The Evidence Is in: Crime News Is Colorized

August 23, 1994|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

At a panel ''Handcuffed reporting: Is crime coverage race-based?'' at July's Unity journalism conference in Atlanta, Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, asked how many people present had been stopped and questioned by police for a crime.

Many African-Americans raised their hands. One was Willie Williams, the police chief of Los Angeles.

Melita Garza, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, said Latinos are similarly harassed by immigration officers. Garza said a colleague at the Los Angeles Times recently was stopped and asked to produce his green card. The colleague flashed his green card: American Express.

Mr. Ogletree said Time magazine's darkening of a cover shot of murder suspect O.J. Simpson turned the ex-football star from ''the hero to the Negro.''

Former New York Daily News columnist Earl Caldwell said: ''I was stunned. I have often seen these pictures of people of color in the paper, and sometimes you can't pick the person out of the darkness. Now I'm wondering, has this been going on all along?''

All the anecdotes and comments provoked laughter from the audience at this first-ever convention of African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American journalists.

They were the laughs of shared pain, of knowing that the darkening of the picture of crime has gone on all along.

Our bosses claim to want journalists of color, yet they promote such powerful negative stereotypes that at any moment, a black police chief, a reporter or an ex-athlete is guilty before proven innocent.

Mr. Ogletree said, ''I think people want to cover crime in a certain way. Ninety-nine percent of black people don't commit crimes, and yet we see the images of black people day in and day out . . . committing crimes.''

Ms. Garza noted a Milwaukee Journal story saying that more than half of convicted local drug felons were Hispanic. ''We were not about to do a story that said, '99 percent of all white-collar crime committed by white males.' ''

Plenty of studies show how people of color get a bad name in the media. Over the last three years, Robert Entman, a journalism professor at North Carolina State University, has studied local TV crime coverage in Chicago. He found that:

* The threat of violence to people takes up eight to nine of the 14 minutes (57 to 64 percent) of news in a typical newscast.

* White Americans were depicted as ''good Samaritans'' for 450 total minutes of news, compared with 33 minutes for African-Americans. Chicago is 45 percent African-American.

* African-Americans accused of violent crime were twice as likely as white Americans -- 38 percent to 18 percent to be

photographed in the physical grasp of the police.

* White Americans accused of crime had their name shown with their image 65 percent of the time, compared with only 49 percent for African-Americans accused of similar crimes.

''When more blacks than whites are shown in police custody, it symbolizes that blacks are more dangerous,'' Mr. Entman said. ''When the names of blacks appear with their photo less than whites, it further dehumanizes blacks. It may encourage the viewing of blacks as an undifferentiated group.''

Other cities have similar problems. In New Orleans, 42 percent of local coverage of African-Americans was crime-related, compared with 18 percent on politics or community issues.

In San Francisco and Oakland, people of color are 40 percent of the population, but a study found that they account for only 19 percent of TV news sources and 20 percent of newspaper news sources.

Despite the stereotype of smart Asians, no Asian-Pacific islanders appeared in business stories on TV.

Vic Lee, a panelist and a reporter for KRON-TV in San Francisco, said crime committed by Asian-Americans is exaggerated because they are covered only as geniuses or as members of a street gang.

Mr. Lee said, ''The kids in between, which is 85 to 90 percent of the population, don't get covered.''

Nathan McCall, the Washington Post reporter who wrote about his criminal past in the book ''Makes Me Wanna Holler,'' said that when he was a reporter in Atlanta, his editor wanted ''briefs'' on African-American murders but to ''look into'' white deaths. Mr. McCall said the clear implication was to ignore ''those homicidal blacks,'' while white victims ''must be somebody.''

With the evidence in, the next time we wanna holler about colorized crime coverage, our bosses cannot claim ignorance.

The biggest painful laugh came when Mr. McCall was asked if some inmates feel maligned by media stereotypes.

Mr. McCall laughed. For a prisoner, it is too late to consider the question.

''I don't even recall any conversation about the media,'' Mr. McCall said. ''That's the last thing -- look, the last thing the brothers doing time want to talk about is the media.''

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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