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Focus of TV news on black lawbreakers creates stereotypes for viewers

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 5/24/2007

Travis Dixon
Click photo to enlarge
Photo 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 black lawbreakers.

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 of media.

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 with blacks.

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 suspect.

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 news story.

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.