Have you ever watched a movie or TV show and wondered why gay or lesbian characters are portrayed a certain way? Or why newscasters seem to always invite middle-aged white male accountants to their shows during tax season?
These are the sorts of questions that led Assistant Professor of Communications Naeemah Clark to join two former University of Tennessee colleagues in writing Diversity in U.S. Mass Media, published last year by Wiley-Blackwell.
“We started thinking, ‘Why is this? Why are we seeing what we are seeing?’” Clark says.
To provide a sound answer to these and other questions in the book, Clark and her co-authors, Catherine A. Luther and Carolyn Ringer Lepre, provide a historical perspective of diversity in the media. They discuss not only race and gender but also economic status, disabilities, LGBT issues and ethnicity and how these intersect. In an effort to show students that not all diversity issues have negative implications, they also look at advertising and whether groups being misrepresented are advocating for themselves.
“We wanted to make sure that we were covering topics responsibly,” she says. “We wanted to show (readers) there is some empowerment, that there is good research that shows that people are taking responsibility for the way that they’re being portrayed in the media.”
Clark says one of the main reasons why minorities are often misrepresented in the U.S. media is that decision makers rely on people they know and existing resources they have when trying to fill certain roles. Yet most people tend to surround themselves with people who look or think like they do, making it difficult to portray people from different backgrounds in an accurate light.
To illustrate this point in her communications classes, Clark likes to ask her students to take out their cell phones and look at their contacts list.
“If you were doing a story about fashion on campus or about food on campus, who would you call?” she tells the class. “Do these people look just like you? If you are a white male, are you calling a white male, or do you have friends of other groups? Do you have resources that can put you in touch with people who look different than you do, people from different backgrounds that you have?”
While she says she is glad to see that her students are showing an increasingly wide range of resources, her goal is to encourage them to look outside of what they would normally do so they can tell stories that better reflects the American population.
“We are used to seeing something done a certain way. When I go and I buy a Glamour magazine, it’s very rare there is a person of color in there; it’s very rare that there is a model in a wheelchair in any magazine,” she says. “I know that when I go and I buy a lipstick for example, and they give you the free eye shadow, that eye shadow never matches me because they don’t consider me, they don’t consider people of color in those decisions. Why is that? I want my students to think, ‘How can we do a better job of reaching out to other people?’”
Clark says it’s important for communications students to be mindful that as part of the news media they need to reflect the populations that they serve, not only because it’s responsible journalism but also because it's smart economics.
“If you are ignoring a part of an audience, that’s money that your business is not getting,” she says. “Obviously, you want to be socially responsible but also there are financial responsibilities that we have as well and we can’t ignore a group just because we are uncomfortable in talking about it.”
While this may sound like common sense, she wants her students to look at the larger picture.
“I want my students to realize that the decisions that they make impact not only the businesses that they work for but impact a larger community and maybe a community that they don’t think about because sometimes they are not necessarily a part of that community,” she says.
Clark earned her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and her master’s and doctorate degree from the University of Florida. She has worked professionally with diverse students in job placement programs throughout her career and besides teaching communication courses at Elon since 2009, she also serves as director of the Communications Fellows program.