Democracy Dies in Darkness

Outlook | Perspective

How the news media distorts black families

A new study shows outlets from Fox to CNN to the New York Times are guilty of misrepresentation.

By Nicole Rodgers, Rashad Robinson

December 29, 2017 at 7:51 AM

ONE-TIME USE ONLY illustration for O-BLACKFAMILIES1231 (Erin K. Robinson for The Washington Post/Erin K. Robinson for The Washington Post)

During his campaign for the U.S. Senate, former Alabama judge Roy Moore answered a question about what it means to "make America great again." According to Moore, America was great "at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery. They cared for one another. People were strong in the families."

The claim that black families are in disarray and were better off under slavery is not new. During the GOP presidential primary race in 2011, candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum both signed a pledge against same-sex marriage that stated children born during slavery were more likely to be raised by a mother and father in a two-parent home than children are today. On the campaign trail in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump described a nightmarish world for black Americans, rife with poverty, homelessness and crime, and asked for their votes by saying, "What do you have to lose?"

Outrageous, yes, but not surprising. If your impression of black families comes mostly from what you see in the news — and not just Fox News — then you might think black families have it worse today than when they were enslaved.

Scholars have long documented how news and opinion media warp public perceptions of gender and race by reinforcing myths and stereotypes about women and people of color. And they play a dangerous role in spreading debunked stereotypes about black families.

Our organizations, Color of Change and Family Story, commissioned a research team at the University of Illinois that studies media patterns to examine what an average news consumer might have "learned" about black families (and white families) during the last election cycle. The results were disturbing.

The study found that, at best, media outlets promoted racially biased portrayals and myths that pathologize black families and idealize white families with respect to poverty and crime. At worst, media outlets amplified those inaccurate depictions for political and financial gain. Such reporting reinforces debunked narratives, helping to justify actions from police brutality to economic policies that will hurt not just black families but all families for generations.

The research team examined more than 800 relevant stories published or aired from January 2015 through December 2016, encompassing coverage from national broadcast and cable news outlets such as ABC, CBS and MSNBC; national mainstream newspapers like The Washington Post, the New York Times and USA Today; and online news sites. In both written and television reporting, the researchers found that the news media systemically misrepresented black families.

When the media outlets examined in the study reported stories about poor families, they chose to feature black families in their coverage 59 percent of the time, even though only 27 percent of families living below the poverty line are black. Similarly, in coverage of welfare, 60 percent of families portrayed were black, even though only 42 percent of families receiving welfare are black. This pattern was widespread across numerous sources — among the worst offenders for networks were Fox News and CNN, and the New York Times and Breitbart for national print and online news organizations.

Additionally, the news media habitually reinforced the myth that black fathers are less involved in their children's lives. We found that photos and videos in the study showed black mothers, white mothers and white fathers interacting with their children at the same rate. Black fathers, however, were shown with their children half as often, and the news media regularly perpetuated the conventional wisdom that missing black fathers explain social inequity. On "CNN Tonight," for example, conservative commentator Larry Elder said, "The primary problem with the black community in this country is absentee fathers."

Though black children are disproportionately born to single mothers, that does not mean fathers aren't involved. A 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that black fathers spend more time engaged in parenting than fathers of other races, participating more often in bathing, diapering, taking their kids to activities and helping them with their homework.

Our study also found that media outlets reinforced the idea that black families are sources of personal, cultural and societal instability — that responsibility for poverty and crime lies with them, rather than with those who shape the economic and social environment they live in. On "The O'Reilly Factor," Bill O'Reilly commented, "The root cause of poverty . . . as 'Talking Points' has reported over and over again, that is the dissolution of the African American traditional family." There is no evidence to support this claim and much evidence to debunk it. At the same time, the news media promotes white families as the model norm, a source of social stability. This extends beyond the loud claims of O'Reilly to a steady stream of reporting, including the images that mainstream news producers, editors and reporters choose to include when covering families and family life.

This coverage has real-life consequences. Prior research has shown that when the news media constantly associates black people with crime, it increases racial stereotypes among viewers, leading the public to disproportionately favor punitive criminal justice policies. In addition, when the poor are depicted as overwhelmingly black, it leads the public to support heavier restrictions on welfare because of a perception that undeserving black people benefit from it. Backers of corporate and right-wing policies gain when the news media blames black families for social conditions, while their own role in destabilizing society remains invisible.

Federal poverty solutions such as welfare, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income and earned-income tax credits were not stigmatized when white people were correctly understood to be the main beneficiaries of them. This was especially true during the Great Depression of the 1930s. As Martin Gilens documents in his book, "Why Americans Hate Welfare," this started to change in the 1960s following the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty. Reporters who had covered Martin Luther King's quest for civil rights continued to follow him as he turned his attention to abject poverty in both rural and urban areas where blacks and others were deeply affected. This turn toward urban black poverty became an obsession of the media, over time leading to a distorted view of who is poor in our country. Over time, the media and politicians began "othering" the poor by putting a black face on them to undermine the promise of the New Deal and justify policy changes. Today, we continue to see politicians deploy coded racism as economic populism to distract and inflame the public, and to create cover to further right-wing and corporate interests. News outlets are their best partners, echoing these myths in ways big and small, exceptional and routine, serving as validators.

How do we work toward more accurate and responsible media coverage? By publicizing these findings, for one. And pressuring advertisers to withdraw their support from the worst offenders, whether Fox News or CNN (two of the worst across all measures in the report), could force news outlets and the corporations that control them to end these practices and reshape their standards.

If our country hopes to close cultural divides and create solutions that make all families strong, the media cannot continue to perpetuate false narratives that cause so much harm, while allowing the truth of the economic and social forces that drive family dynamics to remain invisible. The news media must help the public understand the systemic barriers that impede well-being for so many families and the policies that could improve them. The time for the media industry to reckon with how it covers families is long overdue.

Twitter: @nsrodgers, @rashadrobinson

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Nicole Rodgers is the founder and executive director of Family Story, an organization dedicated to elevating stories of diverse families.

Rashad Robinson is the executive director of the racial justice organization Color of Change.

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