The one-year anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO is an opportunity to reflect on the media coverage of the black men and women killed by police and others -- is it always as objective as it ought to be? The New York Times called Brown "no angel"; NBC News referenced Trayvon Martin's suspensions from school, which were unrelated to the circumstances of his death; and images used of Brown and others often depicted them in a harsher light than coverage of white shooters.
Journalists' commitment to fairness and accuracy is central to their profession. Just as doctors must first "do no harm," at the heart of the long-standing Journalist's Creed is the proclamation that "clear thinking, clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism."
The media's role in creating distorted perceptions and stereotypes of people of color, however, has been widely documented. Researchers have found that mediums ranging from network and local news to national and local newspapers portray black people -- men in particular -- as criminals at higher rates than the data support, while whites are shown as victims or police officers. These distortions harden stereotypes of black criminality and danger.
What explains the distortions?
It is possible, of course, that those in the media are simply racist, or willing to ignore the facts because they are convinced that portraying black people as criminals sells. But what if neither of these accounts explain many journalists' actions? What if the very idea of distorting news for racist purposes is anathema? For the journalists or editors who are not intentionally distorting the news, it may not be obvious why the misrepresentations occur or which practices require change.
The phenomenon of "implicit bias" helps to explain the disconnect between conscious values linked to fairness, and practices that distort images of black men and boys.
An implicit bias is a stereotype or attitude we have toward a particular group of people without our conscious awareness. Mind sciences show us that most of our actions occur automatically, without our conscious awareness. This automatic operation of our brain is what allows us to do things like drive a car, which requires us to see and do many things at the same time. Our brain's automatic reactions are based upon how our brain creates categories for most of the sights we see and sounds we hear. Not surprisingly, our brain's practice of categorization is particularly risky with respect to race.
Implicit biases matter. Research shows that such biases not only affect our behavior, but predict our actions more accurately than our voiced descriptions of our views. Implicit racial biases are both widespread and have particularly harmful consequences. Studies have shown that implicit biases predict behaviors including:
● The speed and likelihood of shooting an unarmed person based on race;
● Employment callbacks relative to equally qualified white applicants;
● The treatment of otherwise similar black and white patients with symptoms of heart disease.
Journalists are likely to hold the same biases as much of the population, so when a decision is made about what images to use when running an article about crime, it is not surprising that a black male face may be chosen, or a photo of a shooting victim scowling at a party rather than on his graduation day. Image after image, descriptor after descriptor -- "thug" or "riot" for black people, and "student" or "protest" for white people -- the aggregate impression we get from the media is a distortion. Those images and stories emphasize the stereotypes we may already implicitly hold, and the vicious cycle continues.
Implicit biases are not set in stone. We can override their effects and reduce the bias. Some news stations have already begun the work. In a recent study, Travis Dixon found that Los Angeles local news stations have become more accurate in their portrayals of black criminality -- though they continue to over-represent whites as either police officers or victims. A seemingly obvious but oft-unimplemented solution is diversifying the newsroom. Research shows that greater diversity results in more factually accurate decision-making by juries and can lead to greater innovation in business. We would benefit both from the accuracy and the innovation in newsrooms. Crucially, stories about people of color must move beyond portrayals of tragedy and instead represent the full spectrum of people's experiences. Any single dimension perpetuates distortions.
Implicit bias research tells us that in order to prevent our biases and stereotypes from affecting our decisions, we can't presume our objectivity and make decisions on the fly. High-pressure, subjective, and emotionally-laden contexts create a perfect storm for bias. Instead, editors and producers must establish clearer guidelines for what constitutes news and assess the words and images they use in reporting on comparable stories with people of different races to check themselves. When creating a piece, they could experiment with swapping the races of the subjects and asking themselves if they would still use the language chosen.
Most journalists I've met are serious about adhering to the Journalist's Creed. Working in a newsroom that acknowledges and addresses the risks of implicit biases is the best way to prevent the aggregation of decisions that currently create racial distortions. The result will be a fairer, more accurate depiction of black men and boys, which is critical to ending the racial stereotypes that contribute to the tragedies ripping apart families and communities.
Rachel D. Godsil is the co-founder and director of research for the Perception Institute - a national consortium of social scientists, law professors, and advocates focusing on the role of the mind sciences in law, policy, and institutional practices - and the Eleanor Bontecou Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School.