I have endless feelings about media-related issues right now. Network news opted for ratings and focused in disproportionately on Hillary Clinton’s emails during this election; pundits read polling data the way the thought viewers wanted to hear it so no one had a clear picture of what was going on, and the media did little to hold Trump accountable. All that is too late to change.
There are four media-related issues that I want to bring up, though.
First, good media costs. I love online media as much as anyone, but major news organizations charge for access, and until recently, I hadn’t bothered to subscribe, because I got information from so many different sources, I couldn’t be bothered. But if you can afford a subscription, now is the time to consider subscribing to media like the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc, because we are going to need the media to be in good form.
Second, support local media–local news stations and local newspapers. A lot of them were wiped out during the Great Recession, but they’re the ones more likely to actually investigate, track, and hold accountable state legislatures, and we have to be able to keep an eye on what is happening at the state level. Don’t think state politics matter to you? State legislatures control things like education spending, test requirements, infrastructure development, etc, and impact issues such as health insurance regulations, abortion access, access to birth control, access to other healthcare, LGBTQ rights, and so many other things. We only hear about bills coming out of legislatures when they are controversial enough to gain media attention, but HUNDREDS of bills are passed through state legislatures every year that impact people’s daily lives.
Third, consider reading and/or contributing to media that exists outside of your normal spectrum of media outlets. Hear me out: media is helping to fuel the echochambers we live in. I don’t think that urban America is somehow not the “real America”, but I do think that we can’t solve anything if we don’t acknowledge what is happening in the rest of the country. Ask yourself: which newspapers are big in the mid-west? In the South? What media sources are widely read in rural Indiana or Oklahoma? What story about America are we not reading? What story about America are those readers not reading?
Fourth, and this is big: we need to DEMAND better representation in films and TV shows. The reality is that as great as it would be for people across rural America to come to big cities and meet people, they often don’t have the financial means to do so. It’s easy to forget, especially coming from somewhere like California or the Northeast, how big this country really is. If you have to drive ten hours to reach a mid-size or large city, you may not have the time and the money to actually get there. The ways in which people who are relatively geographically isolated from the rest of the world interact with the rest of the world is through media. And media still, to this day, primarily casts white men or white women as their leads, and buys into a Christianized secular American culture that allows them to depict Christmas as a normal American tradition while ignoring every other culture and tradition in this country.
Think for a minute about the media you have watched. How many shows or movies can you think of where there are explicitly Jewish characters? Now ask yourself this: how many of those Jewish characters actually engage with Jewish religion or culture on the show? I can think of one off the top of my head (The West Wing), though I’m sure there are a few more. Now ask yourself this: how many shows can you think of where there are Muslim characters? How many of those characters are NOT terrorists or terror suspects? How many shows or movies have you seen that even depict Buddhists, or Hindus, or Sikhs? While we’re at it, how many show Latinx people or Black people as major characters? How about major characters who are not criminals, who don’t have any family members who are seen on the show who are criminals? This same issue applies to sexuality-~we need more LGBTQ representation in shows, and not just where their characters end up dying.
Representation matters. It shapes how people psychologically respond-~-if you routinely see media and news where every time a Black person in a hoodie reaches into a pocket, they pull out a gun, your brain is trained to associate those things with each other. If every time you see a Muslim depicted in a TV show, they are a terrorist or a terror suspect, and there are no Muslims in your community, there’s no meaningful counter-narrative. It’s time to DEMAND that Hollywood step up to the plate and provide these counter-narratives.
Besides, where these counter-narratives do exist, shows have been successful. The West Wing was a major hit show for seven seasons and featured a Black man as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a Black man as personal aide to the president, a Black woman as National Security Advisor, two Jewish men as White House senior staffers, and (in seasons 6 and 7) a Latino presidential candidate. Quantico, now in its second season, stars Priyanka Chopra, a South Asian woman, and has featured a Black woman as a high-ranking FBI agent, and a Jewish man and two Muslim women as FBI agents in training; in its second season, it also features two Black characters as high-ranking CIA agents. Grey’s Anatomy has numerous Black, biracial, gay, and bisexual characters, and has, in its history, featured story-lines focused on intersex and transgender characters. How to Get Away With Murder notably features, in its core cast, only 2 straight white men among a group of racially diverse characters. Even family-oriented shows have handled diversity with some success, including Freeform’s Switched at Birth, which includes numerous Latinx and Deaf characters. But it’s not enough, it’s nowhere near enough, to counter the idea that “everyone celebrates Christmas” or that white people in charge is the norm. It’s not enough to balance against media like Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, or 24, in which the bad guys were all Muslim. It’s not enough to balance against the dozens of films which come out each year which feature white men and women as their leads.
Hollywood needs to cast more representative stories. It’s not about including a couple of people of color in our media though; it’s about actually telling some of their stories. It’s about casting them in roles that aren’t dependent on color, because white shouldn’t be treated as a default. It’s about actually depicting lives outside the white, Christianized secular bubble we’ve come to treat as the norm, even though it isn’t for so many people. We need better stories, and we need more diverse groups of people cast as heroes, as supporting characters, as love interests, on our TV shows and on the big screen. And we should support media that accomplishes this, because it plays a hugely important role in how our society thinks about people.