Beyond Black and White: An Analysis of Newspaper Representations of Alleged Criminal Offenders Based on Race and Ethnicity

Date01 November 2018
Published date01 November 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2018, Vol. 34(4) 383 –398
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986218787730
Beyond Black and White:
An Analysis of Newspaper
Representations of Alleged
Criminal Offenders Based
on Race and Ethnicity
Alayna Colburn1 and Lisa A. Melander1
Media has a substantial role in providing knowledge about crime to the public;
however, many representations of crime and criminality perpetuate damaging racial
stereotypes. The purpose of this study is to identify how minorities are portrayed
in print media as compared to their White counterparts. The study includes an
ethnographic content analysis of newspaper crime stories and accompanying images
from widely circulated newspapers published between August 1, 2014, and October
31, 2014. Findings reveal minorities are not only overrepresented in crime story
images, but closer examination uncovers nuanced differences in the type and quality
of pictures by race and ethnicity.
mugshots, media representations, newspaper analysis, race, ethnicity
In March 2015, two separate but similar stories were written in a local Iowa newspaper
highlighting crimes that had taken place in the community (Herminston, 2015a,
2015b). The culprits in both events were groups of three men arrested for local bur-
glaries. The only difference between the suspects was their race and the way they were
pictorially represented in the newspaper. The group of White male suspects were fea-
tured with professional yearbook photos, whereas the minority alleged burglars had
1Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alayna Colburn, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, Kansas State University, 251
Waters Hall, Manhattan, KS 66502, USA.
787730CCJXXX10.1177/1043986218787730Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeColburn and Melander
384 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 34(4)
their mugshots displayed across the page. This differential treatment led some to ques-
tion the motivation and actions of news media when selecting pictorial representations
accompanying crime stories (Siede, 2015).
Although minorities are overrepresented in arrest records compared to the propor-
tion of the population, most people arrested are White (Federal Bureau of Investigation
[FBI], 2014). Accordingly, it would be expected that there would be more media cov-
erage of White alleged offenders. A substantial body of work reveals that media repre-
sentations of ethnic minority groups are more favorable than the past (Tukachinski,
Mastro, & Yarchi, 2015); however, certain minority groups continue to be either
grossly overrepresented or depicted unsympathetically in stories about criminal activi-
ties (St. John & Heald-Moore, 1996; Tukachinski et al., 2015). Viewing these inaccu-
rate and stereotypical portrayals may impact audience members’ perceptions of
minorities (Gilliam & Iyengar, 2000) as there is a connection between media coverage
and its influence on racial/ethnic and crime-related judgments and beliefs (Castaneda,
Fuentes-Bautista, & Baruch, 2015; Henry & Tator, 2005). The quality and type of
pictorial representations of alleged offenders in crime stories may sway viewers’ opin-
ions regarding these illicit activities. As a result, the purpose of this study is to identify
how racial and ethnic minorities are portrayed in crime stories compared to their White
counterparts by completing a systematic exploration of pictorial representations in
print media. This study has implications for research on racial and ethnic stereotypes,
potential juror perceptions of alleged offenders, and print media.
Literature Review
Crime in the News
Although America is transitioning to a digital world where having the latest technol-
ogy is a sign of affluence and sophistication, receiving local and world news from a
newspaper is still a common practice. Crime stories are an intrinsic component of
modern media, accounting for up to 50% of news coverage (Chermak, 1995; Surette,
1992; Tukachinski, 2015). Much of what society knows about crime comes directly
from the media (Pickett, Mancini, Mears, & Gertz, 2015; Pollak & Kubrin, 2007), and
reporters craft stories in a manner to sway public opinion (Chermak, 1994; Surette,
1992), potentially creating an unbalanced understanding of crime.
Because citizens often lack any direct experience with the criminal justice system,
they rely on the mass media as a primary source of information about crime and its
control (Callanan, 2012; Hough & Roberts, 2005; Kort-Butler & Hartshorn, 2011).
Crime is overrepresented in the news (Chermak & Chapman, 2007), and newsworthy
stories tend to be violent and sensationalized (Cherbonneau & Copes, 2003), playing
on the fears of media consumers and distorting their perceptions of crime and crimi-
nality (Dowler, Fleming, & Muzzatti, 2006). Crime stories selected for publication
may also provide support for stereotypical images of innocence and guilt regarding
minorities (Halloran, 1978; Tukachinski, 2015) and may guide viewers’ perceptions
on a person’s culpability in criminal situations, which may vary by race. Because

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