Our Quote of the Week, given while Sargent Shriver was running for Vice President in 1972, spotlights an issue that continues to be of concern: that our media have a responsibility to adequately represent and report on people across our society. Given the media’s role in safeguarding our democracy, this issue cannot be understated.
In an explosive and sweeping campaign speech to Black broadcasters at the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers, Sargent Shriver raised several issues about the media. He lamented the fact that TV and other media did not accurately depict the diversity of Americans. He listed a number of examples:
- “Too often the eye that guides the television camera represents the world of the middle class whites. It represents the sights and sounds of a life far more homogeneous as it appears in the media than it is in reality.”
- “I never saw the reality on television that I have seen in Bedford-Stuyvesant and South Chicago -- the reality that people live.”
- “I never felt the reality on television that I first felt among migrant workers in California. I never saw the reality on television that I saw with my own eyes on Indian reservations in Montana. I never saw the reality on television that I saw four days ago in a foundry in Wheeling, West Virginia... there in the heat of open furnaces amid the thin, black dust of the cooling pits I saw the unfair, unsafe, tedious, youth-stealing work that the American laborer shoulders every day.”
Shriver also cited the example of biased coverage of the Attica uprising, which, for him, didn’t accurately represent any of the people involved: “Some have said that the coverage of the Attica riots was neither sensitive nor comprehensive to either side -- the townspeople or the prisoners.”
All of Shriver’s examples remind us that there are many negative ramifications to keeping underserved communities invisible, for if a society is not well-informed about the diverse challenges facing its most vulnerable populations, it cannot know nor address the needs of these communities.
It should also be pointed out that although Sargent Shriver could not have imagined the ways in which new media would transform our world, his concerns continue to apply and to extend to digital and social media. Admittedly, the digital age has allowed a larger percentage of the population to have a voice in our public discourse. It has enabled, for example, participants in progressive protest and labor movements to organize, mobilize, and inform others about their struggles. But new challenges and risks have appeared, including the ease of spreading hate speech and cyberbullying on the internet, the attacks on user privacy, and the spread of disinformation and misinformation – all of which pose dangers to our democracy. One need simply to look to Elon Musk’s recent efforts to acquire Twitter to see all of the debates about these issues. And representation is still an issue online, as people in low-income households are less likely to have internet access and are shut out of communications and services that are available only online.
Whether we’re dealing with traditional media sources (television, radio, print newspapers) or with digital media, our society relies on sound communications sources to inform the population and to keep politicians and other public figures accountable. We need media reports that are thorough, well-researched, and placed in their proper context. And it is up to all of us to demand these things from our media channels, with our voices and with our choices.