Currently Browsing: Stereotypes

One man, one execution, many descriptions

Edgar Tamayo was described in many ways in the hours preceding and following his execution by the state of Texas. The range of descriptors assigned to him captures the range of interpretations of his story.

In reading these descriptions, it is telling to note the news source, whether is U.S.-based or Mexican-based or somewhere else altogether, and how Tamayo is presented. In each case, the headlines and leads are enough to get the sense of how his story is being framed: Tamayo as a convicted cop killer or Tamayo as victim denied his rights.

These various descriptors highlight the power of words as discussed in Chapter 8 of Overcoming Bias, as well as the notion of perspective — U.S. or Mexican or global — that is discussed throughout the book. Consider the “Fault Lines” of race/ethnicity and geography discussed in Ch. 1, Context, Culture and Cognition, when looking over these examples:

  • “Cop Killer In Texas, Edgar Tamayo, Given A Heroes Burial In Mexico”

headline from The Global Dispatch (an online news site)

  • “Mexican man executed in Texas for killing a police officer is given a hero’s burial in his home town”

“The 46-year-old Mexican was controversially executed in Texas less than two weeks ago for the killing of a Houston police officer in 1994, despite outrage from human rights groups and last minute appeals from his lawyers for clemency on the grounds that Tamayo was mentally disabled.”

– headline and lead from the UK’s Daily Mail

  • “Texas executes Mexican national after Supreme Court rejects appeal”

“Texas executed Edgar Tamayo Wednesday night after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an 11th-hour appeal to keep the Mexican national from death at Huntsville State Penitentiary in Texas. Tamayo, 46, was convicted of fatally shooting Houston police Officer Guy Gaddis in 1994.”

– headline and lead from AlJazeera America

  • “The US state of Texas has executed a Mexican for murder, despite objections from the US and Mexican governments.”

– lead from the BBC News

  • “HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) A Mexican national has been executed in Texas for killing a Houston police officer, despite pleas and diplomatic pressure from the Mexican government and the U.S. State Department to halt the punishment.”

– lead in The New Zealand Herald, which used an Associated Press story.

  • “EU High Representative, Catherine Ashton, has condemned the execution of Edgar Tamayo Arias in the US state of Texas. Tamayo was on death row for killing a police officer in Houston, Texas in 1994. The Mexican government also said that his execution violated international law.”

– the lead from NewEurope (which describes itself as “the European Political Newspaper that mainly publishes and discusses news concerning EU politics and issues”).

Use Clear Language to Avoid Stigmatizing Victims in Child Sex Abuse Cases

The power of words to imply unintended meanings or perpetuate stereotypes is evident in the wake of the trial of Jerry Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University under the late Joe Paterno. On June 22, Sandusky was found guilty of 45 of the 48 charges of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. Adding to the difficulty of providing thorough, sensitive coverage of child sex abuse is that the language of criminal cases can obfuscate the horror of what really happened. Here are some points to consider:

  • Good news writing should find ways to simplify and state clearly what happened to a minor who is the victim of sexual abuse.

You can see examples of problematic and appropriate language used in a real court cases at the Judicial Language Project website. The goal of the Judicial Language Project is “to identify ways in which the language used in legal opinions perpetuates stereotypes and stigmatizes victims, diminishing the severity of what happened,” according to the group’s website.  The project is part of the Center for Law and Social Responsibility at New England Law/Boston. The project “seeks to open the dialog about inappropriate language in appellate level sexual assault cases and offer alternatives.”

The site is understandably graphic in its language of court rulings that used language that implied consent or pleasure on the part of a minor who was a victim of sexual abuse or assault. The site identifies problematic language in a variety of court rulings, focusing particularly on the notion that children should not be described as having engaged in any action of their own volition.

The appropriate language proposed seeks to clearly demonstrate the one-sided and non-consensual nature of a defendant’s actions.

In addition, a list of useful sites (including the Judicial Language Project) for reporters covering sexual abuse cases involving children is offered at Poynter Institute’s News University. At this site, you’ll find resources on definitions, experts and statistics.

  • Good news writing balances all perspectives.

Overcoming Bias discusses the need to avoid stigmatizing news sources by emphasizing fairness and seeking out the perspectives of all the major players involved in a news event — in this case, the victims, their families and the perpetrators (Chapter 5: “Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources”). To explore this further, download the presentation from Kelly McBride, Truth and Fairness When Reporting on Child Sexual Abuse,” available on Poynter’s News University website. It covers using your ethical journalism tools to ensure that your coverage of sex abuse is fair, doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes and shields victims.

Just in Time for the Fall Election News Frenzy

For practicing journalists in newsrooms and for student journalists learning to avoid misinformation, here’s an excellent resource: “Misinformation and Fact-Checking: Research Findings from Social Science” by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler.

It’s a research paper for the Media Policy Initiative of the New America Foundation; the link will bring you to a Columbia Journalism Review article about the report as well as a link to download a PDF copy of the report.

Don’t let the “research paper” title fool you. This 28-page document is readable (skimmable if you have to) and loaded with understandable recaps of research findings, pithy graphics and news media examples that deal with “the prevalence of misinformation in contemporary politics,” as the document summary states.

Below is a verbatim list from the document listing the social science findings detailed in the paper. When applicable, I’ve noted the chapter in parentheses from Overcoming Bias (OB) that complements or discusses the findings:

Summary of social science findings

  • Information deficits: (OB Chapter 2: “Habits of Thought”) Factual information can change policy preferences, but the effect is not consistent. Information seems to be most effective in shaping preferences about government spending. One drawback to these studies is that they generally do not directly measure changes in misperceptions.
  • Motivated reasoning: (OB Chapter 7: “Critical Decisions Before Deadline”) People’s evaluations of new information are shaped by their beliefs. Misperceptions seem to generally reflect sincere beliefs. Information that challenges these beliefs is generally unwelcome and can prompt a variety of compensatory responses. As a result, corrections are sometimes ineffective and can even backfire.
  • Ad watches: Studies examining campaign ad watch stories reached conflicting conclusions about the effectiveness of these segments.
  • Belief perseverance and continued influence: (OB Chapter 3: “Encountering the News”) Once a piece of information is encoded in memory, it can be very difficult to eliminate its effects on subsequent attitudes and beliefs.
  • Sources matter: (OB Chapter 5: “Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources”) The source of a given statement can have a significant effect on how the claim is interpreted. People are more receptive to sources that share their party affiliation or values and those that provide unexpected information.
  • Negations, affirmations, and fluency: (OB Chapter 8: “The Power of Words and Tone”) Attempts to correct false claims can backfire via two related mechanisms. First, repeating a false claim with a negation (e.g., “John is not a criminal”) leads people to more easily remember the core of the sentence (“John is a criminal”). Second, people may use the familiarity of a claim as a heuristic for its accuracy. If the correction makes a claim seem more familiar, the claim may be more likely to be seen as true.
  • Identity and race: (OB Chapter 1: “Context, Culture and Cognition”) When information about race or social identity is salient, it can undermine the effectiveness of corrections about public figures from different racial or cultural backgrounds.
  • Threats to control: When people feel a lack of control, they compensate with strategies that lead to greater acceptance of misperceptions.
  • Visuals: (OB Chapter 6: “Training the Reporter’s Eye”) Graphics may be an effective way to present corrective information about quantitative variables. However, graphical representations of the accuracy of political statements were found to have no effect on factual knowledge.


Trayvon Martin, Social Media and the Duke Lacrosse Case

Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s persona is changing before our eyes. In early news accounts, he was portrayed as a Skittle-eating kid who was healthy and well-adjusted, and news consumers knew him by this sweet-faced photo:


Trayvon Martin

With news outlets and blogs digging into Martin’s short life, news reports say that social media is providing another persona, one of a tough teen with shady connections. The photo that accompanies this new persona is reportedly from Martin’s online life:

So: Does Martin’s social media persona matter? Does it tell us anything factual and concrete? What about its effect on a potential jury; should the news media consider that scenario?

What about reports that Martin was suspended three times from high school? Does that matter to this story?

This evolving story has the potential to be another Duke Lacrosse case (Ch. 3, “Perilous Assumptions”), in which the news media, short on information but long on stereotypes and schemas, reported slanted stories. In the Duke case, lacrosse players at Duke University were accused of raping a dancer invited to a players’ house party. The dancer was black. The players were white–and all but declared guilty in the news media. But they were innocent, as it turned out.

When there is a vacuum of information, suggestions and assumptions based on character sometimes fill in for facts and evidence.

In the Martin case, what matters is what happened between Martin and George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who shot the unarmed Martin in the chest at close range on Feb. 26. Details are also emerging about the character of Zimmerman, who is part Hispanic. One news account describes Zimmerman as a “frustrated cop wannabe.”

The story is still very much in flux. Law enforcement officials are investigating whether or not Zimmerman acted in self defense. They are also trying to decipher whether Zimmerman used a racial epithet on the 911 call. As in the Duke case, the official decisions made in the investigation are the real story. After all, in the Duke Case, the district attorney who prosecuted the players ended up being disbarred for unethical conduct in his handling of the case. What, if anything, can journalists learn from the experience in the Duke case that also matters in the Martin case?

In this case, what does it mean to focus on the evidence, not the innuendos?

Other questions to consider: How should journalists report on the protests occurring nationwide calling for justice to be done in this case? Florida’s seven-year-old “Stand Your Ground” law removes a person’s duty to retreat when threatened with seriously bodily harm or death; is justice done if that is repealed? Is justice done if Zimmerman is arrested and charged? Is justice done only if Zimmerman is found guilty?

These questions provide the opportunity for journalists to report the story in a 360-degree manner (see Ch. 5 on the Rashomon Technique), interviewing citizens from all walks of life about what this case symbolizes to them, about race relations in America and about what justice means.

The Duke lacrosse case taught the news media and news consumers alike not to try to fit stories into ready-made molds. It’s unclear what the Martin story is as yet, but let’s not relive past mistakes.


NPR story on black girls and obesity: Cries of Racist Coverage Miss the Evidence

The recent story by Taunya English of WHYY on National Public Radio examined the problem of obesity in African American girls.

NPR photo on black girls and obesity

NPR website photo accompanying story on black girls and obesity

English began her story by noting that Americans in general are fighting the obesity epidemic, but the problem is particularly evident in black women. It stated that the weight gain begins in youth; “among all children, black girls are most likely to report they got no physical activity in the past week,” English reported.

The story by English, a health reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia, ran on NPR as part of a year-long project in which NPR editors and Kaiser Health News train reporters from local public radio stations throughout the U.S.

The listener comments were critical of the coverage, as noted by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in his column on the story:

“I was once again appalled to hear about an issue that has nothing to do with race framed in a racial context,” wrote Carolyn Casey, of Boston, MA.

Listener Kwende Madu commented: “I would ask that NPR refrain from publishing stories that concern the African-American community as this only gives racist elements an excuse to vent their hatred.”

But here is where evidence-based reporting enters. Overcoming Bias‘ chapter 7 explores biases in judgment and how factual reporting can help combat any inclination toward prejudicial coverage, intended or not.

English’s report wasn’t borne of prejudice, it was rooted in evidence: She cited research that found that about half of African-American women in the U.S. are obese, compared to 30 percent of white women. The problem is more prevalent for blacks than whites, and the reasons are certainly worth exploring and airing. That’s a legitimate story to tell.

NPR story: “For Black Girls, Lack of Exercise Heightens Obesity Risk”

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