Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Minorities in the Media

Henry Jenkins
Originally uploaded by Joi
"One is tempted to argue that African-Americans (and other minorities) enjoy greater opportunities to communicate beyond their own communities now than ever before. But we need to be careful in making that claim. Recent research suggests that there are far fewer minority characters on prime time network television shows this season than there were five years ago. There remains an enormous ratings gap between white and black Americans: the highest rating shows among black Americans often are among the lowest rated shows among white Americans. The exception, curiously enough, are reality television programs, like American Idol, which historically have had mixed race casts.

We've seen some increased visibility of black journalists and commentators throughout the 2008 campaign season -- and they may remain on the air throughout an Obama administration -- but we need to watch to make sure that they do not fade into the background again. But, if we follow your argument, even those figures who make it into the mainstream media are, at best, relaying critiques and discourses which originate within the black community and at worse, they are involved in a process of self-censorship which makes them an imperfect vehicle for those messages.

The paradox of race and media may be that black Americans have lost access to many of the institutions and practices which sustained them during an era of segregation without achieving the benefits promised by a more "integrated" media environment. And that makes this a moment of risk -- as well as opportunity -- for minority Americans.

I suspect we are over-stating the problem in some ways. There are certainly some serious constraints on minority participation in cyberspace but a world of networked publics also does offer some opportunities for younger African-Americans to deliberate together and form opinion, which we need to explore more fully here."

In the quote above, MIT Professor Henry Jenkins brings together the two issues that I am focusing on at the moment: future of media and diversity. Jenkins upholds his reputation as a critical, academic but enthusiastic researcher. In his blog, Jenkins is currently engaged in a debate on the future of African Americans communities online with Dayna Cunningham, the Executive Director of the Community Innovators Lab at MIT. In her first post, Cunningham described how the black voice is disappearing from the media sphere:

"However, I would argue that today, black politics has largely been reduced to the electoral and legislative spheres; African American media too often promote black celebrity and individual advancement, and along with much of the black civic infrastructure, rarely focus on freedom discourse as a means of exploring strategies for collective political action and accountability to black interests. Perhaps only the Church has survived as an independent space for black voice--and even the Church is sometimes compromised by "prosperity gospel" preachers who have little time for freedom discourse."

Jenkins answers well to the concerns expressed by Cunningham and acknowledges the risks posed by the fact that online it is very difficult to contain ideas in a certain context. There are still two chapters to follow in their discussion, I recommend staying alert.

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