By Christopher Smith
Picture a terrorist.
Dalton State College Assistant Professor Matt Hipps says he can probably describe the terrorist in most people’s minds.
“Most people think of a man from the Middle East,” he said, “because the media has conditioned us to think a certain way when we hear certain words or see images. But what about Timothy McVeigh? What about the guy who shot up Newtown, Conn. (Adam Lanza), what about a guy who shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. (James Holmes)? They were terrorists, too.”
Hipps’ point? The media does not present “reality” when it comes to demographics. Hipps spoke to Dalton State faculty and students and members of the public last week about his research on how the media portrays different races.
“Have we gotten past the racism that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s? Have we really moved beyond that?” Hipps asked. “Fifty-five percent of Americans — according to a CNN poll — believed the election of our first black president would bring about real racial change in hearts.
“Now, unfortunately, CNN did another poll after Obama’s second inauguration and found we are more racist now — statistically — than we were in the mid-1960s. That got me wondering. So I have one central question: Do we still look at the world in a racialized way? Do we still have a racial lens?”
Hipps says we do and that the media is to blame because of the images they choose to use.
The crux of Hipps’ research consisted of looking at more than 700 recent images used by Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and the New York Times Magazine to see how popular media depicted workers, non-workers, the size of poor families, the age of the poor and those on unemployment.
“I really wanted to see what these images told us about poverty,” Hipps said. “According to the federal Census Bureau, about 46 percent — about half of the actual poor — are white. About 28 percent are black, 23 percent are Hispanic.
“In the depiction of the poor by the media, about half were white and 42 percent were black. There was a statistically significant number difference between the actual number of poor black people and the 42 percent I found in magazines. Also, there are significantly less pictures of Hispanic people. You could probably make a reasonable argument that most media outlets see poverty as a black and white issue.”
Most people think poverty is “strictly a black issue,” Hipps added.
“In reality, it’s not,” he said. “Sixty-five percent of Americans identify African-Americans as the largest group receiving government assistance. That’s impossible when you look at America. There’s just not that many black people. If 13 percent of the population is black and 78 percent is white, you’re going to have less impoverished black people than white people because there are just more white people to be poor. Poverty is not a black-white issue.
“That’s a big deal because if poverty is a black problem then black people should fix it. Poverty becomes a one-group issue and not an everybody issue. It’s not a black issue or a white issue. It’s a larger issue. When the media talks about a certain group in certain ways — or over-represents a group as poor — it shapes us. We think about people in a certain way. Everyone is guilty of it.”
Everyone is guilty because we rely too heavily on the media to “fill in the gaps,” Hipps said.
“There’s a quote (by the late journalist Walter Lippmann) that sums up the core of my research,” he said. “It says, ‘(There are) pictures in our heads that shape our feelings and actions and these pictures only imperfectly reflect the world that surrounds us.’
“We live in a big world. It’s impossible for all of us to experience everything. We’re limited by our geography, we’re limited by our own comfort zones. And so we use images and pictures to fill in the gaps of the rest of the world ... The important things about images is it shows us the goes-without-saying. Things we assume.”
The same goes for Hipps’ research.
“It’s important to realize that this is just what I’ve found and not the end all, be all,” he said. “It’s just a snapshot. This is not a damning portrait of any group or person, but just that there are trends we need to be aware of and a conversation we should start having.”