On Thursday, tears were shed on and off the stage of the Cutler Majestic Theater after panelists shared stories of violence and loss.
Emerson College hosted a panel on the role of media and art in gun violence, bringing in four activists with deeply personal stories. The event was the first organized by the new Elma Lewis Center for Civic Engagement, Research, and Learning, and was co-organized by ArtsEmerson.
Kelly Bates, recently appointed executive director of the Elma Lewis Center, coordinated and moderated the discussion, entitled The Violence Divide: Race and Class Disparities in the Media’s Response to Gun Violence. The panel focused on the media’s representations of race and class in instances of gun violence, and on the role art plays in the healing process. The event, which was open to the public, was attended by 150 students and community members.
President M. Lee Pelton opened the discussion with a statement on gun violence. He specifically spoke about its effect on young people, and implored the media to take responsibility in shaping coverage of tragedies.
“[Gun violence] is a public health crisis of enormous proportions,” Pelton said. “Media plays a significant role in how we frame gun violence and shootings in our nation.”
The panel was not held in conjunction with Pelton’s year-old, ongoing initiative to hold discussions about gun violence on campus, according to Bates. She said that while the panel was not coordinated with the president’s office, he was kept up to date with the plans, and that regardless, both offices are trying to encourage as much dialogue as possible on the issue of gun violence.
The four panelists—Betty Shoels, Taisha Akins, Courtney Mark Grey, and Michael Patrick MacDonald—discussed their experiences with racial discrimination in the media’s coverage of violence. Shoels and Akins said they directly encountered gun violence when each lost a member of their family. MacDonald told stories of growing up in a poor white area of South Boston.
Shoels talked about her nephew’s death in the 1999 Columbine school shooting. She focused on how the media treated his death differently because he was the only black student among the 13 victims who were killed. According to Shoels, her nephew was unfairly characterized as a bad child because it made for a better story.
“[The media] needs to step up and tell the truth instead of hiding in a corner and telling the story the way you want to tell it,” she said.
Akins said she lost her son to a street shooting and felt the impact of his race in the way she was treated. She said the police told her she was a bad mother, and that the press wouldn’t take no for an answer when asking for interviews. She attributed this to the fact that her family is black.
“They broadcasted all my information … on the newscasts,” she said. “I had to move for fear for my other children.”
Both women said the media portrayed their family members as gang members and miscreants. Both boys were assumed to have been a part of the violence that took their lives, as opposed to innocent victims, said Shoels and Akins.
MacDonald briefly touched on his history with gun violence — his mother was killed by a stray bullet shot into their kitchen and three of his siblings, two of whom were involved in gangs, were killed violently, he said.
He also spoke about what he called a racial spin in the media, saying that South Boston was only covered in instances of aggression with a racial angle.
“[Violence] could only be reported on if we could talk about the black perpetrator, not the black victim,” he said.
Grey, director of trauma services for the Boston Public Health Commission, talked about a change that he said needs to occur in the new generation of journalists. He said he wanted to use the panel to reshape the paradigm of how tragedies are reported, specifically in regard to race.
He also told a story of boys performing an interpretive dance after a funeral to express their emotions. Grey said that acts like this, poetry, song, and other forms of art, can help the mourning and healing process.
Phillip Martin, a reporter for WGBH-FM, was supposed to join the panel via Skype, but was forced to disconnect due to technical difficulties.
After the panelists spoke, the audience was invited to ask questions and give comments. Participants, most of whom were community activists and Emerson students, mentioned pressures and racism they said they faced as African-Americans.
Tashanea Whitlow, a journalism graduate student, talked about the racial diversity of reporters she had encountered.
“The newsrooms are not as diverse as the communities they report on,” she said, which was received with cheers and whistles in agreement from the panelists and members of the audience.
Tate Drucker, a freshman journalism major, said the panel exceeded her expectations.
“It was a lot more emotional than I thought it was going to be. I came in here expecting a lot of comments about the general national issue,” she said, “but what I loved and what I thought made it so powerful and so emotional was how it really honed in on how this is an issue in neighborhoods…in Boston.”