Class notes for Thursday, March 2, 2000.

Race and News

What shapes the news?

Weíve covered a variety of issues in this area

(a) general determinants of news

proximity, impact, bizarreness, timeliness, etc.

(b) how public officials shape news

Now we focus on issues of race.

I. The Stuart case

The details will be explained in lecture.

Story #1.

Story #2.


The larger picture here.

1. Police AND media bought his story immediately.

even though routine to suspect spouse.

2. Quick to buy the idea of a black assailant; stereotypes about black men informed the reporting.

3. Media say: just following the police; Just following their sources.

4. Media knew about inconsistencies, but again noted the wounds, etc.

5. Black leaders faulted TV and newspapers for smothering the initial murder story in such gripping detail -- with poignant stories, while ignoring the tragedies of black homicide victims.

Three assessements of this coverage:

1. Rev. Charles Stith, a black United Methodist pastor in Boston: "I think the Stuart case is an example of how starting from negative racist assumptions about a people and a community can lead to a kind of rush to judgment and condemnation. It also reflects how these same assumptions can lead us to not follow the dictates of common sense and do a thorough investigation."

Rev. Stith: "If the crime had occurred in a white or affluent white neighborhood, Charles Stuartís story would have undergone far stricter scrutiny. But it happened in a black neighborhood -- and so everyone was quick to believe he and his wife were set upon by a black man."


2. Frank Lomax, executive vice president, National Urban League. "This was fed by the picture the media creates of crime in the black community. The issue has been framed as a black problem. The reaction of the media and police are part and parcel of that framing."

3. Charles Sobran, journalist, critic. This is a case study about how we generalize about blacks and crime. "The real crime was, in fact, infinitely worse than the crime Stuart had described. But it hasnít stained the WHITE community the way the purely invented crime stained the black community. "Bostonís whites are not hanging their heads in shame over their errant brother. Should they? No. But the incident should help them to realize what blacks go through all of the time. When a white man commits a crime, we donít generalized about it. Whites arenít made to feel that itís any reflection on them. Legions of black police donít rush into white neighborhoods to grill everyone, frisk everyone, and there is no black-owned press that pounds the story home. We express our real feelings when weíre not aware of doing so. Maybe Charles Stuart tricked us into expressing them once more. We trusted him. After all, he was one of us."

Was the Stuart case an aberration? An isolated example of mistakes the media AND police made? How are people of color portrayed in the mass media?


II. Susan Smith case. In 1994, a young woman in South Carolina sobbingly told a heart rending story. A black man hijacked her car -- taking her two young sons with him --- Alex , 14 months, and Michael, 3. For 10 days, the nation was on a huge manhunt for the black perpetrator. After 10 days: Susan Smith admitted that had driven her car into a lake, drowning her children.

III. TV and black stereotypes

Robert Entman, a study of 200 local news shows in Chicago (and he and other researchers note similar patterns in other cities). Blacks far more than whites appear as suspects in crimes. Part of this: the nature of the crimes involved. Not spot news, but embezzlement, white collar crime. Entman notes: Whites charged with newsworthy crimes are more likely to be middle class, and make bail and have lawyers serve as spokesmen. So their TV images are more favorable.

Blacks accused of violent crimes are more likely than whites to appear in the physical grasp of officers (38% black, 18% white); Message: BLACKS MORE DANGEROUS than whites; need to be restrained. Blacks accused of violence are LESS LIKELY than whites to have their names displayed on TV. (Blacks: 49% of the time, names. Whites: Names, 65% of the time.). The message, says Entman, is this: African Americans not important as people.


 IV. USA TODAY study on drugs/race.

15 per cent of drug users in America are black, 75 per cent are white; 10 per cent are other races. Television news, however, when dealing with drugs, shows blacks 55 per cent of the time. White are shown only 30 per cent of the time

Representation of Race/Drugs on TV


15% African American

75% white


55% African American

30% white


V. Coverage of Rape

a. Story #1.

29 year old woman. Goes to top of 21 story building to watch sunrise.

Two armed men there; rape her. Force her to jump off the roof. She grabs a TV cable that breaks her fall. She holds on -- naked and screaming u ntil residents hear her, save her life. She is treated at a hospital and is able to walk away.

Story makes inside pages, NYC papers.

B. Story #2. Two weeks latter. 28 year old woman. Jogging late at night , Central Park. Beaten and gang raped, left for dead. Remains conscious until help arrives.

Lapses into a coma. Hovers near death for days. Every new development: major play in NYC papers. page 1. Official NYC mobilized in outrage.

Why such difference?

1. first woman from Harlem. African American. lower class.

2. Second woman. From upper east side. white. upper middle class.


Larger patterns in terms of media and race.

1. Personnel.

1969: about 1 per cent of Americaís news rooms were diverse.

2000: about 12 per cent. But mostly rank and file; not many people of color in management.

2. Invisibility of people of color. Not generally news makers. Why?

(a) Personnel issues. Simply doesnít register.

(b) Types of news: event coverage.

Status quo, institutions. Closely tied to white dominance in this country.

3. Stereotypes

Deeply held within the society itself.

4. Sources

Critical in defining whatís news, framing news events or issues.

(a) White sources. US media historically: very limited sources. Reporters talk to people they know, people in power. Racially segregated nation. White reporters frequently rely on white sources.

(b) Media have failed to develop sources within non-white communities.Therefore, little or no coverage or understanding of inner city issues, problems.

In 1960s, 1990s: Los Angeles Times: no presence, no coverage essentially of South Central LA. No key sources in the black community-- no way to take the pulse of the community. Ignore the community until somehow they have to deal with it -- primarily through disturbances.

(c) Police are the only sources then available. So what do you get when the police are your only real source of information about the black community?

1. Crime related news only. 2. One-sided news; nothing from the community itself.


5. Kerner Commission

One of the most thoughtful, comprehensive critiques of the mass mediaís coverage of race. Focuses on the 1966/67 riots. Report on the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1969.

a. US media made a real effort to give balanced, factual account of the 1967 disorders.

b. But the media nonetheless failed to reflect accurately the scale and character of violence. They exaggerated mood, events.

c. Media failed to report accurately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and underlying problems of race relations.


a. Little understanding of the black community.

"The media report and write from the standpoint of a white manís world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negroís burning sense of grievance, are seldom covered. Slights and indignities are part of the Negroís daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls "the white press" -- a press that repeatedly IF UNCONSCIOUSLY reflects the biases, paternalism and the indifference of white America.

b. Failure to cover underlying issues. Television newscasts during the periods of actual disorder in 1967 tended to emphasize law enforcement activities, thereby overshadowing underlying grievances and tensions. Really: No mention or understanding of underlying issues.

3. Reliance on white sources. White police, white property owners.

Kerner: "Many people in the ghettoes apparently believed that newsmen rely on the police for most of their information about what is happening during a disorder and tend to report much more about what the officials are doing and saying than what Negro citizens or leaders in the city are doing and saying." Editors and publishers....acknowledged that the police and city officials were their main -- and sometimes ONLY -- source of information.

6. Miami.


Violence erupted in Miamiís African American neighborhoods -- Liberty City and Overtown -- after cops accused of brutality are acquitted. Violence threatened to spill over to other communities.

a. Key source of information about black community: police radio scanners.

b. Hostility in inner city to white reporters. So stay out of the area.

Relations between media and blacks poor to start with.

c. Black press, Miami TIMES, warns that problems are coming 2 weeks before the riots. Ignored

d. Underlying context. years in the making. unemployment, poverty, police brutality.

e. Focus on whites killed. Little about people in the community. Note property losses. But not other issues. Dead whites get more attention than dead blacks.

f. Reliance on officials sources. Difficulty in finding black sources.

7. Los Angeles 1992.

1991. Rodney King case; beating. video taped (and shown worldwide). 1992. Ventura County jury acquits 4 officers. Rioting in S Central LA, left 58 dead; $1 billion in damage. 11,000 arrested.

Only about 30 per cent of sources about the black community in LA Times were from the black community. Most are from official sources: police, public officials.

These official sources were more likely to appear on page 1, prominently, than black community sources.

Coverage of the African American community remained limited, focusing little on day to day life, every day life. the most common place to find stories about blacks in 1992 in LA TIMES: on the sports pages. [Henry Louis Gates estimates that there about 1100 African American professional athletes in the US but about 12k black doctors; the doctors never get covered.]

Exaggerated. Perhaps not as bad as 1960s, but still exaggerated.

Inter-racial cooperation ignored. Focus on white victims of racial violence.

On the second day of the coverage, the LA TIMES ran a large article about Reginald Denny, the white truck driver whose beating by three black men during the early stages of the violence were captured by a helicopter film crew and broadcast live to TV audiences. The article began on page 1 and continued inside. Follow up articles on Dennyís condition were reported on the 5th and 13th days of coverage. No other victim, beaten or killed, white, black or Latino or Asian -- got as much attention from the media as Denny did. Other stories on white victims: days 2,4 and 5. FIRST STORY about a non-white victim of violence: day 8.

58 people died in the LA riots in 1992. Of these, 10 were white. 44 were Latino or black. These deaths -- of Latinos and black s-- got virtually no coverage in the LA Times. No full scale articles.

8. Some solutions

1. Wider source base

2. Cover "every day life" throughout community

3. Give voice to all members of community

4. Recognize, limit WHITE perspective on news