This semester, I joined Ball State University’s Department of Journalism as its first professor of diversity and media. It’s no secret in the news and communications business that we need more people of color, more women, and more diverse cultural experiences. We benefit when there is varied representation in news organizations making decisions about the kinds of news that gets covered in our communities.
For this to happen, the academy needs to graduate students who are sensitive to the cultural differences that diversity brings, and know how to seek it out in their approach to storytelling. It’s the only way news and news media organizations can do a better job reflecting the growing diversity in this country. Diversity in media, or the lack of it in America’s newsrooms, affects how communities perceive themselves.
In class, I teach students about the importance of reflecting the cultures and identities of the communities we cover. One way I do this is by using a visual research methodology I developed called Sight Beyond My Sight. SBMS helps people understand cultures and identities through the photographs the people in communities produce.
Discussions about diversity are long overdue in media courses and classrooms. This is highlighted by the comments I received during a recent class assignment for our unit on feminism. The assignment called for students to pair into groups of two, watch three primetime television shows, and code the physical characteristics of the female actors on these shows. Coding was based on three factors: color of their hair, body type and if they were (by U.S. standards) attractive. They will do the same exercise for men later in the semester. I wanted students to gain an awareness of what they were watching and prepare for future class discussions.
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Students noted some of the portrayals reinforced more traditional gender roles, while others were more socially progressive. The assignment itself was offensive to at least one student. “I felt very uncomfortable with this assignment, particularly when rating the attractiveness of these women,” wrote one student. “I understand that this is meant to point out that depictions of women are often unrealistic. This is also clear when standards for females are compared to men. However, I don’t feel that rating the attractiveness of an individual person (because we are rating the person, not the character they are playing) is necessary or appropriate.”
I told the student this critical assessment of the assignment and their advocacy for issues important to them was precisely the intended learning objective. I explained students were not ranking the attractiveness of the women, but coding the categories for further research. Each number represents a code and not a ranking.
It is experiences like these that highlight we are on the right track. We are developing a class that fosters students’ reflection and engagement on issues related to diversity in media. It is my responsibility to promote diversity awareness and sensitivity among our students. It is my calling to amplify these diverse voices, which more realistically represent American culture within the media.
It’s easy to say diversity is important. It’s another to do something about it. I’m delighted to play a small role in improving how the next generation of journalists view cultural differences and how they represent those cultures in newsrooms, new media organizations and boardrooms across the United States and the world.