Black victims of crime in America are under-represented in the media, and as a result rarely get the institutional and legal recognition given to their white counterparts, according to a forthcoming study in the Lewis & Clark Law Review.
“Through their definition as non-ideal victims, Blacks have been systematically excluded from law and policy aiming to improve victims’ rights, and more broadly have not been recognized—socially and institutionally—as legitimate subjects of crime,” wrote the study author, Itay Ravid, an assistant law professor at Villanova University.
The current focus by academics and activists on racial inequalities experienced by offenders in the justice system “is neglecting the similarly deep racial disparities in the treatment of victims,” Ravid wrote.
One consequence, according to Ravid, is that African-American victims have not been conspicuous players in the burgeoning victims’ rights movement, and often fail to receive the counseling and support they need.
“The criminal justice system, imbued with deep racial inequalities, has cloned its institutional patterns into the realm of victims, creating a hierarchy of victim-worthiness, with Black victims consistently placed at the bottom of the pyramid,” Ravid wrote in a draft of his study, entitled Inconspicuous Victims, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
“This ranking of victims has had a direct effect on the treatment Black victims received—and continue to receive—from the criminal justice system: from recent debates regarding police violence and use of force against Black Americans, through lack of standing in criminal trials, hurdles in accessing health services for victims suffering from trauma, and more.”
The neglect is fueled by media coverage, Ravid concluded after analyzing a dataset of 10 years of articles from The Washington Post’s coverage of federal and state homicide cases from Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland.
Cross-referencing the news content with actual crime rates and data over the ten-year span, he found that white homicide victims received coverage out of proportion to their representation in murder statistics. Black victims, who made up the majority of the murder cases, received less attention.
When looking at coverage from 1997-2006, Ravid analyzed three variables: the frequency with which a victim from each race is covered, the variation of journalistic techniques through which each racial group is covered, and the “intensity” (where the story was featured).
Ravid triangulated the variables to compare his findings with the official homicide rates during the same period.
Between 1997 and 2006, the average murder victimization rate for Black victims in the aforementioned jurisdictions was 76.9 percent, while the rate for white victims was only 21 percent.
But in The Washington Post’s coverage over the decade, Black and white murder victims received roughly the same amount of space.
Whites figured in approximately 38 percent of the stories ― substantially higher than the percentage they occupied in the murder victimization rates; Blacks figured in 39 percent of the stories, far out of sync with the rate at which they were actually victimized, Ravid found.
“Black victims are…covered 37.9 percentage points less than their actual victimization rates, while white victims are covered 17 percentage points more than their actual victimization rates,” he wrote.
Using the additional variable of “intensity,” Ravid charted the murder cases that were carried on the front page, as opposed to inside pages, and found that despite the roughly equal number of stories on Black and white victims in The Post, “white homicide victims still receive greater media attention compared to Black victims.”
Ravid traced the disproportionate coverage to a “hierarchy of victimization,” where newsworthiness of victims is defined by gender, age, race, socio-economic standing, and risk of victimization.
Most newsworthy was the “ideal victim” who would attract the sympathy of readers or viewers. Even though, ironically, African Americans comprised a large part of the Post’s readership, white victims were still apparently perceived by editors as more newsworthy.
That was consistent with other studies of news markets and how editors perceived “newsworthiness,” said Ravid.
“The literature suggests white victimization simply sells better,” he wrote.
And that in turn creates its own dynamic, self-perpetuating loop, he added.
“From the ideal victim’s perspective, the media’s message is self-explanatory: victims that receive greater media coverage deserve to be acknowledged and to obtain social attention,” Ravid wrote.
In this framework, a young white woman who is murdered will receive more media attention than an older Black man.
“They are the ideal victims,” Ravid details. “Those left out of the media frames are not.”
The disproportionate coverage of white victims coincided with “color-blind” policies adopted by many media outlets that have removed mention of race in their reporting unless it was relevant to the story.
But the effort to remove any hint of bias was often effectively contradicted by reporting on the circumstances connected with the murder.
Homicides in high-crime Black neighborhoods were given less attention since they did not involve “ideal victims.”
The effect, Ravid pointed out, was to silence Black victims’ voices.
He argued that news outlets needed to pay more attention to these “nuances.”
“Recognizing the complex and nuanced mechanisms that affect the representations of Black victims of crime in the news is a necessary step for those hoping to enhance the voices of Black victims in the media,” Ravid concluded.
“Such media enhancement and recognition are essential to the reconstruction of the ideal victim as perceived by the criminal justice system and by society as a whole.”
The unbalanced coverage has ramifications far beyond the media in influencing public perceptions of crime, Ravid wrote.
“It sends a broader message with regards to whose life—and death—we value and creates a division between those worthy of empathy and social recognition and those who are not,” he wrote.
That in turn has distorted every aspect of the justice system from policing to inner-city anti-crime efforts, Ravid warned.
“Through their definition as non-ideal victims, Blacks have been systematically excluded from law and policy aiming to improve victims’ rights, and more broadly have not been recognized—socially and institutionally—as legitimate subjects of crime,” he wrote.
“This discourse has persisted despite true crime statistics, which show that Blacks are the racial group most vulnerable to violent crime, particularly homicide.”
Itay Ravid is an Assistant Professor at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. His main research interests are criminal law and procedure, where he focuses on the connections between criminal law, technology, race, and society within an era of digital democracy.
A draft of the paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, can be accessed here.
TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano contributed to this summary.