Media Depictions of African Americans in Incidents of White-on-Black Violence

Faith Ngo, Madyllen Kung, Melissa Aguirre, Sabrina Huang

Racial inequalities have been a fundamental aspect of the underlying fabric of the United States since its conception almost 250 years ago. From brutal incidents of racialized violence to educational disparities that have continually oppressed communities of color, inequities rooted in the throngs of racism have persisted and accumulated over time. An example of such racial inequities is violent incidents in which white police officers shoot and kill unarmed African American individuals. Proof that discriminatory biases still exist today, these events have become fuel for groundbreaking social movements that are centered on uplifting the voices of oppressed communities and challenging hegemonic ideologies. 

Over the last ten weeks, we have learned about the vital role language plays in constructing and maintaining identity. Through stereotypes and “otherizing,” which have amplified the perceived differences between social groups and intensified the already vast racial boundaries, language can codify and perpetuate discriminatory biases.

As we started our project, we asked ourselves, would articles dehumanize African Americans or would they place blame on the white police officer? Would race be a salient aspect? Would there be a notable difference in the styles of language across different social identities? Or would we find a difference between various news outlets?

INTRODUCTION

Language is a powerful tool that can be used to construct our understanding of the world or perpetuate traditional beliefs. As tensions between African Americans and White Americans continue to grow, it is important to recognize the ways in which language can reaffirm discriminatory biases.

With this in mind, we decided to focus specifically on the linguistic elements news articles utilize to cover incidents of white-on-black violence. In addition to being widely accessible to the public, such articles play an important role in either reaffirming or challenging prejudicial stereotypes.

This led us to our research question: In situations of white-on-black violence, how do different news outlets utilize linguistic elements to depict and characterize African American individuals as archetypes of widely-held stereotypes?

BACKGROUND

Research has shown that the media routinely associates African Americans with criminality. News outlets disproportionately report on criminal incidents which involve African American suspects in comparison to white suspects, especially if the incident involves violence (Oliver, 2013). The overrepresentation of African Americans in incidents of crime creates a stark dichotomy between the portrayal of black and white Americans by news outlets. While violent crimes perpetrated by African Americans are widely reported on, violent incidents involving white suspects are largely ignored (Johnson and Dixon, 2008). In addition to the racial disparities apparent in coverage of crime, studies have shown that specific language is used to dehumanize African Americans regardless of their role as the perpetrator or suspect. The use of “micro-insults” in descriptions of African Americans can implicitly link them with social categories that are historically viewed as “inferior” to normative social groups (Smiley and Fakunle, 2015). On the other hand, the use of “micro-invalidations” can trivialize the experiences of black individuals (Smiley and Fakunle, 2015). Such language can have alarming effects in priming audience members towards internalizing negative stereotypes of black individuals and potentially acting upon those implicit biases (Oliver, 2013). The actions which result from biases produced and maintained by mainstream news outlets — “racial microaggressions” — form the foundation of discriminatory structures that continually relegate African Americans to the bottom of the social hierarchy (Kulaszewicz, 2015).

METHODOLOGY

Since the manner in which white-on-black violence is depicted largely depends on the political affiliation of the reporting news source, our methodology was designed to account for a range of varying political viewpoints. Each researcher selected two liberal sources, two conservative sources, and one moderate source based on the AllSides Top Online News Media Bias Ratings chart (Figure 1). These five articles of varying political affiliations were used to analyze the following individuals: Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Gardner. We selected these individuals because they are figures who are representative of White-on-Black incidents of violence in the United States.

Figure 1: AllSides Top Online News Media Bias Ratings We used this chart to find articles that aligned with a political orientation. One article was selected from each column from the news outlets listed in this chart. Source: https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart

After the articles were chosen, a Total Point System was employed to evaluate the salience of race in the article through explicit references of race. The point system was designed to ask one question: to what extent did the article make race a conspicuous and contributing factor in the white-on-black incident? The following are the six criteria of the system: 

It is important to note that an article that scored six out of six points does not necessarily indicate that it is more racially biased.

Since language also has an implicit function, the second part of our analysis involved a Guiding Question system to account for indirect references to race that could not be captured by the point system. The following are the seven criteria used in this system: 

The assessment of articles using the Guiding Question system provides insight into the discreet manner victims and assailants are framed. These questions illustrate how the language of articles can indirectly position individuals as a particular actor in larger racial narratives (this is often referred to as “interpellation”). 

RESULTS

Figure 2: Point totals between various news outlets across the four individuals This bar graph depicts the varying point totals of articles which cover the deaths of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Tanisha Anderson, and Eric Garner. The different colors depict the political alignment of the articles selected.

As Figure 2 shows, point totals varied across articles which covered the deaths of our sample of individuals. We found articles on Tanisha Anderson and Trayvon Martin to have disproportionately high point totals because of their existence at the intersection of multiple oppressed identities. While Anderson had a mental disability that was commonly referred to, Martin’s appearance at the time of his death was a salient component of several articles. 

Foregrounding in the lede

In our quantitative analysis of selected news articles, we focused on the journalist’s word choice throughout the article and how such words evoke a reaction from readers (Jakobson’s “conative function” of language). However, special attention was paid to the first sentence of the article, which is often referred to as the “lede”. This sentence encapsulates the who, what, where, why, and when of the situation or topic in question and helps to set the tone for the remainder of the article. Due to the position of the lede at the beginning of the article, information included here can be utilized to foreground certain elements. 

Figure 3: An example of foregrounding in the lede The ledes included in this figure are from two articles which covered the murder of Tamir Rice. Bolded and underlined words highlight the noticeable differences between each.

Across the four individuals we studied, we observed that there were noticeable differences in language use. Liberal news outlets typically included language which positioned the African American individual as the “victim”, while conservative news outlets utilized language which portrayed the police officer(s) and their actions as reasonable. Information that supported each agenda was included in the lede, while information that undermined such portrayals was either excluded or backgrounded. 

Differences in point totals between conservative and liberal news articles

Our research also found differences in average point totals between conservative and liberal news articles (Figure 4). Although these differences were not large, it appears that conservative articles have lower point totals and conservative articles have higher point totals. Meanwhile, moderate sources had point totals that fell between the scores of liberal and conservative news outlets. However, these average point totals fell closer to those of conservative sources. 

Figure 4: Average point totals of liberal, moderate, and conservative news outlets.

Differences in guiding questions

We also found stark differences in answers obtained by way of our guiding questions. Across the twenty articles we studied, conservative articles utilized a greater degree of language that reinforced common stereotypes associated with African Americans. Conservative sources often drew upon the individual’s criminal history or appearance (e.g. wearing a hoodie) as a subtle way of shaping the individual’s character. If the officer was mentioned, it was to justify his/her actions in some way. Conversely, liberal sources often focused on the motivations of the officer and their judgment errors in interpreting the situation. The results demonstrate that in general race was made more salient in conservative sources that liberal sources as an inherent contributing factor to the situation.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

Our results reveal that there is a stark and noticeable difference in the language use between conservative and liberal news outlets. While liberal publications use language to position African Americans as “victims”, conservative publications position them as the “assailant” or “instigator”. Such information draws attention to the detrimental role journalism plays in furthering and reinforcing stereotypes that support the criminality of African Americans. 

There were several limitations to our research, however. One noticeable limitation is the assumption that the political alignment of a news outlet directly corresponds with its article’s attitude towards race. There are numerous factors that may play a role in the way national publications depict race that we unfortunately did not account for in this project. Other limitations include differences in publication times (which impact how much information is available to journalists and, by extension, what particular elements are salient) and personal biases.

Regardless, our results offer insight into the way African Americans are both implicitly and explicitly discriminated against. Such biases underscore the role language can play in shaping public perceptions and encouraging prejudicial actions. It also reveals ways in which we can uproot social stereotypes surrounding historically marginalized groups and tackle harmful racial disparities. 

 

REFERENCES

Johnson, K. A., & Dixon, T. L. (2008). Change and the illusion of change: Evolving portrayals of crime news and blacks in a major market. The Howard Journal of Communications, 19(2), 125-143. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10646170801990979

Kulaszewicz, Kassia E.. (2015). Racism and the Media: A Textual Analysis. Retrieved from Sophia, the St. Catherine University repository website: https://sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/477

Oliver, M. (2003). African American Men as “Criminal and Dangerous”: Implications of Media Portrayals of Crime on the “Criminalization” of African American Men. Journal of African American Studies, 7(2), 3-18. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41819017

Smiley, C.J. & Fakunle, D. (2016) From “brute” to “thug”: The demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America, Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26:3-4, 350-366, DOI: 10.1080/10911359.2015.1129256

 

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