Media coverage of black suspects is disproportionately higher than arrest rates at four New York City TV stations, according to a March 2015 report by Media Matters and the ColorofChange.org, two nonprofits that study the issue. In the months to come, the groups may turn their focused gaze on Baltimore's media landscape with a similar study.
Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, spoke to an audience of 100 last night at an Open Society Institute panel on "Media Bias and Black Communities" at the Pratt Library and made reference to the New York study and his plans to conduct similar research next in Baltimore. (He did not say what media outlets would come under the microscope.)
The New York-based research, which examined WCBS, WNBC, WABC, and WNYW (Fox) for six months in 2014, found that the TV stations consistently over-reported crimes when the suspect was black. Viewers watching these stations would walk away believing that 74 percent of murders, 84 percent of thefts, and 73 percent of assaults were perpetrated by African-Americans, while the actual arrests rates differed significantly; they were arrested in 54 percent of murders, 55 percent of thefts, and 49 of assaults.
This tells Americans "who the heroes are and who to be afraid of," Robinson said. He also questioned the media's uncritical echo of police tips—"Suspect is a 6'2" black male"—pointing out that any singular identifying details were typically left out. (My students at Morgan State University, where I taught until recently, regularly joked that similarly phrased text alerts they got from campus security—"black male in hoodie and jeans"—covered just about every young man on the campus.) "This is just giving us one more signal of who we should be afraid of," Robinson insisted.
Also on the panel was Stacey Patton, a journalist who has written eloquently about, among other things, Toya Graham, who famously whacked her son upside the head on national TV after she found him involved in destroying property during the riots here. "It's not surprising that a black mother in Baltimore who chased down, cursed, and beat her 16-year-old son in the middle of a riot has been called a hero," Patton wrote in The Washington Post. "In this country, when black mothers fulfill stereotypes of mammies, angry and thwarting resistance to a system designed to kill their children, they get praised."
Patton is an outspoken opponent of corporal punishment and has written a memoir about her own experiences in the foster care system and life with her abusive, adoptive mom, "That Mean Old Yesterday," and she comes down hard on the media's portrayal of Graham as a mother-of-the-year type in her Washington Post piece. She asks readers to consider why exactly Graham is beating her son and to contextualize the gesture with a black mother's historic fear of white authority: "In other words, Graham's message to America is: I will teach my black son not to resist white supremacy so he can live."
Patton warned her Baltimore audience about the power of the media and the synergy between the problems in the city and the portrayal of black residents. "A racist society requires a news media that employs negative images of people of color," she said.