Study: News Media Consistently Presents False Narratives of Black American Families

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According to the study, major news outlets are more likely to portray Black families as sources of social instability. (Photo by Reed Kaestner/Getty Images)

Not every Black family is overwhelmingly poor or reliant on public welfare, nor are they left burdened by criminals and absentee fathers. But, you would never know that if all you saw about Black folk was what the news media portrayed.

A study co-released by racial justice organization Color of Change and Family Story, an organization that advocates for families, this week found that major news outlets routinely present a warped image of African-American families, painting them as dependent or dysfunctional. Meanwhile, white families are more frequently portrayed as the beacon of financial and social stability.

” …The current news media landscape is shaped by news media decision-makers who continue to inaccurately depict Black fathers as absent, Black mothers as bad decision makers, and Black families as destabilizing forces in society,” wrote Rashad Robinson, executive director for the organization. “As a result of their persistent distortions and inaccuracies, news media are gravely failing to present evenhanded, true–to–life and multidimensional portrayals of what it means to be a family in this country.”

Such stereotypes influence political rhetoric and today’s public policy, the study notes, and can prove detrimental to Black families. From abusive treatment by police to efforts to gut government assistance programs, all are more likely to be supported by a public inundated with false, biased narratives about African-Americans.

Speaking with The Washington Post, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Dr. Travis L. Dixon said lawmakers could point to news reports on Black families to further their efforts in implementing stricter work requirements, mandatory drug tests and other welfare restrictions.

They can say “It’s all their fault,” said Dixon, who conducted the study. “They just need to get their ducks in a row.”

Researchers examined over 800 local and national news reports and editorials published or aired between January 2015 and December 2016, according to the newspaper. Major news programs from each of the big-name broadcast and cable networks, like ABC, CNN and Fox News, were then randomly sampled to study the ” … inaccuracies and racial stereotypes of Black families” by the media in comparison to white families. National newspapers like The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and even conservative news site Brietbart News were also included in the study.

The research concluded that, overall, news and opinion media depict African-American families as a source of social instability and are nearly 1.5 times more likely to portray white families as a representation of social stability. Moreover, Black American families comprise 59 percent of the poor in the news media, yet account for just 27 percent of impoverished Americans.

Black fathers are portrayed as unavailable to their children in the media at least 60 percent of the time, compared to white fathers at just 20 percent, the report also found. They are also nearly three times more likely than white folk to be depicted as dependent on welfare.

Lastly, the news media tends to overrepresent Black family members as criminals, topping the rate at which white family members are depicted as criminals by 11 percentage points.

The report concluded with several recommendations for the news and opinion media, such as educating editorial decision-makers and reporters on the implications of stereotyping in reporting, ending the pattern of propagating the right-wing narrative of the absentee Black father and including more people of color in editorial settings.

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