Politics

Trump and US News Crime Coverage: How Media Shape Racial Stereotypes

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Since Donald Trump was elected to office in late 2016, much of his rhetoric to keep his followers passionately behind him and his opponents furious is his use of eliciting fear in the American public. He is notorious for spreading misinformation and spewing fake melodrama in an effort to convince people that he is the only one who can save the United States from the “rampant crime” occurring in their country and who can put an end to the “American carnage”. 

Trump’s Lies to the Public

Language and the framing by powerful people, can fuel certain stereotypes and ideologies in the public.

Although this bold statement was exclaimed in front of over 30 million U.S television viewers at his inauguration, it was simply false of him to claim that previous administrations had allowed crime to increase in the years leading up to his presidency. The truth is that total violent crime reported in the United States had been decreasing since the early 1990’s.  However, this does not interest Trump, it is more important to him to spread fear in an effort to push his beliefs and initiatives about the United States onto his supporters. His goal is to keep his followers falsely believing that he is the only president that can save them, ultimately trying to secure a second term – something which he did not achieve in 2020.  In late September this year, Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists at a presidential debate and told them to “stand by”, a quote which was later added to the far-right group ‘Proud Boys’ logo. This shows how language and the framing of events and groups by powerful people, can fuel certain stereotypes and ideologies in the public.

How Does the Media falsely Present Crime?

It is not only the powerful people that the media give a platform to that can create this impact, the media itself, especially news channels, play a massive role in how the public is subconsciously made to adopt certain stereotypes and ideas as reality. Mainstream media may appear to exclusively inform the public about important events, however there is always a hidden frame that is being expressed, that unwittingly still shapes views. For example, according to a four-year average of statistics from the New York City police, black Americans, more specifically men, are frequently overrepresented as perpetrators of crime in U.S news media. As an illustration, 55% of theft cases were caused by African Americans, however 80% of theft stories in the media identified African Americans as the culprits. Similarly, 54% of arrests for murder and 49% for assault cases are of African Americans, however once again the media stories reported 68% of murder stories and 72% of assault stories about black perpetrators. These TV news crime reports portray a different reality than what is truthfully occurring in America.

This statistic is concerning and by looking at Gerbner’s cultivation theory it can be better explained why. This theory suggests that those who are exposed to media over a long period of time accept the reality they are shown on television as their own personal reality, which causes a change in attitudes and behaviors. Ultimately this means that people watching mainstream US media over long periods of time will be conditioned to believe that 80% of burglaries are committed by black people, whereas in reality, it is 25% less than this. 

The Effect on America’s Public

This altered view of crime in America is being cultivated in the United States public, which is being further fuelled by Trump’s dramatic call for an end to the “rampant crime” in the country. Donald Trump further feeds into this incorrect belief, for instance, by tweeting 3 years before taking office: “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and hispanics”. If Americans begin to incorrectly assume that crime cases are at an all-time high and additionally believe that this crime is primarily done by non-white Americans, this can have alarming repercussions.

The media’s main effect is transferring the salience, or importance, of issues to the public. When the media repeatedly communicates that Trump believes crime is growing, the public adopts this idea as their own, believing that crime is a prevalent issue for them. This augments the American national fear that Trump thrives off.

Increasing Racial Tensions and Prejudices

It has also been shown that the media overrepresents cases of black people committing homicide against white people, although statistically speaking homicide is usually an intraracial crime. Once again, this misrepresentation magnifies the narrative that white Americans are more often in the victim role, where black Americans continue to be given the perpetrator role, which ultimately has a negative effect on pre-existing racial tensions. This skewed view of African Americans leads to an intrinsic bias in policing as well, where this association of black people with crime that the media perpetuates can breed stricter court verdicts, jail time, and more violent treatment by police. 

The media portrayal does not only change how important people perceive the issue of crime, but also change their views on who is to blame for most crimes. 44% of black Americans had said they had been unjustly stopped by police based solely on their race, and for black men, this number rose to 59%. Furthermore, only 33% of black Americans believed police used the right amount of force, in contrast to 85% of white Americans. In the judicial system, black male suspects receive sentences approximately 19.1 percent longer than white males and black youth are more likely to be tried as adults.

What Is the Effect on Policing and What Else Can Play a Role?

Of course, all these aspects of American policing and the judicial system are not determined solely by the media and have a multitude of deep-rooted causes. For example, old housing policies such as redlining, which ended in 1968, made it virtually impossible for African Americans living in traditionally black neighborhoods to receive a loan to buy a house, since their neighborhoods were marked as being ‘hazardous’ for banks to lend money to. This led to a financial disparity between black and white Americans that continues into the present day since previous generations of African Americans did not have the privilege of becoming homeowners. Additionally, these traditionally black neighborhoods still exist today, meaning that over-policing is more common in these areas. Police can take decisions based on this biased belief about crime and black people, and use this as a reason to excessively patrol these communities.

It is crucial for the media to accurately reflect reality in their reporting of crime.

All in all, the media’s misrepresentative coverage of crime unknowingly alters white American public’s perception of black people in relation to crime, leading to increased tensions, solely based on ingrained biases and stereotypes maintained by the media. It is crucial for the media to accurately reflect reality in their reporting of crime, in order to assure that false frames of African Americans are not perpetuated and adopted by the American public. 

 

Cover: UnSplash/Filip Mishevi

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