Fox News and right-wing talking heads like Rush Limbaugh have not hesitated to inject harmful and unnecessary racial overtones into their coverage of an Australian teen shot and killed at random in Oklahoma. Fox and Rush are feeding into a well-worn script of biased media coverage of violent crimes that academic research has shown favors white people and disparages black people with seriously ill effects on racial comity and equal justice in America.
On August 16, three teens -- one white, two black -- shot and killed Christopher Lane, an Australian attending school in Oklahoma, while he was out for a jog.
Conservative media figures pounced on the story with a racial lens. On his radio show, Limbaugh called the murder, "Trayvon Martin in reverse, only worse," and speculated that the teenagers "got bored and said, 'Let's go shoot a white guy!'"
Over at Fox News, guest Pat Buchanan appeared on the set of On the Record With Greta Van Susteren to predict that the shooting was "racial" while running through a list of dubious statistics on interracial crime that he used to claim that "racial hate crimes [are] 40 times more prevalent in the black community than the white community, and nobody talks about it."
On the morning side, Fox & Friends wondered why civil rights activists Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson hadn't responded to the murder, while Fox News' White House correspondent Ed Henry asked Principal Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest if the White House had any reaction to Lane's murder "apparently by three African-American young men."
Unfortunately, Fox News' coverage of this tragedy fits a long pattern of racially-biased media coverage of crime stories -- a pattern that has demonstrably harmful effects. Professor of media & public affairs at George Washington University Robert Entman highlighted a few of the subtle media trends recorded in various studies. They include:
1. Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to appear as lawbreakers in the news - particularly when the news is focusing on violent crime. [...]
2. [W]hites are overrepresented as victims of violence and as law-enforcers, while blacks are underrepresented in these sympathetic roles.
3. [B]lacks in criminal roles tend to outnumber blacks in socially positive roles in newscasts and daily newspapers. [...]
4. [D]epictions of black suspects...tend to be more symbolically threatening than those of whites accused of similar crimes...In the ubiquitous "perp walks," blacks were twice as likely as whites to be shown under some form of physical restraint by police - although all were accused of scary and generally violent crimes.
7. [B]lack victims are less likely to be covered than white victims in newspaper coverage of crime.
Entman explained that the racial images media use matter "because they are a central component in a circular process by which racial and ethnic misunderstanding and antagonism are reproduced, and thus become predictable influences in the criminal-justice process." Entman noted that the impact of the lasting racial impressions this kind of coverage creates extends beyond just the few stories the media highlights:
Messages continually associating people of color, especially blacks, with poverty and crime reinforce the updated form of racial prejudice known as symbolic racism, racial resentment, or racial animosity.
Racialized crime coverage reinforces the stereotype that blacks are not just lazy, but violent...Moreover, empirical evidence demonstrates associations between racial resentment and whites' support of punitive crime policies and opposition to preventative policies.
The Limbaughs and Fox Newses of the world not only perpetuate these stereotypes with the stories they choose to cover and their frequent use of racial identifiers; they actively exploit the race angle by speculating that otherwise non-racial events are examples of racial hate crimes.
For example, on the August 22 edition of On the Record, Van Susteren was told by the Stephens County (OK) District Attorney that there was no evidence the shooting of Christopher Lane had anything to do with race. But in the following segment, Van Susteren continued speculating about the shooters' racial animus.
Later in the show, Fox identified its next black-on-white crime story du jour: the murder of a white World War II veteran by two black suspects in Spokane, WA. Though a reporter noted that there's no evidence of motive yet and that it appeared to be a "random beating" or "possible robbery," Van Susteren immediately asked whether it was racially motivated. The on-screen text added emphasis to her inquiry by identifying the race of the suspects:
On a related note, the Associated Press updated its standards on the identification of criminal suspects' race last year, noting that "racial reference should be removed" when the"suspect is apprehended or found." (The assailants of the WWII veteran were still at large at the time of the airing of the above graphic, but the Oklahoma shooters have not been for some time.) Poynter used the style change to elaborate on why racial identifiers are rarely relevant and frequently perpetuate stereotypes:
"There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype," Woods wrote. "And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don't look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?"
This isn't to say race is always irrelevant. In racially motivated crimes, such as the murder of James Byrd, race is an important element of the story.
Van Susteren's race questions followed an August 21 edition of On the Record which featured the aforementioned Buchanan taking the media's subtle racial cues to an unsurprising but worst-case next step: his racist manipulation of crime statistics and baseless cultural demagoguery that landed a mere half-step below full-blown white nationalism [emphasis added]:
BUCHANAN: What are these kids getting from the culture? They listen to radio they get hip-hop and rap. This one kid on his twitter feed or whatever it is, he's talking about gangs and colors of gangs. What do they get out of Hollywood? They get movies that are, I mean, pornographic. Look I watch a lot of TV and cable. Some of these shows are triple x. They would never be on before. And this one kids puts out, he's interested in sex and violence. And the movies are extraordinarily violent. I mean, you get guys being shot, of course they're almost like cartoon characters being killed. And so where are these kids going to find something which says 'no that is wrong, you can't do that, and you shouldn't do something like that?' Where is the voice that says no?
BUCHANAN: Look, the most common form of interracial hate crime is black on white. Greta, when I did a book -- one of my recent books -- I went down to the FBI statistics because the post doesn't do it, found more than 400 -- one year, 2007 -- 433,000 attacks by blacks on whites, and one eighth of that by whites on black. At the same time, the black community was five times -- I mean one fifth the size of white community. Add it up. The idea of racial hate crimes is 40 times more prevalent in the black community than the white community. And nobody talks about it.
Activist Tim Wise broke down similar interracial crime myths in great detail the next day, writing, "How anyone could fully examine the data carefully...and conclude that there was a black-on-white crime spree underway is beyond the scope of the rational mind to comprehend."
Of course, Buchanan's bigotry isn't new, and there's no way of knowing whether his beliefs originated in or were perpetuated by racially prejudicial media coverage. But the problem exists, and Fox News only adds to the problem by hosting his ilk and practicing the kind of journalism that has been academically proven to make the world a more hateful place.