Despite what the old English nursery rhyme says, words and names do hurt and can have a long-lasting and harmful effect in the way race and ethnicity is discussed in the U.S., particularly when it comes to talking about youth of color.
According to Judith Brown, the co-director of the Advancement Project, the way to help alleviate this is to have more people of color in top positions in the nation’s newsrooms.
“We’ve created this dialogue and narrative in this country about people of color in which they should be treated as less than human,” Brown said.
The Advancement Project is a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C., and it recently co-sponsored a forum which looked at the ways the media plays a role in perpetuating negative stereotypes of youth of color by using certain words to describe a person or a situation.
“There is a history of how we talk about people of color,” she said. "They are spoken of as disrespectful, disobedient, mouthy, as gangbangers, illegals, thugs, violent, disorderly; leading to the ultimate conclusion that they brought this on themselves. We criminalize and blame the victim."
Mervyn Marcano is a political communications consultant and is also Afro-Latino. There is already a double standard standard surrounding the coverage of African American and Latino youth, Marcano said, and they “already have a challenge when it comes to getting accurate and humane coverage of their issues."
Marcano and others pointed out several instances of what they characterized as the media's criminalizing coverage of youth of color, including Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's much-publicized comments calling a 14-year-old forcibly removed from a pool party by police as “no saint.” In another example, a Florida television station reported on the shooting death of a young Latino using an old mug shot even though other photos were available.
The progressive media watchdog group Media Matters also conducted a study of New York City news outlets – the country’s top media market – and found that the news gave disproportionate coverage to crime stories involving African Americans.
Cristina López, who works at Media Matters, said a good place to start changing these stereotypes would be by putting more people of color on TV, especially on the Sunday morning talk shows. Having a diverse newsroom would help alleviate these instances of inaccurate coverage, she said.
“You see a news story or a certain narrative go down the pipeline and eventually it reaches the Sunday shows, which are the places where news gets spun," she said. "That’s where political actors set the agenda for political discussion on all the issues.”
But it cannot end there, López said. Diversity is important down the line, in production rooms, and who gets to comment.”
“We’re becoming more diverse and failing to include an accurate portrayal of these communities constitutes misinformation," said López. "Words matter, and if we let slurs go unchecked we will be normalizing the use of disparaging words."
"Disparaging words, such as those used to describe immigrants, dehumanizes an individual and blames them for diseases, for terrorism and oftentimes it leads to harsher policy proposals,” she added. Media observers such as López recommend steering away from words such as “illegal alien,” “resident alien,” and even “juvenile” because they consider them to be dehumanizing and perpetuate stereotypes.
The Maynard Institute submits that a lack of people of color in decision-making positions in the nation’s newsrooms – mainly newsroom managers -- is a major part of the problem and recommends a more diverse staff in the upper echelons of the newsroom to ensure more accurate coverage.
“Contributing to embedding these stereotypes is that even as U.S. Census data show a growing number of nonwhites in America, fewer people of color are in decision-making positions at daily newspapers, television and radio stations, and online news organizations,” the report stated.
Less than half of Hispanics and African Americans think the media portrays their communities accurately, according to the American Press Institute. Latinos represent about 6 percent of management positions at English-language television stations – and just 2 percent at radio stations -- says the Radio and Television News Directors Association. About 13 percent of staffers at English-language daily newspapers are Latino, according to the American Society of News Editors.
“All of this matters for reasons that go beyond political correctness or manners," López said. "These things such as diversity matter for the lasting impact on the day-to-day lives of actual people."