By Michael Nam
Despite bright spots in the mainstream media for representing race and gender diversity, like Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, the output of the industry largely still appears white and male. Almost 40 percent of the U.S. identifies as nonwhite and women make up more than half of the population, yet popular media outlets largely remain homogenous. Missing diverse perspectives from the media landscape can have wide-ranging detrimental effects.
Lacking these voices, the ability of the media to serve the public interest is itself compromised. “The news media is not only failing to serve the communities but the country at large when they fail to reflect what’s going on in communities of color,” said the late Dori J. Maynard, former President of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, in a piece for The Atlantic regarding the failure of newsrooms to diversify. The type of coverage that gets chosen by editorial staffs then reinforces stereotypes rather than clarifying the news. This is apparent in the different ways white subjects and Black subjects are portrayed, such as Black victim Michael Brown, who “struggled with police before shooting,” versus white Aurora shooter James Eagan Holmes, remembered as a “brilliant science student.”
These homogenized story choices can in turn affect the diverse communities in terms of how they view authoritative sources like the mainstream media and how they view themselves. In the wake of the Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo., protesters largely expressed a distrust of the larger media outlets, citing biased coverage that often portrayed the demonstrators as violent rioters. Such demonizing, even when not explicitly racist (such as the use of the word “thug” to describe Seattle Seahawks football player Richard Sherman), digs directly at the way groups of people, such as the Black community, get viewed by the nation as a whole, and how they view themselves. A 2012 study showed that self-esteem among white boys increased while that of white girls and Black children in general decreased with consumption of television media. A lack of representative diversity can deeply affect ambitions and aspirations of the underrepresented from an early age.
When communities distrust media institutions, and in turn the media reinforces negative stereotypes of those communities, the problem of a white-male dominated newsroom becomes self-perpetuating. Fewer marginalized applicants seek to enter into media spaces or often leave shortly after penetrating the mostly white male clubs. With a smaller pool to select from, current managers have even less of a chance to diversify their staffs. In essence, the stories most people get to consume to make their own personal decisions about voting, hiring or investing remain comfortable, familiar and largely incomplete.