According to a survey by Nielsen, African-Americans consume more media content than any other racial group across various media outlets — from television to magazines and newspapers. For instance, blacks reported spending nearly 200 hours a month watching television — 60 hours more than any other ethnic group Nielsen surveyed.
However, despite their engagement, blacks are still largely underrepresented as media employees and owners, according to industry experts.
“Television newsrooms are nearly 80 percent white, according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, while radio newsrooms are 92 percent white,” noted Sally Lehrman, former chairwoman of the diversity committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, in a letter to the Associated Press.
The lack of representation, say some local media experts, reflects in the poor coverage of issues, such as police abuse, that disproportionately affect African-American communities.
“I think that when you look at many of the outlets that are reporting stories in our community, they are mostly outside organizations that don’t have an emotional investment in the community,” said Jeff McCarter, founder and executive director of Free Spirit Media, an organization that works to engage teens and young adults in digital media production.
McCarter said that the lack of emotional investment often translates into the larger media’s emphasis on negative portrayals of places like Austin and North Lawndale, rather than covering those communities’ more positive, or mundane, realities.
“When you are reporting on a community that you don’t live in, it’s easy to just focus on the sensational aspects of it for the sake of creating juicier content,” he said. “But this does a disservice to the community you cover because all it’s doing is creating a limited view of the neighborhood.”
“People who live in communities like West Garfield Park and North Lawndale know that there are bad parts, but there are also a lot of positive and uplifting things going on in the community as well,” McCarter said. “When the negative images are the most prominent ones being created, it perpetrates a negative view of the residents that trickles down to the other media outlets.”
Frank Latin, founder of the Westside Writing Project, a non-profit organization that allows West Side youth to develop their skills in digital media and journalism, says that the need to become more involved with the creation of media is a key component in combating the disparity between the community realities and media’s often sensationalized portrayals of those realities.
“We need to strive to be producers of the content, not just consumers,” said Latin. “Currently, the landscape has changed so much as both the number of outlets for news and entertainment has exploded while access and exposure has become easier. We need to foster the production of media outlets that cater to our issues or they will be lost.”
One issue that Latin hopes the media will explore is the alarmingly high levels of charges made by persons of color against local police regarding officer misconduct.
On March 19, the Westside Writing Project, in collaboration with the Town Hall City Bureau, will hold an informative panel discussion about the creation of the Citizens Police Data Project. The interactive database has collected approximately 28,567 allegations of misconduct filed against Chicago Police officers between March 2011 and September 2015. More than 1,700 of those allegations took place in Austin and virtually all of them were ruled to be unfounded.
“So apparently 98 percent of people in Austin are liars?” said Latin. “I find that hard to believe and without the local media really pushing the police department on this issue and questioning how they were able to so definitively dismiss each of these claims, [the local media] is not really serving its readers, many of whom are people of color.”
The event will be held from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., at the Sankofa Cultural Arts and Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave.
McCarter hopes that events like these force the media to give a greater voice to the underreported issues that affect African-Americans, but that too often go unnoticed by the media.
“It’s about their priorities and we can only change the narrative if we force their hands to do so,” he said.
“We are contributing a lot of time and money into consuming mass media despite the rampant biases and underrepresentation of people of color,” said McCarter. “If we both become greater participants in the production of media to address our issues and force the networks to change their policy of just propagating negative portrayals of minorities, we will start to see the change that we desire.”