Picture these scenes from two local TV news stories:
- A young pilot accepts the cheers of well-wishers as she completes a solo cross-country flight, becoming the youngest person ever to do this.
- A distraught young woman describes how a sniper picked off children at play in the courtyard of her apartment building.
If your mind conjured up a white face for the first speaker and a darker face for the second, chances are good that you are a regular viewer of TV news, and that you are experiencing what some call “media bias,” something that is particularly evident in the portrayal of violence among young people and in communities of color. Yet journalists, when confronted with this charge, ardently protest that they are merely reporting what happened, not creating a misrepresentation of the news.
To try to better understand this dynamic, we, at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, set out to document how youth and violence are portrayed on local television newscasts. We analyzed 214 hours of local news coverage on 26 stations throughout California. Since public perceptions of young people and violence are often influenced by how the news media portrays these stories, our findings point to some disturbing implications that arise out of the way in which journalists cover this story.
- Violence dominates local television news coverage. The overwhelming number of stories (77 percent) did not concern youth or violence. However, more news stories were devoted to violent crime than any other single topic.
- Violence appears to be particularly newsworthy when it involves children or youth. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of violence stories involved youth.
- The reverse is true as well: When youth appeared on the news, it was most often as the victim or perpetrator of violence. Fifty-three percent of all youth stories involved violence.
- Youth are rarely portrayed in positive circumstances. A youth had to perform an extraordinary feat—fly solo across the country or win a national beauty contest—in order to appear on local television news in positive circumstances. Overall, only six percent of all stories about youth featured youth accomplishments.
When Youth Speak On the News
We now knew what the pictures showed. What we wanted to learn more about was whether young people spoke in these stories and, if they did, to examine what they said. This interested us because of our belief that the video shots in which youngsters spoke were likely to be the images that left the most lasting impression on viewers.
We soon discovered that the speaking roles provided to youth of color and those offered to white youth differed. To start with, more white youth were given opportunities to speak in local news stories. However, in every violence-related role where youth did speak—either as a victim, a witness of violence, a criminal or suspect—youth of color were heard in these roles in higher proportions than their white counterparts. By contrast, a higher percentage of white youth spoke in the role of victim of unintentional injury, where their status is likely to engender sympathy. The most common role for youth of any race was as “person on the street,” interviewed for their perspectives or comments on an issue or event. However, a review of such stories in which youth spoke in this capacity once again showed some key differences by race. While youth of all races were interviewed for stories about street fairs and Halloween events, white youth appeared more often as “person on the street” in stories about children’s emotional response to the wildfires, fitness, video games and a protest over the filming of “Beverly Hills 90210” on Hermosa Beach.
By contrast, when youth of color were interviewed as “person on the street,” it was more often as neighbors of crime victims and in stories on cruising and crime threatening local businesses, drug dealing and gang initiations. Even when they were not portrayed as direct participants in these social problems, youth of color were still affiliated in the public’s mind with such circumstances in news coverage.
Similarly, the youth “achievers” also displayed the color gap. White achievers in our sample included the young pilot, college students who built a solar car, young magicians and musicians auditioning for a show, a college swimmer making her comeback after severe injury, and a blind track star. Achievers of color were the 18-year-old Miss America, high school football players, an undocumented immigrant who was valedictorian of his class, former gang members trying to turn their lives around, and inner-city kids who won a chance to play golf with the pros for a day. However, even when youth of color were shown in such positive circumstances, the tendency was still to depict their lives within the confines of stereotypical story lines.
Why These Findings Matter
Despite the fact that most young people are not violent, local television news draws a direct link between youth and violence, and this likely contributes to cementing negative views in the minds of viewers. The coverage we observed in California suggests that stories about productive, nonviolent youth are the exception rather than the rule. Since journalists tend to report on what is unusual rather than what is expected, this finding isn’t surprising. What is more worrisome is that the public face of youth of color is being distorted by an association with violence that does not reflect reality. And there is evidence that what people see on television affects their impressions of other races, especially when direct contact with people of that race are lacking. Our analysis shows that youth of color are being relegated to a news formula that could result in public derision of them as a group.
Our findings also revealed a paradox: The perspectives of those who are concerned about the presence of “media bias” and journalists trying accurately to report the daily news may both have merit. We found no single news story that stood out as an example of what could be labeled “racist” coverage; reason for concern emerges only in the cumulative patterns that can be seen when one looks at a collection of news stories over time.
The consistent patterns we uncovered do have the power to negatively and inaccurately shape public perception. By doing this kind of analysis we can now offer this knowledge to journalists in their decision-making and give them the opportunity to use this awareness in a proactive way to improve the fairness of their coverage.
If lessons from this study can be applied to daily coverage, then journalists can use their reporting skills to depict the full range of young people’s experience. Yes, sadly, violence plays a role in too many of their lives, and it must be covered. And, yes, violence does take a disproportionate toll on those who are poor and are of color, and when violence occurs it will be covered. But awareness, too, of the impact that journalists’ coverage has on public perception—both in the selection of images they use and the voices they invite into the conversation—will go a long way toward improving coverage of children’s lives.
Katie Woodruff is Program Director at the Berkeley Media Studies Group where she conducts research on news content and has published case studies and articles on applying media advocacy to public health and social justice issues.