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2009/06/22

Racism: Intentional or ignorance?

The topic of the day was diversity. During the discussion of being aware of race representations in the media Sharon Bramlett-Solomon (at left) spoke her ideas and opinions about the issue.

One of the initial comments she made was that she examined the representation of blacks in The Arizona Republic and found that in eight out of 10 photographs they were shown in an unfavorable way - being in need, or underprivileged. What Bramlett-Solomon did not share during the conversation was how often the white people in the paper were also shown as being in need. I say this not to try to discredit her statement (as her statement is factual and the issue does need addressing) - but to give some comparison. After all, newspapers are full of stories about the problems in our world.

Conflict sells. But I ask if the majority of the photos of white people are favorable? Or, is there a bias in the paper to show ALL people in an unfavorable light? Bramlett-Solomon said she had a discussion with the photography higher-ups at the paper and things improved. Certainly showing the majority of the photos of black people in unfavorable ways is not a good thing. But is it really an issue of a certain race being singled out, or is it the nature of the news industry to show the majority of all people in bad light? Does the newspaper simply have an issue of reporting unfavorably about many people and topics?

I do not have answers. I did not talk at length with her about the entire study she did. Maybe the conclusions need to be beyond "look how they are portraying black people" and instead need to be "look how they are portraying all people."
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A second item I want to mention briefly is that perhaps I am far more ignorant of how mean and petty other people can be, but I do not think that the majority of news photographers consciously lighten the skin color of successful people of color to make them more palatable to the general white audiences. I personally have been taught many times that when color correcting photographs for printing, and when learning lighting techniques for photographing people, adjustments need to be made to allow for the darker skin tones to be reproduced with some detail when the ink hits the news print. (And for light skinned people - Scandinavians for example - skin tones need to be darkened).

The human eye can discern from more than 11 levels of lightness and darkness in a scene. A good camera can handle about seven increments (called 'stops'). Then we get to newspaper printing. The paper that many newspapers print on these days are at least partially recycled and are very porous. When black drops of ink are splattered across the paper as the drums and plates roll at high speed the result is the dots of black ink spread (This is called dot gain - the size of the dot of ink spreads - it gains area). Shadows and dark colors lose detail and become murky. Newspaper presses are not run (at least as far as I know) with a concern about super high quality images that will look good framed on a wall. The images are printed to give information. So to keep the details of a person's face recognizable and within the reproducible range their skin tones get tweaked.

Color correction is very subjective to begin with, and then to add in variables such as mixed colors of light sources, the potential for the computer monitor not to be profiled and calibrated properly, and variants in the printing process itself and color is a tough thing to produce accurately.

Just to make things even more interesting, many newspapers now do not use people to tone their images. Instead they have autmoated software that is supposedy smart and corrects the colors and scenes for the presses tp "optimal levels." I'll leave optimal up to your own imagination to define.

Now, having explained a bit about why it happens - my standpoint is that I never considered it as being a problem (this is where I show my own insensitivity/ignorance). Getting photos to be clear in a newspaper can be tough. If the presses are all in registration and the color is halfway close I was generally pretty happy (colors shift during the press run, depending on how much of each color of ink is going onto the plate... the process is so much an art rather than en exact science it is amazing at times the papers look decent at all -- a good press operator is vital!)

If lightening or darkening skin tones is truly a problem that is being overlooked by people at the newspaper, then it does not matter that it is happening because it makes things easier for the printers. If there is really a problem then the results need to be changed.

I think so many times people give members of the press, and us middle-class white people too much credit. We do things not because we are trying to cause harm (or at least I don't) but rather we do things out of ignorance of the things being an issue.

There are absolutely issues of race and and culture inequality in this country. They absolutely need to be addressed. Sometimes they are not meant to happen. Sometimes people blunder along blindly believing that things are fine, and it takes people speaking up to tell us there is an issue.
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