Email to a friend
of TV news on black lawbreakers creates stereotypes for viewers
Andrea Lynn, Humanities
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
|Travis Dixon, an Illinois professor of speech communication, has completed a study that is part of a series that seeks to "understand whether exposure to racially biased news coverage leads to stereotypical perceptions of African Americans."
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
A new double study of TV viewers’ perceptions of race and crime
following exposure to “racialized crime news” provides more
evidence of the negative long-term effects of news viewing that over-represents
The double study also found that “exposure to racialized crime
news shapes perceptions of blacks and race relations and leads heavy
news viewers to see all criminal activity as a black activity.”
So says lead researcher Travis Dixon, a professor of speech
communication at the University of Illinois who focuses on the effects
The double study is part of a series of studies Dixon designed to “understand
whether exposure to racially biased news coverage leads to stereotypical
perceptions of African Americans.” Combined with a study of his
published last year, the new studies are “the first to provide
systematic evidence that long-term news viewing contributes to the stereotyping
of blacks as criminals,” Dixon said.
According to Dixon and his co-author Cristina L. Azocar, a professor
of journalism at San Francisco State University, the perceptions they
found in the latest studies are driven by a “priming” effect
of the black criminal stereotype. Heavy TV news crime viewers exposed
to black criminals or unidentified-race criminals in crime news stories
are “primed” to connect blacks with criminals and criminals
The researchers’ findings will be published in the June issue
of the Journal of Communication in an article titled “Priming
Crime and Activating Blackness: Understanding the Psychological Impact
of the Overrepresentation of Blacks as Lawbreakers on Television News.”
The studies were funded by the Howard R. Marsh Center for Journalistic
Performance at the University of Michigan.
Dixon defines priming as an effect “that is similar to ‘priming
the pump,’ whereby you expose people explicitly or implicitly
to a thought and then check later to see whether similar thoughts emerge.”
“The idea is that a stereotype is a mental connection between
a group – for example, blacks – and a trait – for
example, criminal. Therefore, exposure to blacks will elicit thoughts
about criminality and vice versa. Examining whether such exposure to
one leads to thoughts about the other is called priming.”
Participants in the two new studies were exposed to different versions
of a 20-minute news program created through computer editing. The programs
consisted of local TV news originally broadcast by a TV station in the
authors’ local area, but the programs were edited to contain crime
stories about murder and “distracter” stories – human
interest that contained no violence, disaster, or “racialized
coverage.” Following the programming, the participants were asked
to respond to a series of questions.
The first of the two studies was undertaken to determine whether prior
television news viewing would moderate the effects of exposure to racialized
crime news with regard to attitudinal judgments of race and crime. The
researchers attempted to assess whether participants believed that blacks
lacked opportunity in life.
The study found that heavy news viewers who were exposed to unidentified
perpetrators were less likely than heavy news viewers exposed to non-crime
stories to perceive that blacks face structural limitations to success,
“for example, blacks could make it in life if they just tried
harder,” Dixon said.
In addition, heavy news viewers exposed to unidentified perpetrators
were more likely than heavy news viewers exposed to noncrime stories
to support the death penalty.
The researchers wrote that “Apparently, when exposed to a number
of unidentified suspects, heavy news-viewing participants were more
likely to apply a schematic representation of blacks.
“This schema increased support for the death penalty and activated
stereotypes of black laziness, leading to an increased perception that
blacks do not face structural limitations to success.”
Rather than attitudinal judgments about policies, the second study used
a “person perception measure” to see if participants who
were exposed to the identical materials featured in the first study
would render “harsh culpability judgments” of a race-unidentified
The second study found that participants exposed to a majority of black
suspects were more likely than participants exposed to non-crime stories
to find a subsequent race-unidentified criminal culpable for his offense.
In addition, heavy news viewers were more likely to exhibit the above
effect than were light news viewers.
Participating in the studies were 148 male and female undergraduate
college students, mostly white, enrolled in an introductory communications
course. The students were told that they were taking part in a study
designed to assess memory for the news.
The students were randomly assigned to watch one of four computer-edited
news stories. The stories carried one of four “conditions”:
a crime involving a majority of black suspects; a crime involving a
majority of white suspects; a crime involving unidentified suspects;
and a noncrime “fluff” or distracter story.
The perpetrator for each crime was introduced through the insertion
of a photograph shown for three seconds during the broadcast of each
The timing of the photo insertion suggested that there was little doubt
regarding the perpetrators’ guilt, and the computer editing was
designed to make the insertion look as realistic as possible.
“Taken together, these studies provide direct experimental evidence
that crime news coverage contributes to racial stereotyping,”
Dixon said. “It suggests that news viewers need to be cognizant
and critical of their crime news consumption, and news agencies should
resist over-representing black criminality.”
Dixon has written extensively in the area of media stereotyping. He
is finishing a study about the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. That
study, “Understanding News Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: The
Impact of News Frames and Stereotypical News Coverage on Viewers’
Conceptions of Race and Victimization,” is supported by the
U. of I.’s Center on Democracy
in a Multiracial Society.