#MediaImagesMatter: The Cause and Effect of Media Stereotypes on People of Color

by Marcella Gadson on February 27, 2015

The following article is Part 1 of a two-part series.

MLK Thug HoodieThe #BlackLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter movements have harnessed – in a non-violent, social media kind of way – the nation’s anger at the slayings of unarmed men of color by law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion ignores the underlying root of most of these issues – that #MediaImagesMatter, and that the media contributes to the negative portrayal, and therefore the unfair treatment, of people of color.

The sad truth is that the media constantly tells the nation – in both news and entertainment – that many lives really don’t matter.  In a nation that is deeply fractured on the issue of race, all of us – including the media – have the responsibility to change the way we tell our stories and to stop stereotyping and using people of color as target practice to titillate and, in some cases, to fuel fears.

Journalists such as  Roland Martin of NewsOne Now and Richard Lui of MSNBC joined a diverse panel at MMTC’s recent Broadband and Social Justice Summit, titled “#MediaImagesMatter: The Combined Effects of Traditional and New Media in Perpetuating Stereotypes of People of Color.” The panel, which included representatives from the media industry and nonprofit advocacy groups, was in effect a town hall meeting on what we can and must do to change the portrayals of minorities in America. 

Disparate Portrayals in Black and White

Color television has been around for over 60 years, but the stories it’s told have been largely monochromatic until very recently.  When people of color – and especially African Americans – were included, they were one-dimensional, subservient caricatures, mere shadows of their unique and complex selves.

“There is no group in the history of the United States that has been denigrated to the extent of African Americans in every form of mass media in every decade since we’ve had media,” said Roland Martin during the panel.  “When you’ve had that type of assault on a group of people, it now infiltrates every aspect of our society, which then infiltrates what we see and what we think and what we hear.”

Martin cited Michigan’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which features an exhibit that documents the history of the caricaturistic imagery used to depict African Americans since the dawn of mass media, including the “Brute Caricature,” the “Mammy Caricature,” and the “Jezebel Stereotype.”

Unfortunately, while we have made many inroads, there really isn’t much difference today, and these stereotypes still pervade American media.  We have seen a proliferation of content focusing on African Americans, Hispanics, and other historically marginalized groups, but much of the content is still filled with images of what has been coined “Ratchetpiece Theater,” a modern-day extension of Jim Crow-era stereotyping.

“When there are projects out there like ‘Devious Maids,’ it hurts my heart even though I think we do it to ourselves in terms of some of these stereotypes,” said Hispanic Heritage Foundation President and CEO José Antonio Tijerino.

Close the Divide Project Founder and Maximum Leverage Solutions President and CEO Navarrow Wright agreed with Tijerino’s sentiment that we sometimes perpetuate our own stereotypes.  When it comes to “Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, the ‘Sorority Sisters’ [TV show], we’re up here [at a high level] – and then we disappear,” he said.  “With ‘Love and Hip Hop,’ ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta,’ we’re at this [lower] level. Oh, so you only don’t like it when it’s certain sacred things, but ‘generalized ratchet’ you’re ok with?” he asked of the African-American community.

The panel’s general consensus was that communities of color need to remain consistent in their criticisms of negative images and to keep the momentum going at the end of a particular battle, rather than supporting one type of negative image while decrying another.  A concerted movement got “All My Babies’ Mamas” canceled before it even hit the air, but many other denigrating shows still exist, consumed voraciously by the very communities they mischaracterize.

The Deadly Consequences of Negative Media

The panel moderator, Politic365 Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief Kristal High, asked, “Why do these media images matter so much?” pointing out that the images we see impact how we interact with ourselves and also impact intercultural interactions.

“For a lot of people, this is their only window to who those people are. If young black women are pulling each other’s hair and cursing each other out, you’re going to think this is how all black women will treat you, especially if you don’t know any,” said MMTC President and CEO Kim Keenan.  “There’s such an imbalance now that people question what they see when they see something else.  We have to start talking about it because it’s not ok, and it’s not ok for young people – it’s damaging to their brain to think we’re only this one way, and I think it carries into news.”

Keenan’s point is valid – these images damage the perceptions of young whites, who grow up to believe people of color are nothing more than angry, violent criminals and thugs; and they damage the perceptions of young people of color, who begin to see themselves as less-than, with little hope for advancement in a society with so many opportunities for success.

Sadly, the bias in media portrayals often means the difference between life and death, because when the media constantly portrays minorities as one-dimensional caricatures, minority lives hold less value in the eyes of authority figures, and in mainstream society as a whole.

When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, media outlets disparaged Martin’s character, giving many Americans fodder to come to Zimmerman’s defense.  They attacked Martin explicitly as a “thug” or tacitly with remarks such as, “Why was Martin wearing a hoodie if he wasn’t up to no good?” and, “We can’t judge Zimmerman because [we] don’t know all the facts.”  To these people, it didn’t matter that an unarmed teen was dead.

When video surveillance footage surfaced of police fatally shooting John Crawford, an African-American male, for holding a pellet gun at an Ohio Wal-Mart that he had picked up inside the store, some media outlets referred to Crawford as a “suspect,” focused on his criminal history, and even blamed him for the death of a woman who collapsed and died of a heart condition during the incident.  In this case, the media provided viewers with more than enough evidence to blame the victim for his own death, even though he was not breaking the law in any way; in fact, Ohio is an open-carry state.

In the recent case of Mexican national Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was armed only with rocks when he was shot to death by three police officers, many suggested Zambrano-Montes’s death was his own fault because he provoked the police.

Meanwhile, when Lance Tamayo, a white man, waved a gun in a park full of families and children, police tried to verbally subdue him, even as he posed an immediate threat to those around him.  Finally, they delivered a single, non-fatal shot to his stomach and waited thirty more minutes for him to move away from his weapon before arresting him.  He is alive today, and aside from being described as “possibly suicidal,” there has been little follow-up on this story in the media, and no inquiries as to whether he has a criminal past.

Many would argue that these stories are merely anecdotal and don’t paint the whole picture, but they are in fact representative of a pattern of unfair treatment that numerous studies have already proven.

The Sentencing Project’s recent report titled, “Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System,” found that African-American drivers were searched at almost double the rate of their white counterparts when stopped by police (12 percent vs. 7 percent), even though white drivers were more likely to have contraband than African Americans (34 percent vs. 22 percent).  Regardless, African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested during a traffic stop, even though “police officers generally have a lower ‘contraband hit rate’ when they search Black versus White drivers,” the study said.

The reasons for this disparate treatment clearly are rooted in skewed perceptions portrayed in the news media.

George Washington University School of Media & Public Affairs Professors Robert Entman and Kimberly Gross have studied the subtle media trends that lead to mischaracterizations of minorities as the primary perpetrators of crime, leading to their disproportionate persecution in the criminal justice system.  Their paper, “Race to Judgment: Stereotyping Media and Criminal Defendants,” pointed out several subtle media trends from various studies, the most alarming of which included:

  • Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to appear as lawbreakers in news—particularly when the news is focusing on violent crime
  • Depictions of black suspects (mostly young men) tend to be more symbolically threatening than those of whites accused of similar crimes
  • Black and Latino defendants are twice as likely as white defendants to be subjected to negative pretrial publicity

“Such messages not only stereotype the blacks and Latinos who are featured in them, but also contribute to a stereotypical association between blacks, criminality, and guilt that can influence evaluations and behavior,” the report stated (emphasis added).

“It gets to the point where somebody who doesn’t even know somebody who’s black – even if they see a black person in a suit – they say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m so scared of them!’ because of the images that we have projected,” said Roland Martin.

These types of immediate reactions to people who look a certain way or carry a certain demeanor – whether they are a threat or not – directly impacts the way mainstream society, law enforcement officials, and decisionmakers like legislators and judges treat them.

The Power to Change is in Our Hands

Yet, there is hope – thanks to the Internet, communities of color have the power to change the tone of their portrayals in the media.  The mainstream media has already released a slew of new shows that focus on diverse communities and, finally, portray them in a positive light.

The #MediaImagesMatter panelists focused heavily on what we can do as communities to become creators, tell our own stories, and change the way people of color are characterized in the media.

Check BBSJ for more on this discussion next week.

  • Marcella Gadson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC).
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