What Moves You - Images of Voice and Hope Summit: Mind Full Media 2012

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November 12, 2012

By Dori J. Maynard

At the Image of Voice and Hope World Media Summit—Mind Full Media 2012—I was invited to be part of the panel “What Moves You” and asked to talk about the mythology the media is creating around communities of color.

Here is the presentation I delivered September 28, 2012:

Last summer, the CBS affiliate in Chicago ran a story that took a 4-year-old African-American boy’s comments about a gun out of context, making it look as if he aspired to a life of crime. In reality, he hopes to be a crime fighter.

That is just one example of a major myth that the media has created around communities of color—the criminalization of boys and men of color.

You may argue that this is a particularly egregious example. Maybe. But I can tell you that content audit after content audit across platforms shows that African Americans are found primarily in stories about crime, sports and entertainment.

The link between blacks and crime is so pervasive that it is almost reflexive for some journalists. When I looked at a particular photograph, I saw an anonymous black man walking down a flooded street toward a bicycle. An editor at Yahoo News saw an example of crime in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Maybe African Americans have it lucky because at least we’re visible. Latinos are found in episodic coverage of immigration. Apparently there are no native born Latinos. And, Asian Americans and Native Americans appear not to contribute at all to the daily fabric of our lives. 

Those media images that constantly tell the world that we as people of color are less than, influence every aspect of our lives—from the over incarceration of black and brown boys, to the under education of black and brown children.

That cuts across class, as was demonstrated when my colleague, journalist and Medill University journalism professor Ava Thompson Greenwell helplessly watched in horror as her 13-year-old son was dragged from his home in handcuffs and put in the back of a police car because he matched the description of someone seen burglarizing a neighbor’s home. He was a black male in cargo shorts.

Those media messages even influence how we are treated in the hospital.

One study on unconscious bias shows that Latino and African American patients receive lower doses of painkiller than do white patients with the same affliction. That was so alarming to me that I took my white colleague with me when I met with a surgeon to discuss potential jaw surgery. I wanted the surgeon to see me as more “normal”.

It means that long before Trayvon Martin was shot, I was constantly warning my 32-year-old brother to be careful as he walks through this world. And it means that every time I get discouraged, frustrated or just plain tired, I think of my younger brothers and realize I have to keep going because none of this will change until we change the media narrative.

Until we replace that distorted depiction of people of color that permeates our entire society, Johnny with a criminal record will still get a job before Jamal with a clean record.

We know what works, but it is harder to be heard as the media shifts to a more comfortable conversation about the new tools, and away from the difficult discussion about the old stories we’re still telling with those new tools. Though that doesn’t stop us.

It just means we work harder. It means we appear on panels like this one organized by Images and Voices of Hope. It means we work to find the funding for our leadership training programs that train journalists to be digitally savvy and to lead multicultural multimedia workshops.

It means we celebrate our Maynard Institute grads—like Kevin Merida who is now the national editor of The Washington Post; Carolina Garcia, the editor of the Los Angeles Daily News and the only Latina to edit a major metropolitan newspaper; Doris Truong, multiplatform editor on the Universal News Desk also at The Washington Post, and Kevin Abourezk, who brings the reality of Native American life to the readers of the Lincoln Journal Star.

It means we talk about the Maynard Institute’s Fault Lines Framework, our program that looks at diversity through the prism of race, class, gender, generation and geography and teaches journalists both how to diversify their coverage so it reflects reality, but also how to talk about charged issues in constructive ways.

It means that the weekend after the death of Trayvon Martin hit the news, and everyone was putting up pictures of themselves in hoodies, I spent a day teaching myself Pinterest and creating a board that I hoped would reflect the true face of black men. A friend later turned it into a tumblr. But people of color can’t do it alone. And quite frankly we shouldn’t because it’s not only our problem.

The misinformation you receive is influencing every life in this room. From the public policies you live with to where you opt to live, or sit.
This is a true story. I was flying Southwest and the plane was purported to be booked solid. I had C seat assignment, which meant I was the second to the last group getting on the plane. Walking toward the back, I took an aisle seat next to an empty middle seat with a black man in the window seat. As the flight attendants continually reminded us this was a full flight, I watched people file by, glancing at the empty seat and keep it moving until finally the flight attendant announced that the cabin doors had been closed. At that point, I turned to the man in the window seat and said “It worked.” His reply, “My wife and I do this all the time.”

More seriously, every day that we debate who gets what in these times of scarcity, the distorted depiction of people of color plays a central, though often unspoken role.

A content audit by The New York-based nonprofit The Opportunity Agenda found that the media face of poverty is now a black male. The reality is that white mothers are more often the victims of poverty.
So while we think we have a picture in the back of our minds about who is going to be affected, the fact is the media image and the reality may be completely different.

This inaccurate depiction is having real world consequences for all of us. Or as my late father said in his last pubic address, “This country cannot be the country we want it to be if our story is told by only one group of citizens. Our goal is to give all Americans front-door access to the truth.”

That should be a shared goal for all of us. 

I come from a legacy of journalists on both sides of the family. My maternal grandfather was the editor of the New York Post. My father was the former owner and publisher of the Oakland Tribune. I was raised to believe that journalism is a public trust. That we have an obligation to our fellow citizens to give them the information they need to make rational decisions about their personal lives and public policy.

I do this work because I believe passionately in those values.

If we as journalists want to practice those values, we have to end this distorted coverage of people of color.

But we can’t do that alone.

We need your help. You have the power and influence through your work to make sure that people of color are seen in full. If you’re in the news media, this isn’t rocket science; cut down on the crime briefs and beef up the everyday coverage. People of color take their children to the first day of school; we buy Christmas presents, we celebrate Valentine’s Day, we buy gas for our cars and we create art. We live outside of the crime blotter. You can show that.

People in social media can help connect us with people and ideas that are different from our own. People in advertising can make sure that the images used to sell products reflect the reality of our country and not our fears.

There are things every one of us in this room can do.

We can’t do it alone, but together we will have the influence to change the narrative, and help this country live up to its ideals.

Together we have the influence and power to turn my father’s vision into reality so that when you hear a 4-year-old boy say he wants a gun, you think the best rather than fearing the worst. 



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