The creation of journalistic persona

Since the inception of the First Amendment and what has come to be known as "freedom of the press," journalists bear an incredible responsibility to report the news as they see it. While anyone who works in a newsroom will tell you that objectivity is a workplace creed, as writers, the subjectivity or personal lens through which stories are shared is what distinguishes each of us from each other. Through manipulation of tone, vocabulary, phrasing and images, each publication and the subsequent stories they produce give rise to what critic Andrew Sarris called a "persona" that is attributed to both the author of the story and the entire publication itself. It's what distinguishes Maxim from the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard from Mother Jones and, dare I say, NUVO from intake.

An analysis of the content and visual images of a newspaper can tell you a lot about its purpose, its writers and the audience that consumes it.

As NUVO news reporters, it's imperative that we consider the inherent narration that all readers ascribe to a story and the persona that we project upon them. This is a driving force behind every aspect of journalism from cover design and advertising to reporting. News publications across the world (including this one) answer the same questions every day: Who is our audience? How are we meeting their needs? What is our responsibility to them?

How media outlets such as NUVO answer these questions can provide unique insight into their persona and their perceptions of their readers. As both a journalist and scholar in communication studies, I'm compelled to comment on a particular case.

The creation of a persona rests solely in the audience perceptions of how a publication documents newsworthy events. Last week's 35th Annual Indiana Black Expo was no exception. While I found it to be an enjoyable experience, my joy was tempered by the numerous comments I received about the questionable pre-event coverage by our "newsweekly" counterparts at intake. Many patrons and enthusiasts of Indiana Black Expo suggested that INtake's coverage seemed to highlight and perpetuate age-old black stereotypes that have proven so harmful to the celebration of the contributions of black Americans and, specifically, to black culture here in Indiana.

INtake's pre-coverage of Black Expo on July 7, 2005, left many readers wondering if there is anything more to this historical, cultural celebration than "bling" and hairdos.

While I myself have no particular issues with sportin' bling (when the feeling overtakes me), I am also a concerned citizen and a young black professional who fights stereotypes every day of my life. So as you can imagine, I was extremely disappointed to see a competitor paper reveal its persona to a public that genuinely was hurt by the portrayal of the Indianapolis black community as only concerned with pimped-out rides and Nike Air Force Ones.

For what it's worth, the NUVO coverage of Black Expo (which was predominantly under my direction) was mostly a "guide" to events that I felt were of the most interest at this year's festival. I felt NUVO's coverage provided opportunities for Expo attendees to educate themselves and discover employment opportunities, art, music and literature about black culture and black businesses. In addition, The Indianapolis Star's coverage of Indiana Black Expo was exemplary. Well-crafted and informational articles as well as schedules really illuminated the breadth and diversity of the upcoming celebration.

But Intake's Black Expo cover art relied so heavily on superficiality (the so-called "bling") that I wondered if I was reading about the same IBE Summer Celebration that I've come to enjoy in my five-year stint here in Indianapolis. Did they get rid of the poetry readings? What about the employment fair? The art exhibits?

Should I place blame on INtake for proffering such a blatant misrepresentation of what Indiana Black Expo stands for? Absolutely. But it's not entirely its fault. It's the fault of what Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA, calls in his 2005 book, American Mania, "over-indulgent consumerism." This type of behavior by media outlets erodes journalistic integrity and leads to situations like the one in question. In this instance, INtake (a lifestyle magazine) was so steeped in selling its audience on the new "hotness" that when faced with a challenge like covering an event so culturally rich as Indiana Black Expo, they were forced to rely on stereotypes and superfluous images to encapsulate one of the most significant happenings in town.

The effects of over-indulgent consumerism in journalism have resulted in a dilution of content and substance from many news organizations. As a journalist and teacher, I believe everyone should approach mediated communication (television, radio, newspapers) with a critical eye. An analysis of the content and visual images of a newspaper can tell you a lot about its purpose, its writers and the audience that consumes it. No publication (even this one) should ever be beyond this sort of critical attention.

I couldn't overlook the visual and journalistic tragedy directed towards the Indianapolis black community put forward by INtake. However, this irresponsible journalism has provided a substantial insight into the publication's persona and beliefs about its audience. As a fellow journalist and, more importantly, as a black citizen of Indianapolis, I sincerely hope INtake's better than that.

Alphonso Atkins Jr., director of forensics and lecturer in communications at IUPUI and a second year law student at IU School of Law, is serving a 10-week internship at NUVO.


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