Media portrayals have the potential to both shape and reflect societal attitudes. Last week the Nashville chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) lead a forum entitled Conversations About Color: How Media Can Shape Perceptions on Civil Injustice, Crime and Punishment on April 7 at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. The event was free and open to the public.
The dynamic panel included members Dr. Sybril Bennett and Dwight Lewis as well as Dr. Frank Dobson Jr. Member Harriet Vaughan-Wallace moderated the event.
The forum began with media coverage immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Vaughan-Wallace challenged the audience to study the different language and story angles used when it came to people of color. Panelists analyzed aspects of media depictions of Katrina, focusing on the relationship between race and coverage of the crisis. They examined the media language use and explored the debate surrounding the terms “refugees” and “evacuees”— as well as descriptions of “looting” versus “finding food”—in light of the pre-dominantly Black demographic of the survivors in New Orleans. Assessment of the story angle indicates a disproportionate media tendency to associate Blacks with crime and violence, a tendency consistent with exaggerated and inaccurate reports regarding criminal activity in Katrina’s aftermath.
Fast forward 10 years ahead and we see the same kind of inconsistent media coverage when it comes to the Michael Brown/Ferguson ordeal, which was also discussed at the forum.
There was a buildup of anger surrounding the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement officers around the country. The way in which Brown was killed by a white police officer in a town where the majority of residents are black and the images of the killing – Brown was shot six times in broad daylight and his body was photographed lying in the street for almost four hours – also added to the anger.
Everyone watching the news could see that was wrong.
But as more details came out about the events leading up to Brown’s death the focus shifted. Now people were forced to see Brown as a “criminal” who committed a strong arm robbery shortly before being “caught” and killed by an officer.
That simply detracted focus away from the real issue of the case…which was that Michael Brown was still lying in the street while the media was attempting to defame him!
So how can the media fix this? Diversification is one solution according to Lewis.
“We have to make sure we have diversity in our newsrooms,” said Lewis, “put them in decision making positions.”
Dr. Bennett believes it’s the duty of the reporters and those in front of the camera.
“As a journalists, (they) should have that awareness and dignity,” said Dr. Bennett.
Whatever the solution, America needs it…and fast. Black people should be angry about how the media portrays us. We need to look at not only what’s happening in Ferguson, but also what’s happening in Washington with our laws, with our policy, with the way that we police our streets and communities across the nation.