Black Minds Matter: A Look at the Psychological Effects of Mass Media on the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Elizabeth Morehead, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

A recent Pew Study showed that more than seven-in-ten American adults follow the news closely. 81% of American adults get at least a portion of their news through websites, apps, or social networking sites. In the past few years, pressing racial issues have surfaced in the U.S.and received substantial news coverage on different media outlets. The Black Lives Matter movement began after George Zimmerman, the accused murderer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was acquitted for his charges in 2012. The focus turned away from Zimmerman to Martin’s character and clothing being the reason for his death, shining a spotlight on the dehumanization of and blatant racism towards black people in the United States. Four years later, the media coverage of deaths due to police brutality has continued to disproportionately represent the African American community. The media plays a major role in how these issues are viewed and understood by Americans. However, the psychological context for black and white people differs due to their experiences and positions  in society. Media and news outlets can affect stresses, worries, and sadness of the people they reach.  Examining and understanding these effects will help to determine how the media can play a fairer and more positive role in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Portrayal of African Americans in the Media

Michael Brown

Studies have shown that major news programs involving the black community still tend to be tainted with racism. Oftentimes black criminals, and sometimes in a case like Trayvon Martin’s, black victims, are depicted by negative adjectives and stereotypes. White criminals (or victims) though, tend to be granted a more positive personification. The Washington Post, an award winning news agency, illustrates this point. In the case of Michael Brown, a black man shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, The Post released an article entitled, “Was Michael Brown surrendering or advancing to attack Officer Darren Wilson?” While in the case of James Holmes, the man responsible for a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, The Post headlined an article with, “James Holmes, held in Colorado shooting, known as shy but pleasant.”

James Holmes

Beyond headlines, African Americans are often portrayed savagely in photographs whereas white people who tend to be portrayed with nicer, professional photos. An analysis of Los Angeles-area local news broadcasts found that, when compared against relevant crime data, African Americans were  overrepresented as perpetrators, while whites were underrepresented. There is also evidence showing that news coverageArticles highlights black people being shot in public by police officers more frequently than whites. The volumes of these stories, regardless of guilt or innocence of the victims dehumanizes blacks by the repeated association with violent death.

The Psychological Effects of Negative Media on the African American Community

Although the media plays an important role in making issues facing the black community more transparent, consideration should be given to the psychological effects this transparency has on both black and white people. African Americans face the reality of watching other blacks being shot on the news monthly, if not weekly, recognizing the disparities between discussion of alleged crimes committed by black and white criminals. According to Psychology Today, TV programs can affect your mood, which can in turn, directly affect your attitudes and behavior. In a study psychologists Dr. Graham Davey and Dr. Wendy Johnston conducted, subjects who watched only negative news programs reported feeling sadder and more anxious. Not only did negative news increase those feelings, but it also increased a sense of the individual’s personal worries. Personal worries in this study were operationalized as participants describing their main worry in life at the time and then later asked to think about this worry during an interview. For African Americans, personal worries include the very things being displayed on the news and taking place in black communities.

A study conducted at the University of Michigan found a direct relationship between racial centrality and psychological distress. After turning off the news, African Americans worry about racial issues within their own life such as for their husbands or sons becoming victims of police brutality because race plays a central role in their definition of self. It has become the subject of conversation families have with their children. White people are also affected by negative news and their perceptions shift to worries as well, but the  difference is that  racial centrality does not play a role in their lives like it does for African Americans. When news featuring black people is consistently negative, many in that community, feel a sense of personal responsibility out of fear or anxiety to explain to their sons the mistakes Brown may have made when interacting with the police, or circumstances when they should not wear a hoodie like Martin. Whites look at a headline concerning Brown, for example, and see it as something to think or reflect on, but does not have the same impact on their day-to-day routines. The Atlantic found that African Americans make up a disproportionately smaller portion of the journalism industry and are less likely to have opportunities to work at news organizations. When an entire national community is underrepresented in  mass media, the psychological effects of bias in broadcasting events relevant to the  Black Lives Matter movement  remains unchanged.

What Now?  

This increasingly constant connection to the news is highlighting issues in our world and creating transparency, but the way things are framed and the lasting effects these issues have on an individual’s attitudes and perceptions  should also to be taken into consideration when publishing and airing the news. Psychology Today ended their study by asking the question, “Should TV schedulers be required to consider such effects when preparing and scheduling programs containing emotively negative content?” It would be beneficial to see this question expanded even further. Should these very same schedulers be more conscious of the way they portray the violence being inflicted on and even within the black community? It would be interesting to study the process behind scheduling and examine the factors taken into consideration when deciding headlines. Also, do there need to be more black faces and minds contributing to mass media outlets? Studies have shown the lack of diversity in journalism, but does diversifying an industry really make a difference? If so, this could have major ramifications for how African Americans are presented in the media.

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