The third article in a series.
Temple students and professors of African origin say there is tension among black Americans, African immigrants and other Africans of the Diaspora.
While there is debate as to how much “lack of exposure” and “ignorance of other cultures” contributes to the conflict, there is a consensus among those active students and professors that the news media plays a definite role in abetting the ethnic animosity.
On Jan. 26, Temple’s Progressive NAACP held a panel discussion that discussed ways that people of African descent can unite in spite of cultural differences. However, at one point, the panel’s focus drifted off to analyze the causes of black people being divided.
Students overwhelmingly agreed that the media fuels racial conflict by painting black people in a negative fashion, whether it’s in the United States, Africa or the Caribbean.
“I feel like it’s us as individual people that need to shake down these stereotypes,” Richard Street Jr. said, “because the media is not going to do it.”
Street, a senior criminal justice major and active student leader on campus, recalled his days in grade school when he would look at National Geographic magazine and would see black Africans “living in villages.” That could only have the effect of Americans “looking down” on Africans, he said. “I didn’t even know there were African princes.”
National Geographic’s vice president of communications, M.J. Jacobsen, said Street’s statements give a false and misleading impression of the magazine:
“National Geographic’s reporting is checked for accuracy by experts both on our staff and outside the Society. We’ve certainly reported on all aspects of Africa over the years, including modern urban areas and have no reason or desire to misrepresent the continent,” Jacobsen said in an e-mail to The Temple News. “It might be pointed out that our September 2005 issue was devoted entirely to Africa and, in particular, dispelling stereotypes about it. As the cover said, ‘Africa: Whatever you thought, think again.'”
Other panelists at the NAACP-hosted event reinforced Street’s statements. Panelist Melissa Theodore, who is director of marketing and promotion for the Haitian Student Organization, said “the perception of Haiti in the media” is a reprehensible and unfair view of the Caribbean republic.
HSO Vice President Jerry Petit-Frere, also a panelist, briefly talked with The Temple News about the mainstream news’ coverage of people of color.
“The media will always portray black people in a negative light,” said Petit-Frere, a senior finance major. “They’ll never show you black doctors. They’ll never show you successful black people.”
Research appears to substantiate the generalities of the allegations. A study released in 2001 by the Berkeley Media Studies Group said the media unfairly overreported crime in the 1990s despite crime declining during that decade.
“Nationally, crime dropped by 20 percent from 1990 to 1998 while network TV showed an 83 percent increase in crime news,” the report said. “While homicide coverage was increasing on network news – 473 percent increase from 1990 to 1998 – homicides were down 32.9 percent from 1990 to 1998.”
The Berkeley report, titled “Off Balance: Youth, Race & Crime in the News,” concluded that the media overrepresents black people as criminals and underrepresents them as victims.
Nearly three-quarters of the public “say they form their opinions about crime from what they see or read in the news,” according to the report.
Carl Lavin, the deputy managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said his paper looks to give an accurate reflection of the greater Philadelphia area, but he acknowledged that “different readers will see things differently.” Still, “Our readers have a very thorough understanding of how life is lived in our region,” he said.
The methods the media used to report stories, in addition to the media’s news judgment, created “a perfect recipe for a misinformed public,” the report said.
Dr. Wilbert L. Jenkins, an associate professor of history at Temple, said the way the media portrays black people contributes to the animosity between black Americans and African immigrants.
“We’ve been fed negative things of Africans from outside the continental United States, and they have been fed negative things about us,” Jenkins said. “The whole program is to turn everybody against each other.”
Christian Dunbar, a senior student and Liberian immigrant, said U.S. media does not fairly represent Africa in its coverage.
“In American media, you don’t see many positive images of Africa,” Dunbar said. “I’ve been here 15 years, and I’ve yet to see the Africa I left in any kind of mainstream American media.”
National Geographic called the allegations false and said its long history of covering Africa reflects an accurate and balanced account of the continent.
Lavin, the Inquirer’s deputy managing editor, said the students’ and professor Jenkins’ allegations don’t apply to the Inquirer and that they are typically assertions regarding television outlets.
The Inquirer “does a better job balancing things” than broadcast media, he said in a telephone interview. “TV is wonderful, but we give people more.”
NBC 10 publicist Eva Blackwell, in a brief comment, said NBC 10 does not portray black people in a negative fashion. Requests to television media outlets for a more elaborate response to the allegations and the report’s findings were not returned before publication.
Lavin said the Inquirer goes to great lengths to ensure it publishes factually correct and balanced articles.
“We are accurately trying to portray life in our region,” he said. “We examine every aspect of the human endeavor; we carefully weigh relative news value.”
Asked why the Inquirer decided to explore the social implications of the beating of the 13-year-old Liberian immigrant in Southwest Philadelphia last year rather than report it as the standard-fare crime story, Lavin replied, “We want people to recognize things they might not have thought about before.”
Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.