December 11, 2020

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION…Representation and the Media

by Tai Bickham


Continuing the Conversation… is a series of interviews with individuals and organizations here in Colorado working on the issues discussed in each week’s free virtual programming for Citizenship: A Practice of Society

This week, MCA Denver hosted a virtual conversation between exhibiting artist Alexandra Bell and University of California at Berkeley professor, Leigh Raiford, discussing race, representation and the media. You can watch the conversation here.  

Dr. Christopher Bell (no relation) is the Director of Graduate Studies and an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs. He teaches both theory and methodology courses in critical analysis of popular culture, rhetorical theory, representational theory, and mass media. Dr. Bell specializes in media studies with a focus on the ways by which race, class, and gender intersect in different forms of children’s media. He has written two children’s books, Do Not Open the Door! and Do Not Look Under the Bed!, was a TED talk presenter in 2016 on Bring on the Female Superheros!, and is a diversity and inclusiveness consultant for Pixar Animation Studios. 

Could you share with us what inspired you to study social science and media studies?

At heart, I’m a storyteller. I love stories. We, particularly in the United States, are a storytelling culture – stories are how we pass information down from one generation to the next. What’s in those stories matters profoundly for who we are as a people, how we think about people who are not like us, and how we then treat those people. That’s what inspired me to study what I study; I really see myself as a “cultural mechanic.” I find a piece of culture, I go under the hood, I try to figure out what makes it work, and every now and then, I pull out a part and say, “This part is broken and here’s how we fix it.” 

Has social media affected our ability to think critically? If so, how?

Of course they have. Then again, that presumes we had the ability to think critically before social media, and I would argue that people in Western civilization have never been particularly adept at critical thought. It’s not like all of a sudden, people were like, “Hey! I used to be so open to other people’s points of view, but now, I don’t want to hear them!” We’ve never wanted to hear them. All social media have done is brought us into closer proximity, both to people with whom we agree and to people with whom we don’t. Social media have made us much more aware of who in our lives fundamentally disagree with our world view in a way that never would have been possible 20 years ago. Those people still disagreed with us 20 years ago; they just didn’t show us memes about it every day, like they do now.

Do you think there is a way for the news to be reported without implicit bias?

Absolutely not, and it’s ridiculous to expect otherwise. Human beings profoundly lack the ability to be ob jective. There is literally no such thing as objectivity when it comes to human behavior. All human behavior is inherently subjective. News will always be biased, because it involves humans at every step: someone decides what story is important to tell, someone decides whose voices will be heard and whose won’t, someone decides how to frame the story, someone decides how to edit the story, someone decides where in the news publication to place the story based on their idea of its importance, and so on. At every step of the process, human subjectivity necessarily enters into things. When most people say “unbiased,” what they really mean is “biased in ways I like.” You’re better off looking for a live stegosaurus than unbiased  news coverage. Instead, what you’re looking for is less biased news coverage, which is not the same thing.

What is the role of photojournalism in implicit bias? In your research, have you found that a photo can influence a story for the consumer or creates a stereotype of the story before the contents of it are even read?

Yep. The United States is a culture that places ideological centrality on the image. What I mean by that is, from the very beginning of our lives, we are taught to think in pictures, to prioritize visual information, and to believe what we see. Given a picture and a text article at the same time, people will look at the picture first and make determinations about what they see before they read a lick of textual information. By the way, images are also not “unbiased,” and pictures lie to us all the time. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself, “What’s just to the left of what I can see in this image?” You don’t know, and you’ll never know. Know why? Because the photographer made that choice for you, on purpose, with an agenda to keep that information from you – because it’s not what they wanted you to see in order to make their visual argument. “Believing what you see” is a dangerous way to walk around in the world in 2020. 

How can the news be delivered and receptive without the sensationalizing stereotypes?
As an audience, what can we consumers of the news and other forms of media do to ensure we're not either bringing our own bias to what we consume or internalizing the bias of the reporter?

Those are two different questions, so I’ll answer the easy one first. “What can we consumers of the news and other forms of media do to ensure we're not either bringing our own bias to what we consume or internalizing the bias of the reporter?” Nothing. Not one thing. You are always bringing your own bias to what you consume, and there is literally nothing you can do about it. Your subjectivities are yours, and there is no other way to see the world other than through your subjectivities. There is no such thing as “outside of your own head,” so to speak. When you encounter information, in whatever form that takes, you are necessarily internalizing the bias inherent in what the author/creator/reporter is presenting. The only way around that is to find the same news from a different source and try to get a different perspective on it so you can sort of triangulate something you might loosely call “the truth.” 

The more difficult question is about presenting news without sensationalizing, and this is the fatal flaw of living in a society where news doesn’t just present information but is also owned by corporate entities with shareholders that expect returns on investments. News has to deliver eyeballs to advertisers as well as present information (or, at least, encourage your donations, in the case of something like NPR). Corporate interests dictate certain structural realities about news presentation: we have to “get there first,” “get the scoop,” appeal to our “key demographics,” and so on. Sensationalizing gets eyeballs, so news organizations do it. It’s not that complicated of an equation. Can it be presented without sensationalizing? Of course. Will it? Not as long as news organizations also need to make money. There’s a reason why BBC News and FOX News are very, very different presentations.

What are some resources you would recommend people curious about this issue and becoming more savvy consumers of media should read?

Start with Julie Smith’s Master the Media and snowball from there.