The Dangerous Racialization of Crime in American Media


Since the start of his presidency, Donald Trump has consistently proven its effectiveness in using fear as a political weapon. During his inauguration in 2016, President Trump asserted that the United States was plagued by poverty and “rampant crime”, promising to end this “american carnage. “Since then he has perpetuated false claims that murder rate are on the rise overall, although violent crime rates declined in the country’s largest cities in 2017, continuing the national downward trend in crime. President Trump has also placed unauthorized immigrants at the center of crime by exaggerate the scope and threat of MS-13.

According to new poll by the Center for American Progress and GBA Strategies, this fear campaign is working. Eighty-eight percent of survey respondents viewed national crime as a “major problem” or “immediate crisis”. Meanwhile, only 52 percent felt the same about their local communities. These fear levels are inconsistent with national data on crime rates, which found that both violent and property crime rates have fell regularly since the 1990s. In addition, the drastic 36 percentage point difference between local and national levels of concern suggests that there is a disparity between the way people feel about their day-to-day lives and the way they feel. they see crime in the context of the whole nation. Yet despite this difference in perception, national and local media overreport violent crime and are therefore included in this column.

Whether intentionally or not, the news media have amplified fear at the national level through its report on President Trump. Because the national perception of crime is a abstract concept, it is likely that the media play a huge role in shaping the public’s imagination. Indeed, the news media not only contribute to the public overestimation of crime through the way they report on the president’s controversies, but they overreporting of violent crimes-feeding destructive racial and ethnic prejudices on those responsible.

The Racial and Ethnic Criminal Narrative in American Media

Black Americans, and black men in particular, are overrepresented like authors of crime in the American media. This is especially true when examining the incidence of violent crime. For example, a study late-night media in New York in 2014 found that media reported cases of murder, theft and assault in which black people were suspected at a rate that far exceeded their actual arrest rate for those crimes. News media also vilify black people by portraying black crime suspects as more threatening than their white counterparts. It does this in several ways, for example by showing the ID photos of black suspects more frequently than those of white suspects; more often representing black suspects in police custody; and pay more attention to cases where the victim is a foreigner.

In addition to fueling fear towards blacks, the news media exacerbates racial tensions between blacks and whites by specifically perpetuating a narrative of white victimization. Homicide, for example, is widely intraracial crime, but the news media overdue less frequent cases blacks commit homicides against whites.

Latinos are also disparaged in the media. A study found that 66 percent At the time, media coverage between 1995 and 2004 showed Latinos in the context of crime or immigration rather than in other contexts. Following recent analysis confirms these findings. This treatment of Latinos as criminals and foreigners is of particular concern given that Latinos are otherwise rarely represented in the media. A recent study found that between 2008 and 2014, the stories focused on Latinos and issues concerning Latino communities made up only 0.78 percent of coverage on the national evening network news. To put this in perspective, CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN spent on average barely 87 seconds coverage on Latinos per day — combined — from 2008 to 2014.

In the same way that he over-represents blacks in his coverage of crime, the news media’s over-representation of Latinos as offenders and strangers is troubling given the general lack of coverage of Latinos. In addition, like the black coverage, the Latino coverage often speaks in generalities when the story is unfavorable. Positive coverage, on the other hand, is likely to focus on individuals, allowing positive attributes to be seen as the exception, not the rule. In comparison, the coverage of white suspects is quick to highlight the human aspects of the offender, even in cases where the crime is much more horrible than a crime committed by blacks or Latinos.

How the media affect public opinion

These prejudices have real impacts on public opinion. In a 2012 study, for example, participants who consumed only one minute negative news or entertainment about Latinos were much more likely to view Latinos as unintelligent, even those participants who were willing to have positive opinions about Latinos at the start of the study. The study also found that viewers of Fox News and other conservative talk shows were more likely to have a negative opinion of Latinos, despite being less likely get to know Latinos personally. The result is the criminalization of Latino communities and a negative view of immigration that has led to so-called zero tolerance policies that are not just ineffective, but also catastrophic for those affected.

Bias perceptions of crime can be just as damaging when applied to the criminal justice system. For example, frequent news viewers are more likely to support the use of the death penalty in a hypothetical case, a dangerous preference for people of color. A study from Philadelphia, for example, found that black defendants were 3.9 times more likely to receive the death sentence than the defendants who have committed similar murders. This is most likely due to racial perceptions of the crime, as frequent viewers are also less likely to believe that black people face structural barriers to success. In addition, the public perception of greater racial integration is closely linked greater fear of crime and increased support for punitive measures.

These racialized perceptions are also manifested in the courtroom. A study shows that for the same crime, black offenders receive sentences that are, on average, 19.1% longer than those of their white counterparts. Other studies show that both noir and latino young people are also more likely than white youth to have prosecutors asking that they be tried as adults. None of these studies could find a factor other than race, such as the seriousness of the offense, to explain the disparities in prosecutor’s requests. Thus, racial prejudice endangers blacks and Latinos both inside and outside the criminal justice system, whether through racialized perceptions of crime or unfair sentencing policies.


The news media is an important American institution that is an integral part of public perception. Deliberately or not, unfortunately it has often spread both fear and racial prejudice, which policymakers have exploited to push through programs that harm Black and Latino communities. Under the Trump administration, it is especially important that the news media go beyond their internal biases and refrain from unnecessary publicity to false claims. It is only when policymakers and the public have a precise and evidence-based understanding of crime that the United States can work towards fair and intelligent criminal justice policies against crime.

Elizabeth Sun is a former Criminal Justice Reform Intern at the Center for American Progress.


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