Clinton School Center on Community Philanthropy Visiting Scholar Studies the Changing Misrepresentation of Race and Crime in the Media

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University of Illinois communication professor and visiting scholar at the Center on Community Philanthropy at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Fall of 2013, Travis Dixon, recently published a study of five years of network and cable crime news.

The study, co-authored by the Center on Community Philanthropy director Charlotte L. Williams, was recently published online by the Journal of Communication. The extensive study sampled 146 episodes of prominent news programs focused on breaking news that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and Univision from 2008-20012.
“Conducting this research is part of our ongoing efforts to understand dynamics of race and equity in today’s society,” Williams said. “This study is a big step in that direction.”

Dixon found that among those described as domestic terrorist on those programs, 81 percent were identifiable as Muslims. Yet in FBI reports for the same period, only 6 percent of domestic terrorist suspects were Muslim, or about one in 17.

Likewise, among those described as immigrants accused of a crime on those news programs, almost all (97 percent) were identifiable as Latinos, according to the study – yet only about half (47 percent) of immigrants are Latinos, according to a cited 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The results show that “the entire way we conceive of these policies is through a particular kind of ethnic lens,” Dixon said. “Out conceptualization of various issues is so tied to race and ethnicity considerations that we’ve actually been somewhat misinformed.”

In contrast with the overrepresentation of Muslims and Latinos in network and cable crime stories, Dixon found that African-Americans were significantly underrepresented in those stories, as both perpetrators and victims of violent crime.

According to the study, blacks were 19 percent of the violent perpetrators in the news accounts, yet were 39 percent of those arrested during that period, based on U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reports. They were 22 percent of homicide victims in the news accounts versus 48 percent in the national crime reports.

These results are contrary to previous research, by Dixon and others, that has shown blacks as overrepresented, especially as perpetrators, in television crime coverage. “This is something I don’t think anyone has ever found in any study before,” he said.

These results are in line, however, with studies showing that African-Americans are almost invisible in other ways on national television news – rarely seen as spokesmen, experts or in other roles, Dixon said. “This says that those findings in other areas apply to crime news as well, and that was kind of surprising to us.”

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