Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

The Color of News

Why some news isn't as fit to print.

image"What's black and white and red all over?"  This is my 5-year-old's most recent favorite joke. The answer, of course, is the newspaper, the riddle's punchline hinging on the red/read homophone. But when I stop to think about it, it occurs to me that the news is actually pretty white, especially when it comes to particular types of stories.

Bob Herbert has a compelling op-ed piece in this week's New York Times in which he relates the tale of his first meeting as a young newspaper editor. After someone pitched a story about the killing of a baby on Long Island, the editor running the meeting asked, "what color is that baby?" The implication of his question was clear: the baby's race made a difference in the story's newsworthiness.

WesleyanHerbert goes on to analyze the recent media coverage of the murder of a college student at Wesleyan University. As he is careful to point out, this was a tragic and senseless crime, one that certainly merited media attention, not to mention our sympathy. And I admit I followed the story's developments quite closely. After all, I spend my workweek on a college campus too, and I have friends who have attended and currently work at this very school.

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But as Herbert is also quick to point out, by comparison, why is it that we've heard so little about the horrific story still emerging from Chicago, in which more than three dozen school-aged children–mostly Black and Latino–have been killed by gun violence this year? One can't help but wonder whether race and socioeconomic status somehow shape our reactions to events like these and the extent to which the media cover them.

Mind you, I'm not suggesting that newspaper editors are racists who don't care what happens to kids who aren't White. Not at all. The newspaper business has fallen upon hard times, and the last thing it needs are reckless accusations like that one. And my musings here aren't limited to newspapers anyway–cable news, radio shows, websites, and other "new media" exhibit comparable tendencies.

No, my thoughts here are of a more general nature. I think it's all of us–society at large–who see events differently depending on the background of those involved. Perhaps you're reading this and coming up with good reasons why the Wesleyan shooting received so much coverage compared to these Chicago shootings. OK, but my analysis isn't limited to just these two stories.

Consider the spate of missing woman cases that have captured attention in recent years. Laci Peterson. Chandra Levy. Natalee Holloway. One characteristic the cases share is that they all involve young, upper-middle class White women. Similar disappearances of non-White women haven't received the same level of attention:

• The case of Tamika Huston, a 24-year-old missing in South Carolina, was covered by local television stations, but efforts by her family to draw wider media attention were largely unsuccessful.

LaToyia Figueroa was 24-years-old and pregnant at the time of her disappearance in Philadelphia, yet her case received a fraction of the coverage devoted to the similar disappearance of Laci Peterson.


Discrepancies like these aren't limited to missing persons cases. The March 2005 school shooting that killed 10 Native American students on a reservation outside Minneapolis received far less media attention than similar school shootings with predominantly White victims, such as the 1999 murders at Columbine High School in suburban Denver.

When pressed to explain these disparities, journalists and executives often argue that they are simply acceding to public demand and covering the stories that interest their audience. Furthermore, some journalists and media executives have directly and vehemently denied that race plays any role in this process whatsoever, as illustrated by this quotation from the former president of NBC News: "Let me make this clear: Race is not a factor in who we cover or how we cover it."

But I'm not sure I buy that. And, again, I'm not indicting a particular newspaper, network, or journalist. Rather, I think that we as a society have different knee-jerk reactions to cases like these because of our different expectations based on race, class, and geography. So whether media decisions about newsworthiness influence or merely reflect the attitudes of the public, time and again, the same types of events seem to be covered differently depending on who's involved.

At the end of the day, I think much of this boils down to the simple question of what surprises us. The news that young children in an urban neighborhood are succumbing to an epidemic of gun violence is beyond tragic, but unfortunately it doesn't register a high score on our surprise scale. A student at an elite college on a small-town New England campus is gunned down? Now, that's surprising, and it makes those of us in the mainstream media's target audience ponder our own mortality. As in, that could have happened to me or someone I know.

A former church deacon and soccer coach turns to bank robbery?  A med student turns out to be a serial robber and murderer? A college professor kills his wife and two of her friends while their children are waiting in a parked car? Now, those are surprising stories; those are stories on which the media can lavish attention and to which we react strongly and quickly.

Again, I also don't mean to suggest that it's only race that shapes these decisions. The Wesleyan shooting would have drawn attention regardless of the color of the victim's skin. It was a national story because of the surprising place in which the tragedy occurred, not because of race. But on the unfortunate flip side, among people and in places where we have come to expect such tragedy–certain urban neighborhoods, universities in other countries, the battlefield in Iraq–we are all too numb to reports of similar or even more horrific losses.

And sometimes we never get exposed to such reports in the first place.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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