For my continuing series with change makers and solutionaries, I recently talked with media expert Dr. Debra Merskin. Debra has tackled some of the toughest media issues of our time, and she is one of the most intriguing people I know.
HF: Your work focuses on how marginalized groups are represented in the media on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and species. How did you first become interested in these issues?
DM: Throughout my career I’ve focused on how media can include or exclude, illuminate or erase, those who are not in positions of power. When marginalized beings are included the representations tend to be one-dimensional and stereotypical.
After years of focusing on the impact of these (mis)representations on vulnerable human populations it became clear to me that speciesism is also present. The anthropocentric lens through which most media (and by that I mean television programs, documentary and entertainment films, magazine articles, books, radio, and the Internet) content is produced privileges human interests with little to no regard for how these representations might impact lived experiences of other animals.
Once the intellectual light went on, I could not ignore how intersections of oppression on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, also includes which species one belongs to.
HF: Your first book, Media, Minorities, and Meaning, examined how stereotypes and myths perpetrated in American mass media normalize marginalization. Was there anything in your research that really surprised you?
DM: One thing that was not so much a surprise, but a teaching moment for me was a realization of how powerful stereotypes are, how real histories are rendered invisible or told only from the perspective of the dominant culture.
This silencing of voices became very clear and so did the patterns of stereotyping across groups. For example, as I describe in my book, African American, Latino or Latina, Asian, and Native American men and women tend to be presented as either hypersexual and young or asexual and old. Another surprise was how a seemingly positive stereotype, that Asians are good at math and science, belies the fact that this suggests to an Asian person that if he or she does not excel in sciences, he or she is somehow not good enough. Although positive, this is also a one-dimensional portrayal that presents a diverse people as being all the same and with little to no individual variation.
These representations are vastly different from the ways dominant (in particular white, middle class, male) culture is represented. In these cases, although there is an emphasis on success and violence for men, the range of occupations, physical appearance, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors span a wide range of ways of being and appearing. For those outside of this socially constructed norm, there are typically only two options or ways of being: good or bad according to the stereotypes of what those ways are. White women are still limited in media representations (as in life) compared with white men.
Despite progress in legal, political, and economic life, media portrayals remain highly sexualized and objectified. Seeing oneself in limited, largely negative form often results in internalization of mainstream values and, as is the case, for example in domestic violence situations, if a person hears something about him or herself often enough (i.e. as deserving the violence) he or she comes to believe it is true. These forms of internalized oppression, that a person is something negative or lesser-than should he or she not embody the stereotype, is an additional way people are oppressed. They come to believe what is said, written, or shown is “the truth.”
HF: Your forthcoming book explores the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and species through an examination of how animals are represented in media. Why is it important to look at similarities in how gender, race, and species are represented in media?
DM: Intersections is the right word, as it is intersectionality theory (which arose out of feminist theory) that argues that human beings (and I extend this to include all beings) are more than a single identifying characteristic. For example, there’s a difference among human beings in terms of access to power and resources on the basis of sex (male/female), gender (masculine/feminine), race, ethnicity, social class, sexuality, age, and so forth. We are all these things AND each provides different levels of access to participation in and consideration by the cultures we live in.
I extend this model to include species as a category of difference. Whether or not one is a member of Homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans) makes a huge difference in treatment, regard, and valuing. This view by no means diminishes the importance of the human story but rather includes animals in the sphere of compassion. If, for example, the worst thing one can be called is an “animal” or the most horrible experience is to be treated like one, where does that leave animals?
HF: You and Carrie Freeman, another media scholar, have a website called Animals and Media: A Style Guide for Giving Voice to the Voiceless, which provides guidelines for journalism about animals. Why is it important for journalists to follow a set of guidelines when writing or talking about animals?
DM: According to the Society of Professional Journalists (the American professional organization that represents journalists) code of ethics, journalists have a responsibility to speak on behalf of others who, for whatever reason, aren’t heard, whose perspectives aren’t represented. Under the edict “Seek the Truth and Report it” is the directive to “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.” Examples of this kind of reporting include those whose work shines light on abuses, such as murdered journalist Steven Sotloff who reported on human dimensions and consequences of conflict in the Middle East or television journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell who covers stories of animals and supports re-languaging ways they are referenced in media content.
Dr. Freeman’s work (in collaboration with biologists Marc Bekoff and Sarah Bexell) advocates for those who are voiceless and underrepresented to include animals (and/or their representatives). We have extended this ethical standard to include producers of all media content (filmmakers, advertisers, public relations practitioners, and the general public) who, we believe, have a responsibility when creating communication content to do so accurately, responsibly, and compassionately.
Most of the time, journalists represent only the human side of stories on animals, particularly when it comes to farmed animals and wildlife. We’d like to see the view become more inclusive to consider what impact our actions have on animals. This includes choice of language. Moving from “it,” for example, to “his or her,” is a positive step in making animals real to readers and viewers.
Very often, the only connection everyday people will have with most species of animals (this includes birds, reptiles, fish) is through the media. How beings other than humans are represented is critical to creating or maintaining an empathetic sense of them.
HF: As a professor at the University of Oregon, you teach students about the power of the written and spoken word. In today’s world, how do your students view their responsibilities as future journalists and other media professionals?
DM: To be honest, I think they are confused – prior to becoming students of communication and eventually professional communicators, they have been inundated by commercialized, stereotypical, hegemonic narratives about American culture. This includes messages that their value is not as citizens, but as consumers and an instrumental view of the planet and other beings as in they exist for human purposes.
However, I find those who are interested in making social change, particularly those who still are interested in reporting and documentary filmmaking, are driven to expose contradictions in the system that maintains power among a few elite groups. They want to pull back the curtain on the production and consumption of media and consumer goods in the culture, and take their role seriously. They are committed to learning the skills that will enable them to do this.
Whenever I teach a class I developed, “Animals and Media,” there are always students who come to me shocked by how much they didn’t know about the circumstances of real animals in the world, how animals are used symbolically, how disconnected we are from them, and how important media storytelling is to our doing a better job as citizens of the planet. Those are the moments that keep me teaching – seeing that passion and drive in their eyes, in their writing, and in the projects they produce.
HF: How do you feel about the future of media?
DM: I am very concerned. Traditional media as we know it (newspapers, magazines, television, film) is already changing in ways that are likely good. The great losses, and these are relevant to giving voice to animals, are in fields of reporting, for example, where newspapers are folding and magazines don’t have the funds for long form, investigative reporting.
On the other hand, the Internet is exploding with online versions of what were offline media forms. Television channels are adding content everyday, particularly in areas of documentary film and television production. The challenge is to get the “if it bleeds it leads” news mentality away from shock production of series and shows such as Shark Week, Jaws and Claws, and other sensationalistic programming to those kinds of programs and stories that actually inform people, let them know what is going on in the world, and importantly, provide information on how they can help after reading or viewing content.
The documentaries Black Fish and The Cove did great jobs of this – they provided the evidence in an informative and accessible manner and left audiences with information they could use to help create change. We need more of this and we need funding to go in that direction. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and other new forms of media provide ways of inciting instant action, spreading information, and creating awareness in ways that were never available before. I think that’s the future of media – greater citizen involvement. That’s also the challenge – to get good information out there – good science, accurate interpretations of science, first person accounts, and stuff over fluff.
HF: In spite of the difficult subject matter you tackle, you are a very positive person. How do you stay optimistic about the future?
DM: Wow, thank you, I don’t think of myself in this way, but I suppose so. The work we do, you do – all of us who care for others have our hearts broken one hundred times a day. Animals matter so much and are so vulnerable to what we humans decide and do every single day.
What keeps me going? Looking into my cat or dog’s eyes as often as possible, that keeps me going; seeing animals adopted at shelters, tabling for animal conservation organizations, and never taking my eyes off the absolute prize, to help even one animal be happier, healthier, freer. And the community of people, the network of others who remain positive, who do their work on behalf of animals, that connection is precious and rare.
The same applies to human communities. Social media is making it nearly impossible for those whose agendas include inflicting suffering on others to conceal their actions (as evidenced by use of cell phone cameras and other tools in Ferguson, Missouri). Facebook is another platform by which all suffering can be exposed, individuals and groups rallied, and activism incited for the benefit of all beings.