The University Record, January 23, 1996

Panel discusses television, print media depiction of minorities

By Matthew Thorburn
News and Information Services

In spite of the tough competition of sharing a time slot with Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale, "Equal Time? The Media and the Movement from King to Farrakhan," a panel discussion by media experts Vernon Jarrett, Joe Stroud and Carmen Harlan, drew a small but enthusiastic crowd. The panel discussed the media's too-often negative portrayal of African Americans.

Jarrett, Scholar-in-Residence at the DuSable Museum of African American History, provided historical context for "stories of race relations in America," presenting a series of slides of how the media has portrayed African Americans throughout history. He stressed the need for young journalists to familiarize themselves with all aspects of American and African American history, urging the audience to "please become very thorough about the history of your country."

Jarrett argued against the idea that racism is natural. "If racism is so innate, so natural to whites, then why would they have to pass laws as early as 1662 to prevent Blacks and whites from marrying?" he asked.

"Racism was created just as much to capture the white mind as to abuse Blacks," he said. "Racism is not automatic; it conforms to economic matters. If you have a white friend who was laid off and jobless, he is not going to be interested in affirmative action."

Carmen Harlan, a 1975 U-M graduate and news anchor at WDIV (Channel 4) in Detroit, discussed the role of television media in creating and reinforcing negative images of African Americans. She explained how viewer surveys, aimed primarily at white suburban viewers, sometimes prevent race from being discussed more openly. She expressed disappointment that channel 4 "back-pedaled on race as an issue, so as not to infuriate white viewers."

"We know what anger is and how dangerous and destructive it can be," she said, "but denial is not the answer either." Harlan also discussed how the rise of women and people of color in television news has helped to widen the dialogue that takes place in many Detroit newsrooms. "We have to learn how to take on the real issues in our communities," she said.

Harlan also addressed the negative portrayal of African Americans in television news crime stories. "Most victims and most of those who commit crimes in Detroit tend to be Blacks," she said. "I noticed some of our writers were identifying young suspects as a `15-year-old man' when the suspect was Black. If they're not black, they're identified as a `15-year-old boy.'

"To project a `15-year-old man' is to confirm the belief in this country that Black males tend to have a very uncivilized nature," Harlan said. "I asked the writers to ask themselves, why did you write it that way?"

Harlan also cited viewers' reactions to the continuous television coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. She stated that many members of the Channel 4 audience called in, saying, "We saw O.J.'s every breath, could we see some of the Million Man March?" Harlan encouraged the audience to take similar steps in demanding fair media coverage of positive African American achievements.

Joe Stroud, editor at the Detr0oit Free Press, discussed some of the changes he has witnessed in race relations during his three decades in journalism, and how civil rights struggles in the late 1950s were the reason he became a journalist. "What I wanted to do was get involved with the issues that I thought were the life and death of our country," he said.

Racism "has been woven into the fabric of our society," he added. He stressed how "whites are also imprisoned by systems of racism," even though many people do not fully understand "the depths of manipulation."

"Our interest in seeing change go forward is not just benevolent, not just because it is right," Stroud said. "We are all imprisoned by the system of racism. Today I see so many things closing up again. [Race relations] is still the most important story in American life."