World Trust

How Media Representation Feeds Unconscious Bias

Posted by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong on September 2, 2014

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown by @whoISdeante via ABC

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown - Media Representation
With news out of Ferguson, Missouri entering its fourth week now, media images have been one of the only ways that most of the country receives its information. But amid the tweets from reporters getting arrested and images of paramilitary squads of police on the streets, we were struck by this line offering another angle on the coverage:

Media treatment of black victims is often harsher than it is of whites suspected of crimes, including murder.

The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, trending in the early days after the unarmed Brown was shot by a police officer, examined the way media outlets’ choice of image shaped or conformed to public opinion about the slain teen, and youth of color in general. With this Huffington Post piece, the ways in which unconscious bias affects media portrayal deserve a closer look.

Balanced or Imbalanced Narratives?
Star actor and activist Jesse Williams began a conversation about the role of journalists in crafting a balanced narrative that starts at the beginning (including acknowledgement of the ways in which the historic system of racial inequity affects high profile cases such as these). 

The Huffington Post takes that discussion further, examining disparities in the way that African-American victims are treated compared to white suspects in a long litany of alternating coverage. We learn that a school shooting suspect was fascinated with guns but a devoted Mormon, that a murder suspect was brilliant and athletic, that the plotter of a bomb attempt was a straight-A student.

All of the suspects in the previous cases are white. By comparison, headlines about black victims of violence share that they had been suspended from school, were carrying weapons (at a Wal-Mart where such weapons are sold, so presumably unloaded), or had been shot before – thus presenting their deaths as inevitable, deserved, or both.

Focus on Framing the System of Inequity For Change
Each time coverage of a particular incident flares up, it can be easy to focus on the specific anecdotes of a case while losing sight of the larger systemic inequity underpinning events. But it can be hugely important to make the framing of an issue visible, in order to engage with it directly and to challenge the implicit bias that may be built into the presentation of an issue.

Our recently released training product Beyond Our Wildest Dreams: Racial Equity Learning Modules uses images from Hurricane Katrina to underscore the ways in which media framing can reinforce racism and unconscious bias.

It offers education on how to make the frames visible, how to engage with them, and how to re-frame them for ourselves. When we are able to identify and question the bias that may be informing media representation, we are more able to create an equitable narrative that shifts from fear-based messaging toward those messages that highlight hope, love, and unity.

For more information on the RELs and thoughts on how to use them in your diversity work, please click here.

Topics: Unconscious Bias