Opinion: Publishing photos of black crime suspects fuels racism

Overrepresentation of blacks as criminals in the media perpetuates stereotypes of blacks as criminals. Unless race is relevant, showing pictures of suspects and identifying their race is irresponsible journalism.

Two recent Berkeleyside reports about people arrested for robberies and, in one case, assault, were accompanied by large images of the suspects’ faces. They were both black men. A few weeks earlier, another report about a woman arrested for unprovoked attacks against strangers in downtown Berkeley showed a somewhat smaller image of a black woman.

While these people may have committed crimes, they are innocent until proven guilty. Publishing images of suspects, particularly black men, is irresponsible and fuels racism and the myth of black criminality. A significant body of research confirms a consistent bias by the media against blacks[2]; reporting about crime consistently overrepresents blacks as criminals[3], particularly as perpetrators of violent crime[4], and underrepresents blacks in roles as victims of violence and defenders of the law[5]. Black defendants have also been overrepresented in mug shots[6] like the ones shown in Berkeleyside.

As you might expect, this overrepresentation of blacks as criminals in the media perpetuates stereotypes of blacks as criminals. Unless race is relevant to the story in some important way (for example, as is police brutality against black men), showing pictures of suspects and identifying their race is irresponsible reporting and contributes to the climate of racism, hatred and fear that is, unfortunately, very prevalent in our society today.

Racism is, in fact, why, if current trends continue, 1 in 3 black males will be incarcerated at some point in his life.[7] Just minutes before the latest from Berkeleyside popped up in my email, I had started watching the documentary 13th about the 13th amendment, ratified just after the Civil War, that abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” Thus began the mass incarceration of African Americans, in order to justify their continued enslavement.

The documentary starts with clips from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), known to have popularized images of black men as criminals; featured is a clip where a white woman with perfectly coiffed hair, wearing a dress with a tight bodice and flaring skirt, hurls herself off a cliff rather than risk being raped by a demonic looking black man with bulging eyes. The ping of my email distracted me and I paused the movie to click on my Berkeleyside daily briefing. While the large mug shot of Jahcoby Adams-Mabin under the headline “Man arrested after Berkeley sexual battery, burglary” was not the caricature of the black man depicted in Birth of a Nation, it startled me just the same. How might this image perpetuate existing stereotypical associations between blacks and criminality? Berkeleyside has a responsibility to report crime, but is this the best way?

I wondered about Jahcoby’s life and worried about his future. Not at all because I condone what he may have done. But because I understand how so many of his choices weren’t really choices after all. He may have been viewed and treated as a criminal from a young age; his family and community may have long had problems that have been ineffectively funneled into the criminal justice system. Sixty-five percent of those in prisons and jails have substance abuse or dependency problems[8] and recent data indicates that 24% of prisoners and 31% of jail inmates had a major depressive disorder.[9] These are public health problems. A large number grew up in poverty, in neighborhoods that were segregated by racist government policy, and few were employed.[10] These are social problems, ones that we desperately need to address.

Ta Nehisi Coates said, “The enduring view of African Americans in this country is as a race of people who are prone to criminality.”[11]

My hope, as a resident of Berkeley, is that local reporting challenges racism and the kinds of views that have grown out of our country’s long and shameful racist history. Berkeleyside can and should do better.


[2] Entman, Robert M. & Rojecki. 2000. The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.

[3] Colleluori, Salvatore & Angster, Daniel. March 23, 2015. Report: New York City Television Stations Continue Disproportionate Coverage of Black Crime. Retrieved from: https://www.mediamatters.org/research/2015/03/23/report-new-york-city-television-stations-contin/202553

Dixon, Travis L. A Dangerous Distortion of our Families. Jan. 2017. https://colorofchange.org/dangerousdistortion/

Creighton, Trina T, Walker, Curtis L, Anderson, Mark R. Coverage of Black versus White Males in Local Television News Lead Stories

[4] Travis L. Dixon & Daniel Linz. 2000. Overrepresentation and Underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as Lawbreakers on Television News. 50 J. COMM.. 131, 149

[5] Chiricos, Ted & Eschholz, Sarah. 2002. The Racial and Ethnic Typification of Crime and The Criminal Typification of Race and Ethnicity in Local Television News. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 39(4), 400-420. https://doi.org/10.1177/002242702237286

[6] Entman, Robert M. & Gross, Kimberly A. 2008. Race to judgment: Stereotyping media and criminal defendants. Law and Contemporary Problems 71(4). doi: 10.2307/27654685

[7] Mauer, Marc. (2011). Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration, The Prison Journal 91 (3 suppl):87S-101S.

[8] CASAColumbia. 2009 Shoveling Up II: The Impact of Substance Abuse on Federal, State, and Local Budgets. Retrieved from:

https://www.centeronaddiction.org/download/file/fid/1543

[9] Bronson, Jennifer. (2017). Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-2012. Retrieved from: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5946

[10] Looney, Adam & Turner, Nicholas. 2018. Work and opportunity before and after incarceration. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/research/work-and-opportunity-before-and-after-incarceration/

[11] Coates, Ta Nehisi. 2015. The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/404674/enduring-myth-of-black-criminality/

Juliana van Olphen has been a resident of Berkeley since 2007 and a professor of public health since 2000.

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