Media Put Black Face on Poverty

Article excerpt

Do the news media put a black face on poverty? That's the conclusion of two committees of the National Association of Black Journalists. The organization's Media Monitoring Committee and its Visual Task Force are citing a study by Yale political scientist Martin Gilens, which says that while most poor people in the United States are white, most poor people portrayed by the national news media are black.

The committees pointed to the study as further evidence of the urgent need for greater diversity among editors, producers and other news supervisors who select news media images.

The 1990 Census says that African Americans account for 29 percent of the nation's poor. But Gilens' study shows that the public significantly overestimates the percentage of blacks among the poor. In one survey, 55 percent thought most of the poor were black; only 24 percent thought most were white; 31 percent thought white and black were "about equal."

In an analysis of stories on poverty in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report from 1988 through 1992, the percentage of poor people portrayed as black far exceeded reality, ranging from 53 percent in U.S. News to 66 percent at Newsweek.

Television news fared no better. In a five-year study of weeknight news shows on ABC, NBC and CBS, 65.2 percent of poor people shown, for whom race could be determined, were African-American.

The study found a consistent pattern in which African-Americans were most overrepresented in portrayals of unsympathetic subgroups of the poor, such as the "underclass," but were comparatively scarce in portrayals of more sympathetic groups, such as participants in job-training programs, recipients of Medicaid and the elderly poor.

Gilens' study showed the poor portrayed in the newsmagazines were much less likely to be employed than their real-world counterparts, and this distortion was greater for African-Americans: 42 percent of poor African-Americans work, but only 12 percent of poor blacks shown in the newsmagazines do.

Interviews with photo editors at Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report showed that they had a distorted impression of the racial makeup of the poor. On average, they estimated that 42 percent of America's poor people are black. That may account for the decisions that they make on how to portray poor people.

In his study, "Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media," Gilens says that the inaccurate portrayal of poor has serious political implications. …