A Clearer Reflection

Pitt summit questions the portrayal of black men and boys in media
Illustration by Stacy Innerst A Clearer Reflection
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For a college course, the assignment seemed simple enough, if not mundane: Ride a Port Authority bus into a city neighborhood and attend a lecture at the YMCA. Things changed, however, when the Duquesne University freshmen heard the neighborhood’s name — the Hill District, a historically African American community.

Almost all 28 of them were afraid to go there,” said their professor, James N. Crutchfield, recalling the September day with a chuckle. “The class was virtually all white, and they were reflecting their fears about what they hear on campus, from their parents and from the media.”

What created these notions? What perpetuates these views? What can be done to change them?

Similar questions played out during a recent daylong summit hosted by the University of Pittsburgh public affairs office: Evolving the Image of the African American Male in American Media. The event focused on two recent studies funded by The Heinz Endowments, concluding that Pittsburgh media outlets “reflect an incomplete and imbalanced view of African American men and boys.”

For many, the studies revealed nothing new. They did, however, produce evidence. One study, by Miami-​based Meyer Communications, was “African American Men and Boys Pittsburgh Media Audit.” It showed that fewer than one in 10 front-​page Pittsburgh newspaper stories over a three-​month period in 2010 featured black men and boys and, of those, 36 percent were crime stories. During the same period, 86 percent of local television news stories featuring black men and boys focused on crimes. “And crime coverage featuring black men tended to get more prominent play in the news, with the stories more likely appearing atop the news page or at the beginning of the newscast,” the report said.

Another study, by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., examined a two-​month period in 2011, finding that, for local television stories involving black men, the most frequent topics were sports (43 percent) and crime (30 percent). In newspapers, 43 percent of stories involving black men were crime stories.

Both analyses concluded that a disproportionate amount of Pittsburgh news coverage of African American men and boys focused on crime,” The Heinz Endowments wrote in its report, “Portrayal and Perception.”

Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette Executive Editor David Shribman said he plans to be part of the solution. “Both studies were very smart, fair-​minded and illuminating. I think The Heinz Endowments should be saluted for this kind of initiative. They deserve credit and they deserve our cooperation and they deserve our taking this very seriously.”

Often dubbed the country’s most livable city, Pittsburgh also has the highest poverty rate among working-​age African Americans of the 40 largest regions in the U.S., according to a 2010 U.S. Census Bureau study.

Perhaps an even more important reason we did this study is because, while there is the challenge of how these men are perceived by others, they begin to perceive themselves in a similar way,” said Heinz Endowments President Robert “Bobby” Vagt. “They see themselves portrayed primarily in either the ‘sports’ or ‘criminal’ roles… and that begins to shape self-​image.”

In 2007, The Heinz Endowments formed the African American Men and Boys Task Force dedicated to working with black communities to increase opportunities in Greater Pittsburgh. Vagt said the Heinz Endowments spent about $250,000 on both studies and the subsequent Nov. 1 summit discussion at the University of Pittsburgh. “I do believe the media have listened,” he said.

Crutchfield grew up in the Hill District and was former publisher of the Akron Beacon Journal and deputy managing editor of the Detroit Free Press before teaching journalism classes at Duquesne. He worked on the Meyer study and said, “I don’t think the newspapers and TV stations are bad-​intentioned. I think that we in the news business tend to be stuck in our ways. I think we’re going to remain stuck if our readers and viewers don’t try to help and press for change.”

Everyone in newsrooms across the country has to own this issue,” said Robert Hill, vice chancellor of public affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. “Fair, balanced reporting of the African American community has to be a requirement. And somebody has to hold their feet to the fire.”

In October, Pittsburgh Magazine unveiled its “40 under 40” list of winners, describing Pittsburgh’s dynamic and up-​and-​coming leaders. Two African American women made the list, but there were no black men. “It’s really just happenstance,” said Erin Molchany, executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Program (PUMP), which helps the magazine put the annual awards together. “We make sure the list is always diverse. Isolating one year of the award process really doesn’t do it justice.”

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed Pittsburgh media coverage from March 1 through April 30 last year. Researchers tracked all stories that aired on 11 p.m. news broadcasts for KDKA, WTAE and WPXI television stations. They also audited the front pages and local section front pages of the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-​Review. “Of the nearly 5,000 stories studied in both print and broadcast, less than 4 percent featured an African American male engaged in a subject other than crime or sports,” according to the Pew study.

The Meyer study focused on media coverage from April 1 through June 30 in 2010. Of the 198 print stories that focused on African American men and boys, 72 (36 percent) involved crime. On television, the percentage focusing on crime was higher still at 86 percent.

Corey Dade, national correspondent at NPR in Washington, D.C. and regional director of the National Association of Black Journalists, was not surprised by the Pittsburgh audits. “You can usually tie the lack of comprehensive coverage of minorities to a lack of diversity in the newsroom,” he said, “and diversity in the newsroom is an issue that the NABJ constantly addresses.”

The Meyer study cited 2010 statistics given by Post-​Gazette Managing Editor Susan Smith who said, at the time, that 8.9 percent of the paper’s newsroom staff was African American.

It’s a sobering report,” said Tony Norman, a columnist at the Post-​Gazette who is African American. “I don’t think it’s a singular failure of the Post-​Gazette but a systemic failure across our industry. We, as individual journalists, have to think about how to be fair and more representative of communities and more mindful of the best way to serve communities. I don’t believe anyone is going out of their way to alienate audiences, but there are whole communities that don’t read newspapers anymore.”

He also re-​evaluated his own approaches as a journalist in the weeks following the summit. “I asked myself ‘How do I approach this issue in the time that I have left in journalism, however long that is?’ The status quo is just not acceptable.”

Chris Moore, a talk-​show host on a variety of Pittsburgh television and radio outlets and an African American, remains skeptical: “I think the media feels put upon by the black community when they complain about these issues. If it bleeds, it leads, and this is the news. If we want to control it, we need to get a hold of some of our young people and say: ‘There is a better way than crime and guns.’ Unfortunately I think the economy has something to do with it as well.”

Moore said the Post-​Gazette ran an article about the Nov. 1 Pitt summit that included a photo of two black crime suspects and a black player on the Steelers — all on the same page. “It was the irony of ironies,” he said.

The Meyer study also included video interviews with the Post-Gazette’s Shribman and Sandra Tolliver, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s deputy managing editor for news and business. “People need to see a balance of what’s out there,” Tolliver is quoted as saying in the study. “I don’t think, for example, at mainstream newspapers we do nearly enough with lifestyles, functions.”

Neither Tolliver nor Tribune-​Review Managing Editor Jim Cuddy Jr. responded to requests for interviews for this story.

A striking part of the Meyer study contains a survey of 466 African Americans in Pittsburgh and their perspectives of the local media. When asked about how black men and boys are portrayed in the media, 96 percent said the coverage is negative. And 86 percent of male respondents said media coverage of black men and boys is not important to them personally. Half said they could not recall a story about their neighborhood that caught their attention.

NPR’s Dade said such survey results further detail the failing business models of already-​struggling news operations. In short, he said, they’re missing a business opportunity. “Mainstream organizations in Pittsburgh and other markets are losing viewers and readers. The obvious calculation they should make is to go after these other communities. The way you do that is by actually covering them and not just in a way that portrays them as criminals.”

Jasiri X, a hip hop artist and activist, is quoted throughout the Meyer study and participated in a panel discussion at the University of Pittsburgh summit. “We really want Pittsburgh to be most livable for everybody, not just for those few that live outside of our communities,” he told Pittsburgh Quarterly. “I’m here to help to create a better dialogue. I’m going to raise these issues and do my part to make Pittsburgh a better place.”

But Jasiri X is also skeptical. Along with The Heinz Endowments’ African American Men and Boys Task Force, he helped create a New Media Academy with the goal of helping young men analyze media coverage, create media reports, blog and dabble in social media. The academy hosted a closing ceremony Dec. 16 at Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center, complete with national speakers. “The place was packed — standing room only,” Jasiri X recalled. Notably absent, however, were the local print and broadcast media, despite press releases and other promotional efforts. “If a fight had broken out or something bad had happened, I’m sure it would have been a major media event locally.”

Filmmaker Nikki Young grew up in Pittsburgh and left for Georgetown University after graduating from Peabody High School in 1988. She made a home in Atlanta but has recently been spending long periods of time in Pittsburgh working on big-​budget film projects, including director John Singleton’s “Abduction.” “There is definitely culture shock when you come here from an environment where there are a lot of African Americans at various levels of the socioeconomic scale in a city like Atlanta,” she said. “When you come back to Pittsburgh, the African American population is smaller in terms of middle and upper class and there’s definitely a striking difference.”

She wishes the Pittsburgh media would spend time profiling black role models. “It’s not that they don’t exist. What I see is the media broad-​brushing entire communities, and the kids out there don’t see anyone like them doing positive things.”

Remedies suggested in The Heinz Endowment-​sponsored studies are generally nothing new for newsrooms, which have been sensitive to the topic for decades — if not completely successful. The remedies boil down to getting reporters and editors to be vigilant in their choice of stories, in their development of minorities as sources in non-​crime and non-​sports stories and in their continued awareness of the importance of the issue.

At the Post-​Gazette, such changes are under way, according to Shribman, who said that within an hour of his return from the Nov. 1 summit at Pitt, he initiated conversations with Post-​Gazette staffers. “I talked to several people about assuring that African Americans, not only males but all African Americans, be portrayed in everyday fashions just as we portray other people. Particularly in pictures. If we’re going to do a picture about people receiving flu shots or people lining up to buy Christmas presents or going to the post office, these pictures can just as easily be of African Americans as they can be of white people.”

And what of that Duquesne University class that ventured into the Hill District last fall? Crutchfield said all 28 students made the bus trip. And they all survived. “They found that it was just like any other place. There were positives and negatives, ups and downs there — just as anywhere.”

Ben Schmitt

Ben Schmitt graduated from Peabody High School in 1988 and Michigan State University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter at the Concord Monitor, Savannah Morning News, American Lawyer Media and the Detroit Free Press and won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He also helped report on the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which earned the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. He is now a staff writer for the Tribune-​Review.

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