Time to Change Our Images

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  • It is time for a radical change in the way African Americans, particularly black men, are portrayed in the news media, three journalists told an audience of their peers.

    “This is an entrepreneurial time and we’ve gotta find the storytellers and the people out in the community because I don’t think our newsrooms are going to be able to do it anymore. We’ve got to find a way to connect them,” said Kevin Merida, national editor at The Washington Post and co-author of “Supreme Discomfort,” a biography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

    Merida joined Mira Lowe, senior editor for features at CNN Digital and former editor-in-chief of Jet magazine, and Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald at The Depiction of Black Males panel last week at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans, sponsored by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE).

    The panel, moderated by Martin G. Reynolds, senior editor for community engagement for the Bay Area News Group, which includes the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, discussed the causes and consequences of inaccuracies in the coverage of black males.

    Studies have repeatedly shown for years that coverage of black men and boys tends to focus on crime, largely depicting them as perpetrators, as well as victims.

    The Opportunity Agenda and The Maynard Institute hosted a media briefing in May on the Opportunity Agenda’s report: Opportunity for Black Men and Boys: Public Opinion, Media Depictions, and Media Consumption.

    “Among the many factors that influence the opportunities and achievements of black men and boys are public perceptions and attitudes toward them as a group, and their own self-perceptions as well,” the report said.

    “Research and experience show that expectations and biases on the part of potential employers, teachers, health care providers, police officers, and other stakeholders influence the life outcomes of millions of black males, just as their own self-esteem, identity, and sense of empowerment affect their ability to achieve under difficult circumstances.”

    The report said that black males were overrepresented on issues of crime, unemployment and poverty. Conversely, positive images associated with black men are limited to a small, stereotypical portrayal of athletes and entertainers. Black men are viewed as either very troubled or very successful, but not as normal, everyday folks, going to school, working, raising families, living normal working- or middle-class lives.

    Further, scholars cited in the report concluded that even “accurate” and “sympathetic” representations of black males tend to focus on the “problem frame,” associating black men who don’t fit the stereotype with challenges affecting their ability to succeed. When they succeed it is in spite of, not because of being black.

    “We really need to as reporters be about nudging our various newsrooms to disconnect poverty and black. …poverty is in this country is white and female as much as it is anything else,” but you can’t tell by the preponderance of news media coverage, Pitts said.

    Lowe, who has worked for both mainstream and black media, said there is a distinct difference in coverage between the formats.

    “When you work for black media you know the audience,” Lowe said. “Positive stories are real life. Not an effort to slant” the news to only cover the positive, a frequent accusation made against ethnic media.

    With majority-owned media,“…the fact that we have to explain our existence is real because not everybody is as familiar with how we live…it’s a matter of education that you have to do in some areas of the mainstream media.”

    Merida was part of a team at The Post which prepared a series about black men that deliberately focused on the everyday aspects of black life.

    The editors and reporters in the project wanted to do more than a series “in which (black males) would be bit players in their own movie,” Merida said. “We didn’t want reports and statistics…We settled on a structure of a narrative series in which black men would be the center of the stories.”

    Pitts said one of the major downsides of poor media portrayals of black males is that many black people buy into the stereotypes as well.
    “We watch the same programs. We are absorbing the same things,” Pitts said. “We’re not just poisoning the external perception of ourselves; we poison the internal perception.”

    It becomes all too easy, Pitts said, for the public, across the board, to just indulge “intellectual laziness” and accept the images projected by the media about black people.

    “The first casualty of racism is individuality,” he continued. “If I can get by with thinking lazily about African Americans and I can get away with it why should I exert myself?”

    Merida pointed out that crime coverage, for example, is authority-driven – based heavily on law enforcement sources – and that it appears “no one tries to find out what really happened because that’s too hard.”

    One solution, Lowe said, is to show readers and viewers that black people are not so far removed from the rest of society.

    “We need to show how what happens to black folks affects everyone else.”

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