Little justice in the handling of crime data

May 18, 2001|By Vincent Schiraldi

ROBERT WILKINS, a Harvard-educated lawyer who happens to be African-American, is pulled over on a Maryland highway on the way back from his grandfather's funeral.

Instead of merely receiving a ticket, he and his aging aunt and uncle are made to wait on the side of the highway until a drug-sniffing dog can inspect their car. Subsequent data would show that blacks and whites speed along Interstate 95 at the same rates and, when searched, are found in possession of drugs at the same rate. Yet blacks are stopped and searched at several times the rate as are whites.

Nine out of 13 people awaiting execution on Maryland's death row are African-American. Of their 17 victims, 14 are white, even though national data show that whites are six times as likely to be killed by other whites as by minorities.

Unfortunately, local examples of blacks as targets for law enforcement and incarceration abound.

A 12-year-old African-American girl is arrested and handcuffed on the subway for eating french fries. A black presidential aide has his car pulled over by police with guns drawn. Police in Baltimore stop the head of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus, questioning how he could be driving a car with legislative license plates.

While black males make up 17 percent of Maryland's youth, they make up 39 percent of referrals to the Department of Juvenile Justice and 74 percent of those the department locks up.

Studies show increasingly that youths of color are more likely than white youths to be imprisoned even when they commit the same crimes or that blacks who kill whites are more likely to get the death penalty than any other racial mix.

As these data and stories mount, my organization and the Berkeley Media Studies group were commissioned by the Building Blocks for Youth Initiative to examine the research on media depictions of crime by people of color.

The findings were disturbing. Overall, coverage of homicides on the major television networks increased by 473 percent from 1990 to 1998, while homicide arrests fell by 33 percent. Seventy-five percent of the studies showed that the news depicts crimes by minorities out of proportion to their actual occurrence. Even worse, six out of seven studies showed that when blacks are the victims of crime, there are either fewer or shorter stories filed than when whites are victims.

This has resulted in a public that is profoundly misinformed about crime. People think crime is up when it's down and twice as many whites believe they are more likely to be victimized by a person of color, although whites are three times as likely to be victimized by another white person as by a minority.

The media have an excellent opportunity to challenge stereotypes and educate Americans about crime. But so far, they've dropped the ball, or worse, they've exacerbated existing biases. If America is to tackle the thorny issues of race and violence, the news media will need to do their part to make the coverage fit the crime.

Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute in Baltimore and co-author of "Off Balance: Youth, Race, and Crime in the News," a study published in April.

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