Do better: Media still struggles with proper portrayals of communities of color

American media has a long history of portraying people of color as being synonymous with poverty and crime on television, in print and online.

The conscious and subconscious choices that journalists make every day carry real – and sometimes life-threatening – consequences for black and brown people, and ultimately change how they are perceived and treated in the world.

In the wake of KTVU airing a picture of murder victim Nia Wilson that portrayed her in a negative light, the subsequent hurt and outrage is linked to the long history of black people being negatively portrayed and maligned in media of all kinds.

KTVU spoke to Rashid Shabazz the Chief Marketing and Storytelling Office for Color of Change, a racial justice organization based in New York. In addition to working campaigns surrounding voting protections, immigration rights, and incarceration, the group also aims to “disrupt” the way black people are portrayed in news media and entertainment through its support of relevant research. 

“Too often there's a disproportionality toward trying to dehumanize black people in ways in which the media depicts through photos, images, through representation, and through stories that are often stereotypes and tropes portraying black people that reaffirm the conscious and unconscious biases,” Shabazz said.

In a 2017 study titled “A Dangerous Distortion of Our Families,” researchers found that black people are disproportionately more often depicted as being poor, recipients of welfare, or criminals.

Study authors examined more than 800 local and national news stories and opinion pieces from each major broadcast and cable network. They found that 37 percent of the people represented as criminals in media were black, even though national crime statistics from the Department of Justice find that they only constitute 26 percent of those actually arrested.

Conversely, the study found, white people were associated with crime in media 28 percent of the time, while the FBI’s national crime statistics say they make up 70 percent of people arrested.

“That's why it’s so important for media to be conscious about way they portray us on television and in media,” Shabazz said. “But more importantly it's important to recognize that there's a disproportionality to how we're portrayed in a more negative light that is not accurate to what happens in the real world.”

The shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 launched a national debate about how the media chooses images of black victims versus white.

A picture of Brown standing on a stoop in a tank top was released soon after his death. He’s holding up his hands in a peace sign that some said looked more like a gang sign. It was widely circulated, as opposed to a photo showing the same young man in a graduation photo.

Twitter users began sharing the hashtag #Iftheygunnedmedown to highlight and criticize the way media organizations pick and choose photos to depict people of different races, especially black victims versus white perpetrators. The hashtag asked the question, how would the media choose to portray me after my death?

“If they gunned me down is a prime example of us showing that the Nia Wilsons of the world, the Trayvon Martins of the world, the Michael Browns of the world, the Sandra Blands of the world are our sons, our daughters, our aunts, our cousins, loved ones,” said Shabazz. 

Shabaz also said that newsroom need to first acknowledge that a bias problem exists before they can work to do better. 

“Because the pattern is so persistent at some point you do have to call out the explicit bias of it and there's a racist of aspect to it,” he said. “Maybe putting in place throughout all newsrooms the need to make sure that the voices of those that are people of color in the newsroom are being heard when decisions are being made.” 

“Making sure that those images, when they're being vetted, there's a consciousness around what image, and how will that image be reviewed or considered or taken by the broader community. What does it reinforce, and what does it say about the story?”