Pitt Summit: From perceptions to reality

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Distortion through media images is not a new phenomenon nor is it going to disappear. It has been a part of our collective culture as long as baseball and apple pie and, until recently, unchallenged.

More than a century later in the report of a Heinz Endowment-funded media audit released Nov. 1, analysis suggests that Pittsburgh’s mainstream media contribute to a consistent pattern of what a background paper from the Dellums Commission calls “systematic omissions.”

“Negative stereotyping is a core component of media images of young men of color,” the commission said, and “the media contribute to the denial component of racial sentiments mostly by what they usually omit.”

Combine what’s missing with what’s present in local media coverage and its association of Black men with crime and you get confirming examples of the studies on negative frames of reference.

“In my opinion, the young Black males that appear before me in court are greatly impacted by the negative images that they see on television on a daily basis,” said Juvenile Court Judge Dwayne Woodruff, one of the few Black judges on the bench in Allegheny County. “I am fully aware that these youth are at a highly impressionable stage in their development and if they are fed a diet rich in negative images of themselves, they will grow to emulate those negative behaviors.”

A key strategy to combat those perceptions is to increase public recognition of the deficit framing used to discuss the successes and challenges facing Black men and boys, resulting in community action to eliminate that framing and to increase positive images of African-American males in the public sphere.

“I believe there is a great appetite for the positive, “reality” stories of African-Americans and I do not buy into the theory that only bad news sells,” said Woodruff. “I also believe that the media can have a far reaching impact on not only Black males but the community as a whole if it chose to expose the reality of Black life, which is definitely not as negative as the media portrays.”

The game plan is changing—from the defense to the offense.

In 2007, the Heinz Endowment established an African American Men and Boys Task Force to identify and increase the educational, economic, social and leadership opportunities for African-American males in the Pittsburgh region. This mission uses an asset-based approach in working with the African-American community to create improved life outcomes for this population.

As the Heinz Endowment began its work others were also of the same mind. Some of those people included members of the Black Political Empowerment Project, which wanted to find ways to partner with media in finding solutions and for the media to partner with the community for implementation of strategies for decreasing violence in the community.

In April, B-PEP convened a media summit hosted by local NBC-affiliate WPXI-TV to explore ways the Black community may engage news executives to provide a balance in the reporting some believe contribute to escalating violence and a conspiracy of silence towards police cooperation in reducing the frequency of Black on Black crime. That dialogue is ongoing.

Recently a group of Black photographers launched a partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, an online photography blog aimed at providing more positive, fuller images of African-American life in Pittsburgh. “Feel Like Going On” (http://com­mu­nity­voices.sites.post-gaz­ette.com/index.php/opinion/feel-like-going-on) is a collection of Black photographers showcasing the positive and uplifting side of Black life and times in  the Pittsburgh and surrounding area. It is rooted in a community project that began six years ago to willfully counter some of the all-too-often negative portrayals of African-American people in the local mainstream media. The project was inspired by the work of Charles “Teenie” Harris, whose work is on view in a major retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art through April 2012.

“We are working to create new programs or fund existing organizations that are about providing African-American boys and young men with the capability of telling their own stories,” said Endowments President Robert (Bobby) Vagt.

In addition to identifying areas for improvement, the Heinz media audit offers suggestion for going forward. They include:

Recommendations (Where do we go from here?)

“There are several promising projects already underway, but one foundation recognizing this as an important community issue won’t be enough to bring about the change we want to see,” Vagt said. “There must be more conversations in communities that are most directly affected by the misperceptions and limiting portrayals that are documented in the audits. In fact, we would welcome ideas from these communities as to how to make more use of the media audit report.”

One of the projects includes the New Media Academy, a collaboration of One Hood and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture which provides a forum where African-American teenage boys are trained to critically analyze media messages and produce their own stories for a variety of media.

To view the entire report, “Portrayal and Perception: Two Audits of New Media Reporting of African American Men and Boys,” A Report from the Heinz Endowment’s African American Men and Boys Task Force, go to http://www.heinz.org/UserFiles/Library/AAMB-MediaReport.pdf.

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