Charles Barkley is right about race and media

The way the media talks about race affects how Americans think about race. Here's what Barkley said (and why the research backs him up).

On August 26, 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks prompted a pause of the NBA playoffs by refusing to play game 5 of their series against the Orlando Magic. The Bucks, and eventually other teams, refused to play in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which prompted renewed Black Lives Matter Protests across the country. 

Charles Barkley, former NBA star and current NBA analyst, joined CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to discuss the strike. He used the conversation to make several important points about race and media in America. 

First, Barkley pointed out that Black people are often called on to speak on behalf of a community in a way that White people are not.

“The bottom line: It’s exhausting being Black, especially when you’re a celebrity. I love Tom Brady, but nobody asks him what’s going on in White America...There’s a double standard when you’re Black, because I have to comment on everything that happens in the Black community.”

Second, and the subject of this article, non-White people are often shown in only negative situations in the media.

“I’ve always said that I thought TV had a huge and negative effect on the Black community and the Hispanic community. We’re so segregated in this country—the way we live—so police interaction and most White people, they’re not around Black people and Hispanics. The only Black people they see are criminals on television and TV shows. The only Hispanics they see are criminals in TV shows and in movies. You know, you think about the Muslim people who are amazing. The only Muslims we see on television are terrorists. So White America has this misguided perception of what Black people are like, what Hispanic people are like, and what Muslim people are like.”

Representation matters. Research backs Barkley up. And although research on how to reduce racial bias in the media is still advancing, it suggests that raising awareness of bias can reduce it.

How can the presentation of race in media affect society?

(Note: I am not an expert in media studies or race, and I won’t pretend to be. I think the NBA has recently done well in emphasizing these issues, which is why I wanted to cover it. Whenever possible, I direct to original research from relevant fields).

Steve is probably not a librarian. How the brain cuts corners and creates stereotypes.

“An individual has been described by a neighbor as follows: ‘Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with very little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail.’ Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?” — A Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky heuristic puzzle

What do you think, librarian or farmer?

Lots of people think Steve is a librarian because librarians are stereotypically shy, introverted, helpful, and organized.

But of course, there are plenty of non-librarians who are organized and introverted. Knowing that someone is introverted is hardly enough info to say that they’re a librarian. And it’s far more likely that Steve is a farmer. 

There are five times as many farmers as there are librarians in the US. And librarians are more likely to be female than male. Just by the numbers, Steve is probably a farmer who happens to be shy, withdrawn, helpful, and organized—at least based on the limited info we have. 

This is the “representativeness heuristic” in action. One of the thinking shortcuts studied by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1970s, the representative heuristic is the idea that people rely on internal models (prototypes or stereotypes) to interpret their situation.

Here’s a quick definition.

“A representativeness heuristic is a cognitive bias in which an individual categorizes a situation based on a pattern of previous experiences or beliefs about the scenario. It can be useful when trying to make a quick decision but it can also be limiting because it leads to close-mindedness such as in stereotypes.” (Source)

Instead of trying to understand every situation from scratch, the brain builds internal models of how the world works. When a situation comes up, the brain refers back to the existing model and starts from there. 

The example from my college cognitive psych classes was recognizing a bird—instead of saying, “hmm that thing has two wings, clawed feet, a beak, and feathers, so it’s probably a bird,” your brain compares what you’re seeing to an internal picture of a bird. Most of the time, this is faster and works pretty well. Most of the time.

The representativeness heuristic is a thinking shortcut, and it can be useful. But if the representation in your head is inaccurate or biased—like, for example, a representation of Black, Hispanic, or Muslim people as criminals—it may lead to inaccurate and dangerous stereotypes. 

How? You don’t have to look far.

The New York Post isn’t exactly a bastion of journalistic integrity, but they are a significant media outlet. And biased representations are hardly limited to less reputable outlets, as this famous example from Hurricane Katrina coverage shows. 

Examples are compelling, but relying on anecdotes can lead to cherry picking evidence. What does the research say? One literature review finds multiple studies that show that the quantity of Black characters in the media has increased to be relatively in line with the percentage of Black people in the United States.

“By the mid-1990s, the proportion of black characters on television (13%) was relatively equivalent to their proportion of the US population (12%). This numeric parity has continued, and in some cases it has even improved, with blacks making up approximately 16% of the characters on primetime television and 13% of the US population (Children Now, 2004; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000; Monk-Turner, Heiserman, Johnson, Cotton, & Jackson, 2010; Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2015).”

But of course, as the same literature review points out, quantity of representation is only one part of the problem. Boiling everything down to percentages is what leads to tokenism, a point that Ibram X. Kendi alludes to in his book How to Become an Anti-Racist:

“Think about the logical conclusion of integrationist strategy: every race being represented in every U.S. space according to their percentage in the national population. A Black (12.7 percent) person would not see another until after seeing eight or so non-Blacks.”

The overall percentage of characters from one group clearly can’t be the only important metric. As Charles Barkley notes, America is relatively segregated—which is part of what makes biased representations so influential.

A report from The Opportunity Agenda reviews the social science research on representation in media, and finds several areas of concern with how Black people are presented.

The report cites a compelling passage from Professor Robert Entman’s Young Men of Color in the Media.

“The media contribute to the denial component of racial sentiments mostly by what they

usually omit. Examples include: the pervasiveness of present-day discrimination and, given the importance of capital accumulation, the enormous financial harm still imposed today by discrimination against past generations; the role that poverty and joblessness play in raising crime rates and lowering marriage rates among [young men of color]; and the part played by larger structural changes in the global economy.”

Media outlets tend to avoid putting Black people in relatable, positive roles. They also overemphasize negative traits that contribute to stereotypes. And, by not showing discrimination at nearly the level it happens in real life, coverage creates the impression that discrimination is less common than it actually is. 

This is Barkley’s key point: If you’re a White person who never sees Black people and never gets discriminated against, media stereotypes are the only information you have.

How can media portrayals change the perception of race?

I am not an expert on media studies or racial inequality, so I won’t try to reproduce a full literature review. I will highlight some of the existing evidence, as well as direct you to this review if you’d like to do a deeper dive.

Also, quick warning—I’m going to nerd out about methodology for a few moments.

Media coverage and representation is studied across a range of issues, and researchers generally find that the way information is presented can have a profound effect on both individuals and an overall culture. 

A few of the areas where media’s influence has been studied are:

I’d note also that media studies is a challenging area of study because the effects are thinly layered over time (i.e. they are hard to measure). Many studies follow a similar methodology:

  • Show participants an article or video of media coverage on the topic being studied

  • Show a control group a neutral video

  • Measure (via survey or possibly a behavior) attitudes towards the topic being studied

  • Compare the experimental group to the control

This is classic, tried-and-true experimental psychology, and many of these studies show effects. They also almost definitely underestimate the effects of media coverage—because the true hypothesized effect is that it’s the constant exposure to a particular direction of media bias that leads to a change in attitudes and culture over time. 

The challenges of the short-term experiments are a known problem in social science. As sociologist Augustine Brannigan argued in his book The Rise and Fall of Social Psychology, there are limits to what you can learn from short-term experiments.

“Social psychological experiments are typically short-term, emotionally innocuous, low-impact designs calculated to have very little lasting effect on the subjects. However, many of the problems that interest psychologists, like the causes of human violence and aggression, are not amenable to direct study in the lab. The social psychologist is forced to examine short-term analogs whose fleeting effects are measured immediately.”

Experiments can be useful, but it’s important to remember that they aren’t good at measuring long-term effects.

With that in mind, here is some of the evidence that racial representation in media can affect the way people perceive race:

  • People tend to believe the negative stereotypes of Black people in the media (Punyanunt-Carter, 2008)

  • Negative TV portrayals can predict opposition to affirmative action in White Americans (Tan & Tan, 2000)

  • Watching more television predicts lower self-esteem in Black but not White elementary school students (Martins & Harrison, 2011)

  • Television can lead to increased negative stereotypes among White Americans towards Hispanic Americans, but increasing interpersonal contact can improve perceptions (Dong & Murillo, 2007)

I would, again, refer you to the considerable evidence covered in literature reviews about media representation. I would also call out that a lot of this research focuses on how media representation affects perceptions of White Americans towards other groups—and there clearly needs to be more research that expands past what White people think.

All of that said, let’s go back to Charles Barkley’s original statement.

“I’ve always said that I thought TV had a huge and negative effect on the Black community and the Hispanic community. We’re so segregated in this country—the way we live—so police interaction and most White people, they’re not around Black people and Hispanics. The only Black people they see are criminals on television and TV shows. The only Hispanics they see are criminals in TV shows and in movies. You know, you think about the Muslim people who are amazing. The only Muslims we see on television are terrorists. So White America has this misguided perception of what Black people are like, what Hispanic people are like, and what Muslim people are like.”

The research suggests that Barkley is probably right about this. The way messages are framed in the media can lead to negative stereotypes—and increasing positive representation is an important step towards improving racial inequity in America.