Racial Bias in Media Coverage of Domestic Violence Offenders

Why does media coverage target African-American domestic abusers more vigorously than white offenders?

According to a research study undertaken by the University of Maryland, there appears to be a discrepancy in the way the media covers celebrity domestic violence cases, depending on the race of the offenders. In examining 330 news articles covering approximately 66 celebrities between 2009 and 2011, the study found a much more vociferous response in the press and over the air waves when the abusers were people of color. Clearly, though domestic violence should never be tolerated, our culture seems to have a bias about how serious a crime it represents depending on who commits it.

Evidence of racial bias, according to the study, was found in the much higher number of news articles about Chris Brown than in those about Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, and Charlie Sheen. Also, while Chris Brown has been attacked again and again on TV interviews, Charlie Sheen, who has arguably committed as many violent attacks on women, has been handled with kid gloves. Brown’s domestic abuse convictions have also kept him from getting a visa to travel on tour, while we have not heard anything about the white celebrities being deprived of travel privileges.

As the Media Reports, Society Responds

If we as a society want to reduce the occurrence of the domestic violence, it is incumbent upon us to prosecute such cases impartially.  The University of Maryland study uncovered the fact that white celebrities involved in domestic abuse scandals were less likely to receive harsh news coverage than their minority counterparts. White abusers were two and a half times more likely to be portrayed as “troubled” or partners in a conflicted marriage. There was also an observed tendency to view white violence as the result of “mitigating circumstances,” such as intoxication or temporary insanity.

It is in this context of unequal media treatment, coupled with unequal arrest and prosecution that the innocent verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial begins to make a modicum of sense. In a social environment where black and Hispanic men are so much more prone to be victimized by the system, it is somewhat understandable that the minority community would rise up to protect one of its own.

The Statistics

Joanna Pepin, lead author of the study, noted several ways in which the characterizations of white and black celebrity domestic abusers differed:

  • Black men were 3 times more likely to be portrayed as criminals
  • Reports on black men were 3 times more likely to cite arrest information, official charges, and mention of law enforcement
  • While anger or intoxication were used as excuses for the violence of white men, black men were more likely to be stigmatized as addicts or criminals

This tendency to absolve white celebrities of responsibility for their domestic violence has disturbing implications — it not only furthers racial bias, but it leads to victim-blaming of a significant portion of survivors.

As pointed out by Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on the organization’s website, “When the media reinforce destructive racial stereotypes, where white celebrity abusers are coddled and celebrity abusers of color are vilified, all victims lose.”

The penalties for domestic violence can be harsh and carry over into your ability to lead a normal life in the future. As this article illustrates, you may, simply because of your race or ethnicity, not be playing on a level field when you encounter media coverage or even the criminal justice system. If you have been charged with domestic violence, you should promptly contact an expert