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Media's Warped Interpretation of Chaos
Published on Monday, April 16, 2001 in the Chicago Tribune
Media's Warped Interpretation of Chaos
by Salim Muwakkil
 

Our culture is becoming increasingly punitive.

Embodied in the "shape-up-or-ship-out" ethic of those hit reality TV shows and the tough love "courts" in the afternoon, Americans are in the mood to chastise. Dr. Laura Schlessinger is rewarded with unprecedented radio success for insulting callers for their "moral" lapses.

We've become a nation of moral masochists. Our children are the chief victims of our neuroses and our turn toward rigid self-righteousness has targeted them. Every day there is another outrage as politicians fall over each other trying to pass ever more onerous measures to keep children in check: from absurd zero-tolerance policies to trying preteens as adults.

We read new accounts every day about our bewildering kid-phobia: from the arrest and handcuffing of a 12-year-old girl for eating french fries on the subway in Washington, D.C., to that of an 11-year-old Chicago girl allegedly being roughed up by two undercover cops looking for drugs.

One of the primary reasons for our punitive mood is the coverage given crime by our news media. According to a new study, co-authored by Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Institute and Vincent Schiraldi of the Justice Policy Institute, news coverage of crime not only exaggerates its scope, it unduly connects youth and race to criminal activity. Titled, "Off Balance: Youth, Race and Crime in the News," the study found that violent crime dominates crime coverage in the media. Although homicides made up less that 1 percent of all arrests, homicides made up more than a quarter of all the crimes reported on the evening news on TV. While homicide coverage was increasing on the network news by 473 percent from 1990 to 1998, arrests for homicide dropped 32.9 percent during the same period.

This incessant focus on violent crime has convinced much of America that we are in danger of criminal anarchy, especially from our youth. The study noted that 62 percent of poll respondents felt juvenile crime was on the increase, although violent crime by youth in 1998 was at its lowest point in more than two decades. This misperception is not surprising since76 percent of the public say they form their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the news media.

"In an environment in which fear of youth crime and actual youth crime are so out of sync, policies affecting young people are bound to be impacted," the authors write. And indeed, legislators have been running into each other attempting to pass increasingly onerous measures to try children as adults or increase the range of punishment to youthful offenders.

The study also found distortions in the portrayal of African-Americans.

"A disproportionate number of perpetrators on the news are people of color, especially African-Americans," the authors write. And, they found, African-Americans are underrepresented in reporting as victims. A study of Time and Newsweek stories found that the term "young black males" became synonymous with the world "criminal" in coverage, they write.

The 52-page study uses no new data. Instead, it examines the content analysis of 77 studies conducted from 1910 to 2000 on violence, youths and race in television, news weekly magazines and newspapers. The report concludes that the public is badly served by a powerful "misinformation synergy," which mixes crime, race and youth together in a destructive social spiral.

While the study imputes no motives to those perpetrating this imbalance, it offers a series of recommendations for better and more accurate crime coverage. Among the most important are to expand sources beyond the police and courts; provide context from crime in regular reporting; provide resources for more investigative reporting; balance stories about crime and youth with stories about youth in general and conduct periodic audits of news content and share the results with readers and viewers.

We live in a society increasingly inflected by the logic of law enforcement. It is well known that we imprison more people than any other nation, but the public seems unconcerned about what many consider a global embarrassment. Huge rates of incarceration are threatening the very future of the African-American community by disabling black youth at the primary age of family formation. The Dorfman-Schiraldi study shows clearly that we are encouraged to enact these punitive policies for a reality that doesn't really exist, creating remedies for the illusion of chaos.

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune

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