NABJ Panel: Portray Black Men, Boys More Accurately
July 12, 2012
NEW ORLEANS—Studies have documented that media coverage of African-American men and boys disproportionately focuses on crime, unemployment and poverty, often depicting them at the extremes as perpetrators or victims. Rarely do the media portray them as part of the everyday fabric of American society, as routine Americans going about daily life.
At the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans in June, such coverage was expertly dissected by three black panelists — Kevin Merida, national editor of The Washington Post and co-author of the biography “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas;” Leonard Pitts Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald; and Mira Lowe, senior editor for features at CNN Digital and former editor-in-chief of Jet magazine.
Moderated by Martin G. Reynolds, senior editor for community engagement for the Bay Area News Group that includes the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, the panel focused on causes and consequences of inaccuracies in the coverage.
During the discussion, sponsored by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, the journalists said the media must shift the way they typically portray African-Americans, particularly men.
“On a day-to-day basis, the most vulnerable and most targeted are not engaged,” Merida said, describing reporters’ lack of desire to penetrate neighborhoods and learn more about the demographic they are covering. “Crime is police-based, authority-driven. . . . No one tries to find out what really happened because that’s too hard.”
Merida, a Maynard reporting program alumnus, was part of a team at The Post that produced “Being a Black Man,” a yearlong series in 2006 that deliberately focused on everyday aspects of black life. It was a rare example of the media going beyond the stereotypes and writing about blacks’ real lives.
During discussions about development of the series, Merida and his colleagues discovered more than 400 studies about black men and boys.
“We’re the most studied subspecies, ever, more than sharks,” Merida told the audience.
The team 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 it is important that reporters not believe the hype and paint an accurate picture of issues such as crime and poverty and “disconnect” them from the definition of black life.
“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 that is not apparent in most media coverage, he said.
The discussion followed a report released in May that said coverage of black men and boys tends to focus on crime, largely depicting them as perpetrators as well as victims, even when the coverage is well-intentioned in concept.
Titled “Opportunity for Black Men and Boys: Public Opinion, Media Depictions, and Media Consumption,” the report was prepared by The Opportunity Agenda, based in New York, and was the subject of a media briefing co-hosted with the Maynard Institute in May.
“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.
Black men and boys were overrepresented, it said, on issues of crime, unemployment and poverty while coverage of their successes was limited to a small group of wealthy entertainers and athletes. Black men are viewed as very troubled or very successful but not as everyday folks who attend school, work, raise families and live normal lives, it said.
Further, even “accurate” and “sympathetic” representations of black men and boys tend to focus on the “problem frame,” associating those 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.
Lowe said that while the mission of black-owned media is to provide balanced portrayals of black life, it is an ongoing education process with majority-owned media.
“It’s what you have to do,” she said. “It’s a responsibility you have to take seriously. Those stories have to get told. News organizations want as many readers, as broad [an audience] as they possibly can . . . That’s our role to help them get it.”
Pitts said poor media portrayals of black men and boys are especially troubling because many black people also buy into the stereotypes.
“We watch the same programs,” he said. “We are absorbing the same things. We’re not just poisoning the external perception of ourselves. We poison the internal perception.”
An “intellectual laziness,” Pitts said, encourages acceptance of incomplete and inaccurate portrayals of black people.
“The first casualty of racism is individuality,” he said. “If I can get by with thinking lazily about African Americans and I can get away with it, why should I exert myself?”
Lowe added, “It has to be a concerted, conscious effort for everyone involved. It has to be expressed that diversity is important and we have to tell these stories. We need to show that what happens to black folks affects everyone else.”
Jackie Jones is a career and fitness coach who runs Jones Coaching in Washington. She spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in newsrooms including The Washington Post, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Philadelphia Daily News, New York Newsday and the Detroit Free Press.
*Stay tuned for video footage of the panel discussion, to be announced once available on our site.
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@brokeymcpoverty You can probably end that sentence at Maury.
Black man is hero. News media, nation seem mystified. It flies in the face of usual distorted media depiction #Ramsey http://t.co/RerQL9WEGG
@SherriEShepherd Childless by choice & always happy 2 help those w/kids before going to my quiet house Thx for keeping the human race going!