Narrative Matters

Last week, I attended the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, and during the panel “Scaled Impact through Movement Building: The Young Men of Color Movement,” moderator Tonya Allen shared an experience that happened in Detroit the previous day. She recalled that a young, African American man told her he hates when people say he lives in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country, because he is not dangerous or violent.

Implicit in that statement is his awareness that people perceive him to be dangerous or violent. Such perceptions will likely impact his access to opportunities and resources, and even his safety, throughout his life.

Richard Brown, who introduced the keynote speaker for the session, spoke of being aware of the significance of perception. He talked about his concern as the father of a black son who may be vulnerable to disadvantages and mistreatment because of his racial identity.

Brown also mentioned the powerful influence of media. He suggested that it could help change how people in the United States perceive black men and how black men perceive themselves. As a journalist in a room full of philanthropists, I was gratified that my industry was called to task.

Here are just two examples of recent studies of coverage of black men and boys in news media in Pittsburgh cited in: Portrayal and Perception: A Report from the Heinz Endowment’s African American Men and Boys Task Force.

  • “The content analysis found that the largest block of news stories linked to African American men and boys involved crime: 86 percent for television newscasts and 36 percent for the two daily newspapers. ‘Quality of life’ topics, such as education, business/economy, environment, leadership or the arts, represented significantly smaller percentages of the coverage.”
  • “Among the Pew results was the finding that, for local television stories involving African American men, the most frequent topics were sports (43 percent) and crime (30 percent), while for newspaper stories, crime led all news topics at 43 percent… ‘In either medium, however, African American males only rarely were present in stories that involved such topics as education, business, the economy, the environment and the arts,’ reported the Pew staff. ‘Of the nearly 5,000 stories studied in both print and broadcast, less than 4 percent featured an African American male engaged in a subject other than crime or sports.’”

During the panel, participants debated about how much narrative matters. One person suggested that you can’t “narrative your way out” of negative statistics, referring to the realities of black men’s disproportionately low rates of educational achievement and other standard of living indicators. Another panelist followed by acknowledging that nevertheless, racial bias exists. Structural and institutionalized inequality is real.

Then, a participant pointed out that narrative change can be a point of departure for creating a more egalitarian society.

I was encouraged to learn about the variety of philanthropic initiatives underway to address the entrenched inequality experienced by black and Latino boys and men during this plenary. Perhaps the philanthropic community can find ways to influence news media to acknowledge its bias and produce more balanced coverage of people of color. It’s so ingrained throughout society, it will take committed effort from a wide range of sectors and industries to dismantle it.

I work for a nonprofit called Solutions Journalism Network. Our goal is to spread the practice of rigorous reporting about responses to societal problems. We’ve just begun an internal dialogue about how to best apply solutions journalism to issues of racial inequality. Ultimately, we want news media to report on solutions that can be duplicated and to proliferate information that helps people engage civically.

And, yes, I want a more balanced narrative. I want the media to better serve the public with an accurate view of people of color, which I believe would result in a healthier society for all.


Lori S. Robinson is the Digital Curriculum Manager and Editor at Solutions Journalism Network.