It took a mix of shame, rage and courage for Seattle Times staff reporter Tyrone Beason and NPR Code Switch co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji to set out to rewire media.
For Beason, this spark was seeing the park benches lining the mall in Washington, D.C. full of sleeping African American men and women. The scene held a mirror up to where the country saw his place as a poor Black man from a small town in Kentucky. For Meraji, it was being bullied on the playground for her Iranian heritage during the Iranian Revolution that caused her to cling onto her maternal puertorriqueña half.
Their stories bounced off one another in the Stevenson Event Center on May 21 for Student Media’s Radical Voices: Politics, Identity and the Media to navigate the discourse around how the three work together. Following this, the 170 attendees turned to their tables to discuss their relationship with the media, on a personal and societal level. These discussions drew from questions former City on a Hill Press editor-in-chief and San Francisco Examiner production manager Montse Reyes posed to the key speakers.
“I still to this day don’t talk that much about half of who I am,” Meraji said to the audience. “So I think that has really shaped me and impacted the way that I tell stories and the way I want to give people their humanity and tell a fuller version of the story.”
Beason only saw white faces on his newspaper growing up, while Meraji saw Iranian radicals. Both of these experiences propelled them to locate and explore where their truths lay in media by pulling stories from the sidelines to the center field.
Reyes guided Beason and Meraji to recount their experiences cracking open new truths in their storytelling.
“That absence and that silence is really hitting me right now,” Beason said in regards to the lack of full representation in the media. “But I think that is something that I talk about, to go out and actually ‘see’ people, to make sure that people don’t feel invisible, that people have a voice.”
Even when a conscientious reporter is trying to accurately and fully represent a group, Meraji noted, narratives in mainstream media can be erased.
She was sent to Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 twice to report radio segments on the police hearing following the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old, on Aug. 9, 2014. After Officer Darren Wilson was not declared guilty, frustrated community members responded with protests, which also resulted in lighting buildings on fire and shattering storefronts.
She spoke to a young Black man in front of a burnt Little Caesar’s and in her piece, she included a recording of him saying that he and other community members would continue to protest until a change is made. After her Twitter blew up with the horror that she did not get a voice of a protester, she realized her editor had cut her piece short to include a live interview with former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“I thought ‘People are going to think […] that I didn’t get all the voices, that I misrepresented what was going on.’ It was a horrible feeling,” Meraji said during the conversation. “It was a feeling that made me want to do podcasts, for there to be more time to be nuanced conversations, to talk about the grey areas, to show that there are more than two sides to a story.”
Third-year computer science major and attendee Taylor Dinwiddie sees trends of misrepresentation and lack of representation across the board in media, including video games, which he hopes to create. He and his round table discussed how media’s shifting landscape allowed for more stories to be told, such as through social media, that can make space for storytelling.
“As an African American male, the full story is often left out,” Dinwiddie said. “[…] I believe what Shereen was describing, the African American kid on top of the Little Caesar’s saying this was inevitable, it was. This kind of bleak view that us as African Americans have in regards to how people will treat us is just sad because it’s often the stereotypical stories that get put on to us.”
Reshaping not only how stories get told but which ones get told becomes complicated when others are distrustful of the lens behind them. An attendee asked the speakers how they weigh their objectivity. Both responded that being objective is always going to be layered by the perspectives their histories and identities carry, but that doesn’t mean they are less true.
“For a long time I avoided approaching this [question] of how do you balance objectivity versus personal biases because I wanted to appear objective,” Beason answered. “My being Black and gay and from the South, that is what I see when I see you. I don’t worry about objectivity, I worry about fairness and doing right by people.”