Fragmented View: How “Diverse” Representation Reflects Reality
Media is a nebulous concept to pin down since its history harkens back to the earliest forms of mass communication. Media is the plural of medium, meaning that media encompasses a myriad of delivery vehicles for a message. What and who deliver these messages to the masses is the questions that will be explored in this paper. Moreover, to the point, in this contemporary realm of digital media, who is represented? The ethical quandary has vexed many mass communication workers and media persons, but the concept of “diversity” is as vague as media itself.
The rise of the internet and the subsequent social media has brought about new vehicles to solve what is an apparent problem. Those who are “minorities” find themselves either stereotyped or absent from representation altogether. Mass media directly influences public perception, shapes culture, and defines our societal values. With such a fragmented view of several large groups of people, mainstream schemas impact how people of the dominant group (people with power and privilege) treat those marginalized groups. Instead of having flat two-dimensional portrayals of minority groups, true diversity means that mass media reflects reality, where “minorities” are actually in the majority.
To understand the whole problem with diversity representation, a top-down analysis is required. Who owns the media and in turn, controls the media? Those who control the media can influence how the whole country communicates. It is essentially the most direct way to control the public’s consciousness, guiding the national metanarratives as necessary. The locus of control can be seen in local ownership of TV news versus corporate ownership, one of the main concerns with the FCC’s loosening of cross-ownership regulations was whether the news’ localism would remain intact.
A study was done by David K. Scott et al. resulted in affirming those fears, finding that the small-chain news departments aired local news more, aired locally produced video more, and aired less new promotion (Scott). The loosening of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) media ownership regulations in 2003 has paved the way for large media corporations to do exceptionally well in the U.S., by allowing single-company ownership to own a market share of up to 45%, which is higher than the previous 35% (Scott). At the same time, they also instituted a system to determine what “cross-media” limits are by using a “diversity index” (Obar). This diversity index is a modified Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, which measures market concentration and competition between companies (Obar).
Restrictions of the same variety were changed for newspaper and TV station ownership, as well as how the counted the quality of the medium as news. In 2007, the FCC eliminated the rule that prohibited cross-ownership between newspapers and broadcast companies by a single company (Obar). Sinclair Broadcast Group decided to announce their purchase of Tribune Media’s 42 stations on May 8, 2017, bringing their total to 208 (Matsa). This would make them the company with the largest holdings of local TV. Paired with Gray, Nexstar, Tegna, these companies would comprise about 37% of all local TV in the U.S. Their broadcast revenue for 2016 is 30% larger than it was in 2014, $6.3 billion to $8.3 billion (Matsa). This is one example of the huge mergers that have come about since the relaxation of FCC’s rulings. Company ownership has drastically changed within the last 50 years, consolidation has produced six huge conglomerates in the U.S. across the different forms of media (TV, Radio, Cable & Telecommunications, Print, and the Internet).
The Big Six are National Amusements, Disney, Time Warner, Comcast, News Corp, and Sony and plenty of people know of the brands they control, such as ESPN, FOX, CNBC, CW, HBO, etc. These companies also bring the owners huge profits: Sumner Redstone of National Amusements is worth $4.6 billion, Bob Iger of Disney has an annual salary of $44.9 million, Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner makes $32.5 million per year, Brian Roberts of Comcast brings in $40.8 million a year, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp earns $22.3 million annually, and lastly, Kasuo Hirai of Sony makes $4.9 million a year (WebpageFX).
The combined total value of the Big Six is $430 billion, which is enough money to give every American a thousand-dollar payout (WebpageFX). When taking a global view, that kind of money allows for “amenity potential”, which means that besides the financial gain, other benefits like fame and influence are obtaining by owning holdings in media rather than industries, such as fishing (Djankov).
A study that sampled 97 countries found that media ownership rested in either the state or private family’s hands (Djankov). TV ownership by count was controlled by the state 60% and press ownership by count was controlled by private families by 57% (Djankov). The study found that “the evidence suggests that there are large private benefits of media ownership. Throughout the world, media are controlled by parties likely to value these private benefits: families and the state. In particular, the extent of state ownership of the media (particularly in television and radio) is striking, which suggests that governments extract value through control of information flows in the media.” (Djankov).
The value is the kind of agendas that are set globally and a big driver of economic power is white supremacy (Bonacich). White supremacy is reliant on the schemas, attitudes, and beliefs about “whiteness” being superior in order to exploit those who are seen as inferior. A report from the Frameworks Institute did a media review of new reporting gathered in 2007 about several issues that intersected with race. Some of the results found that racism was seen as an interpersonal dynamic, rather a hierarchal institutional system. Most of the stories focused on overt and blatant acts of racism as being rare rather than being the norm, and as a relationship between black and white people.
Some of the issues, like healthcare for immigrants, were rarely tasked as racial issues. Articles were written for two different audiences, explanations for white people and in-group conversation for black people. Most telling was how non-existent discussions about finding resolutions for racial inequality, it was framed in ways that implied racial justice is always at the expense of another group rather than shifting towards systemic solutions that benefit all races (Moira). White supremacy requires this erasure in order to function because the division between races means the “elite” white class can continue to exploit unabated while poor whites maintain social control at no expense.
Since it is rich white men who overwhelmingly own media companies, it benefits them to misrepresent different marginalized groups to uphold their economic power. How media has impacted marginalized group’s image in the public perception is readily apparent in a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2016: “An overwhelming majority of blacks (88%) say the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites, but 43% are skeptical that such changes will ever occur. An additional 42% of blacks believe that the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights with whites, and just 8% say the country has already made the necessary changes. A much lower share of whites (53%) say the country still has work to do for blacks to achieve equal rights with whites, and only 11% express doubt that these changes will come. Four-in-ten whites believe the country will eventually make the changes needed for blacks to have equal rights, and about the same share (38%) say enough changes have already been made” (“On Views”).
This large discrepancy between beliefs and attitudes is due to the subtle manipulation by media when communicating to the masses. Largely due to the exclusion of minorities and employed stereotypes in media, what is socially codified as “normal” is whiteness which contributes to dehumanizing minority groups in real life. Besides being underrepresented through leading or secondary roles on TV programs, the issue is veiled as well, with minorities being woefully absent from the decision-making and creative jobs. “According to a 2000 survey, only 11.6 percent of newsroom staff in the United States were racial and ethnic minorities. The situation has not improved dramatically during the past decade.
According to a 2008 newsroom census released by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the percentage of minority journalists working at daily newspapers was 13.52 percent” (Understanding). When the narratives are shaped by people who have never experienced being marginalized (without power and privilege) the message is biased, skewing the mass consciousness to subconsciously consume these dishonesties: “There are clear correlations between mass media portrayals of minority groups and public perceptions. In 1999, after hundreds of complaints by African Americans that they were unable to get taxis to pick them up, the city of New York launched a crackdown, threatening to revoke the licenses of cab drivers who refused to stop for African American customers. When interviewed by reporters, many cab drivers blamed their actions on fears they would be robbed or asked to drive to dangerous neighborhoods” (Understanding).
By 2016, white people remain the majority population (76.9%) according to the U.S. Census Bureau while Latinx people are 17.8%, Black people make 13.3%, Asian people are 5.7%, American Indian and Alaskan Natives are 1.3%, and Pacific Islanders are 0.2%. While the methodology for accounting race rests on a flawed premise, to begin with, the truth is that the world’s majority are “people of color”. As far as population rankings go on the U.S. CIA World Factbook website, China dominates as number one, with India as second, and the U.S. as third, Indonesia fourth, and Brazil in fifth. Only one country out of five has a white majority.
By and large, this means people in U.S., especially white people, need a radical perspective shift in how they view race and racial issues. White people would not be the racial majority had it not decimated the indigenous people’s populations first through biological warfare and colonization: “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world. That is why, as one historian aptly has said, far from the heroic and romantic heraldry that customarily issued to symbolize the European settlement of the Americas, the emblem most congruent with reality would be a pyramid of skulls” (Stannard).
The colonization did not stop the physical bloodshed and theft of land, but extends past to mental terrorization as well. Native people are underrepresented in media and when they are present, are flat characters that are basically walking tropes. This cultural conditioning influences the expectations about how these groups behave that are inaccurate. Moreover, the type of representation impacts those who are a part of that group in negative ways, leaving psychological markers of trauma, “Media invisibility has notable consequences for identity and self-understanding. By promoting limited, homogeneous prototypes of Native Americans, the media inhibits the development of characteristics or abilities beyond those supported by these Native American prototypes and inadvertently promotes maladaptive self-strategies (e.g., deindividuation and self-stereotyping) that undermine individual potential” (Leavitt).
This paper only covers the surface of the issue, since it spans such broad concepts, mediums, and historical periods. Those in power, who have amassed wealth under the pretense of capitalism, regulate the messages that go out to the communities that work in their favor. Keeping minorities underrepresented and heavily stereotyped leads to negative consequences for those marginalized groups, from direct violence to psychological harm. Healthy and accurate media representation is critical for truthful understanding distinct cultures and groups because mass media taps into the public’s perception of these groups. “Diversity” representation can be misleading because true diversity is merely a depiction of authenticity. The solution is having those characters and stories of minority groups written and directed by people who ARE in that group. For instance, a transgender character should be written (or consulted) by transgender individuals, the actor who portrays that character should be transgender themselves. It’s a simple easy to a complex problem, without having to shift larger structural inequities. Diversity representation needs to mirror real life for the benefit of all who consume media.
This is an old essay/video of mine but the energy is the same.
I intend to rewrite this into an article, with added years of knowledge and experience.
Watch for the follow-up article.
Please leave a comment on how I can improve my writing.
nd photos are copyrighted by obelus © 2019
Photo Location: Lincoln Memorial | Washington, DC
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