Black people say a negative media stereotypes their community, racism plays a role

Nearly 40% of survey respondents said they see racist or racially insensitive news often.

Black people hold critical views of the media, which they say stereotypes their community and covers it more negatively, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

“There’s not a lot of African American coverage unless it’s February or it’s criminal,” one focus group participant told Pew. 

Michael Lipka, the associate director of news and information research at Pew, said overall, Republicans harbor more media distrust than Democrats. But Black Americans distrust the media at the same rate regardless of their political preference. 

Kim Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at North Carolina A&T, an HBCU, said the survey results do not surprise him. (Submitted photo)

Regarding how the media covers Black people, “The views are pretty similarly negative on both sides of the aisle,” Lipka told theGrio. “There’s not really much disagreement there. Even Black Republicans hold the view that there are a lot of problems with how the news media covers Black people.”

The survey of nearly 5,000 Black adults was conducted in late February and early March. According to the results, released on Sept. 26:

  • 63% said news about Black people is often more negative than other ethnic or racial groups.
  • 43% said news coverage largely stereotypes Black people. 
  • Nearly four in 10 (39%)  said they see racist or racially insensitive news fairly or extremely often.
  • Only 6% of those surveyed said they believe they’re being fairly treated.

Focus group comments, sprinkled throughout the survey, drove home the point of distrust. 

Regarding how Black people are covered in the news, one focus group participant said, “When a White person commits a crime, it’s an individual, it is a mental issue. When a Black person commits a crime, it’s the total community. It’s the Black community, and it’s an indictment on all of us.”

When discussing why news coverage may be racially insensitive, one participant said news outlets want white people “to be scared, and fear coming to the Black areas or put money in those areas to build up the businesses to help us out. … They want to look at a Black person and think we’re all bad and think we’re all going to hurt them when that’s not true.”

The survey results don’t surprise Kim Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at North Carolina A&T, an HBCU. 

“Overall, the results seem to support two decades-old communication theories,” in agenda setting and cultivation theory, he said.

In agenda setting, “If your media messages portray African American men as mere thugs and drug dealers, that is how society will see them,” Smith said in an email to theGrio. “If Black women are portrayed as angry all of the time and as sex objects, that is how society will portray them.” 

“There’s not a lot of African American coverage unless it’s February or it’s criminal.”

Focus group participant, Pew Research study

In cultivation theory, “Long-term exposure to negative media messages results in normalized behavior, Smith said. “Repeated mug shots of Black men as perpetrators of crime and continuous coverage of crime in Black neighborhoods sends the message that all Black men are criminals and that no one in Black neighborhoods cares about crime in their communities.”

And while the news media does a good job of telling people what happened, it doesn’t dive deep enough to explore why the problems exist. 

“The implications of such decades of superficial coverage are huge,” Smith said. “Black communities don’t get the resources needed to better their communities because people are afraid to invest in those communities. And what are the social and psychological impacts of such coverage on people of color, as these negative images and messages flow 24/7 on the Internet and social media?”

Lipka said it was interesting that nearly half of the survey respondents found it very or extremely important that journalists advocate for Black people. 

“A lot of most Black Americans say that journalists should cover all sides of the story, understand the history of the issues, and personally engage with, with the communities that covering,” Lipka said. But he noted, “48% of Black Americans say that it’s important for journalists to advocate for Black people when they’re covering Black people,” a departure from the typical job of objectively reporting the facts.

Smith believes the journalism profession has a lot of work to do. 

“We, as journalists and journalism educators, have lots of work to do to mitigate decades’ impact of agenda setting and cultivation theory.”

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