Campus News

The News Media and Race: How Accurate is Coverage?

Story posted December 05, 2002

As Americans, we rely on news media to give us information and to frame our viewpoints about our everyday lives. But how reliable is the media in giving us an accurate representation of race in the United States? This year, Kirk Johnson, assistant professor of sociology, is using his sabbatical to study how race is portrayed in the media and how the racial makeup of media organizations affects coverage.

Years ago, when he was working on Capitol Hill, Johnson began thinking about the way the media portrays stories. He would sit in a government hearing, then go home and watch a report about the same hearing on television, and he'd notice discrepancies between what he'd witnessed and what the media reported.

"I just wondered about how the perceptions of reality differ," he said.

He later moved to Boston, and in an effort to combine his interests in the media and in race, he devised a study of news stories in the Boston area. He monitored the news for one month, and analyzed 3200 local news stories to get a sense of how African Americans and African-American communities were portrayed by the Boston media.

"I think if people use the media, they rely on what the media tell them, particularly about race," Johnson said. "The question I wanted to address is: If somebody is living in Boston, and all their information on black Bostonians comes from the media, what does that look like?"

He found that the white owned media tended to portray them according to stereotypes, while black owned media carried positive stories as well as negative and didn't have the same kind of adherence to stereotypes.

"You got a sense that the black press was treating the community with more balance," he said.

Johnson's study brought attention to the issue, as did a murder case in the early 1990s: A white man claimed that his wife was killed and he was attacked by a black man. A lot of anger towards blacks surfaced. Throughout the case, the black community was suspicious of the truth in the man's story, and he was later found to have committed the crime himself.

"The media just bought the story hook line and sinker," Johnson said. After that event, there was a lot of soul searching among the media.

Fifteen years later seems like a good time to look at the issue again, Johnson said. He hopes to find that the portrayal of blacks in the Boston media is more balanced than it was when he did his first study. Once again, Johnson is analyzing a month's worth of local stories - about 3300 stories from eight Boston media outlets: The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, three television stations, The Bay State Banner and two smaller black-owned newspapers.

Johnson expects the research to be completed in the spring, but so far he's seeing a change from his first study.

"I really expected to find that the passage of time hadn't made much difference, but I am finding it has made some difference," he said. "I think the change really has been measurable."

Preliminary analysis shows that the coverage of blacks in the major media of Boston has gotten more diverse. While crime stories topped the types of coverage giving to African Americans in both 1986 and 2002, the percentage of crime stories has dropped and the breadth of other coverage is much greater. Among black owned media, education stories were at the top of the list with crime stories falling near the bottom. After completely analyzing the coverage, Johnson plans to interview black and white reporters to guage their perceptions about the coverage and compare those perceptions to reality

The second study Johnson is working on during his sabbatical year is a natural outgrowth of the first.

"This is a study that examines what happens when African American journalists work for white-owned media outlets," he said.

Back during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s it became apparent that the white media were largely ignorant about the conditions in black communities. Activists urged media outlets to hire reporters who were more representative of the communities being reported on. Recruitment programs to bring in a more diverse group of reporters - African Americans, Asians, women - began in the 1970s and have continued to this day.

"The question is," Johnson said, "What impact has this had."

A few years ago a study found that newspapers with black journalists were actually less likely to look at a story in terms of race.

"This goes against the grain of what recruitment was meant to do," Johnson said.

Even the Federal Communications Commission, a driving force behind minority recruitment, doesn't know what the results have been, Johnson said, and we need to know in order to decide if, and how, it should continue.

"I actually think that the study could have some major ramifications," Johnson said. "Everyone has been sailing along, thinking they're doing the right thing, contributing to the public good, but no one really knows."

Johnson is undertaking what he believes is the first serious study of the effects of minority recruitment on news coverage. He is looking at three major stories involving race and comparing how that story is treated by the nation's 50 largest daily newspapers. Among other characteristics, he'll look at the placement of the stories, the word count, whether a picture accompanied the article and how frankly the article talked about race. Then Johnson will compare this to the composition of the news staff.

The three stories he chose all involve race: a discrimination settlement with the Coca-Cola company, an election story involving Jesse Jackson and African-American protesters in Florida, and a story about home mortgages and black borrowers.

"Many observers, from W.E.B. DuBois to Bill Clinton have steadily maintained that race is the final dividing line in our culture," Johnson said. "Many of us don't understand race, and we labor under false assumptions about race, and many of those are a direct outgrowth of mass media imagery."

Talking about race in America is difficult, and even news articles about race don't always deal with the issue in a straightforward manner. Johnson gave the example of coverage concerning a Clinton White House initiative on racism. One study showed that many of the nations largest newspapers failed to use the word "racism" in their coverage of the initiative, instead using euphemisms, such as "racial misunderstanding."

This difficulty stems from our ideal of what it means to be as Americans. The United States is a country founded on the promise of liberty, but with a history of racism.

"Racism is deeply ingrained as who we are as Americans...Acknowledging that so cuts against the grain of who we think we are," Johnson said.

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