’s getting a lot of press. However, I read a report that a girl was held and raped by a father and his two sons, and it hardly got any buzz. I think both deserve our attention and with any crime, we should ask questions as to how it came to those events and what can be done to prevent events like that from happening again.

    Lastly, it’s rare to hear positive black stories that are ourside sports or entertainment, mostly comedy. It’s rare to hear about a black person saving anyone or achieving anything outside sports and entertainment.

    To be honest it’s really depressing.


  1. Racism in the News « thecoolwrt205

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