Social media has a tremendous impact on our culture, in business, and on the world-at-large. Social media sites stand firmly as the most visited websites on the internet. They have revolutionized the way people communicate and socialize on the Web. Not only has social media transfigured the way that we socialize in today’s society, but the media as an entire, powerful, entity has managed to infiltrated our minds and gain a large “say-so” in how we perceive, and interact with, each other. One of the most misrepresented, disrespected, marginalized and unheard people in America are people of color, particularly Black people.
The American people are being force-fed a media diet of stereotypes and misperceptions, and the often over-criminalization of African Americans through language, images, and omissions. Media injustice leads to both the erasure and criminalization of marginalized communities. These injustices have had dire consequences for both the psyches and lived experiences of Black people in the United States since at least the 18th century. Many studies have tackled implicit racial bias that never fails to be prominent in our society. In recent years, the phrase has become a keyword used to broadly frame narrow-mindedness and racism as something so embedded that some people aren’t aware that they subconsciously harbor racist feelings, associating Black skin with negative behavior.
In 1964, Malcolm X was compelled to stand before a crowd in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom and affirm his disdain towards the proclivity of those in the media stating, “This is the press, an irresponsible press.” He said, “It will make the criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Fifty years later, these words are just as true now, as they were then. What has not been fully addressed, though, is whether the press deliberately supports a white supremacist agenda, as some people believe, or has media’s complicity mutated into something less intentional but equally dangerous—perhaps even more so. Mainstream media often portray African-American youths, especially Black men and boys, as criminals, crime victims and predators. These stereotypes can create a racially charged atmosphere that results in violence, such as the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. Popular U.S. culture has become increasingly desensitized to one-dimensional portrayals of Black youth. The perpetuation of them as dangerous has been implanted into American society not only by words and images projected by journalists but also by a wide variety of other media and entertainment sources, including the Internet, movies, and video games.
This past year, WBBM-TV in Chicago deliberately quoted a 4-year-old Black child out of context, turning him from an aspiring young child who had ambitions to be a police officer, into a young gangster-to-be. When the child said “I’m going to have a gun when I grow up, I’m going to be police,” the producers omitted the latter part about wanting to be police and only left his statement about the gun. These sort of strategic incriminations targeted at young Black children give the perception that the Black community raises its youth to be aggressors, enabling them to ever be seen as victims.
Another prime example is Latarian Milton. Latarian was a 7-year-old boy with genuine psychosomatic issues who stole his grandmother’s car. Normally, the media doesn’t name or show underage suspects, to preserve their innocence. However, WPBF, the ABC affiliate in Palm Beach, Florida, decided to interview the young Black boy, not once but three times, turning the troubled kid into a trending topic. There have been similar cases where young children in the same age range with similar mental issues have committed similar crimes. The distinct differences amongst these cases, though, are the ethnicities of the children committing the crimes. Clearly, the perception of African-Americans and other people of color as inferior to whites is rooted in the nation’s legacy of racial hierarchy, a system of stratification based on the belief that skin color makes whites superior. It seems as though in order for their identity to remain private, their innocence to be preserved, and their illnesses to be both acknowledged and accepted as a justifiable cause, the child must be white. This lack of sensitivity in the media portrays white children as helpless and deserving of compassion, and Black children as nothing more than reprobates.
There are studies, such as “Not to Be Trusted”, a news-accuracy report card compiled by civil rights organization ColorOfChange.org, which tackles media bias and how it indiscriminately pathologizes communities of color for mass consumption. Separately, these issues can wreak havoc and destruction on their own, but we haven’t really focused on the ways in which implicit racial bias can potentially infest newsrooms. “Implicit bias impacts the way Black communities are treated across practically all sectors of life in America, from courtrooms to doctors’ offices,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, tells The Root in a 2015 interview. “The media is no different, whether it be the use of derogatory terms like ‘thug’ and ‘animal’ to describe protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore, or the widespread over-reporting of crime stories involving Black suspects.”
Media bias not only negatively impacts Black America’s relationship with law enforcement and the judicial system, but also extends to how African Americans are perceived in society at large. Couple the findings of Harvard’s ‘Project Implicit’, which determined that approximately 88 percent of white Americans have an implicit racial bias against Black people, with a racially homogeneous media industry, and the toxic environment that leads to media injustice is thrown into stark relief. Contributing to embedding these stereotypes is that even as U.S. Census data show a growing number of nonwhites in America, fewer people of color are in decision-making positions at daily newspapers, television and radio stations, and online news organizations. “Television newsrooms are nearly 80 percent white,” according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, “while radio newsrooms are 92 percent white,” writes Sally Lehrman, former chairwoman of the diversity committee at the Society of Professional Journalists. According to the American Society of News Editors, “The percentage of minority journalists has remained between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade.” Due to the lack of color in newsrooms, stories about Black youths that don’t reinforce stereotypes, don’t involve celebrities and that tell narratives about everyday lives of Black people haven’t been a priority in news coverage. Publishers, editors, and producers who decide which news stories are important often don’t choose ones that humanize or contextualize lives of Black youths. In journalism, decision makers are largely white.
This lays the groundwork for an intrinsically racist media structure that, according to The Atlantic’s Riva Gold, means “news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and—especially in cases where language ability is crucial—even to report on minority populations in their communities.” The way that journalism is on the open market means that stories are for sale, and what sells is stereotypes. Market-produced coverage will tend to misrepresent youth. Eileen Espejo, director of media and health policy at Children Now in Oakland, says producers across the media spectrum should seek ways to avoid stereotypes. “We don’t want there to be a quota,” she says. “But we want you to think more creatively about the roles that people of color can play, and break out of the traditional mold.”