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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Less mainstream media privilege benefits race justice in crime reporting

The way people sound when they speak, chatter, and laugh may lead to discrimination, police investigation.

Jennifer Stoever, a media and literature scholar at Binghamton University, called this phenomenon “sonic color-line” in a recent book. That is, people in color are often stereotyped and mistreated in turn by their vocal or audio traits.

Stoever said sound-based discrimination is particularly problematic for crime reporting, as such attitude has its deep root in the source most relied on in crime reporting — the police.

African-Americans  are often accused of being loud in public spaces for example, she said. A loud car stereo was once used as an excuse for the police to stop the drivers and investigate other crimes, Stoever found in her study.

On the other hand, after interviewing many people of color, Stoever found that the “authoritative voice” the police are trained to use when they are talking to people in high-crime rate communities actually sounds aggressive. The police tone and posture sometimes can escalate the situation, she said.

If adopted by journalists in their reporting, such authoritative voice, together with the stereotype image of less disciplined people in color, can circulate fears, said newly elected Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell.

Mitchell, also a pastor, is concerned about creating a healthy relation between the offenders and victims after a crime. People who committed a crime should be given a second chance and be able to be accepted back in their communities after the rehabilitation, he said.

The disparity in criminal justice system has been existing for generations in Dane County, with more prosecutions in certain communities, Mitchell said. Those communities are particularly hurt if the restoration of crimes is not going well.

Also, even crime rates sometimes do not give the full picture, said Leland Pan, Dane County District 5 Supervisor. Some communities may have a “suppressed crime rate” because of their reputation for safety.

According to Pan, District 5 has a large student population, which is overwhelmingly white and consists of people from wealthier families.

“Crimes by white males are under-discussed,” Pan said. White students feel more liberty in grey areas as their misconducts are less likely to get reactions from both the victims and the supervisory forces on campus.

Even though on-campus crimes tend to get a lot of media attention, rarely is that coverage about white aggression toward people of color, Pan said. Students of racial minorities sometimes are unwilling to report hostility to them because they are prone to be associated with offenders instead of victims.

As the newsroom demography gets less racially diverse and more socially privileged, journalists’ source network clings more tightly around the established power center, Hemant Shah, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a talk.

The mainstream news media also hold the prejudice toward alternative media promoting ethnic or racial voices, excluding them from professional journalism, Shah said.

For example, The Capital Times published an opinion article by Paul Fanlund, executive editor, in February about how the mainstream news media in Madison had been greatly contributing to the conversation about racial issues in the past few years.

A few days later, Madison365, a progressive non-profit media, aired a radio program criticizing the Cap Times article for its condescending tone and mainstream limitation.

“There have been only certain groups of people that are able to talk about these issues when it comes to the mainstream,” one of the hosts said, pointing out that the increasing coverage mentioned by Fanlund in his column was predominantly about the advocacy groups the mainstream media found worth reporting.

The mainstream media always have a patronizing gesture as if they “discover” those long-existing racial inequality problems, even though we have been covering the same issues for ages, said the hosts, who are also from communities of color.

This border between professional journalism and progressive journalism needs to be eliminated to include more minority voices in mainstream media, Shah said. He also encourages NGOs and other public agencies to coordinate between minority media and advertisers to form a more sustainable financial model for minority media.

Shah will moderate a panel for race and crime reporting during a journalism ethics conference held by the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 29. Register for the conference here.