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How misrepresentation in media impacts marginalized communities

Experts say stereotypes circulated through media are very difficult to correct and reverse.

An illustration representing how information spreads virally. Malicious information "metastasizes like a cancer," said social epidemiologist Sharon Jones-Eversley.
An illustration representing how information spreads virally. Malicious information "metastasizes like a cancer," said social epidemiologist Sharon Jones-Eversley.Read moreISTOCK

When social epidemiologist Sharon D. Jones-Eversley speaks about false information circulated through media, she remembers a parable that her mother taught her. In the story, a man lies about another man in their tribe.

“And the man [who lied], as he got older, he felt really bad about this lie,” Jones-Everlsey explained in a recent Zoom call. Now an older, dying man in the tale, he went to visit the person he’d wronged. “He said, ‘I lied on you. I messed up your life. I’m very sorry. And the man [replied], ‘I forgive you.’ He said, ‘I been forgave you.’ He said, ‘But if you think that that lie that you told can be erased, it can’t.’ ”

So the man who’d suffered, took his visitor up a mountain, even though he was ailing. When they reached the mountain top, the man released a bunch of feathers. The wind took hold of each plume, each one blowing away from the summit.

The wronged man explained: “That one lie turned into feathers that flew all over the place, places that you don’t even know. Because it just didn’t harm me and my character and my future and my family. Right? You can’t get that back to me. But I appreciate you telling the truth for your own forgiveness as you’re about to pass away.”

Like the feathers in the wind, Jones-Eversley explained, the full cost of false depictions of marginalized groups is difficult to measure and to reverse. With more national attention on the harm of information pollution in society — especially its influence on the growth of hate groups and QAnon — she’s one of the researchers reconsidering how these malicious depictions have spread.

The Inquirer spoke to Jones-Eversley, an associate professor at Towson University’s Department of Family Studies and Community Development, and Mari Castañeda, communications professor and dean of Commonwealth Honors College at University of Massachusetts Amherst, about the impacts of false information, misrepresentation, and how the media use stereotypes to tell stories. Here are their perspectives on their research.

What’s accepted as truth

In Castañeda’s 2018 article, “The Power of (Mis)Representation: Why Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes in the Media Matter,” she wrote that stereotypical media depictions are received as the truth, rendering impressions that people of color are economically challenged and criminalized. Not seeing people of color in positions of power has real-life impacts. In an interview Monday, she pointed to hiring discrimination over ethnic names or her own experience encountering assumptions that she’s not a professor at the university where she works.

“People’s lived experiences, in fact, intersect across these and various other axes,” Castañeda wrote in 2018. “but mainstream media aims to veil the intersectionality of racial, gender, sexuality, and class realities while continuously reproducing minority stereotypes that reinforce oppressive conditions on and off the airwaves. The symbolic violence of racial formation across U.S. media platforms is especially insidious since it helps define who and who is not worthy of (cultural) citizenship and access to resources, such as education.”

Castañeda told The Inquirer that the stereotypes are not mere images, but can have disastrous effects “because they impact how people can perceive and therefore behave and act in the world towards others.”

“We’ve seen so many examples of that, and with regards to even relationships with communities of color in the police,” she continued. “Police may have certain assumptions about communities that are not just shaped by news or entertainment but really about how those over time get just reproduced over again. And the ways they get assumed by the language and the discourses that get circulated over again as well.”

Assumptions run deep

Jones-Eversley explains there’s a cost to “living a lie.” She began to look into media impacts after leading a workshop for public defenders on using storytelling and epidemiology when advocating for clients. In the courtroom, she explained, fabricated assumptions are placed on young Black and brown men that aren’t don’t represent their lived experiences.

“It almost makes people’s blood dry up, right? There is no sense of humanity to that,” she explained. “Particularly when we’re talking about young Black males, who are dying at a rate that’s extremely alarming ... Their deaths are viewed from policies and procedures and practices as being justified.”

Misrepresentation trap

Castañeda concurs that misrepresentation has been hard to correct. She explained that many communities continue to lack diversity, meaning that those media consumers would have few personal interactions that could provide context, and challenge the false media depictions they accept as true.

Isolation, whether through segregation or because of the pandemic, makes it harder to fight these misperceptions, she said, making it easier for consumer to fall back into the same patterns.

Also, the media industry continues to struggle with diversity in staffing or as Castañeda put it: “Part of it has to do with who then gets to ultimately say yes.”

“What is easier and cheaper to produce [is] going to lead to the most common denominator,” Castañeda said. “That doesn’t require depth or richness, because that just takes time, and that also takes a lot more work and that also takes a lot more labor and then it also takes a lot more money … But the problem is that it ends up, again, we could fall into that trap of both reproducing [tropes].”