Why are ethnic minorities so undeserving of victimhood?
The social world is reliant upon the media, specifically news media, to obtain information about the world around us; topics of discourse that ultimately inform and educate us and our view of society.
Crime is reported on every single day, making up a large percentage of our daily news consumption. An astounding 5.8 million crimes were recorded by police in England and Wales between September 2020 and September 2021, with the most serious, violent and newsworthy cases receiving the most media attention.
But what happens when our consumption of crime news is governed by racial stereotyping?
The power of political framing
Arguably, news institutions — strikingly right-wing news institutions, perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes that keep minority ethnic groups as lesser in society. Whether that be in a lexical or visual format, each piece of information given contributes to and has the potential to alter our perception of marginalised groups in society.
In his 2007 article Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power, Robert Entman describes framing as a process in which a narrative is produced by taking elements of perceived reality and making connections with them in order to shape a specific view of the world.
If these connections remain consistent, Entman contends that the media become culpable in giving political power to privileged groups in society, in turn seizing the power of those already marginalised.
In regard to crime stories, it can be said that framing plays a significant role in how they are mediated and distributed — specifically when minority ethnic groups are linked to the case.
The ‘undeserving victim’
Nils Christie suggested the notion of the ‘ideal victim’ back in 1986. This is a concept whereby victims are deemed newsworthy based on who may garner the most media attention based on aspects such as their gender, age, race, and also by who appears the most vulnerable or can garner the most sympathy from the audience; ultimately, who is the most newsworthy.
In News Media, Victims and Crime, Chris Greer goes on to describe ‘underserving victims’ as those who don’t fit the ‘ideal victim’ status, instead receiving minimal media coverage and thus little support or justice in the social world.
Here, I suggest it is minority ethnic groups that are more often than none automatically framed as ‘undeserving victims’, and then criminalised to restrict any sympathy or justice towards them — further underpinning their marginalisation.
The case of Daniel Prude
On the 23rd of March 2020, a 41-year-old African American man named Daniel Prude died after an encounter with the police in the streets of Rochester, New York, leading to fatal physical restraint.
Body camera footage of his death revealed Prude was walking through the streets naked, where he was stopped by police who proceeded to place a spit hood over his head and restrain him on the ground for over two minutes.
It was reported that Prude had been suffering from a mental health episode at the time of his death. He later died of asphyxiation, and the officers involved with his death were never charged.
The following news coverage
The case of Daniel Prude was made public in September 2020 after becoming linked to a series of cases of police brutality in the U.S — most notably, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
Prude’s death garnered a small amount of media attention, covered on online publications including the BBC and the Daily Mail; two different news organisations with clear opposing agendas in their reporting of the incident.
The news stories were both published on the same date — so let’s compare them shall we?
The Daily Mail: Headline
In the article produced by the Daily Mail — a right-wing news institution, Prude’s death is framed in such a way that depicts him as the ‘undeserving victim’. This becomes apparent as early on in the article as the headline.
Without any context of the incident surrounding Prude’s death, the headline lays the foundations of the news organisations agenda — seizing the power of the marginalised. The most prominent examples of this are through:
- No dignity of a name; Prude is simply referred to as ‘a black man’ which already carries stigmatised connotations of violence and criminality as opposed to ‘an African American man’. His race may be relevant to the case, but it did not need to be included in the headline.
- Cause of death; from the use of an informal register, the seriousness of the case is undermined by using the phrase ‘suffocating to death’ rather than the medical term ‘asphyxiation’.
- Description of the restraint; going into detail about the physical restraint used on Prude without any prior knowledge of what led up to this implies to the reader that he had committed a heinous act and was a significant danger, thus reinforcing the pre-established connotations of violence and criminality.
The Daily Mail: Audio-visuals
The article is filled with graphic screenshots from the body camera footage, perpetuating the threat they implied Prude to be within the headline. By repeatedly seeing Prude during this encounter with the police, our sympathy towards him is restricted — again framing him as ‘undeserving’ of victim status.
The Daily Mail completely undermine any other image embedded of Prude, taking away from our perception of him as a human being as well as any form of ‘ideal victim’ status that still remained. The screenshots only tell part of the story — the very part that fits their agenda. How fitting…
The BBC: Headline
In the article produced by the BBC — a more liberal news organisation, the depiction of Prude’s death steers away from framing him as the ‘undeserving victim’, simply presenting factual information about Prude, the case, and other linked incidents.
The headline is the complete opposite of the Daily Mail’s headline, deviating from racial stereotypes and showing that Prude’s race is something he should not be prejudged or defined by. The headline achieves this as follows:
- Reinstated humanity; Prude is given the dignity of his own name and isn’t immediately defined by his race. He is seen first and foremost as a human being, without any stigmatisation attached.
- Cause of death; the use of a formal register to describe his cause of death as ‘asphyxiation’ elevates the seriousness of the case — and using medical terms again reinstates Prude’s humanity.
- Limited information; there are no graphic details of the physical restraint used against Prude in the headline, instead appearing in the main body of the copy. Thus, our understanding of the incident and Prude’s actions is not significantly altered before reading the story.
The BBC: Audio-visuals
Considering how powerful audio-visuals can be in telling a story, the BBC have incorporated images that remain unbiased and instead serve an educational purpose.
The article contains zero stills from the body camera footage. Instead, it contains an image of Prude, a video regarding the impact of George Floyd’s death, an image of a spit hood, and an image of Joe Biden.
These audio-visuals work together to create a rounded and unbiased view of the story. They frame Prude in relation to his humanity, not his stereotyped criminality — and the question of his victim status is not altered by his blackness.
The articles both tell a story, so why should we care about how they are framed?
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” — Malcolm X
By mediating a link between blackness and criminality, just as terrorism is unjustly associated with Muslims or Islam in UK press, the view of and subsequent treatment towards ethnic minorities becomes heavily and unfairly distorted.
As Chrisopher Campbell says in his 2011 book Race and News: Critical Perspectives, “news coverage may enhance a negative attitude among non-minorities about members of different racial groups.”
If right-wing news institutions continue to frame ethnic minorities as inhuman criminals undeserving of their victimhood, the social world will regard and treat them as just that. Just as the racial climate is starting to get more attention, the continuation of this type of framing will take us ten steps back.
What prevention can be put in place?
Srividya Ramasubramanian suggests in her article Media-based Strategies to Reduce Racial Stereotypes Activated by News Stories, that there are two strategies for racial stereotype reduction activated by news stories:
- Audience-centered; the public aim to stop consciously viewing biased news content.
- Message-centered; the public is presented with counter-information that contradicts racial stereotypes.
With these strategies in mind, I propose the way forward is to promote more liberal forms of news media that counteract right-wing agendas — just like the BBC did in the case of Daniel Prude. The less biased content we consume, the better. The less racial stereotypes we consume, the better. The more racial justice and equality we can achieve in society, the better!
But it’s not completely down to us. News is supposed to present objective and unbiased information, not distorted and stereotyped pretences. I hope that journalists will be able to cover stories involving ethnic minorities without being based off of the subjectivity that keeps the superiority of non-minorities intact. It’s not too late for change.
If the media truly controls the minds of the masses, isn’t it about time its power is used to prevent the very discrimination it has a tendency to promote?
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading — I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.