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Media can perpetuate stereotypes

NEWTON SIBANDA
THE media plays an important role in representation and creation of identity. It is in the media that the construction of any classificatory system, notably race; class; and gender is played out.
I will, in this article, focus on race.
The media have historically and significantly contributed to the production, reproduction and sustenance of stereotypes across all the three forms of identity. They carry messages that tend not only to naturalise or normalise, but also to perpetuate such phenomenon as racial prejudice and patriarchy.
The media in Zambia has not escaped this trap. For example, almost all articles on crime involving non-indigenous Zambians are almost always accompanied by a racial categorisation.
Stories of indigenous Zambian businessmen arrested for fraud, for example, will not have any mention of ethnic background. But an Asian businessman arrested for the same offence will be referred to as a Lusaka-based businessman of Asian origin, regardless of whether he is a naturalised Zambian citizen.
Examples abound of such similar categorisation in the media. Suspected ritual murders in Zambia’s tourist capital Livingstone and in Mazabuka have almost always been attributed to Asian shop owners. This has usually been followed by a wave of rioting and looting targeted at shops owned by Indians.
Of similar pattern has been the coverage of drug traffickers. When a Zambian is arrested, the media will simply give details of his names without mentioning his ethnic background. But when it is other nationalities, they quite often invoke the racial background. That, too, leads to stereotyping of a particular group of people as being inherently criminal and dishonest.
While racialisation, which is a categorisation of groups of people according to biological differences in colour, hair and bone, and actually a way of organising society, on its own is not a problem. It is worth noting that it is actually the starting point for racism.
It is when certain characteristics and traits, usually negative, are attributed to a group of people that it becomes racism. These include such negative stereotypes as inferior intellectual capacity, dishonest and many others.
Employing ‘race’ as real, whether in news media or entertainment, is to participate in racialisation.  However, it is ‘race-thinking’ – ‘the positioning of the self as superior’, and an explicit reference to colour as a key marker of difference’- which is of concern.
The way the media covers certain racial groups can lead to ethnic prejudice – an antipathy based upon a faulty inflexible generalisation, and to racist xenophobia.
The jaundiced coverage of minorities leads to a typical example of stereotyping with far-reaching consequences; it creates identities of people and naturalises them in the minds of audiences.
In other words, it presents the prejudices as objective reality. As Professor Sut Jally of Columbia University noted in an introduction to the documentary ‘Race: The Floating Signifier,’ “More and more, we are divided along differences in our physical appearances and race is one of the classificatory systems for our difference. Race is more like language than the way in which we are made biologically. Its meaning is relational and not essential, it can never be fixed, but it has disfigured the lives and potentials of millions of the world’s dispossessed.”
The way the media represents certain racial groups may easily be construed as reality. It is in essence presented as irrational hostility supported by strongly held stereotypes.
When prejudices are widely shared as part of a common culture, they can be very resilient and difficult to eradicate. Such prejudices become racist when ‘race-thinking’ and racial ideologies are drawn upon to provide the content of the stereotype and to legitimise the reasonableness of the hostility.
The construction of race in the media can be further highlighted by the misconception that has been created in which quite many people see Islam and terrorism as synonymous, thereby creating an impression that Muslims are inherently terrorists.
The situation has worsened after the September 11 attacks in the USA, attributable mainly to the prejudices creeping out of media against the Muslims. The way the media contributes to racial stereotypes is amply covered in the book Orientalism which notes that anti-Arab racism seems almost legitimised and that the portrayal of Muslims in popular media is two things – they are villains and fanatics.
For example, the impression is that Hamas in occupied territories is obsessed with killing Jewish children, the impression that the main business of Islam is to kill Americans, ignoring the fact that there are millions of Muslims living humane and decent lives. When one hears people talking in Arabic, they think they are discussing destruction of America.
Thus, media coverage contributes to racially constructed stereotypes.  The Western media, for example, is accused of constructing political Islam as a new enemy after the collapse of communism and that the media, as an instrument of public ideology, demonises Islam, portrays it as a threat to Western interests, thus producing, reproducing and sustaining the ideology necessary to subjugate Muslims both internationally and domestically.
The author is a journalist working as news editor at the Zambia Daily Mail.