Stereotypes can affect memory when identifying criminal suspects

December 19, 2002

Research by a Penn State media studies expert reveals that memory of crime stories with the suspects' pictures reflects racial stereotypes, and African-Americans are especially likely to be mistakenly identified for perpetrators of violent crimes, an issue being discussed nationally by community and law enforcement groups.

"When readers were asked to identify criminal suspects pictured in stories about violent crimes, they were more prone to misidentify African-American than White suspects. The same readers, to a far lesser degree, tended to link White offenders more with non-violent crime," says Dr. Mary Beth Oliver, associate professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Laboratory at Penn State.

Oliver notes, "Essentially, people's 'mismemories' of violent crime news seem to implicate all Black men rather than the specific individuals who are actually pictured."

The Penn State researcher and her co-author, Dana Fonash, assistant director of development with The Second Mile in State College, Pa., published their findings in the paper, "Race and Crime in the News: Whites' Identification and Misidentification of Violent and Nonviolent Criminal Suspects," which appeared recently in the journal Media Psychology.

In their study, the researchers asked a sample of White participants to examine a series of brief newspaper accounts of both violent and nonviolent crime, involving both Black and White male suspects. The newspaper briefs included an equal number of Black and White photographs as well as photos of Black and White people in non-crime news stories. Afterwards, the researchers asked participants to examine a sequence of photographs and identify who had been highlighted in the news stories.

"In essence, our findings support the notion that stereotypes of Black men as violent criminals are reflected in what people recall from news reports," Oliver says. "This kind of 'mismemory' has many implications ranging from issues related to law enforcement to issues related to everyday activities such as greater fear or distrust of others."

The study indicated also that self-reported racial attitudes, no matter how prejudiced or enlightened, had no impact on participants' ability to correctly identify the race of a criminal suspect. This suggests that Whites may not realize the degree to which deeply imbedded stereotypes tamper with their memories.

"The stereotyping of Blacks as dangerous or criminal is a bias that can result in tragic consequences," Oliver says. "Given the prevalence and consistency of this stereotype, there is little doubt that its existence is a reflection of a great number of social and political variables. However, Americans' reliance on news for information about crime points to the need for more extensive explorations of the role that the media may play in creating or sustaining these negative attitudes."

She adds, "The results of this study suggest that the processing of crime news can result in confusions that may implicate essentially any individual in the committing of violent crime, particularly Blacks who fit the 'profile' of the dangerous, violent criminal."

Penn State

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