How the News Media Distorts Black Families

Nicole Rodgers and Rashad Robinson, Washington Post, December 29, 2017

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The claim that black families are in disarray and were better off under slavery is not new. During the GOP presidential primary race in 2011, candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum both signed a pledge against same-sex marriage that stated children born during slavery were more likely to be raised by a mother and father in a two-parent home than children are today. On the campaign trail in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump described a nightmarish world for black Americans, rife with poverty, homelessness and crime, and asked for their votes by saying, “What do you have to lose?”

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Our organizations, Color of Change and Family Story, commissioned a research team at the University of Illinois that studies media patterns to examine what an average news consumer might have “learned” about black families (and white families) during the last election cycle. The results were disturbing.

The study found that, at best, media outlets promoted racially biased portrayals and myths that pathologize black families and idealize white families with respect to poverty and crime. At worst, media outlets amplified those inaccurate depictions for political and financial gain. {snip}

The research team examined more than 800 relevant stories published or aired from January 2015 through December 2016, encompassing coverage from national broadcast and cable news outlets such as ABC, CBS and MSNBC; national mainstream newspapers like The Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today; and online news sites. In both written and television reporting, the researchers found that the news media systemically misrepresented black families.

When the media outlets examined in the study reported stories about poor families, they chose to feature black families in their coverage 59 percent of the time, even though only 27 percent of families living below the poverty line are black. Similarly, in coverage of welfare, 60 percent of families portrayed were black, even though only 42 percent of families receiving welfare are black. This pattern was widespread across numerous sources — among the worst offenders for networks were Fox News and CNN, and the New York Times and Breitbart for national print and online news organizations.

Additionally, the news media habitually reinforced the myth that black fathers are less involved in their children’s lives. We found that photos and videos in the study showed black mothers, white mothers and white fathers interacting with their children at the same rate. Black fathers, however, were shown with their children half as often, and the news media regularly perpetuated the conventional wisdom that missing black fathers explain social inequity. {snip}

Though black children are disproportionately born to single mothers, that does not mean fathers aren’t involved. A 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that black fathers spend more time engaged in parenting than fathers of other races, participating more often in bathing, diapering, taking their kids to activities and helping them with their homework.

Our study also found that media outlets reinforced the idea that black families are sources of personal, cultural and societal instability — that responsibility for poverty and crime lies with them, rather than with those who shape the economic and social environment they live in. {snip}

This coverage has real-life consequences. Prior research has shown that when the news media constantly associates black people with crime, it increases racial stereotypes among viewers, leading the public to disproportionately favor punitive criminal justice policies. In addition, when the poor are depicted as overwhelmingly black, it leads the public to support heavier restrictions on welfare because of a perception that undeserving black people benefit from it. Backers of corporate and right-wing policies gain when the news media blames black families for social conditions, while their own role in destabilizing society remains invisible.

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