A Near Whitewash: Racial Representation on the Late Local News

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A report of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy, April, 1999. Researched and prepared by Jeff Smith

Introduction

For years, researchers have shown that racial representation in TV news is appalling. (1) Non-White populations are either ignored or demonized as “criminals,” “illegal aliens,” “terrorists,” or “a burden on society.” African Americans are often represented as “criminals,” Hispanic Americans as “illegal aliens,” Arab Americans as “terrorists” and Native Americans as “lazy.”

Since many White people have limited contact with non-White populations their perceptions are often formed by images from media: films, music, newspapers – but mostly from TV news. These manufactured perceptions often result in societal support of excessive police force, growing prison populations, draconian immigration policies and cultural parochialism.

Manufactured perceptions also contribute to individual and institutional racism. Recent immigrants are vilified if they speak their own language and African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated in the so-called “War on Drugs.”

Public perception is therefore crucial to the formation and implementation of public policy. If the news media truly wishes to promote democratic values, they must accurately portray communities and their racial diversity. The news media must challenge the pervasive racism in our society by exposing racism in all its forms. In addition, they should take a proactive stance in promoting racial and cultural diversity in newscasts.

What follows are the results of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy’s month-long survey of racial representation in late local TV news. The data speaks for itself. We have a long way to go in this community to heal the wounds of racism. Until the media commits to more accurate, honest, and complete portrayals of diverse races and racial issues in this community, justice can not flourish.

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Methodology

For the entire month of March 1999, we videotaped the late news broadcasts from Fox-17 (10:00 p.m.), WOOD TV-8 (11:00 p.m.), and WZZM-13 (11:00 p.m.). Each program, excluding weather and sports, was then viewed in its entirety with an eye on documenting the number of times that White, African American, Hispanic, Arab American, Asian American and Native American persons were represented. This included people who were interviewed or even just taped and given no voice. Also documented was the type of activity each person or group was engaged in in each news story and what their status was in society. We focused particular attention on stories about crime or criminal activity.

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Data

FOX 17 WOOD TV 8 WZZM 13
# of times White people appeared: 136 132 95
# of times African American’s appeared: 28 19 16
# of times Hispanics appeared: 1 3 6
# of times Asian Americans appeared: 1 1 1
# of times Arab Americans appeared: 0 0 1
# of times Native Americans appeared: 0 0 0
# of African American involved in crime related stories: 12 7 8
Total # of White to non-White’s represented: 136-30 132-23 95-24
Ratio of White to non-White’s represented: 4.5 to 1 5.6 to 1 4 to 1


African Americans shown in a positive light:

Superintendent Patricia Newby – 6 times
School Board member Toni Beatty – 2 times
Kent Co. Comm. Paul Mayhue – 2 times
City Comm. Candidate Joe Jones – 2 times
Magic Johnson – 2 times
Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer – 1 time
Paul Collins – 1 time
Muskegon School Superintendent – 1 time
Muskegon Fire Chief – 1 time
MSU administrator – 1 time

  • Seven of the ten times that Hispanic Americans were represented concerned crime. The one positive story was about a Hispanic student career conference. (WOOD TV-8)
  • Only one of the three stories with Asian Americans was positive: an International Aid spokesperson. (WZZM 13)
  • Arab Americans were represented only once: a murder sentencing. (WZZM 13)
  • Native Americans were never represented during the entire month-long survey.
  • The total number of Whites vs. non-Whites represented from all three stations for the entire month-long survey: 363 to 77.

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At 10 o’clock it’s Sensationalism, At 11 o’clock it’s Business as Usual

One of the reasons that we chose to study only the late local news was to be able to do a comparative study of the long-standing WOOD TV-8 and WZZM-13 11:00 o’clock newscasts with the new FOX-17 10:00 o’clock news. As a promotional ad for the new FOX 17 news the station came up with this little jingle, At ten it’s news, at eleven it’s history. Despite the efforts of all local TV stations to portray themselves as different we found the three in the study to be remarkably similar.

True to the style of the Fox network, its local affiliate did run more sensationalized stories than the other two stations during our month-long study. We counted crime, accident and fire stories and found that Fox-17 ran the most -96- while WOOD TV-8 ran 64 and WZZM-13 ran 65. Utilizing “if it bleeds it leads” style journalism, there was little variation in the style or substance of the stories, regardless of which station we watched. The same stories were run on all three stations, frequently in the same order. Therefore, it was no surprise that the racial representation on the three stations was also quite similar.

Minority groups in this community don’t generally hold positions of power (except for cases like School Superintendent Patricia Newby and a few others cited in the data). Access to the news media is difficult to impossible for those out of power. Both print and broadcast journalists gravitate to “centers of news” – such as government, business and professionals which are made up primarily of White people. When the media wants a sound-bite for the late news they tend to use spokespersons from these “centers of news.”

When minority people do show up in the news it is often at a crime scene. Roughly 50% of the minorities represented on the late local news in our study were involved in a crime. This statistic, however, is terribly misleading. Most recent studies have shown that, proportionately, Whites commit more crimes in the US than minorities. This includes assaults, murder and illegal drug use. (2) We can only conclude therefore, that the local late TV news does not reflect reality in its racial representation.

As for local TV the news media’s treatment of racism, it was virtually non-existent. The only story that dealt with racism during our study concerned the racially discriminatory practices of the Grotto night-club. In this case, WZZM-13 did a nice job of looking at institutional racism. Here the reporters, after being told of discriminatory practices, conducted a test to verify the complaint. They also attempted to interview other patrons, employees and the owners of the club. Two stories were devoted to covering demonstrations targeting the club that were organized by members of the African-American community.

Looking beyond the Grotto story one can not find any stories about racism in West Michigan. Why is that? Is there a conscious effort on the part of the news media to ignore or vilify the minority community? At one level, this seems to be the case. Again, if the “centers of power” are made up of White people, then it is they who will be interviewed. This majority White representation also exists in the news-rooms themselves, from management to reporters. Until this dynamic changes, we are unlikely to witness serious attention to minority issues on local TV news.

At another level, just having a more racially or ethnically diverse news-room will not fundamentally change news reporting. What determines news stories has more to do with time, resources and advertising. TV news over the past 20 years has increasingly devoted less time to news on a 30-minute newscast and more time to ads. Consolidation of media ownership has also meant more downsizing of news-rooms; reporters now have to do more work than before with less resources and less time. Reporting on racism, particularly institutional racism, takes time. You can not deal with complicated subjects such as racism in a sound-bite format. Unless the advertiser-driven aspects of news media are addressed, the unacceptable quality and quantity of both racial representation and investigations into racism are unlikely improve.

End Notes:

  1. Media Matters: Race and Gender in US Politics, John Fiske, 1996, Unn. Of Minnesota Press.
  2. Crime in Black and White, Franklin Gilliam & Shanto Iyengar; Media Blackface: Racial Profiling in News Reporting, EXTRA! Sept. 1998, Mikal Muharrar.

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