How the Media Contribute to Disproportionate Confinement of Minority Youth

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patrick webbA father of two was fatally shot at about 11 p.m. yesterday, apparently caught in the crossfire between two teenagers at the corner of Busy and Main streets. Witnesses said the suspects, two black youths between 14 and 17, started arguing, then pulled out guns. The victim, whose name has not been released yet, was a husband and father of two daughters who was reportedly walking home due to car trouble.  

Unfortunately, the above description of juvenile crime is common in the  media. Studies suggest that such depictions may lead to exaggerated fears, faulty perceptions and punitive processes (i.e., legislative, etc.) which, along with other factors, result in the disproportionate confinement of minority youth in criminal and juvenile justice systems in the United States.

Though such articles about juvenile crime are common, they are not consistent with actual reported rates of occurrences. In newspaper and TV  coverage (i.e., “Cops,” “America’s Wanted,” etc.) this misrepresentation leads to faulty and negative perceptions that are both pervasive and influential.

To begin with, when youth are depicted in the news, they are often viewed as violent offenders. This leads to a bias in which youth are negatively labeled due to events that are isolated and irregular. Research reveals that juvenile violent crimes are not only shown in the first part of a TV news segment, they are also exaggerated.

For instance, accounts of murder are often depicted as opposed to burglary. But statistically, the former happens less often than the latter. This suggests that the most heinous types of violent crime are more enticing and dramatic as opposed to nonviolent offenses, which are more realistic juvenile crimes. For higher ratings, visual and graphic appeal seems to be preferred over accuracy. In addition, females and blacks are overrepresented as offenders, which contradicts reports that indicate white male youth have higher rates of criminal offending.

Victims of juvenile crimes are either described as innocent or randomly selected, thus implying that juveniles (i.e., black youth) should be feared. This perception flies in the face of studies and reports that reveal, like adult crimes, that juvenile offenders and victims often have prior relationships or some degree of familiarity.

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Media depictions of juvenile crimes leads to a number of problems, especially among minorities of color. Black youth are viewed as threats to society outside the criminal and juvenile justice systems,
such as public schools as well as various public settings (i.e., neighborhoods, etc.)
. That many believe this stereotype is supported by studies that reveal measurable disparity in school disciplinary measures as well as the school-to-prison pipeline dilemma.

Ultimately, the depictions produce an exaggerated fear of crime directed toward specific groups of individuals on the mere basis of skin pigmentation. This dynamic leads to the justification of adopting punitive approaches to crime and employing severe penalties toward black youth, even in the face of research that demonstrates decreased levels of violent crime among youth over the past 10 years.

To make matters worse, this collective form of denial lends itself to the rationalization as well as justification of inequality in how minority youth are treated within our justice systems. Finally, the faulty perceptions and unwarranted policies result in the proliferation of prisons and detention facilities, thus creating (as Michelle Alexander writes in “The New Jim Crow”) an invisible caste system.

Unfortunately, the misperceptions as well as the implications of juvenile crime will continue to flourish despite our efforts to mitigate the disproportionate confinement of minority youth. In part, this will continue due to society’s lack of familiarity with the juvenile justice system. Thus we are likely to accept the depictions of juvenile crime from the media, especially televised news coverage.

The mental conditioning aspects of TV news coverage and police-based reality programs not only directly and indirectly influence the disproportionate treatment of minority youth, they are also associated with greater support for punitive measures. This may be indicative of misguided fear among those who refer to the United States as home of the brave.    

Patrick Webb, Ph.D., is assistant professor of criminal justice at Savannah State University. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, editorials and books including “Incapacitating the Innocent: An Examination of Legal and Extralegal Factors associated with the Preadjudicatory Detention of Juveniles.”  

One thought on “How the Media Contribute to Disproportionate Confinement of Minority Youth

  1. An excellent description of a serious and long-standing problem. I wish there were good solutions, but I’m not optimistic. In many ways, it’s only gotten worse with the advent of click-bait and alternative facts. Any good ideas?