The Central Park Five: Looking Back

May 9, 2019 Michael Paul Jackson

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

It was a word I hadn’t heard before, spoken by Ted Koppel, of all people.

Wilding.

A word that, up until 1989, had been completely foreign to me, a nerd with his head buried in books, a burgeoning writer with a bulky Apple IIC computer heavy with stories and assignments from English class.

Wilding? What the hell was that?

Koppel, then the host of Nightline, on ABC, was doing a story around the Central Park jogger case. He’d convened a panel of spokespeople to discuss the idea of violence.

Specifically, violence committed by young black males.

Because in 1989, the year of the Central Park jogger case, the concept of wilding — the idea that black males had coined a term for regular gang attacks on random, mostly white, strangers — was a term the media had latched onto with a fervor; a new, provocative fear that somehow merited a segment on one of America’s most influential news programs.

Trouble was, like so many other elements in the Central Park jogger case, it had no basis in reality.

As we mark the 30-year anniversary of the Central Park jogger case — and as Netflix prepares to screen When They See Us, Ava DuVernay’s groundbreaking series into the lives of the Central Park Five, the five children of color unfairly interrogated, tried and convicted in that case — I’m reminded of the ugly power that false narratives have on African-Americans, on people of color, on immigrants, and on people living in poverty.

Indeed, research by The Opportunity Agenda has shown that African-American men are routinely overrepresented when the media discuss criminality, aggressiveness, unemployment and poverty — thereby shaping images of African-American life that demonize that population, and failing to uphold our basic human values of dignity, equal justice, respect and fairness for all.

Other research into representations of African-American women in media show similar findings, with negative images of this group displayed to audiences twice as often as positive imagery. African-American women are also often portrayed unfairly, as hyper-sexual, angry, or subservient.

These portrayals are not new. They are attempts to sell the same false narratives to audiences, pushing them to believe in fear-based representations stretching back decades, from the “cocaine fiends” panic during the 1900s, to the “knockout game ” from nearly 10 years ago. These coded stereotypes have historically led to unfair treatment, violence, and unequal opportunity in numerous areas of African-American life, including employment, education, mass incarceration, police violence and beyond.

Conversely, media depictions of white people, and white immigrants, are quite different. The Opportunity Agenda’s Power of Pop research has also shown that White immigrants are more likely than immigrants of color to be depicted in highly-skilled professions, for example. Given the imbalance in these two narratives, it is perhaps not surprising that media audiences have internalized fear and suspicion of African-Americans and people of color, whom they’ve never met.

But the solutions are in our hands. We must demand that the news media and entertainment outlets that profit from us depict African-American men and women accurately, in ways that show the tapestry and fullness of the lives of that community — just as they do the White community – on their networks.

To that end, The Opportunity Agenda is working to create messaging guidelines for partners and media outlets, to shift perceptions of boys and girls of color in media coverage and help prosecutors develop new approaches based on dignity and racial equity.

Some of our media recommendations include:

  • Check Biases: Research shows that we all harbor racial biases that do not necessarily align with our stated beliefs. The good news is that we can overcome these biases when we actively and consciously address them. Take time as an individual and as a team to learn techniques for reducing these implicit biases that may lead to unfair coverage of non-white communities.
  • Foster Diversity: One of the factors seen as most significant by scholars is the paucity of Black television station owners, producers, journalists and experts invited to contribute content. Encouraging diversity and inclusivity at every stage of the media content process will ensure various experiences are considered.
  • Balance, Balance, Balance: Monitor the amount of coverage, type of coverage, and the nature of the coverage that different parties receive. For news media, this means focusing on “full and accurate” portrayals, not “positive” or “negative” coverage. Values to emphasize include truthfulness, accuracy, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability. 

As consumers of the news and media, we must call for balanced coverage of the African-American experience. When editors, producers, or executives are unresponsive, targeting media advertisers and shareholders — as viewers have recently done on right-wing news networks like Fox — can also have a positive impact on their news-gathering and storytelling.

Just as journalists and news outlets strive to be fair and accurate, we hope that patterns of distorted reporting will trigger changes in story assignment, reporting, and editing practices, so that young African-American men and women won’t have to watch harmful, inaccurate narratives of themselves played out on their screens. And so the dangerous narratives that negatively impact their lives won’t continue, and cause additional damage.