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Stereotypes Can Affect Memory

January 23, 2003  | 

Memory of crime stories associated with suspects' pictures reflects racial stereotypes, according to recent research by a Penn State media studies expert.

African-Americans are especially likely to be mistakenly identified as perpetrators of violent crimes, she found.

"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."

In their study, Oliver and researcher Dana Fonash asked a sample of White participants to examine a series of brief newspaper acocunts 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 the participants to identify the pictures of those who had been highlighted in the news stories.

"Our findings support the notion that stereotypes of Black men as violent criminals are reflected in what people recall from news reports," Oliver says.

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