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Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News

NCJ Number
Lori Dorfman; Vincent Schiraldi
Date Published
April 2001
56 pages
This report examined and analyzed the content and accuracy of crime news and its impact on how Americans view race and youth.
Prior research studies show that youth of color receive disparate treatment in America’s juvenile justice system. This stereotyping is seen as affecting the treatment young people experience within the juvenile justice system. In addition, with Americans fearful of youth crime they are more likely to exaggerate the threat of victimization by minorities. Since most of the public has had no direct personal experience with crime by minorities they depend on the media for pictures of crime. The news media largely determines what issues th public collectively thinks about, how the public thinks about them, and what kinds of policy alternatives are considered viable. News portrayals of juvenile justice issues are significant for how they influence policy makers and the public regarding what should be done to ensure public safety. In awareness of the powerful impact news coverage of crime has on public opinion and Americans dependence on news media for depictions of crime, this study analyzed the accuracy of the picture Americans are receiving from the news media. This study attempts to answer three questions: (1) does news coverage reflect actual crime trends; (2) how does news coverage depict minorities and crime; and (3) does news coverage disproportionately depict youth of color as perpetrators of crime? To answer these three questions, identifying scientific content analyses of crime news, searches of criminal justice and communications databases were conducted. The studies surveyed covered a range of media, local and network television, newspapers, and broadcast and print news magazines, from 1910 through 2001. The studies taken together indicate that depictions of crime in the news are not reflective of either the rate of crime generally, the proportion of crime which is violent, the proportion of crime committed by people of color, or the proportion of crime committed by youth. The choices of what is included or not included in the news presents a false picture of higher frequency and severity of crime than is actual the case. Most studies that examined race and crime found that the proportion of crime committed by people of color (usually African Americans) was overreported and that black victims were underrepresented. In addition, other studies found crimes committed by people of color were covered in proportion with arrest rates, but crimes committed by whites were under-covered. Six recommendations were offered for print and broadcast journalists that included: (1) expand sources beyond police and courts; (2) provide context for crime in regular reporting; (3) bolster enterprise and increase investigative journalism; (4) balance stories about crime and youth with stories about youth in general; (5) conduct periodic audits of news content and share the results with readers and viewers; and (6) examine the story selection process, and use restraint when necessary. Five recommendations were offered for child advocates, youth groups, and civil rights organizations that included: (1) work with reporters to give a more accurate picture; (2) engage reporters, editors, and producers in dialogue about their coverage; (3) make data available; (4) prepare young people to speak for themselves, and let them do so; and (5) make yourself available to reporters. With out print and broadcast journalists’ improved efforts, the public will never know enough about why violence happens, what is happening to prevent it, and what we should do next. Endnotes and references