Whose stories get told? Why media diversity matters
At the first pair of Democratic debates held last month in Miami, the unprecedented diversity of the field of candidates was evidence that we’re living through great change in our national political conversation.
But equally notable was the diversity of MSNBC’s all-star team of moderators — a panel whose five members included two women and representation from the black, Latino and LGBT communities. It’s telling that the central storylines to come out of the debates revolved around issues — from school integration to representative hiring in local police departments — that are central to the lived experience of communities of color yet rarely break through in mainstream national media.
In that respect, the debates were a living example of a fundamental truth of our civics: that the political narrative of our country is shaped not just by the answers of those standing on stage, but also by the perspectives of those asking the questions.
Media diversity remains one of the most consequential — yet still too often ignored — factors shaping how Americans of all colors and backgrounds view themselves and each other. For all the progress made in recent years on some networks to broaden the perspectives of stories and storytellers, studies show that bias in media portrayals continues to perpetuate negative attitudes towards minority communities and fuel our country’s simmering divisions.
This recognition of the critical importance of media diversity is not new. Fifty years ago, the Kerner Commission appointed by President Johnson concluded that, in part, a lack of diversity in media was contributing to the racial tensions exploding into riots in cities across the country. “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” concluded the blue-ribbon panel of civic leaders. “The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance are seldom conveyed.”
There’s no question that America’s newsrooms are light-years more diverse than they were when those words were written a half-century ago. But for all this progress, there are still too many media gatekeepers who clearly don’t get it. For example, a number of news organizations are still not attuned to the need to have journalists of color cover the 2020 campaign. Imagine being responsible for shaping coverage for the presidential campaign and not understanding how fundamental to the debate issues of racism, identity and justice are going to be — and not understanding that journalists who live these issues are uniquely prepared to cover them well.
This month, the Multicultural Media Correspondents’ Association hosted our 4th annual awards dinner, along with our inaugural Media Diversity Innovation Summit on Capitol Hill. On the eve of one of the most consequential presidential elections in generations, the summit offered an opportunity to examine the progress that’s been made to expand the diversity of perspectives and voices in the American media landscape, while unflinchingly confronting the significant gap that still needs to be closed. Progress doesn’t just “happen”; it takes tireless work by activists committed to forcing change.
In this respect, the struggle for better representation in journalism mirrors the parallel effort in other corners of the media industry. In Hollywood, too, there are signs of progress: from the Oscars success of “Moonlight” to the box office juggernaut of “Black Panther” to Jordan Peele’s back-to-back critical and commercial home runs “Get Out” and “Us,” films by about people of color have taken center stage recently. At the same time, Universal, Paramount, Warner Brothers and other studios have accepted the #4PercentChallenge, committing publicly to producing more films helmed by female directors (and in particular, women of color).
But these steps forward didn’t just happen; they come on the heels of the #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp movements, and the efforts of activists to force the doors open for more black and brown creators.
In short, when it comes to the American media landscape, no one should be under any illusion that the trend toward greater diversity, representation and equality will simply continue on its own. Media organizations that have taken the lead to expand opportunities will need to stay the course; those that continue to lag behind must be pressured to change. The stories we see in the news always will be shaped by those asking the questions — and some questions are too important to be ignored any longer.
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