Story selection triggers racial perceptions

Assuming “perception is reality,” does TV news victimize minorities?

Long a complaint of minority leaders is how they’re often portrayed in the media, right down to the local level. Bluntly put: as criminals, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics.

Whether racist agendas exist in mainstream news is a legit debate, but suspicions are often more conspiracy-minded than factually-based. Yet perceptions can stem as much from a newscast’s presentation as from its content. Racial stereotyping can arise — unintentionally — just from ill-advised story placement. Stories don’t exist in a vacuum. They combine for a cumulative effect on viewers.

Consider a KLAS-TV, Channel 8 newscast last week, led by Aaron Drawhorn’s report on the off-duty cop who shot and killed a man breaking into a Seven Hills home. Stations regularly report violent crime by whites, as it was in this case. However, the spin here was of a genteel white neighborhood shocked and rocked by violence — in and of itself, an accurate narrative, but creating a stark contrast to what came next in the perceptions of white vs. minority crime on one given night.

Factor in not only tone but volume — ONE story about white crime portrayed as particularly unusual (at least in that neighborhood), followed by FOUR stories of minority crime not portrayed as unusual at all:

Two men arrested for murdering a woman and shooting her young daughter — with a photo of a black suspect. An at-large bar robber – shown on security video and obviously black or Hispanic. Cops searching for a man who shot two people — with sketches of an apparent minority suspect (but no mention of race was made). And the arrest of a fugitive in Las Vegas – with a photo of the black, convicted sex offender in question.

White lawbreaker stories did follow – about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Minority candidates for Clark County School District superintendent were noted later, but the crime story imbalance lingered.

“Not the best producing, stacking those crime stories, but that’s the worst that happened,” says news director Ron Comings, denying racial stereotyping could be mistakenly perceived and insisting it’s generic descriptions of suspects that are unfair. “It’s usually like this,” he says:

“ ’Black man, average height and weight, wearing a white T-shirt.’ That could fit 50,000 people. That’s where the stereotype is perpetuated. I want more than a Metro officer’s assumption it was a black man. The bar robber had a distinctive tattoo on his gun arm. I insist that we give enough description to say more than it was a black or Hispanic man.”

Details to ID individuals rather than race is solid journalism, but the distinctions may not register with viewers when violent crime suspects, all shown or suggested to be minorities, are played back to back to back to back.

Fair reflection of the community or misleading block of stories? Spreading them over a newscast might lessen a sense that minorities commit the bulk of Las Vegas crimes. (Reasonable viewers won’t automatically assume that anyway.) Reshuffling the deck, others could argue, doesn’t change the cards. The day’s news is the day’s news, however reports are arranged.

Should potential racial perceptions color news decisions? Isn’t there a clear, journalism school-approved guideline?

There’s no reality to that perception.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.

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