Jerry Kang is a law professor at UCLA, who lectures and writes about civil procedure, race and communications. A graduate of Harvard University and its law school, he is the author of Communications and Law Policy. This spring, he published a Harvard Law Review an article (PDF) entitled Trojan Horses of Race, in which he argues that racial biases are being exacerbated by the emphasis on violent crime in local news broadcasts.
Susan Q. Stranahan: You argue that the “if it bleeds, it leads” problem has worsened since the FCC relaxed media ownership rules in June 2003. At the time, the FCC justified its action as being in the public interest because it would increase local programming. Your objection is to the content of that local programming?
Jerry Kang: Crime stories have always been popular with local news and average approximately 25 percent of the minutes broadcast. More local news means more crime stories shown. This emphasis on local programming [as the FCC’s measure of fulfilling the public-interest obligations of a broadcaster] also creates incentives to produce more local news with an eye toward subsequent waves of deregulation: If you want the FCC to smile on your [licensing] proposal or waiver request, show how much local news you’ve played.
SQS: In your article, you cite a survey of local news programming on a Los Angeles network affiliate. In more than half of the newscasts, a crime story led the news. The survey also noted that although the ratio of violent crime arrests compared to all crime arrests in LA was 30 percent, violent crime news stories accounted for 78 percent of all crime stories broadcast. You write that “as we consume local news, we download a sort of Trojan Horse virus that increases our implicit [racial] bias.” Explain.
JK: Various commentators have already noted that by watching television news and violent crime stories, we come to believe that the world is meaner and more dangerous than it in fact is. Even as crime rates go down, we believe that we are under greater threat.
Here’s what’s new: The “Trojan Horses” metaphor draws on a new, recent body of science called “social cognition”—a combination of social psychology, cognitive psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. It has demonstrated the existence of pervasive “implicit bias” against racial minorities, notwithstanding sincere statements by most of us to the contrary….Scientists have also discovered that implicit bias is malleable, and that environmental exposures can both increase and decrease their magnitude….On the basis of this evidence, I believe that being inundated with crime stories, disproportionately featuring racial minorities, is likely to increase implicit bias. That is a hidden downside to local news, a sort of Trojan Horse virus that infects our brains.
Not only local news has this effect. The reason why I focus on the local news is because that’s what the FCC did. The FCC has created what amounts to a fetish for local news because it’s easy to count and not particularly controversial. But one can be both simple and wrong.
SQS: In what undoubtedly would prove to be controversial, you propose capping the number of crime stories allowed on each broadcast. Explain what you have in mind.
JK: The press is inclined to sensationalize, and the description of my article is no exception. I make one concrete recommendation and launch two thought experiments. The most provocative thought experiment, a soft cap on crime stories in local news, gets all the media attention. But before I discuss that idea, let me present the others.
First, my only concrete, current recommendation is for the FCC to break the near equivalence between the “public interest” and “local news.” That equivalence is not justified. The Commission should examine how it defines the public interest and whether local news should play such a crucial role. … What contributed more to the public interest: the airing of Alex Haley’s Roots or another 15 minutes on an armed robbery?