If it seems as if most terrorists are Muslims and almost all immigrant lawbreakers are Latinos, it may be because you’re watching national TV news – not because those things are true.
That’s one implication of a study of five years of network and cable crime news led by University of Illinois communication professor Travis Dixon.
The study, recently published online by the Journal of Communication, sampled 146 episodes of prominent news programs focused on breaking news (rather than commentary) that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Univision over the calendar years 2008-12.
Dixon found that among those described as domestic terrorists on those programs, 81 percent were identifiable as Muslims. Yet in FBI reports for the same period, only 6 percent of domestic terrorist suspects were Muslim, or about one in 17. (In fact, terrorism on American soil is far more likely to be committed by white supremacists, Dixon said.)
Likewise, among those described as immigrants accused of a crime on those news programs, almost all (97 percent) were identifiable as Latinos, according to the study – yet only about half (47 percent) of immigrants are Latinos, according to a cited 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Among immigrants described on those programs as undocumented, 99 percent were identifiable as Latinos, according to the study – yet only 75 percent of undocumented immigrants were Latinos, according to a well-regarded 2005 report by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The results show that “the entire way we conceive of these policies is through a particular kind of ethnic lens,” Dixon said. “Our conceptualization of various issues is so tied to race and ethnicity considerations that we’ve actually been somewhat misinformed.”
Dixon found no significant difference on these results between the crime stories aired on network news programs versus those on cable. The sample size of 146 episodes, 90 of which contained crime stories, was not large enough to make valid comparisons between specific programs, he said.
Dixon conducted the research for the study while a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the episodes studied were among those available in UCLA’s Communication Studies Digital News Archive. Trained student coders watched the programs and collected the data.