A Pedagogical Discussion of Pictorial Stereotypes: When Art Promotes Contributions to Humanity

By Lester, Paul | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

A Pedagogical Discussion of Pictorial Stereotypes: When Art Promotes Contributions to Humanity


Lester, Paul, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


When art promotes unique contributions to humanity

On my way to a photojournalism class I was teaching while a graduate student at Indiana University, I happened to pass one of my professor's offices, and casually mentioned that I was off to my class. He immediately replied in his loud, scratchy voice, "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 have a life, the information must be remembered by the students.

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 (Wadsworth, 1995) titled, "Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media." I also introduce the philosophy of John Rawls in his book, A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press, 1971). Rawls introduced the veil of ignorance or "shoe on the other foot" philosophy in which people try to feel empathy for other humans in order to create a world in which all members of society are treated with fairness and equal respect.

The class discussion begins with a request for them to "make some noise"to talk among themselves about instances in their lives in which they had 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 more than 120 students, many hands are instantly raised. Stories range from African American students who describe being followed in stores to women being ignored by sales personnel in computer stores and car dealerships.

After most students get a chance to tell their stories, I begin a formal lecture.

The presentation allows students to understand:

*That the topic requires personal reflection and familiarity with previously published materials,

*How frequently pictorial stereotypes are in the media,

*How diverse their own class is,

*That diversity is much more than ethnicity,

*That there are positive alternatives to stereotypical images, and

*How thoughtful word, picture, and musical selections can be used to make a powerful message.

*Here is an excerpt 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 create stereotypes because we stereotype people. 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 create stereotypes. 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, which leads to discrimination and segregation, which leads to physical abuse and state-sponsored genocide.

"Because visual messages are products of our sense of sight, pictures are highly emotional objects that have longlasting 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. …

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