Friday, April 24, 2009

My Thoughts: Did Media Help To Shape City's Image Of Crime Center?

(c) R2C2H2 Tha Artivist/ Ronald Herd II
Prof Richardson Addresses Black & White In Memphis Media Panel @ 2009
University of Memphis Freedom of Information Congress Meeting (3/24/2009)

By By Todd M. Richardson, Special to The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Sunday, April 5, 2009

As a professor of art history, I usually begin each semester by asking the following question: "Which one of these statements is true? Art and visual culture are representations of reality. Or, art and visual culture are active agents in creating reality."

It is an important question because it gets to a core concept of art history as it is understood today: Images have the power not only to mirror cultural identity, but also to mold and shape that identity.

For example, in a 15th-century European cathedral, altarpieces shaped a viewer's theological beliefs as much as they reflected the church's agenda. In a contemporary movie theater, "Slumdog Millionaire" has already inspired a shift in the world view of Indian society. In both cases, visual culture, which also includes the media, is an active agent in establishing norms -- communal, political, religious, economic -- as much as it is a passive reflection of, or reaction to, them.

Recently, I learned yet another lesson about how this theory of the image has a practical and profound impact on our everyday lives. At the 27th annual Freedom of Information Congress at the University of Memphis, a panel of well-known Memphians -- television news directors and anchors, print journalists and politicians -- addressed questions such as: How do Memphis journalists cover race in their stories? What images, perceptions and stereotypes are portrayed through the news media?

Throughout the discussion I repeatedly heard the belief articulated that the media should serve the community by "representing reality." "The news is a living organism," one television anchor remarked. "It changes and grows and we have to report it as it happens."

The implication was that in reporting, for example, a "breaking" crime story, the media should focus more on reporting content -- "what's actually out there," as one speaker put it -- rather than the race or ethnicity of the perpetrator, victim or witness.

It wasn't until a poignant question posed by the congress' mediator, Joseph Hayden, that I began to realize how risky this understanding of the news actually is. Hayden, an assistant professor of journalism at the U of M, explained that a student had recently completed a study showing that over the last four years the three major local TV stations dedicated, on average, 50 percent of their news coverage to crime in Memphis. Hayden asked the three news directors whether they thought this was a disproportionate amount of coverage and, if not, could they explain the rationale behind their programming decisions.

One director responded bluntly and honestly. "It's what people want to see," he stated. Despite calls for coverage of more positive stories, he said, when Memphians are surveyed about what they want to see in the news, or when what they actually watch is tracked by a rating system, crime is at the top of the list for the majority of viewers. Crime is an ever-present reality in our city; therefore it is a priority for viewers. And if it is a priority for viewers, it is a priority for networks.

This philosophy of news by demand -- not when you want but what you want -- poses a difficult problem for the view that the media's role is to "represent reality." For, in the end, it's like the question about the chicken or the egg: Which comes first, the disproportionate amount of crime coverage or the demand for it? There can be no doubt that when news organizations dedicate half their broadcasts to crime reporting, it creates the "reality" for viewers that crime is a dominant force in the city. If crime is rampant, as the news leads us to believe, it's a no-brainer that viewers, when surveyed, say it is a top priority. When it is a top priority for viewers, networks prioritize crime coverage based on this demand.

This vicious cycle leads, and indeed has led to the perception that, no matter where you are in Memphis, you'd better be looking over your shoulder. More disconcertingly, it insidiously shifts the function of the media from representing reality by reporting "what's out there" to actively creating the reality that 50 percent of the day's newsworthy events were crime related.

Our community's reality is defined, in part, by this process, and it has had consequences. We live in fear. People leave the city, or much-needed businesses never come. Worse still, since the majority of the crime reported is committed by African-American males, people begin to associate those images with all African-American men. The list goes on.

The media matter, and when journalists, news anchors, TV networks or newspapers understand their role simply as a reflection of reality, they sell themselves and their community short. Doing so underestimates the power of images to shape public perception and is an act of irresponsibility.

A well-known quote from Mahatma Gandhi -- "Be the change you want to see in the world" -- leads to some final questions for Memphis' print and broadcast news media: If reality is malleable and it is clear that the media have the power both to represent it and to act as an agent in shaping it, how does this apply to you? What is your role in helping to shape Memphis's identity for the better? As image-makers, will you wield your power as an advocate for the city or as its adversary?

Todd M. Richardson is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Memphis.

The Commercial Appeal publishes "My Thoughts" columns of up to 800 words in Sunday Viewpoint. If you'd like to submit a column that tells a personal story or comments on a news topic, e-mail it to Include the writer's name, home address, daytime/evening telephone numbers and a few sentences of biographical information. For more information call (901) 529-2319.

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