Dangerous Distortion: Considering Media Racial Bias

A new study documents that the news media presents a distorted picture of blacks and black families. In this activity, students explore the issue with a quiz, reading, and discussion. 

Have you ever thought about how black families are represented in the news? Would it surprise you to find out that black families are treated differently across the board in the media?

Researchers at the University of Illinois examined broadcast and print media and found big differences in their portrayals of black versus white families. Take this quiz and test your skills at observation and critical thinking.

1.  27% of poor families in America are black families. In the news, what percent of poor families are portrayed as black?

a) all (except for a few of mixed race)
b) 29%
c) 59%
d)  9.8%

2. Though white people accounted for about 70% of all arrests, the news reports about criminals showed whites only 28% of the time. This is because:

a) researchers had  to account for the Lancaster Effect (which uses the discrepancy function in an autoassociative network)
b) fake news
c) news editors are trying to show that blacks are treated unfairly at every point in the legal system from arrest through prosecution, trial, conviction and sentencing.
d) news editors are attempting to correct the negative stereotype of white people as prone to criminality
e) none of the above

3. News and opinion media overrepresent black families in reports on welfare recipients by what percent?

a) 18%
b) 4-5%
c) -8% (black families are actually underrepresented in stories about welfare)
d) none of the above
e) 41%


4.  The study also ranks specific media outlets on how much they distort the representation of black families. For example Fox News showed black families on welfare:

a) twice as often as white families
b) four times as often as white families
c) six times as often as white families
d) eight times as often as white families 

5. True or False

Despite the media stereotype of black men failing to care for their children, a Centers for Disease Control study showed that black men and white men engage in everyday activities with their kids at the same rate.



  1. (c) 59% of poor families are shown as black families. The reverse is true for the portrayal of white families. Though 66% of poor families are white, only 17% of poor families displayed on news media are shown as white families.
  2. (e) none of the above
  3. (a) 18%
  4. (d) Eight times as often.
  5. Fathers were surveyed on how often they read to their kids, helped with homework, ate meals with their kids, etc. For some activities, black fathers were more engaged and for some, white fathers were.




How we view the world is affected by our family and friends, teachers and community. We are also influenced by the media we consume, including music, movies, books, social media, TV and cable, and the news media.

The organization Color of Change, whose mission is to make the world a “less hostile place for Black people in America,” commissioned a study of how the news media treats black families. The research was conducted by Professor Travis Dixon of the University of Illinois. Dixon led a team that examined how various news media presented black families in relation to poverty, crime, fatherhood, government assistance, and societal dysfunction.

The study found that broadcast, print and internet news contribute to negative stereotyping of black families. The news presented black families as poor much more frequently than the actual numbers warrant. White families, who make up most of the poor in America, were underrepresented by almost 50%.  What’s more, when the poor people being discussed were white, they were typically shown as being down on their luck. But when the poor people being discussed were black, they were typically blamed for their own poverty (for instance, because of absentee fathers and “welfare cheats”). 

Dixon looked at media portrayals of welfare, and again, black families were overrepresented (by 18%) and white families were underrepresented as recipients of welfare. Dixon’s study is consistent with prior research showing that the media tend to portray black families as part of an “undeserving poor”—people who supposedly choose government assistance over hard work.

Many critics charge that politicians use these inaccurate and unfair portrayals to fuel bigotry among white voters and persuade them to oppose policies that would alleviate poverty and reduce inequality – even if those policies would benefit the white voters themselves.

When the researchers examined how the news media portrayed black fathers, the pattern continued. While black and white mothers were shown as engaging with their children at approximately the same rate, images of black fathers with their children were shown at half the rate as white fathers. But a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control showed this stereotype to be false: black and white fathers  engaged in everyday activities with their children (reading, playing, eating, helping with homework) at similar rates.

When it came to news reports involving criminality, white families were underrepresented by over 30 percentage points and blacks overrepresented by 11 points.

To compile the study, researchers located 800 stories relating to black families from a wide range of news and opinion media. Researchers found that these media did not equally promote negative stereotypes. Fox News, for example (the Bill O’Reilly Show especially), was consistently more likely to present black families in a negative light. The New York Times was second only to the right-wing Breitbart New Network in overrepresenting poor black families and fourth (of 13) in the ranking of sources that describe black families as a source of societal dysfunction.

Among the study’s recommendations to news and opinion media:

  • End the specific misrepresentations relating to poverty, crime and black fathers
  • Develop protocols that question or challenge stereotypes and “conventional wisdom”
  • Include more people of color in decision-making capacities
  • Inform reporting by including more social context and research

They also recommend that corporate advertisers take responsibility for their sponsorship of misleading and biased programming.


For Discussion

  1. The study suggests that our world view is shaped in part by the media we consume, and that by implication, if we regularly consume negative stereotypes, we will incorporate those stereotypes into our own view of the world. What do you think?
  2. What might be the cause(s) of the media’s biased and inaccurate portrayals of white versus black people? Are individual reporters to blame? Are media networks to blame? Is our educational system to blame?
  3. What do you think of the report’s recommendations? What other strategies could be used to address the problem?
  1. Do you think that negative stereotypes of black families could contribute to public support for harsher policing, reduced government assistance, or other public policies? Which policies, and how?
  2. Can you think of other stereotypes (e.g. for boys or girls) that media help promote? Can you think of any possible consequences of those stereotypes?
  3. The study examined 800 stories in print and broadcast media for a two year period (2015-2016). Does the number of articles or time period impact the significance of the study? Is 800 articles enough to draw conclusions? Is it likely that media have adopted stricter standards of accuracy since the end of 2016?