News media offers consistently warped portrayals of black families, study finds

By Tracy Jan | The Washington Post

If all you knew about black families was what national news outlets reported, you are likely to think African Americans are overwhelmingly poor, reliant on welfare, absentee fathers and criminals, despite what government data show, a new study says.

Major media outlets routinely present a distorted picture of black families — portraying them as dependent and dysfunctional — while white families are more likely to be depicted as sources of social stability, according to the report released Wednesday by Color of Change, a racial justice organization, and Family Story, an advocate of diverse family arrangements.

“This leaves people with the opinion that black people are plagued with self-imposed dysfunction that creates family instability and therefore, all their problems,” said Travis L. Dixon, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who conducted the study.

Such stereotypes fuel political rhetoric and inform public policy, such as Congress’s consideration to “gut social safety net programs,” he said. Stricter work requirements, drug testing and other welfare restrictions are likely to be supported by a public exposed to inaccurate portrayals of black families, the report said. Legislators can point to media coverage of black families in their zeal to further limit welfare programs and say, “It’s all their fault. They just need to get their ducks in a row,” Dixon said.

Poverty and welfare were not always stigmatized in the media as a predominantly black issue, the report said. White men who benefited from the anti-poverty programs in the 1920s and 1930s were typically thought of as having “run into hard luck” and just needed the support to “help them through the tough times,” it said.

Over time, however, political leaders and the media have “worked to pathologize black families in the American imagination to justify slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, widespread economic inequity and urban disinvestment — as well as to gain and maintain political and social power,” wrote Nicole Rodgers, founder of Family Story.

Researchers reviewed more than 800 local and national news stories and commentary pieces published or aired between January 2015 and December 2016, randomly sampling the most highly rated news programs for each of the major broadcast and cable networks. Those included ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.

Also included in the study: newspapers of national influence such as The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune as well as regional newspapers, conservative websites such as Breitbart, and Christian news sources like the Christian Post.

The study concluded both ideologically driven news sources as well as traditional newspapers and broadcasts furthered false narratives about black families, helping to shape public assumptions that they are “uniquely and irrevocably pathological and undeserving,” Dixon said.

Black families represent 59 percent of the poor portrayed in the media, according to the analysis, but account for just 27 percent of Americans in poverty. Whites families make up 17 percent of the poor depicted in news media, but make up 66 percent of the American poor, the study said.

Black people are also nearly three times more likely than whites to be portrayed as dependent on welfare, the study showed. Black fathers were shown spending time with their kids almost half as often as white fathers.

Blacks represent 37 percent of criminals shown in the news, but constitute 26 percent of those arrested on criminal charges, the study said. In contrast, news media portray whites as criminals 28 percent of the time, when FBI crime reports show they make up 77 percent of crime suspects.

“There are dire consequences for black people when these outlandish archetypes rule the day: abusive treatment by police, less attention from doctors, harsher sentences from judges,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, wrote in the report.

Dixon said racial tropes of the absentee black father or family dysfunction were frequently invoked during new shows featuring political commentary. Pundits were often allowed to spout inaccurate generalizations about black families without being challenged by hosts.

“Let’s say the actual topic was the Black Lives Matter movement and police citizen interactions,” Dixon said. “This idea of the problematic black family would keep coming up, almost out of nowhere, even if the topic was not about the black family.”

The report makes several recommendations for the news industry, including setting stronger standards for sourcing information and experts, providing greater social and historical context, and including people of color in setting editorial standards.

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