REPORT: New York City Television Stations Continue Disproportionate Coverage Of Black Crime

Four major broadcast television stations in New York City have continued to give disproportionate coverage to crime stories involving African-American suspects, a Media Matters analysis found. Between August 18 and December 31, 2014, the stations' late-night news broadcasts on weeknights still covered murder, theft, and assault cases in which African-Americans were suspects at a notably higher rate than the rate at which African-Americans have historically been arrested for those crimes in New York City.

Black Suspects Continue To Be Overrepresented In Newscasts On WCBS, WNBC, WABC, And WNYW

Coverage Of Crimes Involving Black Suspects Was Substantially Higher Than Historical Arrest Rates From NYPD Statistics. In stories where race could be identified, the percentage of African-American suspects in murders, thefts, and assaults covered by WCBS, WNBC, WABC, and WNYW (Fox) was well above the percentage of African-American suspects who have been arrested for those crimes in New York City. According to averages of arrest statistics from the New York City Police Department (NYPD) for the past four years, African-American suspects were arrested in 54 percent of murders, 55 percent of thefts, and 49 percent of assaults. However, between August 18 and December 31, 2014, the suspects in the four stations' coverage of murders were 74 percent African-American, the suspects in coverage of thefts were 84 percent African-American, and suspects in assaults were 73 percent African-American:

Coverage Of Black Suspects And Crimes Reported Varied By Station. The table below shows the number of suspects on each station who could be identified by race in each crime category, the number of those suspects who could be identified as African-American, and totals for each (click to enlarge):

Total Crime Coverage Varied Widely Among The Stations

WABC Showed The Most Suspects Involved In Crimes, While WNYW Showed The Least. From August 18 to the end of the year, the local Fox affiliate, WNYW, aired crime stories involving 41 suspects, while WABC ran reports involving 212 suspects. The crime coverage on WCBS and WNBC was similar, with 140 suspects identified by each station:

Previous Media Matters Report Highlighted Disproportionate Coverage Of Black Crime In New York City. The chart below shows the results of Media Matters' initial report, which examined broadcasts between May 26 and August 15, 2014. That report also compared the stations' coverage to averages of NYPD crime data from 2010 through 2013 (click to enlarge):

For Media Matters' initial study on television coverage of African-American crime in New York City, click here.

Disproportionate Coverage Of African-American Crime Is Not Limited To New York City

A Study Of Pittsburgh Media Found Heavy Focus On Crime In Media Coverage Of African-American Men And Boys. A 2011 report commissioned by the Heinz Endowments' African American Men and Boys Task Force examined media coverage in Pittsburgh, which found that:

Crime stories led all news topics linked to African American men and boys. In print, 36 percent (72 of 198) of all stories featuring the group focused on crime; on TV, 64 of 74 stories linked black men and boys with crime -- 86 percent. And crime coverage featuring black men tended to get more prominent play in the news, with the stories more likely appearing atop the news page or at the beginning of the evening newscast.

A troubling finding from the content analysis is what little comprehensive coverage remains once crime is removed from consideration. Scant coverage exists featuring African American men and boys in the “quality of life” topics: education, business/economy, environment, leadership/community and the arts. And coverage of young African American men and boys ages 15-30 was all but nonexistent, with only 60 stories, or 2.7 percent, outside of the crime context in the three-month period. [Heinz Endowments' African American Men and Boys Task Force, 11/1/11]

Journal Of Communication Study: African-Americans Appeared As Perpetrators In L.A. TV Stories At A Higher Rate Than In Arrest Statistics. According to a study by professors Travis L. Dixon and Daniel Linz published in the Journal of Communication in 2000, “a random sample of local television news programing in Los Angeles and Orange counties” found that African-Americans were the perpetrators on television 37 percent of the time while they were arrested only 21 percent of the time, according to official statistics:

[Journal of CommunicationSpring 2000]

Media Coverage Of Crime That Feeds Racial Stereotypes Hurts African-Americans

Law and Contemporary Problems Study: News Coverage Can Reinforce Stereotypes Of Racial Minorities As “Criminal and Violent.” According to a study published in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems in 2008, recurring messages in news broadcasts reinforce racial stereotypes:

Media stereotypes consist of recurring messages that associate persons of color with traits, behaviors, and values generally considered undesirable, inferior, or dangerous. In the context of crime coverage, there is considerable evidence that media portray blacks and Latinos as criminal and violent. These images matter because they are a central component in a circular process by which racial and ethnic misunderstanding and antagonism are reproduced, and thus become predictable influences in the criminal-justice process. Such coverage may reinforce biases against black and Latino defendants even in the absence of specific pretrial publicity about a given defendant's case. [Law and Contemporary Problems12/1/08]

Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media Study: Overrepresentation Of Black Crime “Strengthens The Cognitive Association Between Blacks and Criminality.” In an analysis of the effects of race and reporting published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media in 2009, four communications professors explained that consuming reporting that over represents black crime can have a negative effect on the perception of African-Americans as a group:

Analyses of television news consistently indicate that Black males are overrepresented as perpetrators and underrepresented as victims, compared to both their White male counterparts on TV as well as real-world Department of Justice arrest reports (Dixon & Linz, 2000a, 2000b). In these news stories, Black suspects are more likely than Whites to be portrayed as nameless, menacing, and in the grasp of the police (Entman, 1992, 1994). In fact, Blacks are nearly four times more likely to be represented as criminals than police officers on television news -- a proportion inconsistent with U.S. Department of Labor statistics (Dixon, Azocar, & Casas, 2003). Alongside their overrepresentation as criminals in the news, Blacks also are underrepresented as victims compared with their on-air counterparts (Dixon & Linz, 2000b). Further, the text of crime-related news stories also has been found to vary depending on the race of the perpetrator. For example, Dixon and Linz's (2002) research reveals that statements containing prejudicial information about criminal suspects, such as prior arrests, were significantly more likely to be associated with Black (as opposed to White) defendants, particularly in cases involving White victims.

Exposure to biased messages has consequences. As Dixon's (2007) work illustrates, consuming the persistent overrepresentation of Black males in crime-related news stories strengthens the cognitive association between Blacks and criminality in the mind of consumers such that the connection (i.e., Blacks and crime) becomes chronically accessible for use in race-related evaluations. Notably, as the research on media priming illustrates, even a single exposure to these unfavorable characterizations can produce stereotype-based responses. [Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 12/2009]

Portrayals Of African-Americans As Criminals Heighten White People's Animosity Toward African-Americans. In the 2000 book The Black Image in the White Mind, professors Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki analyze various forms of television programming to determine how the perception of African-Americans is affected by their portrayals on television. Chapter 5 of their book discusses how “local television news portrays Blacks in urban communities with a limited palate that paints a world apparently out of control and replete with danger.” They also write that the “accumulated impression from these images is that race alone suffices for comprehensive identification of criminals -- that being African American is almost tantamount to guilt.” The authors later note (emphasis added):

The racial stereotyping of Blacks encouraged by the images and implicit comparisons to Whites on local news reduces the latter's empathy and heightens animosity, as demonstrated empirically by several experimental studies. To the extent local television news thereby undermines the fragile foundations of racial comity, it could reduce apparent and real responsiveness of White-dominated society to the needs of poor minorities, especially Blacks. The result, in turn, is continued employment discrimination and government unresponsiveness to the urban job loss and economic dislocation that has so traumatized the inner city -- and consequent breeding of crime.  [The Black Image in the White Mind, University of Chicago Press, 2000]


Media Matters watched the late-night news on WCBS, WNBC, and WABC (airing at 11 p.m.) and WNYW (airing at 10 p.m.) during weeknights from August 18 (the first weekday after our previous study concluded) through December 31. Media Matters recorded the race, if it could be determined, of suspects who were reported to be connected to crimes committed in New York City's five boroughs. Any story about a crime committed outside of the city limits was excluded. The race of the suspect was recorded only if it could be determined from a picture shown on the air or if the suspect's race was explicitly mentioned in the report. Any suspect whose race could not be determined was not included. To maintain consistency with NYPD data, a single suspect may be counted in multiple crime categories if they appear to be connected to multiple crimes during the same television segment.

This data was then compared to data from the 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 editions of the New York City Police Department's “Crime and Enforcement Activity in New York City” reportMedia Matters used numbers from the reports to calculate the amount of African-Americans arrested as a percentage of people with a known race who were arrested on the following charges:

  • Murder and non-negligent manslaughter, for the category “murder”
  • Robbery, petit larceny, and grand larceny, for the category “theft”
  • Felony assault and misdemeanor assault, for the category “assault”

These categories represent the three most-covered crime stories on the four stations.

It should also be noted that during this period, there was continuing coverage of a white police officer who was involved in the death of Eric Garner, an African-American man. The data from that story was not included because Garner was not considered a suspect in any of the categories of crimes included in the report and because it was unclear from reporting whether the police officer was considered a suspect in a crime, according to NYPD classifications of suspects. Subsequently, during the period of this report, it was announced that the police officer would not be charged with a crime. In addition, an Asian police officer was involved in the death of Akai Gurley, an African-American man. Data from that story was also not included as it was unclear from reporting if the police officer was considered a suspect in a crime, according to NYPD classifications of suspects.