How Can the Media Improve Representations of Diverse Identities?

Understanding how to ensure sensitive and accurate portrayals of different groups in various forms of media.
Dr. Jared Bahir Browsh of Jefferson’s College of Humanities. ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services

Media has the power to shape perspectives and ideas. Whether it is television, movies, cartoons and comics, or news media, these different forms of media can influence how we perceive others, and how we perceive and value ourselves. Representation of diverse racial and ethnic groups, and sexual and gender identities in media is critically important to more accurately reflect the communities we live in. Lack of, and insensitive, representation can not only perpetuate harmful stereotypes and discrimination, but marginalize identities even further. Jared Bahir Browsh, PhD, interim co-director and visiting assistant professor of communication in Jefferson’s College of Humanities is exploring how to improve representation in entertainment and news media. Read on to learn more about his work and his hopes for the next generation of media professionals.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: Just over a month. I wanted to be at a growing University where I could work more directly with students and provide them opportunities to pursue their careers in communication and journalism. It helps that it is in the best city in the world.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research. What’s one question you’re exploring?

A: Why does the media struggle so much at sensitively and accurately portraying all groups equally and what can be done to improve the situation? It often takes large events and movements, like Black Lives Matter, to reveal how the lack of diversity in newsrooms and in media productions leads to inaccurate, insensitive and even derogatory representations and news coverage. Walk-outs at news outlets like the Philadelphia Inquirer and media companies like Netflix also reveal that, even when you have a diverse staff, decisions by leadership can make employees belonging to marginalized populations feel as though there is a severe lack of understanding about their experiences. In my own research I have also found complacency, reliance on franchises and strategies that were successful in the past, and a fear of risk due to economic considerations have created obstacles in enacting change.

I currently focus on animation, sports, journalism and television with my first book, Hanna-Barbera: A History. The book contextualizes the content produced by the legendary animation duo to reveal how their content largely upheld the ideological status quo of white male privilege, which was reinforced by a lack of diversity behind the scenes and reflected in their content. As their franchises find new life through streaming, it is important to (re)examine their content as a new generation of children consume not only new content featuring characters like Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, and the Flintstones, but also older content featuring these franchises.

I want the next generation of media producers and communicators to understand the history of the media and how it impacts the current state of representation. – Dr. Browsh

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: When I was an undergraduate student, I noticed that there were very few shows or characters in children’s television I watched growing up that truly reflected my life or experiences growing up in a mixed faith family, and as I reached adolescence, a single parent home. In graduate school I originally focused on animation and children’s media before expanding into other areas of popular culture and information including sports and news. The entry point and connection to all these areas is the corporatization of the US media system with only five media companies responsible for the dissemination of 90% of our media. These companies (Comcast, Disney, ViacomCBS, Fox, WarnerMedia) own subsidiaries across all of these areas of the media which allows them to cross-promote and ensure they are able to market and sell to consumers from the cradle to the grave. For example Disney owns multiple animation studios, including Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, the largest sports media company in the world, ESPN, and ABC News.

Q: What’s the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?

A: I want the next generation of media producers and communicators to understand the history of the media and how it impacts the current state of representation. Then I want them to help support progress once they become professionals in their fields.

Q: What’s a cool or little known or unique fact about your work?

A: Hanna-Barbera was the most prolific producer of cartoons between the 1950s and 1990s surpassing both Disney and Warner during this time. They popularized the animated sitcom, which showed that jokes and familiar tropes can carry an animated series that features lower quality animation then its theatrical counterparts like Snow White. Their work helped establish children’s television and Saturday morning as a destination for cartoons and children’s television, demonstrating that children loved to watch the same content repeatedly since they felt comforted by the familiarity. Children’s media producers realized they can make more money from ancillary revenue sources like merchandising and licensing than from the show itself.

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: There is a place for you in communication regardless of background, identity, skills or experience. Anything you do not know you can learn. Also, every organization and industry need communication professionals, communication is key for any career path and goal.

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