Media coverage matters in the Black community

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I’m a news junkie. No matter how hectic my day, when I have a free moment, I’ve got to get my news fix.

I’m a news junkie. No matter how hectic my day, when I have a free moment, I’ve got to get my news fix. If I’m not near a television or can’t get my hands on a newspaper, I tap into my laptop or my Blackberry to find out the latest happenings. I usually find an article or two in my email box forwarded to me by my sister, Michelle, or my husband, Charles, who each have a serious “news jones,” especially as the news relates to Black people.

Sadly, in 2008, the majority of the news organizations telling our stories and projecting images of African American people are not Black-owned. Most days, this gap in ownership is not egregiously problematic, but the recent cover of The New Yorker magazine–depicting the Obamas as extremist, flag-burning followers of Osama bin Laden–is an exception and has super charged my already strong convictions about the importance of Black-controlled media.

The cover depicts caricatures of Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the Oval Office. The senator is presented in traditional Muslim dress, and his wife is sporting an afro with a gun slung over her shoulder. The two are giving each other a “pound.” No, I’m not kidding. I wish I were.

The Obama campaign and that of his Republican rival Sen. John McCain both blasted the imagery as offensive, as they should have. The magazine issued a statement defending the cover as “satire” intended to expose prejudices and misstatement of facts circulating about the Obamas. I agree with Kelly McBride, head of the ethics faculty at media research group, the Poynter Institute. The magazine should have run the cartoon’s title, “The Politics of Fear,” to help explain its intent.

The problem I have with the so-called satire is that it represents stereotypes that are held by a wide swath of Americans–too many, I believe, to explain away such potentially damaging imagery as a joke. For some, the cover will only reaffirm their fears and perpetuate stereotypes, not challenge or erase them.

As far as I’m concerned, The New Yorker cover is yet another reason why it is so important that African Americans own their own media outlets and have a say-so over how our stories are told.

This is not about endorsing a political candidate. This is about why media matters, whether it’s an unfair portrayal of an African American presidential candidate, a women’s college basketball team thrust into the national spotlight or repeated portrayals of our young Black men as low achievers. Media shapes our economic realities. What we see is what people believe we are, and it shapes how institutions will treat us. And you can bet with a Black man in the running to win America’s highest political office, the African American community, overall, has a heightened awareness of the media’s role in shaping opinions. Black America is a hot story today. What we think, how we feel, what we eat, how we talk to our children, how we worship–nothing is off limits.

As The New Yorker cover illustrates, media doesn’t guarantee decorum; sometimes it just is what it is. But media is not immune to criticism, so when it offends, we’ve got to call organizations on the carpet and say, “What the heck were you thinking?”

That’s why I also have great respect and reverence for Black-owned media. In Chicago, we are fortunate to have media icons such as the Chicago Defender, Johnson Publishing Company and WVON-AM.

In the six months I’ve been writing this column, I’ve received tremendous amounts of feedback from individuals across the region of all races and ethnicities. Some people have questioned, “Why are you writing a newspaper column when you’ve got so much on your plate already? I write this column to harness the power of the media to drive the Urban League’s purpose and its mission. We are fortunate to have this space in the Chicago Defender to broadcast our beliefs, our programs and services, and our economic agenda of self-empowerment and entrepreneurship.

The Urban League is developing our nextMEDIA agenda to further demonstrate the power of the media and promote positive images and lifestyles coming out of the Black community. In 2009, we will launch our first television show on Fox Chicago that will tell our stories of transformation, hope and success, the ones you rarely see in mainstream media. In addition, we will continue to use our Web site to drive our message and inform the public about our programs and events.

At the Urban League, we’re covering all the bases, and expanding our outreach and our outlook through media to inspire African American youth and adults to rise above a world full of challenges. For now, keep checking in here in your Chicago Defender for news about the Urban League, and keep your eyes and ears open to what the “news” is saying about you.

Cheryle R. Jackson is the president of the Chicago Urban League. She can be reached at president@thechicagourbanleague.org.

 

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Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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