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Media and Racism: Does the British Media Help Maintain Racism?

Racism in Britain can be traced centuries back especially to the time of the Slave Trade where Britain was regarded as a key figure in creating and maintaining racial hierarchies. This report will assess the role of the British media in maintaining racism in British society and it will focus particularly on the last forty years or so i.e. 1960’s onwards. In the report, I will largely rely on the research and work done by other authors in relation to the ‘media and racism’ but I will also include an evaluation of media coverage of the Bradford Riots in 2001. The report will conclude with a few recommendations on how the media can overcome racism. 

I have discovered through my research several authors who clearly describe the media as racist and argue that the media assists in maintaining racism in society. Van Dijk (1991), states that the most original and influential early study of the Press in the reproduction of racism was done by Hartmann and Husband (1974), who argued that the media was racist and created an impression amongst readers that black people represented a problem or a threat. They were so defiant on the media being racist that they called their book ‘Racism and the Mass Media’ rather than ‘Race and the Mass Media’. Research by Critcher et al (1977) and Troyna (1981) had similar conclusions to Hartmann and Husband’s in that the media created a negative perception of black people. For example, the media portrayed the ethnic minorities especially black people as lazy, violent, murderous and welfare cheaters. Troyna adds that the only difference he noticed was that in the 1960’s the focus was on immigration problems and in the 1970’s it was on the problems caused by the presence of these immigrants. Van Dijk (1991) studied the 1980’s in great depth and agreed that the media was racist. He is so adamant about the media being racist that he refuses to try to prove this arguing that it has already been proven by the centuries of experiences of ethnic minority groups, massive legal evidence and the great wealth of existing research. He does give a few examples though like the negative media coverage of the 3,000 or so Tamil asylum seekers in 1985 who were described as ‘invaders’. Even into the twenty-first century, the media has continued to represent an irresponsible black social world through unfair stereotypes (Law, 2002).

The findings of my research into the media coverage of the Bradford Riots that took place between Saturday 7th of July to Monday 9th of July in 2001 corroborated with the findings of all of the above authors. During this period there was initial rioting by Asian youths that followed by rioting by White youths about a day after. I studied the Independent and the Times newspapers for Sunday 8th July and Tuesday 10th July to analyse how the papers covered both incidents.

On the morning after the rioting by the Asian youths both these papers had in depth coverage of the incident with headlines like ‘Asian youths stone police in new Bradford Rioting’ (Times Sunday 8th July, 2001) and the Independent had a picture clearly showing the youths rioting across two pages. Both articles referred to the ethnicity of those involved i.e. Asians on several occasions and the Independent even mentioned a shop called ‘Roop Fashions – discover Asia in elegance’, which was only one amongst several shops on the same road.

In contrast, the coverage by the same papers on the day after the rioting by the White youths there was minimal coverage. Both papers chose to focus on why the rioting happened and how it could be prevented in future. There was no pictures used and the Times didn’t even mention the rioting by the White youths at least once. The Independent covered the story across to columns and this is in contrast to the two pages used to cover the rioting by the Asian youths. The only mention of the rioting by the White youths was in the following sentence:

‘Det Chief Supt McLean was speaking in the aftermath of a night of violence on the ‘white’ Ravenscliffe and Holme Wood estates…’

Even here, there was no direct mention of white youths rioting and for somebody without any prior knowledge of the Bradford riots in 2001, reading these articles would make them believe the whole incident only consisted of rioting by Asian youths against the police.

My research has led me to conclude, the media does play an active role in maintaining racism but I would also like to stress that critics will be extremely sceptical of my findings. They may put forward several arguments and perhaps the first would be to question how I have defined racism.

There are several definitions to racism. One version would be that of Entman and Rojecki (2000) who define racists as those people who believe in a naturalised racial order of inferiority and superiority i.e. a racial hierarchy with white people at the top and black people at the bottom. They argue the media isn’t racist, producers don’t consciously create racist images and that most media personnel oppose blatant racism. However, they do acknowledge that racial animosity (which means racial stereotypes and not racial hierarchy) is created amongst the white audience through unconscious presentation of racial difference and hierarchy.

In response to such critics, I would like to focus on their acknowledgement of racial animosity and argue that creating racial stereotypes is a form of racism. I would also like to draw attention away from whether or not media producers intentionally create racial stereotypes because the fact remains that such stereotypes are created and are helping to maintain racism. My arguments are supported by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which defined institutional racism as including ‘unwitting racism’ through both a lack of knowledge about people from minority ethnic communities and racist stereotyping of black people as potential criminals or troublemakers (Law, 2002).

The legal definition of racism is given by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and is binding on all institutions. Since the British media is an institution, it must abide by this definition and in this respect; I would argue that this definition of racism takes priority over the one given by Entman and Rojecki. Hence, it is why I call the media racist.

Other critiques argue that it is difficult to empirically measure racism and question exactly when and where racism is being referred to in a text. For example, does the use of a photograph showing a persons face in a news story always carry racial meaning? One may agree showing the photograph of a black male in a criminal story carries racist meaning but they must also agree showing the photograph of a white male in particular roles like experts for example, also carries racial meaning. Using this argument, they may question the reliability of my research especially on the evaluation of media coverage of the Bradford Riots in 2001.

Law (2002) argues that a consistent method to measure racism in a text so that it can be regarded as valid and reliable is to measure the negative attributes. The term negative attribution is a contested concept and each of its meanings prove useful in measuring racism in the media but many problems are also associated with each meaning.

One definition is known as Whitecentrism (Ferguson, 1998) and includes the measurement of negative attributions of minorities against a white norm. For example, Cummerbatch et al (1996) analysed a sample of television programmes and found that in one particular aspect of portrayal there was no negative attribution as six percent of minority ethnic characters were criminals compared to eight percent of white characters. The positive aspect of this definition is that it argues for equal representation and therefore reducing racist stereotypes and hierarchies but the problem is that it defines a ‘difference’ as negative. It implies that the portrayal of ethnic minorities should conform with the portrayal of whites and therefore places white norms at the centre of analysis. This creates two problems. Firstly, for example, a documentary on a prison with more black criminals than white criminals would be regarded as racist through this definition even if in reality it were only showing the truth. Secondly, some may argue that placing white ‘norms’ at the centre of analysis is maintaining white supremacy in that it is giving it authority and trying to make other ‘norms’ conform with it.

Another definition of negative attribution is known as Realism. This definition covers for the problems caused by whitecentrism in that it doesn’t measure the portrayal of ethnic minorities against the portrayal of white people but against ‘reality’. It also means that white norms aren’t at the centre of analysis. However, the problem with this approach as explained by Shohat and Stam (1994) is in its assumption that the ‘real’ and ‘truth’ about a community is easily accessible, unproblematic and pre-existing. For example, a journalist investigating a sensitive issue within a minority ethnic community may only speak to a few people within the community and to represent the whole community with the views of these odd few people is unfair especially as the majority of the same community may not share them.

A further definition of negative attribution is Eurocentrism, which is the evaluation of the privileging and silencing of different cultural voices in relation to Eurocentric norms. Here, the basis of assessment is how far European social, economic and cultural norms are used to negatively attribute the norms of others.

In response to critiques doubting the validity on my evaluation of media coverage of the Bradford Riots in 2001, I would argue that there was more negative attribution of ethnic minorities than of the whites (whitecentrism) and that this should never have been the case since in ‘reality’ the White youths were just as involved as the Asian youths during the course of the riots.

Many critics will argue that the media isn’t racist like Entman and Rojecki (2000) who stated that media producers oppose racism. Others like McNair (1998) believe racism is dying and that racists are increasingly isolated, finding no endorsement of their views from the media. Such people will support their claims through arguments that since the 1980’s ‘news coverage of race issues in Britain is dominated by stories which are in a variety of ways opposed to racism’ (Law, 2002:46). To demonstrate this they may use the work of Van Dijk (1991) who analysed headline coverage in 1985/86 to 1989 and found during that period ethnic reporting had become less negative and aggressive. They may also use Statham’s (1999) analysis of the Guardian from 1990-96 that showed anti-racist ideologies in 1300 ‘claim-making acts’ in the migration and ethnic relations field which were reported.

I would like to reply to such critics by stating firstly, blatant racism by the press may have eroded as Van Dijk has shown but according to many authors whom I’ve mentioned at the start of this report racism still exists within the media through racial stereotypes that they create. Secondly, regarding the work of Statham (1999), I would argue that the Guardian is one of the few if not the only part of the press, which is regarded neutral, unbiased and anti-racist. Therefore using the Guardian to represent the media in general would be unfair and inaccurate. Having said that I would like to acknowledge that the same could be said of my research into the Bradford Riots of 2001. One may argue that my research is limited to coverage by only two newspapers and is therefore insufficient to represent the media as a whole.

After taking to account several criticisms of the findings of this report, I would like to maintain my initial stance in claiming the media maintains racism. However, regarding intention on behalf of the media and media producers I remain unsure. If we refer to the legal definition of institutional racism given by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry team, intention is irrelevant. Institutions are obliged to look at all of their policies and procedures from an anti-racist perspective and therefore I have produced a few recommendations on how the media can overcome racism.

Law (2002) states, one factor deciding the extent of racist media representation is the racial and ethnic identity of the viewer. Employing more ethnic minorities’ especially in senior positions will help examine coverage from the views of ethnic minorities and prevent racial stereotypes. Currently the recruitment of ethnic minority journalists is at a poor standard (Van Dijk, 1991 and Law, 2002).

I would also recommend the media stop describing the ethnicity of people unless in exceptional cases like a missing or wanted person and ask for more consistency in news coverage. For example, if a photograph of a criminal is used in a crime story then such a photograph should be used in all crime stories.

When the media refers to a story like mugging by a black male for example, it would be ideal if it could mention the national statistics on the number of black male muggers in comparison to white muggers or other crimes. This should prevent unfair racial stereotypes.

Reference List

Critcher, C. et al (1977) cited in Van Dijk, T. (1991) RACISM AND THE PRESS London: Routledge

Cummerbatch, G. et al (1996) Ethnic Minorities on Television London: Independent Television Commission

Entman, R. M. ana Rojecki, A. (2000) cited in Law, I. (2002) RACE IN THE NEWS Basingstoke: Palgrave

Ferguson, R. (1998) Representing ‘Race’ London: Arnold

Hartmann, P. and Husband, C. (1974) cited in Van Dijk, T. (1991) RACISM AND THE PRESS London: Routledge

Law, I. (2002) RACE IN THE NEWS Basingstoke: Palgrave

McNair, B. (1998) The Sociology of Journalism London: Arnold

Shohat, E. and Stam, R. (1994) unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media London: Routledge

Stratham, P. (1999) ‘Political Mobilisation by Minorities in Britain: Negative Feedback of ‘Race Relations” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 25(4), October, pp. 597-626

Troyna, B. (1981) Public Awareness and the Media: A Study of Reporting on Race London: Commission for Racial Equality

Van Dijk, T. (1991) RACISM AND THE PRESS London: Routledge