a pedagogical discussion and demonstration

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Accepted for Presentation by the Visual Communication Division During the AEJMC Annual Conference Anaheim, California August, 1996


As teachers we are continually faced with the task of creating lectures with words and pictures that will make the information live for our students. This presentation will demonstrate the techniques used to discuss the issue of pictorial stereotyping by the media, show how to discuss sensitive topics with students, and demonstrate how words, pictures and music can stimulate students both intellectually and emotionally. This presentation will also introduce a new book by Praeger Publishers, Images that Injure Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media.

On my way to a photojournalism class I was teaching while a graduate student, I happened to pass one of my professor's offices and casually mentioned that I was off to my class. He immediately replied, "MAKE IT LIVE."

He no doubt said the phrase to challenge me. As teachers we are continually faced with the task of creating lectures with words and pictures that will make the information live for our students. For a lecture to live, it must stimulate students both intellectually and emotionally. For a lecture to live, the information must be remembered by the students.

This presentation will demonstrate the techniques I use to discuss the issue of pictorial stereotyping by the media. The presentation will also show how to discuss sensitive topics with students and demonstrate how words, pictures and music can stimulate students both intellectually and emotionally.

Students in my large-lecture visual communications course are asked to prepare for the topic by reading the chapter in Visual Communication Images with Messages titled, "Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media" and the edited book, recently introduced by Praeger Publishers, with the same title as the chapter.

The class discussion begins with an instruction to them to "make some noise" and talk amongst themselves about instances in their lives in which they felt discrimination. During their lively chats with each other, I go around the room and engage students who are quiet to get them talking with their classmates. After about fifteen minutes, I settle everyone down and admit the times when I felt discriminated against in my own life. I then ask to hear some of their own stories. With a class of over 120 students, many hands instantly are raised. Stories range from African American students being followed in a store to women being ignored by sales personnel in computer stores and car dealerships.

After everyone gets a chance to tell their story, I begin a formal lecture. Here is an except of the lecture I make before I show the slide presentation:

I hope you haven't assumed by the title of today's topic that I'm here to bash the media. The media stereotype because we stereotype. Since our brains naturally classify what we see, we can't help but notice the differences in physical attributes between one person and another. But it is not natural to stereotype. As with the printing term from which the word comes, to stereotype is a short-hand way to describe a person with collective, rather than unique characteristics. History has shown that stereotyping leads to scapegoating that leads to discrimination that leads to segregation that leads to physical abuse that leads to state-sponsored genocide.

Because visual messages are products of our sense of sight, pictures are highly emotional objects that have long-lasting staying power within the grayest regions of our brain. Media messages that stereotype individuals by their concentrations, frequencies, and omissions become a part of our long-term memory. The media typically portray members of diverse cultural groups within specific content categories-usually crime, entertainment, and sports-and almost never within general interest, business, education, health, and religious content categories. And when we only see pictures of criminals, entertainers, and sports heroes, we forget that the vast majority of people-regardless of their particular cultural heritage-have the same hopes and fears as you or me.

In the Images that Injure book, there are essays concerning the cultural images of Native Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, Anglos, Jewish persons, women, men, children, older adults, the physically disabled, blind persons, large persons, gay and lesbian persons, teachers, politicians, lawyers, police officers, religious followers, media personnel, and media victims. Chances are, the mental image you have of a member of one of those cultural groups is one that is mediated-it comes from either print, television, motion pictures, or computers.

Most media experts come up with several reasons why the media stereotype-advertisers that demand quickly interpreted shortcut pictures, lazy or highly pressured reporters that don't take or have the time to explore issues within their multifaceted and complex contexts, few members of diverse cultural groups working as photographers, reporters, editors, or publishers in an organization, the presumed, conditioned expectations of readers and viewers to only accept images of diverse members within a limited range of content categories, and regrettably, and often denied, culturism. Culturism is a term I use to describe the belief that one cultural group-whether based on ethnicity, economics, education, etc.-is somehow better or worse than some other cultural group. Culturism may explain why mainstream media are slow to cover human catastrophes in remote sections of the world such as in Rwanda, Somalia, and South-Central, Los Angeles.

But once again I remind you-and myself-that we see stereotypes in the media because we stereotype in our society. And you know this is true. There are signals, warning signs, and obvious examples everywhere we turn.

Next time you're in a public restroom, notice the disabled persons' stall. Have you ever seen someone in a wheelchair using that toilet? Something is wrong.

Next time you're sitting in your seat on an airplane, notice that almost always the flight attendants are women while the voice welcoming you to 35,000 feet is a man's. Something is wrong.

Next time you're watching a video movie that features a child at home alone successfully defending himself against two, large burglars, notice how easy it all is for the boy. Something is wrong.

And the next time you're watching a basketball game, notice how often all the players on the court are African American while all the fans in the stands are screaming Anglos. Something is wrong.

If you're not willing to change what you know is true in society, there is little chance of there ever being a change in media images. The media provide a message and that message is that the media is you and me.

The slide presentation begins with one in a series of three images I made of a man sitting on the steps of city hall in downtown Dallas during a protest rally while I was a photojournalism student. The other two images of the gentleman come at the beginning of the "Images that Heal" section and at the end of the presentation.

I introduce the slide presentation with:

This is one of the first photographs I ever made.
And although I never spoke to this man, never learned his name, and only spent 1/500th of a second with him, he has taught me, over the years, more about myself, about photography, and about people than many educators, friends, and family members I have known my entire life. One lesson is-don't jump to conclusions. Resist your automatic, brain-commanded categories. Wait. Be patient. Have the courage to trust. There may be other tiny moments to see of a person's life that reveal larger truths. And now I want to show a collection of images that do and do not stereotype. The pictures at the end of the following presentation come from a section of the
Images that Injure book titled "Images that Heal."

Finally, I conclude my lecture with these tips for avoiding pictures that stereotype:

Show members of diverse cultural groups in everyday life situations. Have the courage to explore in words and pictures the underlying social problems at the heart of a violent act. Learn all you can about visual literacy so you can really look at the images in newspapers, magazines, and on your local television news show. Take the time to study the snapshots of your family and friends and the images printed, broadcast, and downloaded and question yourself and all who will listen about the meaning and ethics of the images we make and see.

At the end of the slide presentation, the students spontaneously erupted into applause. In all my years of teaching, such an occurrence had never before happened. It is my students' reaction and positive feedback after the class that tell me that indeed, I did "make it live."


Please note that the following slide reproductions were made with a black and white printer. Many of the originals are in color.

Sheet One
Sheet Two
Sheet Three
Sheet Four

The arrangement of the slides is designed for a two-projector set-up with a dissolve unit. Therefore, you must alternate from one slide sheet to the other to simulate a presentation utilizing two trays.

The "Images that Injure" section includes the musical selection by Enya titled, "Boadicea" while the "Images that Heal" section includes Joan Osborne's "One of Us."