The mainstream media have played a mostly positive role in covering the tragic and senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed, 17-year-old African-American boy shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. After a slow start, reporters have uncovered new facts and asked tough questions, including about Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee’s refusal to arrest Trayvon’s killer.
Caught in the media spotlight, Lee has temporarily stepped down. To their credit, media have largely covered Trayvon’s grieving and outraged parents with the dignity and humanity they deserve. They have also interviewed community residents, largely white, who have spoken out with grief and outrage over the incident.
But the media, both news and popular, have also had a hand in creating the mindset that leads to tragedies like this one, based on the facts currently available. A new report by The Opportunity Agenda reviewing a decade of research finds that media depictions of African-American men and boys are too frequently distorted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes and lead to discriminatory treatment.
Those distorted depictions occur across almost all types of media, including news reporting, entertainment, advertising and even video games. Repeated unbalanced media portrayals of African-American men and boys, the report finds, contribute to distorted perceptions, antagonism and discriminatory treatment. They increase public support for punitive approaches to issues involving black males, and increase public tolerance of racial inequality.
In particular, African-American men and boys are disproportionately depicted in news media as perpetrators of violent crime compared with actual arrest rates. They are underrepresented in the more sympathetic roles of victim and law enforcement officers.
Similarly, a study of music videos found that, compared with actual U.S. demographics, blacks are overrepresented as aggressors, whereas whites are underrepresented. Research also shows that African-American men and boys are underrepresented in their real-life positive roles, from responsible fathers to users of computers and other technology. And the structural barriers to opportunity that they disproportionately face – like poor quality schools, inadequate access to health care, and fewer community resources – are not adequately covered.
Not surprisingly, the study finds that Americans’ conscious and unconscious attitudes are shaped, at least in part, by what they see, read and hear in the media.
Perhaps most chillingly, these media trends appear to increase African-American men’s likelihood of being shot without justification. Several studies have shown, for example, that subjects in a video police simulation are more likely to “shoot” black men (holding objects that may or may not be guns) than to fire on white men under the same circumstances. Other studies reinforce the potentially deadly consequences of media and societal bias.
The impact of media distortions is doubly pernicious because it works primarily at the subconscious level, linking black male images with people’s visceral emotions more so than with their conscious beliefs. One study cited in the report, for example, found evidence that the amygdala, a region of the brain that is associated with experiencing fear, tends to be more active when whites view an unfamiliar black male face than an unfamiliar white male face, regardless of their conscious racial attitudes.
Thus, it is not surprising to hear the family of Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, say that Zimmerman himself is a member of a racial minority and has many minority relatives and friends. All of us carry around stereotypes in our heads, and they are often detached from our conscious attitudes and relationships. Many African-Americans, too, harbor subconscious biases about members of their own group. No ethnic or cultural group is immune from media or societal influences.
Searching for mistakes or missteps in Trayvon’s past, as some have done in recent days, is not only irrelevant but a distraction from the issue at hand. None of the details of Trayvon’s life were known to George Zimmerman when he shot and killed the boy wearing a hoodie. Rather than asking questions about Trayvon’s past, we should be asking ourselves whether black men and boys are put at a disadvantage all over America – sometimes with life or death consequences – by their portrayals in the media. As Trayvon’s mother said at a congressional panel on Tuesday, “Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son. A lot of people can relate to our situation.”
To be sure, the mass media are not the only factor that shapes people’s conscious and subconscious beliefs and biases. But decades of research make clear that distorted media depictions persist and are among the contributing factors to tragedies like the one in Florida.
Fortunately, the mass media can also be part of the solution. Of course, the responsibility is not the media’s alone. But the media, as the public looking glass, can and should show the full spectrum of the lives of black men and boys. Media biases and their effects neither absolve nor convict George Zimmerman, who should answer to the legal system. But for most people, having the full picture will result in greater knowledge and fewer irrational fears of innocent black teenagers like Trayvon Martin.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Alan Jenkins is executive director of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research and policy organization. Readers may write to him at: The Opportunity Agenda, 568 Broadway, Suite 302, New York, N.Y. 10012; website: www.opportunityagenda.org