Race Matters

How do we shake up media conversations around race? A new research project has some answers

It's no secret that when it comes to discussions around racial inequality in the media, Britain has some way to go. Here, Nick Treloar, Research Analyst for Runnymede Trust and member of the Reframing Race team, describes the findings of a new research project – and explains how advocates can change the conversation. 

 

Malcolm X once said: “If you're not careful, newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people doing the oppressing.” In 2020, it feels as if the picture has in some ways changed since Malcolm’s time, and in other ways, is the same. 

New research commissioned by joint Runnymede initiative Reframing Race shows that the way in which newspapers portray issues surrounding race and racism are more nuanced than you might initially think. It is not that newspapers entirely overlook racial inequalities. The research, carried out by the University of Lancaster, found that newspapers often do report on racial disparities, disproportionalities and inequalities. However, coverage rarely goes on to discuss the deeper causes of these phenomena – for example why stop and search figures are so skewed, or why black artists may struggle to “make it” in creative industries. The negative impacts of this framing can be significant.

The initiative, which I am a part of, took place over a period of 12 months, in which researchers looked at coverage of three search terms: “grime”, “stop and search” and “race equality” across six tabloids and five broadsheets. The coverage of “grime” centred on the success of the grime genre, and noted that such success in the music industry was harder to attain for black artists. The data in particular reflected the new ground broken by Stormzy in appearing at Glastonbury – where he became the first black solo British headliner of the festival.

Meanwhile media portrayals linked the term “stop and search” to “crime” and “knives”. Interestingly, many stories prominently mention the disproportional ways in which stop and search affects black people in Britain. Nonetheless, where there were stories about what should be done about stop and search, these tended to be about strengthening police powers rather than reducing or removing them.

The majority of reporting on our search terms contained little analysis of why life has been harder for black artists to make breakthroughs and why black people are subject to greater police scrutiny. For example, there was little discussion of structural factors, such as law, policy or institutional racism. Similarly, on the term “race equality” there was little on how inequalities are encoded into social and economic arrangements. 

What we therefore see is description about the limits to the lives of racialised people but little in the way of analysis. We get the what, without the why. The outcomes of this are potentially dangerous – in part because data is rife for misinterpretation. The stats alone may actually entrench ideas that racialised populations are stopped and searched more because they are somehow more prone to criminality, or are less successful in the arts because they are less talented or hardworking than white counterparts. And, in the absence of deeper structural analysis of the nature of the problem, we can’t get on to talking about solving racism and achieving racial justice. Regardless of intention, stating disproportionality does little to move us towards meaningful solutions. 

In light of these significant findings, Reframing Race is now moving onto its next phase, which is all about developing new, effective messages on the subject of racism and racial inequality. It will use the research insights from this study of newspapers and other work on public thinking around racism to develop a shortlist of messages that can expand the story on racism, to address its causes and to emphasise solutions. 

Newspapers are unlikely to provide structural explanations of racism or shift the discussion onto solutions without significant guidance from advocates for racial justice. The challenge for advocates, then, is to connect manifestations of racism with their underlying structural causes – and then to the types of solutions that move us towards racial justice. 

That is a long-term project, because at present, the explanations that advocates may have for racism are still highly contested in the press. The dominant discourses on race still tend to frame inequalities as the “failings” of racialised populations, rather than the failings of society. In other words, newspapers often only tell half the story.

 

If you would like to be kept informed of developments on the Reframing Race programme please email the team at reframe@runnymedetrust.org

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