Media Matters: media literacy, communities of color and challenging the status quo

by Silja J.A. Talvi, Colors NW

This project made possible through support from the Seattle Media Justice project/Reclaim the Media.

Timothy Butler is a 16-year-old student at Rainier Beach High School who knows a thing or two about the media.

He already has a good sense of what �media consolidation� means, and he understands, fully well, that most of what�s consumed as popular media is being generated by the newspapers and cable stations, wire services, photo agencies, radio shows, Web portals, film companies, music and book publishers, and magazines owned by five mega-corporations.

They are AOL Time Warner (CNN, Time, AOL); The Walt Disney Co. (ABC, Disney Channel, St. Louis Daily Record); Bertelsmann (Random House, (co-owner), Bertelsmann Music Group); Viacom (BET, CBS, MTV, Paramount, Blockbuster); and Rupert Murdoch�s News Corp. (New York Post, Fox TV, HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox). (General Electric�s NBC is the sixth, but doesn�t come close to owning as much as any of the top five companies.)

In 1983, there were 50 corporations that controlled a majority of U.S. media. By 1992, there were only 14. Now, there are five, as Butler points out.

Butler, a sophomore of Native and African-American heritage, doesn�t want to go into journalism � there�s not even a school newspaper for him to write for if he wanted to � but he still watches the news regularly, trying to weed out what�s true and what�s not.

In this sense, he�s better equipped than the average person his age.

Much of that is thanks to an unusual 9th-grade course in media literacy for Butler and his peers. Under the guidance of Rainier Beach High School teacher Paula Scott and staff from Seattle�s Central House, the students watched films, studied the warping and fabrication of information � unintentionally or not � by conventional news outlets, and got a sense of the awesome power that the media exert over the perceptions and emotions of the public at large. Outraged and incensed by much of what they learned, they wound up channeling their frustration into their own media project � a well-attended press conference about the myriad flaws of standardized testing and of mounting opposition to the requirement that students must pass the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in order to graduate from high school.

Butler and his peers presented their viewpoints in a series of public service announcements that included interviews with faculty and students. The press showed up, and the event was considered a success: For once, it seemed the media cared about their high school for reasons other than an act of violence or a star basketball player.

Butler felt that he and his peers got their views across. But the sense that local news organizations in general weren�t taking nearly enough time to get to know teens like him � or to even consider that they were worth reporting on � lingers in this classroom.

�They think we�re ignorant,� Butler says frankly. �(The media) thinks we think we�re (so) young that we won�t go over the articles that they write about us. They�re wrong.�

Butler�s comments mirror the common frustration that people of color (of all ages) feel about how most of the media seem disconnected from real life, particularly from everyday people who aren�t celebrities, politicians, or �experts� of one stripe or another.

A 2005 Pew Research Center study about media trends backs up the anecdotes and comments that Butler and his classmates shared. In that poll, 56 percent of the public indicated that they believe that news organizations do not care about the people that they report on. As a result, 45 percent have little or no belief in their daily newspapers.

To many people of color, there seems little reason to believe what�s being written when the nation�s thousands of newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations spew out the same messages and the same stereotypes where people of color are concerned. Often, the biggest or most sensational stories about people of color gravitate toward crime, drugs and violence to such an extent that it not only skews the public�s perception, but warps reality altogether. Perceived, and then broadcast, through this kind of biased filter, people of color, immigrants, the poor, gays and lesbians, and people whose lifestyles, appearances and occupations are somehow seen to be outside conventional norms, are represented as outsiders, misfits and/or dangerous threats to national or community safety.

What�s worse, people of color begin internalizing these concepts about themselves early on in their exposure to media. It�s for this reason that Zola Mumford, the curator of the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival, believes that media literacy training should start as early in junior high � maybe even as early as elementary school. �Young people need to understand some of the historical and racist roots of what we�re seeing (in the media today),� she says. �They also need to understand how closely advertising and entertainment are intertwined.�
Adults need to understand these things as well; even a college education doesn�t guarantee that a person has a solid sense of how many forms of media have historically played into � even generated � racist stereotypes in American society.

That�s where the concept of �media justice� comes in, says Karen Toering of the Seattle-based activist organization, Reclaim the Media. The idea of media justice is about more than making sure that people have access to media or that they see a few faces of color here and there.
�Media justice,� as she puts it, �is about righting a history of wrongs. In the purest sense, it is intentional correction of historic mis-perception and mis-representation that perpetuates bias in race and class.�

Media justice isn�t just about reforming our current media, it�s about being willing to reconceptualize the very system itself.

�The real question is what kind of media system would truly serve the public,� says Makani Themba-Nixon, the executive director of advocacy organization The Praxis Project in Washington, D.C. �Once we start with this question, we can start to imagine both a media and public-policy infrastructure that truly promotes an informed, just society.�

The first, necessary step toward that end is developing media literacy, and making conscious decisions about what to read, view and hear. Developing an awareness of what kinds of media exist, including reputable alternative and independent sources of media, helps to illuminate and engage people in the media, and not just get hooked or addicted to something that is easy to digest but is empty, even damaging, in its content.

�Media literacy is so important,� explains Robert Jefferson, program director and assistant manager for KBCS Community Radio in Bellevue. �What we have in mainstream media is really the crack cocaine or the nicotine of the airwaves. It doesn�t nourish you, and it keeps you ignorant.�

From Jefferson�s point of view, the notion of reforming mainstream media in order to improve quality, to increase diversity, and to better reflect the world that we live in, isn�t worthwhile. �I�m just wondering why, in 2005, we�re still pleading for mainstream media to reform itself and why we strive to seek justice from them. People of color can create their own (media).�

Not everyone agrees with this kind of generalization of mainstream media, or the futility of seeing real media reform or media justice. This is particularly from those who are working hard, from the inside, to make a difference.

�I know this debate,� says Mark Trahant, the editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the former president of the Native American Journalists Association. �I grew up in the tribal press and have worked for both tribal and mainstream media. But I have always felt it was the wrong question: It�s not either, or. We need a strong, vibrant press that reports about events for communities of color.

�At the same time, I also think we need to change the way the mainstream media goes about covering the world � not just communities of color stories, but all stories.�

In 1987, Trahant worked on a story about Indian lands and the mounting suspicion of government malfeasance where Indian trust fund distributions were concerned. �The story was one told in American Indian communities for a long time,� Trahant says, �It wasn�t �news� to us.�

Once the story made it into the mainstream press, however, it took on a new level of importance, launching a U.S. Senate investigation, and making the story a finalist for a Pulitzer prize. Trahant went on to write a book, �Pictures of Our Nobler Selves,� a historical account of Native American contributions to news media.

But Jefferson�s point is still well taken: Unless your media is nourishing, enlightening, and engaging you on some level, you shouldn�t be digesting it � and least not without a strong media filter. Without this kind of a media filter, some of the exaggerated or outright fabricated messages coming across cable, Internet connections and radio waves can morph into concepts that people begin to believe as truth.

Even with those critical filters in place, it�s vitally important to realize that media have tremendous power and influence over the human psyche. Once those exaggerated or fabricated concepts are internalized � take, for instance, the almost instantaneous speculation by many news organizations that the Oklahoma City bombing had been organized by Middle Eastern Muslims, or the more constant depiction of black and Latino men as �gangsters� or impoverished drug users � they can begin to directly manifest their influence over people�s behavior, speech, biases and actions, and even sway people�s religious and political convictions.

Media matters as much as it does because the words and images emanating from our media sources can actually shape the direction that our communities, states and governments are headed.

In a 2002 essay published on one of the independently owned AlterNet news website (, media activist Seeta Gangadharan challenges civil rights organizations to take on a bigger role in media reform efforts; the efforts today, she says, are nearly nonexistent. �Without representation in the media,� Gangadharan writes, �minorities are less likely to be involved in the larger social, economic and political frameworks of the United States, as well as of global civil society. As deregulation leads to more media mergers and acquisitions, minorities will have less wherewithal to vote, enter public debate and shape political outcomes that affect our everyday lives.�

Our lives are, indeed, affected by media � directly, or indirectly. The media are so much an integral part of modern-day human societies that we are exposed to it dozens of times a day, in one form or another.

And there�s actually nothing inherently wrong with the prominent place that media occupies in our lives.

In fact, the media have the potential to be a remarkably powerful and even beneficial tool. When written, crafted, broadcast or assembled well � and with a sense of responsibility for the outcome and impact of the story � media in all forms have the ability (we would say the obligation) to be the primary mechanism through which people can get out the word about pain and suffering, injustice and bigotry, struggles and hardships being faced by individuals or entire groups of people.

The prominence of reporting on positive, inspiring and innovative things going on in the world is equally as important, particularly for the psychological welfare of people being exposed to upsetting news. But positive, insightful reporting is not nearly as emphasized as it should be.
Without that balance, media consumers can grow increasingly hopeless and alienated from the world around them, and even lose faith in the possibility of social and political progress altogether. Unfortunately, the relentless cynicism reflected on so many radio talk shows, and through many so-called �alternative� media outlets can actually exacerbate that phenomenon and breed an increased sense of apathy and disconnection between people � something that is worth addressing in its own right.

The craft of journalism can and should serve the purpose of getting those stories out, and to help people stay informed about the things going on around them � whether that�s next door or half a world away. Journalism also has an important social change and advocacy role to play in pointing out the range of serious problems in our societies, whether in the form of large-scale imbalances and injustices or more subtle inequalities. And this can be done through any kind of media, if it�s done well.

�One reason I left corporate media is to try to help people at a local level reclaim the media. I wanted to empower them to let them know that this is your media ... and you can help take it to the next level,� explains KCBS� Jefferson.

Trahant doesn�t discount the value of ethnic and community media. Instead, he emphasizes that people understand that the mainstream press �helps (to) form society�s master narrative.�

�This is the story that connects all of the country, or doesn�t,� he adds. �We need to have many voices in that master narrative, or it will remain as narrow as the one told a century ago.�

The top five reasons why media matter:

1) To support, promote and participate in a healthy, independent press

A free and diverse press is essential to the well-being of any democratic society. This fact cannot be emphasized enough, particularly since corporate dominance of the vast majority of media in the U.S. (and most parts of the world) is now the norm, not the exception.

This country has a rich and varied history of a strong, independent press, both in terms of general media and issue-focused newspapers, newsletters and magazines focused on labor and unions, immigrants, women, and ethnic communities. Just a quick look at the history of the independent, ethnic press reveals how important the need to have power over media has always been � and should be to this day.

The nation�s first black-owned newspaper, Freedom�s Journal, was established in 1827. Hundreds of black-owned publications have followed suit since that time, ranging from overtly political publications geared toward putting an end to lynching and racist violence to today�s general-interest magazines that reach hundreds of thousands of readers each month.

From 1968 to 1980, the Black Panther Party (BPP) produced its own national newspaper; many cities (including Seattle) published additional newsletters focused on local issues.

�One of the most important aspects of the party was always considered to be having control of our own media,� explains Aaron Dixon, a founder of Seattle�s BPP, who now serves as the executive director of the Central House, which delivers innovative programs to youth of color (including the media literacy project at Rainier Beach High School). �Being able to disseminate our side of the story, at the time, was just as important as going out on the streets with weapons.�

At its height, the BPP newspaper reached a circulation of 350,000, although that distribution did not occur without serious obstacles. Entire boxes of newspapers would disappear on a regular basis, or be found destroyed. There was no doubt that local and federal officials were doing everything they could to try to prevent the BPP�s message from getting out to the black community � and beyond, Dixon says.

Other immigrant communities and communities of color have also had a longstanding stake in the independent press. The Cherokee Nation, for instance, created its first newspaper as early as 1828, at a time when the indigenous population was being decimated by white settlers and government incursions � and while Indians themselves were still viewed as illiterate, backward and altogether uncivilized.

One of the nation�s biggest and most far-reaching immigrant newspapers, The Forward, was first published in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily newspaper, with the unabashed emphasis of reporting on union struggles, democratic socialist ideals and real-life stories from the squalid Lower East Side ghettoes in New York City where the Jewish immigrants were concentrated. By the 1930s, the newspaper had a circulation that topped 275,000, ran stories in both English and Yiddish, and drew an even bigger audience for the Forward�s Yiddish-language radio station, WEVD, known as �the station that speaks your language.� It�s also worth noting that the first Chinese-language daily newspaper in the world, the Chinese Daily News, was published in Northern California in the 1870s � well before such a newspaper existed in China.

The idea of a media �that speaks your language� isn�t just limited to foreign languages. It also means the newspaper, magazine, radio program or television show is doing a good job of communicating stories and opinions in ways that are relevant and pertinent to real people�s lives.
More than anything, the value of a free and independent press is that it can and should operate without any interference from governmental controls or heavy corporate emphasis on a fat bottom line. Such a press, of course, has the potential to pose a real threat to the ruling class, and to the social or political status quo; small wonder that every opportunity seems to be taken throughout the history of the modern world to squash its vitality and existence.

It isn�t hard to find recent examples, including the Department of Defense�s unwillingness to release photos of body bags and caskets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ongoing, complete media ban on the military mortuary in Dover, Delaware. �You can call it news control or information control of flat-out propaganda,� Christopher Simpson, a communications professor at American University told the UK�s Guardian newspaper in an article titled �Don�t Mention the Dead.� �Whatever you call it, this is the most extensive effort at spinning a war that the Department of Defense has ever undertaken in this country.�

Perhaps the most striking recent example is the demand by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the press to stop publishing and airing photos of dead bodies floating in the Gulf Coast floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina � something that even the mainstream news outlets bristled at, criticized publicly, and, in some cases, refused to obey.

2) The media are needed to push for diversity and adequate representation, and to resist the broadcasting of a monoculture

The U.S. is one of the most ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse places on the planet. But you wouldn�t know it by looking at the evening news.

According to the most recent analysis by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the three major TV networks seem to have a strong preference toward interviewing Euro-American men. Things may seem to have improved in some ways where newspaper reporting is concerned, but tuning into network nightly news finds that a stunning 92 percent of U.S. sources are white. Just 7 percent are African American. The percentages for all other ethnic groups, respectively, make up that remaining 1 percent.

What�s more amazing is that even when it comes time to seek comment on racial issues, Euro-Americans still make up 68 percent of those sources. Partisan analysis of sources for �racial stories� shows that 84 percent of party-identified sources are Republicans, with Democrats making up the remainder. Third parties are altogether invisible.

Newspapers have done a better job, in recent years, in finding a wider array of sources for their stories, thanks to the diversity-training efforts of organizations such as the Poynter Institute (

Consequently, these days, more and more readers, listeners and viewers of color are turning to ethnic media for their information. A 2005 survey from a San Francisco-based organization, New California Media (which organized the First National Expo of Ethnic Media at Columbia University this summer), revealed that at least 51 million people in the U.S. � that�s one-fourth of the population � are turning to ethnic media for at least some of their news and information. Over half of those people, at 29 million media consumers, indicated that they prefer ethnic media over any other kind.

3) An important role for the media is to resist the blurring of state and media

Controlling the media is one of the very first steps authoritarian regimes take after seizing power.
Some government leaders have seized all forms of media and use them to distribute propaganda. Others have demanded cooperation from media outlets and then threatened, killed or incarcerated journalists and editors who don�t obey. Still others have put their own people to work, disguised as bona fide journalists, or spread their own messages about how liberal or anti-religious the press is in order to discredit news reports that are critical of the government. From Mexico to Saudi Arabia, from Hitler�s Germany to Silvio Berlusconi�s Italy, from Russia to the U.S., the world�s modern history is rife with examples of governments doing exactly that.

In February, information surfaced that a White House-credentialed reporter, �Jeff Gannon,� was a man named James Guckert, who received money from a conservative Web site, Gannon�s writings had been unabashedly supportive of the Bush administration�s policies, and he had railed against such progressive issues as same-sex marriage. Gannon/Guckert, as it turned out, was not a real journalist at all, but a man earning a paycheck for parroting the party line. And a Web designer in California said that he had designed a gay escort site for Gannon/Guckert and had posted naked pictures of Gannon at the client�s request, according to a column in the Washington Post.

Also in February, information also came to light about the preponderance of �video news releases� by at least 20 government agencies that were intended to be indistinguishable from news segments broadcast to the public by independent television news organizations. The topics ranged from the Iraq war to water quality in the U.S.; the videos were sent to hundreds of television stations and seen by millions of viewers as news instead of the doctored information that it was.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears to have followed suit: His administration was found out in March to have disseminated a similar video news release touting the governor�s labor policies. Democratic Assemblyman Paul Koretz was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying that the governor�s talent at making movies had apparently �carried over to government work.�

4) There�s a crucial need to resist the �dumbing down� of media and to gain media literacy.
The chatter of talk shows � which can be biased and monotonous � on cable television and on many radio airwaves is deafening.

Media giant News Corp., owned by Rupert Murdoch, is known for bringing sensational, silly and senseless programming to the masses. There is no worse offender than

Teacher Faiza Baker-Yeboah brought that film to the media literacy students at Rainier Beach High School, and it�s one that made a huge impression. �It was interesting for them to see that these �journalists� had the power to make whatever story they wanted to, even if it meant making things up.�

Portrayals of young people by mainstream media especially disturbed the students, says Baker-Yeboah: �One girl described it as going to the circus and seeing the distorted mirrors that were supposed to be a reflection of her.�

Millions of Americans tune in to Fox TV shows and others that don�t always present a balanced picture of people and the world around them, and that�s not going to change anytime soon. Media literacy should help people demand more of their media and, by extension, of themselves. Analyzing, reading critically, asking questions, asking for proof, demanding corrections when false information is presented, all these the most vital tools of media literacy.

5) An important task for the media is to revive the art of authentic storytelling, investigative reporting, advocacy journalism and thought-provoking commentary.

The American tradition of advocacy and muckraking journalism is something to be proud of: Just think of Upton Sinclair�s groundbreaking work on slaughterhouse conditions in �The Jungle� and Ida B. Wells-Barnett�s ceaseless efforts to publicize and put an end to the horrors of lynching.

These are two among a host of others who have literally helped change the course of American history with their reporting and their insistence on going the extra mile for their stories and investigations.

Journalists of color have long been engaged in some of the most intensive reporting in the U.S. � taking chances, telling truths and reporting from the ground up. These reporters and have covered the poorest areas of Indian Country, the inner cities and rural communities, prison yards and housing projects alike. These are among the toughest areas to cover, but they are also the most rewarding for the reporters, subjects and readers alike.

Supporting and growing the next generation of media workers who are willing to go to great lengths to get real stories should be something we all care about and ask of the news organizations in our communities. Being willing to embrace journalism�s next frontier � citizen journalism in the form of blogging, documentary-making and multimedia presentations on the Web that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago � this is also something to be very excited about.

The stories are out there, and they are our stories.

So, let�s demand that real stories get heard, aired, and printed � and that they are written with a sense of connection to the communities from which they are derived. Let�s demand that a diversity of perspectives, cultures and experiences gets shared in the process, that our journalists come from all walks of life, and that journalism is recognized as a craft, a skill, and not just as a business.

This is our society, after all. This should be our media.

LOCAL MEDIA EVENTS: Independent Ethnic Electronic Media

Media Event: Soldiers Without Swords, the Black Press
Oct. 19. 7 p.m. Central Cinema (1411 21st. Ave., Seattle). Film explores history and contributions of Black journalists and newspapers. Panel discussion with local media including ColorsNW to follow event.
For more information, visit

Reclaim the Media
Group of independent media activists focusing on media justice and reform.
Check the Web site through Oct. for a list of special events related to media justice in the Northwest.

La Voz del Campesino, Radio KDNA
Radio KDNA 91.9FM is the only full-time educational Spanish language public radio station in the United States. KDNA has been broadcasting from its Yakima Valley studios since 1979 and produces a wide variety of programs addressing the needs and interests of Spanish speaking audiences. Many of these programs serve the informational, educational and cultural interests of the local rural population of central Washington, including talk shows that focus on issues affecting immigrants, health, and arts and culture, and even local employment opportunities.
Northwest Communities Education Center
509/854-1900 / 509/854-2222

Native Lens
Native Lens, a program started through 911 Media Arts Center�s Young Producers Project, introduces Native youth to media as an art form and vehicle for self-expression. Native Lens is dedicated to developing sustainable youth media programs in partnership with Pacific Northwest tribes that give Native youth the skills it takes to tell their own stories through digital media making. They are currently developing Native Lens to meet the needs of interested tribes and offer ongoing youth media workshops, develop a sustainable media arts culture, and support the evolution of Native filmmaking and cable programming.
Caroline Cumming
911 Media Arts Center206/682-6552

Seattle Community Access Network (SCAN)
SCAN provides facilities, equipment and management of the public access channel (Channel 77/29) in Seattle, King and South Snohomish Counties. SCAN also provides classes, workshops, skilled professional support, program promotion and community resources to help individuals and organizations create and distribute their programming.

Somali Television of Washington
Somali TV focuses on educating the Somalian refugee community about issues that affect them (e.g. health, employment, education) and is a resource for helping them adjust and succeed in their new home. The live show is broadcast every Friday on SCANTV at 4:30 p.m. and features guests that the audience can call in and ask questions. The program also highlights successful Somalis who have achieved in school and in business.
Abdullahi Keynan Omar

Sounds of the Pacific Radio Show/Hawaii Showcase Television Magazine
Sounds of The Pacific Radio Show is a Pacific Islander radio program comprising news, sports, interviews, and music of the Pacific Islands. It is broadcast on Tuesdays on KKNW1150AM at 8 p.m. Hawaii Showcase Television Magazine, broadcast on SCANTV every Friday at 6 p.m., is a contemporary Hawaiian TV show focusing on the island�s history, music, its people and its culture and local community events here and in Hawaii.
Bill Nahalea
Global Productions Unlimited

Mabuhay TV
Mabuhay TV brings the Filipino community in Seattle together by keeping them in touch with their culture and with each other. With over 140 organizations in the area, the program, broadcast on SCANTV on Wednesdays at 6 p.m., unites the local community regardless of their affiliations, through interviews with personalities, highlights from community events, and news of interest to the community.
Joel Durias

Somalisan TV
SomaliSan TV is a weekly news/entertainment program broadcast through Seattle Community Access Network (SCANTV). The program hosted and produced by award-winning journalist Mahdy Maaweel provides audiences with access to people and perspectives rarely heard in the corporate-sponsored media, including independent and international journalists, ordinary people from around the world, leaders and peace activists, artists, academics and independent analysts.
Mahdy Mahweel

Voices of Diversity, KBCS
Voices of Diversity is a half hour public affairs magazine produced by volunteers at KBCS. The program seeks to tell the untold stories in our community as well as celebrate the diversity of cultural expression found in the Northwest. Stories address such issues as racism, sexism and homophobia, as well as the realities of life for vulnerable populations such as immigrants and homeless persons.
Callie Shanafelt

Youth Media Institute (YMI)
The Youth Media Institute is a summer program for youth who live or go to school in the White Center/Boulevard Park area that empowers them to tell their own stories through media production. At the same time, they also learn about media literacy and media justice while increasing their self esteem and encouraging cross-cultural teamwork. The youth involved are very diverse, with all qualifying for the free summer lunch program. Next summer, they will specifically recruit in certain ethnic groups where they had limited participation (for example Latinos).
Sharon Maeda

article originally published at .

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey