Television media can be responsible for altering a person’s worldview and often, aspects of the social context of crimes can contribute to the reporting of the race or ethnicity of those involved in a crime, potentially providing a misleading picture of which groups are most vulnerable to violent victimization.
To view the original research and data created by Eileen E.S. Bjornstrom, click here.
Research on racial-ethnic portrayals in television crime news is limited and questions remain about the sources of representations and how these vary for perpetrators versus victims. We draw from power structure, market share, normal crimes, racial threat, and racial privileging perspectives to further this research. The reported race or ethnicity of violent crime perpetrators and victims are modeled as functions of: (1) situational characteristics of crime stories; and (2) contextual characteristics of television market areas. The primary data are from a stratified random sample of television newscasts in 2002–2003 (Long et al. 2005). An important innovation of our work is the use of a national, more generalizeable, sample of local news stories than prior researchers who tended to focus on single market areas. Results indicate that both the context of the story itself and the social structural context within which news stories are reported are relevant to ethnic and racial portrayals in crime news. We find limited support for power structure, market share, normal crimes and racial threat explanations of patterns of reporting. Racial privileging arguments receive more extensive support.
Media representations of crime shape public opinion in important ways, including through the frequency with which, and how they present criminal participants and victims. For example, views of the nature of the crime problem and who, or what, is responsible for said problem in a locale may be shaped by the extent to which specific groups are over- or under-represented as perpetrators or victims in crime news relative to other groups or their share of criminal involvement or victimization. On the one hand, if media sources overrepresent certain groups (e.g., males, people of color, etc.) as perpetrators, this may promote racial or gender stereotypes or reinforce public hostility toward such groups (e.g., Barlow, Barlow, and Chiricos 1990; Dixon, Azocar and Casas 2003; Dixon and Linz 2000a, 2000b; Russell 1998). On the other hand, overrepresentation of the victimization of certain groups (e.g., females, Whites, etc.) may promote misleading views of what populations are the most vulnerable to crime, or who should fear crime. If media sources shape public opinion in these ways and such opinion has its counterpart in the development of criminal justice policies, differential treatment may be the result (e.g., harsher penalties for crimes that are more typically committed by certain perpetrators; greater attention to reducing the victimization of members of certain groups who may be erroneously perceived as being at greater risk for victimization) (Bobo and Johnson 2004; Russell 1998).
In light of their potential influence, researchers have sought to assess empirically the nature and outcomes of media representations of crime. Further, because of the assumed differential group impact of such representations, a number of scholars have directed their attention to how racial and ethnic groups are portrayed in crime news stories. Several research issues have been explored: (1) the extent to which news coverage represents actual patterns of participation in crime by different ethnic and racial groups (e.g., Gilliam et al. 1996; Lundman 2003, 2004); (2) the manifest content of racial portrayals and/or the extent to which these involve racial typifications (e.g., Chiricos and Eschholz 2002; Gilliam et al. 1996; Lundman 2003, 2004); and (3) the impact of race and ethnic portrayals on audiences' concerns about crime and views of who, or what, is responsible for the crime problem (e.g., Altheide 1997; Dixon and Linz 2000b; Entman 1992; Entman and Rojecki 2000).
Despite the proliferation of studies, findings about the nature of media representations of crime vis-á-vis race-ethnic groups are not straightforward. Research provides some evidence that racial minorities (especially, African Americans) are overrepresented in news stories focused on perpetrators of violent crime (e.g., Dixon and Linz 2000a). However, this is not a uniform finding across investigations. For example, some studies indicate that the representation of members of subordinate populations as crime perpetrators in news media is consistent with their “real” share of arrests or offending (e.g., Chiricos and Eschholz 2002). Others indicate that Whites rather than Blacks or Latinos are overrepresented as perpetrators (e.g., Dixon et al. 2003). To date, research has not provided a clear explanation of these disparate patterns.
Such inconsistent findings may result from several limitations of extant work. First, with some notable exceptions (Altheide 1997; Chiricos and Eschholz 2002; Dixon and Linz 2000a, 2000b; Dixon et al. 2003; Poindexter, Smith and Heider 2003; Sacco 1982), existing work examines news coverage in the print media. This is true despite the fact that in the contemporary United States people get most of their news from television, and often regard television as the most important, credible, and trustworthy news source (GlobeScan 2006). Given this, efforts to assess ethnic and racial portrayals in news media should consider television news in detail. Second, investigations of crime news coverage have often examined news in one local area (Chiricos and Eschholz 2002; Dixon and Linz 2000a, 2000b; Entman 1992; Sacco 1982; Sheley and Ashkins 1981). This emphasis comports with the recognition that local news tends to be more influential in determining individuals' perspectives than national news (Dorfman, Thorson and Stevens 2001; Liska and Baccaglini 1990; Poindexter et al. 2003). Yet, considering a single news market makes it difficult to fully examine the role of social structural context in outcomes, and to determine the extent to which patterns found in individual places hold when the full range of variation in important conditions is considered.
Third, research on the representation of race and ethnic groups in news coverage has tended to focus on the consequences of stories (racial stereotyping, fear of crime, hostility toward groups, equation of news coverage with world reality). This focus is understandable in view of contemporary interests in: (1) reducing sensationalism and increasing accuracy and fairness in news coverage (Gilliam et al. 1996; Heider 2000; Klein and Naccarato 2003; Rosenstiel, Gottlieb, and Brady 2000); and (2) setting news stories in their broader context to foster improved understanding of social problems like crime (Coleman and Thorson 2002; Dixon et al. 2003; Iyengar 1991; Rogers and Thorson 2001). Yet, properly addressing these and other concerns may depend upon having a more fundamental understanding of the situational and contextual reasons for over-and/or under-representation of different groups in news about crime. To address this possibility, greater attention must be given to the factors that predict crime news portrayals by ethnicity and race. Answers are needed to a variety of questions. In what types of contexts are particular race and ethnic groups inaccurately versus accurately portrayed in news? Do media distinguish among representations of males versus females? Are race and ethnic representations equally distorted or accurate for homicides and other types of violent crime?
Given our limited knowledge regarding such issues, the research reported below examines the predictors of ethnic and racial representations of perpetrators and victims of violent crime in a stratified random sample of news reports drawn from local television stations across the United States as well as from broadcasts of news on four national networks: ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC. Including both local and national network news stories in the analysis helps to ensure that our sample represents the breadth of market sizes in which television stations operate, as well as the full range of violent crime news stories to which viewers are exposed. Relying on these news reports, we ask: (1) how do situational components of crime stories and aspects of the social structural context, such as the race and ethnic composition, and level of violent crime in the area, influence variation in outcomes; and (2) to what degree do such predictors have similar or different effects for representations of perpetrators versus victims.