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Study Examines Racial Bias in US Sports Reporting

  • Joe DeCapua

Book cover image of "How You See Me, How You Don't," by Cynthia Frisby, examines racial bias in sports reporting.

Book cover image of "How You See Me, How You Don't," by Cynthia Frisby, examines racial bias in sports reporting.

New research says African-American athletes are more likely to be portrayed negatively in the media than white athletes. The findings appear in a new book, entitled "How You See Me, How You Don’t."

Cynthia Frisby is an associate professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. As part of her strategic communication course, she challenges her students to face any biases they may have when reporting a story.

Her interaction with her students eventually led her to research media coverage of male athletes – and whether black and white athletes receive different treatment.

Frisby chose 155 online news articles from Sports Illustrated, the Bleacher Report, CNN, CBS Sports, Sporting News, Yahoo Sports, AOL, Sport Service and ESPN.

“Of the total stories 68, or 43.9 percent, were on white athletes. And 60, 38.7 percent, were on black,” she said.

She identified a number of themes, including crime, domestic violence, moral success or failure, cheating, lifestyle and individual accomplishments. She began with her findings on crime-related stories.

Associate Professor Cynthia Frisby

Associate Professor Cynthia Frisby

“66.7 percent of the stories were on crime that dealt with black athletes – compared to 22.2 percent for white. When it came to domestic and sexual violence stories 70.6, percent focused on the black athlete, whereas three, or 17.6 were on white. When it came to training, work ethic, their dedication, 42.9 percent were focused on white athletes, where 35.7 were on black,” she said.

Frisby gave other examples, as well.

“The morally successful stories: 83.3 percent were on white athletes, where there was only one story, which amounted to 8.3 percent, on black athletes. Accomplishments: 20 of the stories, 58 percent, were white, whereas eight stories, or 23.6 percent, were black. On their personal lifestyle: 42.9 percent were white versus 33.3 percent black. And then athletics or skills or abilities: 46.2 percent were about white athletes and 23.1 percent, or three stories, were on black.”

One thing her research did not reveal was the race of the reporters behind the stories.

“You know, honestly, that’s something that I want to do in the future. It was very, very hard to determine by their bylines. And then we tried to do that, but it was just taking an immense amount of time because, you know, we’d have to go to the newspaper site and then look up their staff,” she said.

Frisby said she wants her students to consider whether media portrayals of African-Americans are reflected in how they report.

“When it comes to blacks, there are three typical portrayals that we find in the media: criminal, entertainer or athletic,” she said.

A 2013 study, she said, shows many Americans believe black athletes are criminals. She questions whether that perception stems from modern TV, films and other media.

“A lot of times people would say when I was talking about my research, well, is it true that athletes are more aggressive? And I went to the crime rate and statistics numbers and was again a little surprised to find that athletes, in general, regardless, commit fewer crimes than the regular male in their same age group,” she said.

Frisby also said that media portrayals of African-Americans may even affect how her students react to her.

“So, for example, I’m an African-American professor and I will have students that sometimes the only experience or contact that they’ve had with someone like me is through the media, she said. "And you would be surprised at how much media consumption plays a role in our attitudes and our formation of particular kinds of stereotypes.”

One such portrayal of African-Americans, Frisby said, is found in rap music.

“We know white suburban boys love rap music," she said. "What if you see these images and then you get to me, which I violate all of that, how do you respond to that disparity and discrepancy of what you’ve come to know through the media and now you’ve met somebody that doesn’t fit? Do you discount her?”

The University of Missouri journalism associate professor said her research is just a first step. While she hopes it raises awareness for today’s reporters, it also raises many questions about how stereotypes are formed and affect behavior.