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  • Abby Williams

Reading Between the Lines

Updated: Jan 14

First, I’d like to preface this post by saying I don’t believe that the media is the ultimate enemy and completely fake news - I’ve taken several journalism courses and admire the art of writing (hello, this blog!) and believe the media can help keep us informed and connected. However, it also falls victim to, as well as drives, implicit bias.


What is implicit bias? Implicit bias refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” This means that although our conscious thoughts and feelings may be unbiased, that doesn’t mean our subconscious thoughts are too. 


Consciously, you may believe you’re unprejudiced and view all people equally, but subconsciously, you tense up at the sight of a hijab, stare at an interracial couple a little too long, or grip your purse when a black man steps on the elevator. We often don’t notice the biases we hold, and if we do, we don’t understand why we hold them if they go against our perceived beliefs.


The thing is, 95% of our thoughts are said to originate from the subconscious level. [1] Our subconscious thoughts and beliefs are filled with the things our parents taught us as children, the way our friends speak, the things we see, and yes … messages from the media. 


The messages we’re bombarded with daily are presented as a direct reflection and report of reality, but if these messages are rooted in implicit bias, then we’re internalizing bias all the time - whether we realize it or not.


A major source of implicit bias in the media is overrepresentation of crimes committed by Black people.


A study on “the newsworthiness and selection bias in news about murder”questions how stories are chosen by journalists and found this: journalists tends to choose stories with Black males as perpetrators with white men or women as victims, even though statistically Black men are more likely to be victims of homicide than white men and women. [2]


“Homicide... is overwhelmingly an intra-racial crime involving men,”[3] However, we’re constantly shown stories of homicides by Black men against white men and women in the media.


If journalists aren’t choosing homicide stories based on the highest frequency of crime, which is intra-racial male crime (Black men against Black men and white men against white men),  then you’d think they’d instead choose out-of-the-ordinary stories that would bring shock value, right? 


Well, no - the most novel and infrequent types of homicide would have to include white women against white men. Yet, those attention-grabbing stories aren’t covered nearly as much as stories involving Black men against white men and women. So why is this narrative so frequently selected by journalists?


The study concluded that “journalists use race and gender typifications to contour their decisions about whether to cover a murder, how many stories each homicide will receive, and where those stories will be placed.” [4] Journalists use selection bias when determining “newsworthy stories” related to crime, therefore serving more as storytellers of select narratives than reporters of reality.


This finding suggests that journalists lean towards homicide stories that already have a blueprint laid out for them, like those involving Black men against white men. It’s easy to write because it’s been done many times before, and it lands well with the audience because it fits people’s preconcieved bias and perceptions of racial groups. 


Not only does the media choose its stories from a place of intrinsic bias, but being overexposed to the narrative that Black people are a danger to white people also builds up a bias in our minds, consciously or subconsciously, that just isn’t true. In fact, 84% of white victims are killed by other white people [5] (but we don’t justify innocent white people dying with the amount of “white on white” crime, do we? anyway...)


“Constant exposure to biased information about certain social groups can cause people to adjust their perceptions, judgments and behaviors towards those groups to fit within stereotypical depictions.” [6]

Now, let’s talk about differences in the way people are described in the media based on race and gender. This contrast reveals the intrinsic bias of media outlets, and once again shapes biases within the reader’s minds (aka yours and mine.)


A study was conducted examining 170 news stories about public shootings in America. Of those 170 stories, “terrorist” was used 35 times: describing Muslim shooters 37% of the time, Black shooters 34% of the time and white shooters only 17% of the time. The word “thug” was used 57 times: describing Black shooters at 53%, Hispanic shooters at 28% and white shooters at only 16% of the time. The word “mental illness”, however, was used overwhelmingly amongst white shooters: describing white shooters at 80%, Black shooters at 16% and Muslim shooters at only 4%. [7]


Shaping white shooters as mentally ill - something we see quite often with mass school shootings - does two things: 


One, it perpetuates the stigma that people who suffer from mental illness are dangerous. Did you know that only 3-5% of violent acts are committed by those living with a serious mental illness, and those with severe mental illnesses are over 10x more likely to be victims of violent crime? [8] (Mental illness is also extremely common. I've suffered from it for years #endthestigma) Secondly, it gives white shooters an “out", or an alternative narrative that sympathizes with their actions, which people of color are much less likely to receive, both socially and within the courtroom.


When Dylan Roof, a 26-year-old white man, shot nine people inside of a Black church in South Carolina, media reports used the phrases “drifted off track”, “quiet loner”, and “caught in internet evil.” When Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman, the Washington Post wrote a story entitled “All-American swimmer found guilty of sexually assaulting unconscious woman on the Stanford campus.” 


However, when Timothy Caughman, a 66-year-old Black man, was stabbed to death by a white supremacist who explicitly stated he wanted to kill Black men, media reports highlighted his past convictions of marijuana possession and resisting arrest. When George Floyd was senselessly murdered by police, the media once again quickly dug up his track record, as if it were a justification for his death. 


Why are stories about white criminals accompanied by lists of accolades and Sunday best/picture day photos, while Black criminals and Black victims are represented with a list of past police encounters and a mugshot?


Two stories released from the same publication, on the same date and for the same crime.

Another issue within the media that shows implicit bias has to do with journalists’ vocabulary choices. 


With the recent exposure of the Jeffery Epstein case, we read stories with phrases like “underage women”, “child prostitute”, “non-consensual sex” and “sex with minors.” These word choices are oxymorons and watered down replacements for children and rape that in turn make the story more digestible and less convicting of a wealthy, powerful white man.


Let’s clear a few things up: “Underage women” do not exist - they are children. “Child prostitutes” do not exist - minors cannot consent, so they cannot willingly partake in sex work without being manipulated or forced.“Non-consensual sex” does not exist. The act of sex requires consent in order to be considered sex. If consent is not part of the equation, then it is rape. Can you “non-consensually borrow money” from someone, or would journalists likely call that “robbing?” 


Isn’t in convenient that in cases of rape and sexual assault, girls are referred to as “young women” so as to make them seem more sexually mature, which often causes people to empathize with them less, but in cases where girls are vocal leaders, such as Greta Thunberg, they are called “little girls” to discredit their impact?


Next up, we have the issue of describing Black children as “young men” and “young women” in the media. These word choices specifically provoke bias because they reinforce and contribute to the perception that Black children are more mature than their white counterparts.


Here’s the problem: Black boys are adultified from a young age, and referring to them as “young men” when they are still under 18 only adds to the issue. A study by Phillip Goff [9] states that black boys are more likely to be viewed as older and more guilty of suspected crimes than white peers, starting at the mere age of 10 years old. If it’s not clear the impact and implications that this bias has on Black boys’ lives, allow me to remind you of the words of Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, which echoed over the young boy’s body: “Shots fired. Male down. Black male, maybe 20.”


Is the adultification of Black boys something people actively choose to partake in, or could it be an implicit bias resulting from stereotypes about Black boys and men that the media is largely responsible for driving? (Stereotypes about Black people in the media isn’t some new phenomenon either, it’s far from it - Google Jim Crow Propaganda.)


Black girls are unfortunately not exempt from this bias. In a follow-up study [10], researchers surveyed 325 adults and found that most adults view Black girls as older than white girls of the same age, in need of less nurturing, less protecting and less comforting, more independent, having more knowledge of adult topics than white girls, and what I find to be possibly the most disturbing: having more knowledge of sex than white girls. 


What’s even more disturbing: this bias is shown to form in adults’ heads when Black girls are just 5 years old. Five years old. Can you see why it’s dangerous to refer to Black girls as “young women” in the media? Can you see why a vocabulary choice perpetuates a perception that drives the over-sexualization and disproportionate use of discipline by teachers and police against Black girls in America?


Another media source of bias that shapes and tends to viewer’s implicit bias is the coverage of female candidates during elections.


Not only do male candidates consistently receive more coverage than female candidates, but the coverage of female candidates is different in its content. While men tend to receive coverage about their policy stances, women statistically receive more coverage about their family lives, gender and physical appearance.


Focusing on women’s physical characteristics and home life not only unnecessarily pulls away from their political backgrounds and competency, it also highlights traits considered to be feminine (which, apparently, equals being less qualified for office.)


A study [11] examined the effects of characteristics used to describe female candidates by taking a newspaper article and changing the descriptive language to either masculine-associated traits or feminine-associated traits.


It found that when a female politician was described with masculine-coded adjectives, like “assertive” and “ambitious”, she was seen as almost 10 percent more qualified and 7 percent more competent than a woman described with feminine adjectives, like “compassionate” or “kind.”


Yet, evidence shows “masucline” traits are often withheld from coverage of female candidates, even though we know female candidates are just as capable of possessing traits like ambitiousness, assertiveness, leadership as their male counterparts.


This difference in the way female candidates are described in media is rooted in, and contributes to, a long upheld bias that many still hold - that men are naturally possessing of the qualities it takes to be in a position of power, and therefore already qualified candidates, while women must prove that they hold these same qualities.


Journalists have a responsibility to search within themselves and examine their own biases, even if they are intrinsic and require deep self-reflective work to identify. As consumers, we have a responsibility to question media sources’ intentions and look for bias within their reporting.


We have a responsibility to broaden and diversify our sources of news: no more reading just Fox News or just CNN because that source aligns with your views. Search for different sources and outlets of news: a variety of online newspapers (try: NPR, The Economist, USA today, etc.), different journals, podcasts and twitter and instagram accounts. 


While it’s important to look at different sources of news, it’s also important to not be news-obsessed. Watching the news too frequently can result in increased anxiety, over-estimating the amount and prevalence of crime, and of course, intrinsic biases against minority groups. 


While we aren’t responsible for the biases we absorbed as children, we are responsible for addressing and dismantling those beliefs that harm other people as adults. 




Below, I’ve attached a Harvard test that can help reveal your social biases:


https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html


If you’d like to know why I’ve started capitalizing Black, check out this article:


https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/05/insider/capitalized-black.html


Footnotes:

[1] Zaltman G. (2003). How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market.

Harvard Business School Publishing. Boston, MA 02163.

[2] Cooper. A. & Smith, E. L. Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[3] Nazgol, G. (2014) Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies

[4] Dose-dependent media priming effects of stereotypic newspaper articles on implicit and explicit stereotypes. Journal of Communication, 63, 830-851

[5] Cooper. A. & Smith, E. L. Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

[6] Dose-dependent media priming effects of stereotypic newspaper articles on implicit and explicit stereotypes. Journal of Communication, 63, 830-851

[7] Hurst, N. (2017, April 26). These words suggest bias when news describes shooters. Retrieved from: https://www.futurity.org/shooters-media-bias-1413362/

[8] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2017, Aug 29). Mental health myths and facts. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/mental-health-myths-facts

[9] Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. A. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: consequences of dehumanizing black children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(4), 526–545.

[10] Blake, J., Epstein, R., González, T. Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of black girls’ childhood. 1-19.

[11] Daphne Joanna Van der Pas, Loes Aaldering, Gender Differences in Political Media Coverage: A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Communication, Volume 70, Issue 1, February 2020, Pages 114–143



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