#MediaImagesMatter: The Power to Change is in Our Hands

by Marcella Gadson on March 6, 2015

The following article is Part 2 of a two-part series.

MediaImagesMatter PanelFor decades – in fact, since the inception of mainstream media as we know it – diverse communities have been portrayed in a negative light, leading to negative perceptions in society and consequent negative treatment by policymakers and law enforcement officials.

Yet, there is hope – thanks to the Internet, communities of color have the power to change the tone of their portrayals in the media.  Pic.tv released the webseries “Los Americans” and “Diary of a Single Mom” just a few years ago, and Issa Rae followed shortly thereafter with “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube.  Today, webseries featuring diverse casts abound, and the mainstream media has now released a slew of new shows that focus on diverse communities and, finally, portray them in a positive light.

At the Broadband and Social Justice Summit panel “#MediaImagesMatter: The Combined Effects of Traditional and New Media in Perpetuating Stereotypes of People of Color,” panelists focused heavily on what we can do as communities to become creators, tell our own stories, and change the way people of color are characterized in the media. 

We Can Change Our Own Narrative: Some Solutions

Thanks to new platforms and unprecedented avenues available today, communities of color have the channels, outlets, and resources to tell their own stories and change mainstream perception.  The crux of the #MediaImagesMatter panel centered on how we can repaint the distorted picture that has been presented by mainstream media, leveraging 21st-century tools.  Panelists focused on three ways to change the picture: training the next generation of leaders and creators; unifying our voices while being consistent; and leveraging new platforms that do not fit the old model.

Training the Next Generation of Content Creators

One of the greatest benefits of broadband and other technology when it comes to content creation and media ownership is that anyone can become a creator or start a business. Platforms like YouTube and Twitter allow anyone with a video camera – or even a cell phone – to post their own content, opinions, ideas, and stories online and promote them to billions of people – a phenomenon that was literally unheard of just a decade ago.

How is this possible, and how exactly can we take advantage of this phenomenon?

The Internet provides greater opportunities in creating our own content and telling our own stories because the barriers to entry are lower than in traditional media, said Close the Divide Project Founder and Maximum Leverage Solutions President and CEO Navarrow Wright.

“The opportunity is that creative millennials can start right now without any of those barriers,” he said. “They can take out their phone and record themselves being creative.  Those kids are YouTube stars right now – out of their apartment or out of their room – and their numbers are bigger than the BET Awards or any black show in its heyday.”

In spite of these opportunities, many communities of color miss out on lending their voices to policy issues that will shape how their youth can interact online, such the E-Rate program, which brings broadband to low-income schools and communities.  As a result, young people of color are already missing out on realizing their potential.

Wright added a stern warning: “In this space, there’s pivotal discussions about how people get connected to the Internet in the future that I don’t think enough of us are involved in.  If you don’t pay attention to that and change that discussion, our whole new demographic of millennials who could take their phone and give commentary of their own to the Internet generation won’t have those opportunities.”

MSNBC Anchor Richard Lui agreed, adding both positive and negative notes.

“It’s been especially important to the Asian-American community, and when you look at top YouTube stars, two-tenths of them are Asian American. But does that translate to mass media? Not yet. They’ve tried to make some moves, and it hasn’t worked so well,” Lui said.  “Media images are insipid.  They creep.  They’re subliminal. That’s the negative side. But they’re also inspirational. They’re idea-generating. That’s the way it starts.”

And it’s true.  The recent success of multicultural-targeted television shows has led to an onslaught of new content available on broadcast television, from “Black-Ish” and “Jane the Virgin” to “Fresh Off the Boat.”  And while some of the new shows have faced criticism for their inherently controversial nature, they’ve opened new doors to a dialogue on the previously marginalized groups that merely existed in the background of the nation’s media landscape for decades.

Unifying Our Voices – Celebrating Similarities and Differences While Staying True to Ourselves

Lui expressed concern that we are not unified, and rather than focus on our differences, we need to celebrate our similarities.  He recounted the story of Grace Lee Boggs, an Asian-American woman who married an African-American member of the Black Power Movement, James Boggs, and became an integral part of the movement in the Midwest.

“The interesting element was that she’s different, but I think when we get into the difference we figure out we’re really all the same,” he said. “For Latino and Asian Americans, I term this word called Latinasians because three-quarters of eligible voters are born abroad.  Why focus on different, why not focus on same?”

Politic365 Co-Founder and Editor Kristal High, who moderated the panel, agreed.  “The more we’re able to tell our stories that resonate cross-culturally, the better chance we have of broader acceptance, like reducing some of the stereotypes,” she said.

Roland Martin disagreed slightly, stating that it is important to be true to one’s self and culture when creating media.   “You bring something to the table, and you need the courage to have your conviction.  I can’t change me because that’s all I can be. Your presence, your background, your history, adds flavor and context that changes how somebody views a particular group.  That particular difference becomes same, and it becomes a part of the overall content.”

Participant Media TAG Division Senior Vice President Karla Ballard agreed that it is important for communities to come together to ensure they get quality content, but she also outlined the importance of collaborating with existing media executives.  “We have to understand that decisions are made on an executive level and also with those who have access to the program heads and leads. How do you then begin to make that connection between someone who does have the content to get in front of the camera and those who have the ability to acquire it?” Ballard asked.  “We need to find the bridge.”

Wright pointed out that even when there is content, it will not succeed if the communities it targets don’t support it, or if they protest the cancellation of good content after the fact.  “Tavis Smiley’s show was the lowest rated show on BET – and that’s nothing against Tavis because he had good content – but people didn’t support it until after it was canceled,” he said.  “We’ve been trendsetters, but we don’t leverage those things to our own benefit. We don’t leverage them in terms of support of those endeavors, but we’re the first to complain when something is perceived that we should complain about.”

Wright also pointed out the responsibility of communities of color to use social media to fight back against misinformation in the media, such as the incident where a Baltimore news station edited African-American protestors’ chants to say, “Kill a cop!”  But the damage had already been done, simultaneously muting the protestors’ message and propagating the stereotype that African Americans cannot demonstrate peacefully.

“On social media, we see people giving wrong information on a regular basis, but we don’t stand up and counteract it,” Wright said.  “It’s the old analogy that the whiniest kid gets the most attention. So there’s a lot of people who whine and give misinformation, and we don’t clear up the perception that we’re all talking about.”

New Platforms Create New Opportunity

Thankfully, broadband affords us new platforms through which we can create our own news, collectively lamenting our communities’ tragedies and sharing in our successes through avenues like #BlackTwitter and YouTube.

Roland Martin touted recent successes in online content creation using social media as a stepping stone toward traditional success. “Look at social media, what Issa Rae and other folks are doing – taking shows [online] and moving them to traditional media.  And social media helps because we can market the content ourselves through Black Twitter, through Facebook, and we don’t have to do the traditional campaign of billboards and buses. That’s how the game is being changed. We’re speaking with our dollars, and we just need more content to come into the pipeline to be spread across multiple platforms.”

And networks are listening.

“Don’t be shocked now we see ‘Empire’ on Fox,” said Martin.  The Oprah Winfrey Network found success after it started airing black-targeted shows, and “coincidentally, now Lifetime has all these shows targeting black folks.  Now you see Lifetime and WE tv at the Essence Music Festival,” he said.

In short, the broadcasters are there because the demand is there – diverse communities have shown that they are thirsty for the content featuring their own faces.  “Empire” is the first television show in history to see consistently improving ratings in every episode since its premiere just eight weeks ago.  Now, broadcast seems to be enjoying a snowball effect of diverse shows tackling controversial issues – just last night, ABC premiered another drama, “American Crime,” which follows the participants in a trial with significant racial motives.

“Awkward Black Girl” Creator Issa Rae has pointed out in a Huffington Post interview that money has been the key driver behind mainstream media outlets’ decision to finally air diverse content, and Roland Martin is certain the same thing will soon happen in news media.  Unfortunately, when it comes to news outlets, getting the biggest scoop first – regardless of the validity of the source – seems to be ever-more important in the digital age, and the old adage “if it bleeds, it leads” seems to still ring true.

All this means is that it is more vital than ever for people of color to become content creators and media owners, so these communities can start telling their own stories.

The Power is in Our Hands

Wright connected the power of creating our own stories with the power to become entrepreneurs and elevate our communities for success using the opportunities the Internet affords us in the digital age.

“What’s the perception that we’re portraying on this new digital landscape, and what responsibility are we taking not only to change that perception, but to support the entities here that can grow up and scale?” he asked.  “The beauty of the Internet is that it’s different from television and radio, that no one’s stopping anyone here from creating a million dollar business. Nobody.”

When asked about the work communities of color have yet to do to subvert negative images, Asian Americans Advancing Justice |AAJC Staff Attorney Prerna Lal Schubiner provided a cautiously optimistic response.

“I don’t think it happens overnight,” she said.  “It’s a process, and part of that process takes being able to tell our own stories by the use of innovative tools like social media, getting online and writing about our experiences.  It requires using the little resources we have available as marginalized populations, especially in harnessing those resources and being able to create our own media.”

  • Marcella Gadson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC).
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