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The Sciences

Does Watching TV News Make You Racist?

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyJuly 23, 2008 2:39 AM


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Research has shown that TV news disproportionately portrays African American as the perpetrators of crimes, typically against white victims. But while watching the news is often held to be a positive means of staying informed, it may be outweighing its benefits by promoting racial stereotypes. Two newstudies by University of Illinois communications professor Travis Dixon found that the more people watched either local or network news, the more likely they were to believe negative stereotypes about African Americans. In both studies, Dixon used data taken from the results of a telephone survey of 506 adults in Los Angeles County conducted from November 2002 through January 2003. After controlling for other factors that could influence beliefs such as gender, age, race, education level, political ideology, income, and newspaper exposure, he found that even among people who consider themselves largely prejudice-free, those who watched more local or network news were prone to seeing blacks as more intimidating, violent, or poor than those who skipped the news. What's operating, according to Dixon, is a process called "chronic activation," in which stereotypes are repeatedly reinforced in the mind and thus become more ingrained in the conscious or subconscious, forming a pathway of "chronic accessibility." "[W]e keep seeing these black perpetrators all the time [in local news], so that [idea] becomes more accessible and not other conceptions," Dixon said. But even network news, which offers far less crime coverage, wasn't much better, he found. Granted, the sample size was small, and limited to a geographic area known for its racial polarity. Meanwhile, the racial makeup of the survey respondents was roughly the same as that of L.A. County itself: 43 percent white, 16 percent black, 26 percent Latino, and 15 percent other. Nonetheless, Dixon raises a valuable point about whether we need to rethink the current M.O. for TV news coverage, and assign more weight to its power to influence opinions. Just think what Fox News could do with that one. Image: iStockPhoto

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