An assistant professor in the School of Communications, Clark worked with two former colleagues to show industry trends and media portrayals of diversity.
Naeemah Clark poses a simple question: If you look at your contact list in your cell phone, how many people don’t look like you? The query, when asked of media executives, can reveal much about how their media organizations value and portray diversity in their products.
Clark, an assistant professor in Elon’s School of Communications, likes to find the meaning behind the “why.” As in, she says, “What is it we see on TV and why is it that way? Why, when you look in a magazine, do you not see a model in wheelchair? Why is it we don’t see poor people depicted in a more positive light?”
Those kinds of foundational questions, as she calls them, led her and two of her former colleagues to write “Diversity in U.S. Mass Media,” which was published and released last August. Clark and her co-authors, Catherine A. Luther and Carolyn Ringer Lepre, began work on the book when they taught together at the University of Tennessee.
Clark and Luther both taught a course called Mass Communication and Society, which would soon become interchangeable with another course called Media Diversity, which Luther also led. A suitable book for the diversity class was seemingly nonexistent. Too many texts, Clark says, focused on the conventional definitions of diversity: ethnicity and gender, for example.
But the word diversity can’t be defined in black-and-white terms. So Clark and her fellow instructors decided to write a book that would take a historical and theoretical look at the role of diversity in American media.
“The book has a broader focus than people realize,” Clark says. “It offers a look at diversity that’s different than what’s in a lot of textbooks, which is generally race, ethnicity and a chapter about women. (Clark’s book) also looks at sexuality, class, age, disability.”
The authors split the writing of the book into different parts, with Clark commanding the chapters about African Americans, Hispanics, the LGBTQ community and class.
But “Diversity in U.S. Media” doesn’t take a simple panoramic snapshot of diversity. It ropes in current examples to illustrate industry trends and media portrayals. Among them is a discussion of the career of “Parks and Recreation” sitcom star and comedian Aziz Ansari, a particularly relevant and specific reference.
“It’s really up to date,” Clark says. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is its currency. I think we’re going to have to update the book every two or three years.”
So how is the industry doing these days? Well, it depends on where you look. And the answer often refers back to that question about your cell phone contact list.
When Clark was teaching at the University of Tennessee, she did some consulting work for Scripps Networks. Her research revealed that their networks (among them, HGTV, Food Network and DIY) featured widely diverse programming.
When she presented her findings to the board of directors, one of the people in the room pointed out that Scripps networks had diverse content because “we personally know diverse people.” It’s an intuitive response, but it’s an important one—and one that Clark wants her students to understand.
“I’m looking for foundational ‘why is it the way it is,’” she says. “I want my students to know why it is we make these decisions so we can change the decisions we make.”
Clark earned her bachelor’s degree from Florida State University and her master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Florida. She has worked professionally with diverse students in job placement programs.
She came to Elon in 2009, having taught previously at the University of Tennessee, where she won the Distinguished Service Award from UT’s College of Communication and Information in 2006. She has published extensively in scholarly journals and written book chapters.
Now at Elon, she serves as the Communications Fellows program director, and she teaches courses such as Communications in a Global Age, Broadcasting in the Public Interest, and Media Management and Sales. She recently secured a contract to write another book, which she hopes to complete in the next year. She is also the editor of a book to be published that deals with the historical representations of African Americans in the media. Communications associate department chair Frances Ward-Johnson and assistant professor Julie Lellis have both contributed chapters to that book.