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'St. Louis has become expert in coding race:' Discussing media representations of black men and boys

Dr. Jonathan Smith and Sharon Stevens joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh for a discussion about the depictions of African-American men and boys in the media.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Jonathan Smith and Sharon Stevens joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh for a discussion about the depictions of African-American men and boys in the media.

Negative public perception of African-American men and boys in American society has long been documented. Discussion in recent years has turned to how depictions of black men and boys in different media contribute to this stereotypical image.

Members of the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists and educators in St. Louis are banding togetherSaturday to discuss the issue and what can be done about it on a local level. On Friday, St. Louis on the Air hosted a discussion with a few of these community members about what needs to change.

Joining host Don Marsh for the discussion were Sharon Stevens, a producer and reporter with HEC-TV and retired education reporter with KSDK, as well as Jonathan Smith, the vice president for diversity and community engagement at Saint Louis University.

They discussed systemic reasons media outlets do not cover the lives of black men accurately, but Stevens said that her wish is not for media outlets to sugar coat things. She'd rather see a balance in reporting, that in addition to media outlets acknowledging the negative stories, they also goes in search of positive ones.

"Part of the problem is that there aren't enough of us in the newsroom pushing it, coming up with the ideas, and not enough people listening," Stevens said. "Someone comes to you with an idea to talk about something positive in Jennings or Northwoods or some place a lot of people have never been. It doesn't catch on with people in power. Sometimes we don't push our own stories, we're not blameless here."

Smith said that "code words" used in news stories about St. Louis also contribute to a lack of fair representation in the media.

"When you put [north city] in a news story, you're telling people about race, crime, the moral capacity of a group of people, you're telling stories about how much a community cares for itself," Smith said. "We've developed many strong ways of coding that here. St. Louis has become expert in coding race, religion, class and socioeconomic status in simple, innocuous terms like high schools, neighborhood names, references to county versus city. We've developed an efficient code into understanding people we live and work with."

Those codes make people either invisible or hypervisible, Smith said.

"There are ways in which we see young, black men in north St. Louis as being hyper-visible in terms of criminality but we don't see that aspect of black community, of black male fatherhood that has always been a strong chord in black community. These days, black fathers tend to be more involved on a daily basis than other fathers, but we have this persistent myth that the guy is not there."

Listen as Smith and Stevens discuss the issue and what can be done to rectify it:

Related Event

What: Image of Black Male in Media, Society Discussed

When: 2:30-6 p.m., Saturday, June 10 

Where: Saint Louis University, Boileau Hall, 38 Vandeventer Ave.

More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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