Even though violent crime rates were shrinking, news outlets unfairly focused on young Latino and black men who commit acts of violence, a new report says.
The result is a public that believes youth crime is on the rise and supports policies based on that notion, according to the Berkeley Media Studies group, a liberal think tank.
The group's research project, "Off Balance: Youth, Race and Crime in the News," examined crime coverage in media outlets across the nation.
"People rely on the news media for accurate information," said Lori Dorfman, one of the report's authors and director of the Berkeley research branch.
"When it comes to crime, youth and people of color, they're getting confusion rather than clarity part of the story, not the whole story," she said.
Media groups said the report, released recently, revealed offenses that were mostly unintentional.
"Just as in all private companies, there are some incidents of racism but the focus on youth crime is due in part to the school shooting phenomenon," said Michael Hamilton, director of the California Broadcasters Association.
"It has generated an intense interest in the subject," he said.
The review, jointly done by the Justice Policy Institute, which supports alternatives to prison, involved 77 studies dating back to 1910.
Homicide coverage on network news increased 473 percent from 1990 to 1998; however, homicides decreased 32.9 percent during that time, the report said, citing federal crime statistics and data from the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
The report also said black people too often are portrayed as perpetrators and are underrepresented as victims. A study of Indianapolis newspapers found that if a suspect in a violent crime was black, the average article length was longer.
And even though Latinos now comprise the nation's largest minority, the report concluded they remain invisible in the news media, except in crime reports.
"When we are covered, we are covered as criminals or illegal immigrants," said Angela Arboleda, a policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.
"People are scared of a group of brown people hanging around because of the image that has been portrayed over and over in the media," Arboleda said.
The study was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and several private foundations.
The report makes recommendations for print and broadcast news organizations: Balance crime stories with stories about youth accomplishments; conduct voluntary audits of news content; and put crime into context by providing statistics of crime rates with crime stories.
The study drew support from civil rights groups that have long argued that media coverage is unfair.
"The news media's routine portrayal of African-Americans and people of color as criminals is an outrage," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington D.C. chapter of the Natonal Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
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