The Lack of African Americans in Newspaper and Television Management, and the Affect This Has On Racial Stereotypes
By Horace Miskel
For some people in American society, the only glimpse of another race’s culture comes from the images portrayed through mass media. Although America views itself as a melting pot of various races, colors and creeds, many Americans are still limited in their exposure. Limited exposure and learned ignorance combined with negative images seen in various genres of mass media can sometimes lead to negative stereotyping of an entire race of people.
Since the infancy of newspaper and television, African American representation has been scarce if not non-existent. Early representation of Black culture in television and film were limited to the demeaning depiction of all African Americans as submissive, unintelligent and docile.
Many African American actors were limited to domestic roles or as brute savages and other negative images that adhered to the stereotypes of Blacks at that particular time in history. African Americans were noticeably absent from daily news shows and newspapers, and were only shown if they were acting criminally.
Many attribute the negative stereotypes of Blacks, to the lack of African Americans in media management positions and pre-existing stereotypes held by those in the majority. Famed actress Daphne Maxwell-Reid stated, “Broadcasters like CNN in their early years often portrayed welfare recipients as being solely Black, creating or reinforcing the stereotype that all or most African Americans were on welfare.” To combat these racial stereotypes, Reid started New Millennium Studios in an effort to create positive portrayals of African Americans.
Reid added, “Images for us are very important because they shape people’s minds. We have to take control of making our own images … Shape them the way you want to shape them.”
The Discovery Channel conducted an experiment with children consisting of two identical pictures. In one photograph, two Whites were standing on stairs, one above the other. On the other photograph was the same scenario, however in this instance, a Black child was standing higher on the stairs than his White counterpart was.
The children surveyed said the White child looked like he was helping the other child up the stairs, but the Black child was pushing the White child down the stairs. In this experiment, parents of the children surveyed were unaware of how their child learned such a stereotype.
In data compiled from Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki’s book, The Black Image in the White Mind, African Americans were four times more likely than Whites to have their mug shot shown on the news. Blacks were twice as likely as Whites to be shown being physically restrained by the police in a local television report. Moreover, African Americans were twice as likely to have their name shown than Whites were.
This alarming statistic stems from the lack of Blacks in media management positions and the fact that African Americans own only 2.8 percent of broadcast stations.
Despite the negative images of African Americans in the media, Black entrepreneurs began presenting positive images of Black culture.
John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Company, created Ebony magazine in1945 in an effort to highlight positive role models in the Black community. He later created Jet magazine in1951 to capture news in the Black community that mainstream media often ignored. After his death in 2005, a Jet writer said, “He used their pages to educate and enlighten readers of life’s possibilities, inspiring them to reach far beyond their immediate grasp.”
Some readers of Jet and Ebony said they began believing their dreams could come true by reading stories of successful African Americans, even though they saw negative images of their culture on a daily basis. By focusing on positive portrayals of the Black community, Johnson was not only able to change the stereotypes that others races had of African Americans, but he also changed the way that Blacks viewed themselves.
Black-owned newspapers have also had a major impact on destroying racial stereotypes. During the 1940s, Black newspaper editors along with the NAACP led the charge for African Americans to become fighter pilots in World War II.
At the time of the war, bigots viewed Blacks as not intelligent enough to fly dangerous missions in a war. However, because of the constant pressure of the Black Press, the Tuskegee Airmen formed and subsequently proved extremely valiant in combat duty. The Black Press often covered stories of their successful missions in their newspapers (Franklin).
Recently, Dean Baquet became the new Executive Vice President of The Los Angeles Times, making him the 16th top editor out of approximately 1,500 daily newspapers.
During the 1980s, television began portraying positive images of African Americans with the arrival of the successful sitcom “The Cosby Show.” Bill Cosby developed a series that showed educated Black parents raising a middle class family in New York.
A decade earlier, Norman Lear developed a family show entitled “Good Times” that depicted African Americans struggling to make end meets while avoiding the danger that comes with living in a housing project.
Although very successful from a ratings standpoint, the show endured criticism for the buffoonery of Jimmie Walker’s character and the fact that it depicted all African Americans as poverty-stricken. The shows White creator received criticism from some of his Black writers because he was essentially telling them how to portray Black family life.
Nevertheless, because of the success of Cosby and other positive Black shows the image of African Americans on television has changed drastically. Now over 70% of Black characters on television have professional or management jobs.
Although African Americans have made many strides in the media field, much work remains undone. One only needs to open a local newspaper to see African Americans in trouble with the law.
However, when an African American gives back to the community, mainstream media often ignores their contributions. These negative stories in media do much to perpetuate the myth of African Americans as criminals.
Nevertheless, as time passes and it becomes easier to break down barriers in the field of media management, the image of African Americans should definitely change for the better.