‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,’ the saying goes, shaming people who aren’t aware of a social or cultural issue. The statement carries a strong sense of superiority; the speaker is informing the listener that she knows about this thing, whatever it is, and everyone else should too. Hand in hand with this statement, of course, is the ‘oh, that, are people just learning about it?’ ‘ah, I see everyone else has learned about this now.’ Such scathing statements, of course, are tremendously helpful within the larger picture when it comes to talking about social issues and how to confront them.
Oh, wait, no they’re not.
The fact of the matter is unless there’s a magical chip I don’t know about that can implant your brain with all the information you’ll ever need to know, people have to acquire knowledge through exposure and learning, and that goes for me as well as everyone else. And, as I hope we all know, there are a number of barriers that stand in the way of knowledge; from the type of media people have access to, to how much time people have, to simple cultural awareness, which can depend on level of education to the environments someone frequents to a wide range of other factors.
One of the key ways in which people acquire information is the mainstream media, because it’s easy to access and ubiquitous. When social issues become significant enough to hit the mainstream media, awareness increases, and people start talking about them, though often those conversations are framed in really troubling ways and they may reinforce damaging social attitudes. Some of those people take the next step and decide to do some research and learning on their own, turning to the Internet and other sources to find information and build up a larger picture of the issue at hand so they can understand it better.
Which is why media diversity is important.
The kinds of stories that get told, and how they are told, is determined in large part by who is telling them. Look, for example, at the miles of tragedy porn about India produced in the United States by white journalists and commentators who are eager to impress their viewers and readers with their multicultural coverage how bad ‘they’ have it ‘over there.’ This creates a very specific image of India for consumers, some of whom are going to hold that image in their mind, and thus be shocked when they’re exposed to information suggesting India is not actually like that.
In a world where journalists from India, or from families with close ties to India, are reporting on the subject, the picture changes dramatically. Like their white counterparts, they’re reporting on news and information from India for the benefit of the West. Unlike their white counterparts, they have a deeper and greater understanding of the nation and its diversity, and they don’t have a vested interest in presenting India as a dirt and fly-encrusted hell-hole filled with misery and poverty.
Suddenly, the picture of India changes, because people are being exposed to more information on a broad platform, and thus there’s a much greater chance of exposure, and possibly a corresponding rise in interest in learning more about the country rather than assuming that mainstream media depictions provide enough information to be getting on with.
This is why people fight for media diversity, and why it’s a critical subject to be discussing. The issue isn’t just that people should be seeing people of more diverse backgrounds in the media, although of course that’s part of it; little Black girls should see themselves in the faces of the women on the nightly news, trans women should be able to hear their voices on the afternoon radio broadcast, disabled people should see themselves represented in the pages of national newspapers.
The media should reflect the full diversity and spectrum of society because otherwise they’re going to be serving a very limited audience with specific needs. In many cases, that audience wants media that confirm its own experiences and views, which limits the kinds of stories even further, because people may actively resist stories that conflict with their vision of the world; white people convinced that there isn’t an epidemic of police violence against young Black men, for example, don’t want to hear about protests against that violence within the Black community.
But the media should also be telling a larger range of stories, and that’s not going to be possible without a larger range of storytellers. It’s why the work of groups like the Women’s Media Center is so important, because they’re working for a world in which discussion about social issues becomes inescapable, rather than something that people can genuinely not know about because of their limited exposure.
Rather than blaming people for not having access to the same resources, or not knowing how to find those resources, we should be expanding those resources. Dryly commenting after the fact that you’re superior because you knew about an issue ‘before’ other people doesn’t really address the fundamental issue, which is that the issue is still an issue (even though you knew about it! gosh!) and it still needs to be addressed. And the more people who learn about it, the greater the chance of actually gaining some traction and changing the world that allows that issue to persist.
So you can choose to be a snot about it, or you can welcome people as they are, and you can work to make the media more diverse so that people don’t have to learn about issues long after the fact.