Media urged to change portrayal of blacks

Summit discusses Pittsburgh news coverage of African-American men and boys

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Mainstream media in Pittsburgh must broaden their coverage of black men and youths from a disproportionate diet of crime and sports stories, a summit of scholars, experts and news media executives concluded during a daylong, invitation-only summit Tuesday sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Public Affairs Office.

Those attending the summit, titled "Evolving the Image of the African American Male in American Media," at the University Club recommended that news executives be held more accountable for the content they publish or broadcast and African-American youth should seize control the narrative of their lives by utilizing film, radio and various online media to tell their own stories.

The group used as a jumping-off point for the discussions two studies commissioned by the Heinz Endowments that found a inordinate amount of Pittsburgh news coverage of African-American men and boys focused on crime.

"This is borderline journalism malpractice and we need to do something about it," Paula Poindexter, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin said during a panel discussion on "Imagery in the News."

The studies, by Miami-based Meyer Communications and by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., used different statistical approaches but had similar findings regarding stories published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and broadcast by television stations KDKA, WTAE and WPXI.

The Meyer content analysis found that during three months last year, the largest block of news stories involving black men and youth were about crime -- 86 percent of the news broadcasts and 37 percent of the newspaper stories.

"And crime coverage featuring black men tended to get more prominent play in the news, with the stories more likely appearing atop the news page or at the beginning of the newscast," the report said.

The Pew report found that the most frequent topics for news broadcasts involving African-American men were sports (43 percent) and crime (30 percent). In the newspapers, crime led all topics involving black men at 43 percent.

Once crime stories were excluded, the content analysis found there were few other stories about black males.

"Scant coverage exists of African-American men and boys in the 'quality of life' topics: education, business/economy, environment, leadership/community and the arts," the report said.

A panel of seven young black men, most of them college students, said they mostly do not recognize the young male African-American experience the media portrays.

"Crime should be reported, but positive things should be portrayed, too," said rapper Jasiri X, whose politically charged hip-hop record, "American History X," deals with such issues as human rights in Afghanistan, the shallow playlist on BET and stereotypes about African Americans.

Jasiri X, who recently released the protest song "Occupy (We the 99)" and a video he shot on location at the Occupy Wall Street protest, said young African-American men can tell their own stories through multimedia and social networking.

"You can control the message," he said.

Another panel member, Pitt basketball player Ashton Gibbs, said the media needs to present a more wide-ranging message about the accomplishments of blacks outside of sports.

"Being an athlete, I talk to the media all of the time," said Mr. Gibbs, a senior.

"A lot of our guys are on the honor roll, but that's not portrayed in the news. They talk about the fact I scored this many points but not that I have a high GPA."


Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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