Panel Cites Media Errors in Covering Race-Related Events, Issues

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Author: 
Maynard Institute Staff
June 6, 2012

NEW ORLEANS—Faced with unprecedented competition from 24-hour news channels, instant Internet updates and boisterous chatter on talk radio, the mainstream media have made mistakes when reporting on race-related events and issues.
 
Recently, a panel of esteemed journalists acknowledged shortcomings of media coverage as it relates to people of color and also cited inaccurate images frequently projected by the nation’s entertainment industry. At a conference hosted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Gregory L. Moore, editor of The Denver Post and panel moderator, said the media have made mistakes in covering the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and other issues involving race.

“The Trayvon Martin case is sort of viewed by many as the new O.J. Simpson case,” Moore said. “It exposes the chasm on race in this country and bias in the media, some might argue, especially because of the early focus on Trayvon’s background, his suspension from school for supposedly having an empty baggie with marijuana residue and, of course, the whole hoodie thing. Plus the media got [George] Zimmerman’s race wrong. They tried to make this a black-white thing when really he’s half Hispanic.”

Moore suggested that the mistakes resulted from pressures of the hyper-competitiveness of today’s demanding news cycles.

In response, panelist Roberto Lovato didn’t address whether errors, such as initial reporting that Zimmerman was white, were deliberate. But he maintained that by reinforcing stereotypes, the media contribute to setting a racially-charged environment that can result in violence.

Lovato is co-founder of presente.org, which describes itself as “a national organization that exists to amplify the political voice of Latino communities.”

The media, he said, “is just ill-equipped” to report on many complicated race-related factors in society. “It’s embarrassing to watch the coverage.”

The social justice community has criticized the media and entertainment industry frequently for projecting stereotypes that can create racial tension. Dr. Gail C. Christopher, vice president of program strategy for Kellogg, has called for more responsible media reporting, especially about vulnerable children and people of color. “We want the media to play a major role in helping to heal racial wounds rather than contributing to the divisiveness,” she said. “There is an important role for the media to play.”

At the panel discussion, Adam Stoltman, a noted photographer, editor and entrepreneur based in New York, said he shared disappointment about the media.

“When we talk about media, we can talk about journalism, we can talk about entertainment in all sectors of the media,” he said. “As I listen to the discussion about Trayvon Martin . . . I do share Roberto’s disappointment in our profession, the familiar patterns it’s slipped into.

“But it makes me think a little bit about how conflict is such an underlying part of the way we create media. Where I think we do a bad job as storytellers is in telling stories of actual cooperation, of actual things that do work.”
 
Moreover, Stoltman said the barrage of media from what he termed “hate” radio to music, films, video games and traditional media fills the airwaves so massively that the pace “crowds out our humanity.”

Evelyn Hsu, senior director of programs and operations for the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said the media could improve its coverage by ensuring that reporters, editors and producers in newsrooms represent the community they cover. She said the media should provide platforms for citizens “to tell their stories” and do their own reporting on their communities.

Hsu urged citizens to tally how often their local newspapers quote people of color or report stories related to their communities. She said people must ask, “Am I reflected?” in the story. “If you aren’t,” she added, “bring that message back to the people who produce the news.”

Hsu said it’s frustrating not to see people of color reflected in everyday life. “Where is the black dentist in a story about health?” She noted that a disproportionate number of Latinos use cell phones but that in “a story about blackouts and rising rates, where are the Latinos in these stories? They are not there.”

Still, Hsu acknowledged that the media “is under a lot of pressure” because of technological and economic changes. “There’s been a downsizing,” she said. “So I think that communities can also interact with the media in a positive way, always looking for sources, always . . . [it] can be a struggle to reflect a community, partly because people are under a lot of pressure to produce a lot. So we can help them.”

Calling their stories “terrible news” that must be told, panelist Shirley K. Sneve, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications, said it’s also important for people of color to use the Internet and blogs to tell their own stories. She said Native Americans have high rates of suicide, obesity, violence against women and a high school graduation rate of 60 percent.

“We believe that Native Americans can tell Native American stories the best, and so we spend a lot of time training Native Americans and allowing them to speak and be heard on the Internet,” she said.

Meanwhile, Moore said, people of color sometimes fear the media but have a responsibility to engage with it.

“One of the things that’s really interesting is, I think, for legitimate reasons, people of color are afraid of media,” Moore said. “I understand that. But there’s a responsibility. If you want to help control the narrative, there’s a responsibility to be there, to play and to demand fairness, right?

“When we talk about sort of leveling the playing field, the Internet . . . has just erased all kinds of barriers in terms of getting in the game. So you know, there are a lot of proactive things that we can do, not just talking to newspapers or television stations. And one is to tell our own stories right, to use the blogs and videos and movies and books.
“That’s what most people are pissed off about . . . somebody else wrote our story. So that can be done independently, it can be done cheaply.”

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