Kirk A. Johnson

Document Type

Research Report

Publication Date



In their efforts to report on the forces that affect Boston's racial climate, the local media have typically focused on the more obvious institutional actors: businesses, city hall, school boards, churches, the courts, neighborhood groups. Rarely have the media themselves been subjected to the same scrutiny. This study represents one such effort It is an analysis of the images of Boston's black community that are conveyed through the local news media. It asks the question: If a Bostonian relied solely on the local news for information about local blacks, 1) what impressions would he or she be left with, and 2) how representative of reality might those impressions be?

Given Boston's housing patterns, the question is far from academic. Much of the city is made up of tightiy segregated neighborhoods, places where white residents might have little or no meaningful contact with blacks. Similarly, Boston's suburbs have failed to follow a national pattern of modest gains in black residents. People who do not interact with blacks would seem particularly vulnerable to media images whose accuracy they can neither verify nor reject on the basis of their personal experience. And yet all of us, no matter where we live, tend to internalize the messages we receive through the media. To the extent that those messages contradict racist attitudes about blacks or reinforce them, the local media stand as agents for positive social change or unwitting perpetuators of racism.

To better understand how the local media portray Boston's black community, I monitored news reports from a sample of newspapers and radio and television stations for one month during the summer of 1986. I noted the roles blacks played, the activities blacks were shown to be engaged in, and the events that brought blacks into the news. By comparing the portrayal of blacks in Boston's major media with portrayals in the black media, I sought to understand the criteria that reporters and editors use to judge the newsworthiness of items relating to the black community, and to understand whether (and if so, why) the images broadcast about blacks may be unrepresentative.


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