White Crime Victims Favored In Mainstream Media Reports

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Nadra Kareem Nittle
October 17, 2012

Collage by Roberto Delgado

In December 1995, American Journalism Review wrote about a year-old Chicago study documenting that white victims of crime received more television news time than their minority counterparts. Recent research indicates that the trend continues in mainstream media.

White victims in the United States frequently become household names. Decades after being raped and stabbed in 1964 within earshot of more than three dozen neighbors in the New York borough of Queens, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese remains one of the most memorable murder victims in the nation’s history.

In ensuing years, many other whites achieve notoriety as crime victims. These included Sharon Tate in 1969, Patty Hearst in 1974, Adam Walsh in 1981, JonBenet Ramsay in 1996, Laci Peterson in 2002 and Caylee Anthony in 2008. Although blacks, Latinos and other persons of color also suffer from violent and random crimes, they typically do not garner major media attention.
This trend shows no signs of changing. Studies over the past decade by media effects scholar Travis L. Dixon, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that minorities are underrepresented as crime victims in the news while whites are overrepresented.

Mainstream media’s framing of whites as victims and minorities as criminals in news reports not only fuel racial stereotypes but may also prevent crime victims of color from accessing resources necessary to pursue justice, scholars and activists say.
Why do mainstream media appear to treat crime victims differently based on race?

The main reason, Dixon says, is that journalism operates as a business and that news editors and producers tend to create content to cater to their audiences. The assumption is that “most people who are watching tend to be white, tend to be women, tend to be moderate to somewhat conservative and maybe over 30,” he says. “If you’re making those kinds of assumptions, certain kinds of narratives tend to get told.”

Hence, news agencies devote more coverage to stories about attractive, white female victims because they think their predominantly white audiences will empathize most with such victims. They think that this strategy will translate into higher ratings, which translate into bigger profits, Dixon says.

Yet Dixon notes that even as cities such as Los Angeles grow “browner and blacker,” some news outlets have done away with developing stories specifically crafted for white audiences. He points to the Los Angeles Times as an example of an old-guard newspaper that appears to be reaching out to a diverse body of readers.

The media must “start thinking about marketing from the standpoint of a Latina, of an African-American,” he says. “Think about a broader way of discussing the issues to continue selling papers to more than just white, middle-class, centrist people.”

La Tanya Skiffer, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says newsroom diversity is a factor in how the media cover crime. Diversity of perspectives, or lack of it, in news stories reflects the makeup of newsrooms, she says.

In September, the National Association of Black Journalists released a study finding that minorities held just 12 percent of managerial positions at 295 television stations owned by 19 companies. According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual newsroom survey, minorities make up about 12 percent of newspaper staffs and 16 percent of staffs at online news outlets. Given that people of color constitute more than one-third of the U.S. population, these figures highlight their dearth in mainstream media.

Lack of diversity isn’t the only problem, Skiffer says, citing the media’s embrace of an “if it bleeds, it leads” style of journalism. She says this has led to overemphasis on crime reports. Because white victims are perceived to be the most compelling crime victims, she says they have emerged as focal points of crime reporting.
Sonia R. Jarvis, a distinguished lecturer in the school of public affairs at Baruch College of The City University of New York, says the media focus on crime gives the impression that violent crime is escalating although it’s actually decreasing. When serious crimes such as child abductions occur, she says, more news coverage is devoted to missing white children than to missing children of color.

“Until we treat all children equally, we’re not going to solve this problem,” she says of these abductions. Jarvis also notes that the public can gauge how much attention crime victims of color receive by focusing on the length of news reports about them and tracking how many stories are reported on them until they disappear from the headlines. She says stories about minority crime victims typically vanish more quickly.

When news outlets cover crime victims of color, they have sometimes been accused of promoting racial stereotypes and treating victims as guilty parties.

In 2010, The Buffalo (N.Y.) News faced a backlash from the African-American community after reporting that four of eight blacks shot at a downtown restaurant died from their wounds. Although no altercation occurred before the shootings and police characterized the incident as a random act of violence, the newspaper reported that seven of the eight had criminal records.

The newspaper’s decision to promote these checkered pasts led to a public protest at its offices. Community members objected to treating the victims differently from others because they had arrest records.

Thandisizwe Chimurenga, a Los Angeles-based journalist and community activist, says she’s concerned about how often mainstream media cite criminal histories of crime victims of color.

“When you have crime victims who are of color, in particular black or brown, reporters always ask if the crime was gang-related,” she says. “I often wonder why that information is important to the story. Is it a subtle type of thing like, well, maybe they got what they deserved?”

Chimurenga says the victim may simply live in a neighborhood with a heavy gang presence or have a family member involved in a gang. She says reporters rarely ask whether random white murder victims have criminal ties. While these whites are largely viewed as innocents, she says minority crime victims are viewed with suspicion.

Skiffer compares this trend to how rape victims were treated for years in this country. Historically, a woman’s sexual history and manner of dress could be used against her in the criminal justice system if she accused a man of rape.
“They are focusing on the character of the victim instead of on the crime,” she says. “It’s almost justifying the victimization.” She adds that because gang databases are rarely updated and may not accurately reflect membership, not every young man of color suspected of gang ties may actually be a member.

When neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., in February, newspapers such as The New York Times noted that the teen had been suspended from school for marijuana possession, among other offenses. Martin’s parents and supporters took issue with publication of this information, contending that Martin’s academic performance did not give Zimmerman license to kill him.

“That’s an attempt to say this person is not as squeaky clean as you want us to believe,” Chimurenga says. “He’s not an altar boy.”

Dixon says viewers of color don’t have to accept such media characterizations of minority crime victims. He suggests that people counter them by telling television stations and newspapers that they will no longer be tuning in or subscribing.

“From the consumer standpoint, it’s all about making really smart choices,” he says. “Stop patronizing them, and make them suffer economically.”


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