We, at Mizzou, had a class in journalism school called Cross-Cultural Journalism. The whole point of it was to show students the right and wrong ways media cover an array of “ethnic, gender, ability and ideological groups inside and outside the United States.” One thing we learned is that if you want to appeal to the racial biases of people when reporting on a person of color, you make images of them darker, so they appear more menacing, and therefore, guilty. It’s what Time was accused of doing when they admitted that they darkened O.J. Simpson’s face in 1994 for their cover, blaming it on stressed staff working on tight deadlines.
But such methods have also been used to appeal to those who hold fast to stereotypes of people of color during political campaigns. It was done by John McCain’s campaign in 2008 according to a study done by Solomon Messing of the Pew Research Center, Maria Jabon of LinkedIn, and Ethan Plaut, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford. The study is called Bias in the Flesh: Skin Complexion and Stereotype Consistency in Political Campaigns.
As pointed out by Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post when speaking on the study, in negative attack ads constructed by the McCain campaign, President Obama’s image was darkened, manipulated for a more dramatic effect. Researchers found that “as the election approached, images of Obama in spots aired by McCain’s campaign became gradually darker. Images of McCain campaign’s own candidate, meanwhile, became somewhat lighter.”
The study’s researchers determined that the darker the images of President Obama, the more it still affects the way people view him. They manipulated his skin tone to measure the stereotypes of subjects tested. They showed them images and asked them to play a fill-in-the-blank game where they were given words like “CR___” and “LA__.” While one subject might write “CROWD,” another might write “CRIME.” And the “LA__” might turn into “LAZY.” So what did they find? According to the Washington Post:
“Those who saw the image of Obama with light skin gave that word or another anti-black stereotype as a response 33 percent of the time. Among those who saw the darkened image, the figure was 45 percent, showing that they were more likely to have those negative stereotypes on their minds after seeing the photograph.”
So, in the same way the darker photographs might make someone think of a negative stereotype of President Obama, the ads likely had a similar effect. Such attempts to appeal to racial biases are quite common in politics.
As pointed out, once again, by the Washington Post, “To hear their opponents tell it, when Republican politicians say they oppose a generous welfare system, they really mean black beneficiaries are lazy. If they endorse strict immigration enforcement, they really mean that Latinos are criminals, critics say.”
This idea of appealing to one group of voters while tearing down another has been debated when speaking on the current political campaign of a one Donald Trump. From the way he speaks of Latinos, Blacks, and Muslims, and seeing his lead in the polls for Republican candidates, it’s clear that the more abrasive, a.k.a., racist the rhetoric at times, the more it appeals to some (a.k.a., racists…). But of course, they call such speech failing to be “politically correct.”
Check out this ad from the 2008 campaign linking President Obama to Bill Ayers and see if you notice a darker POTUS: