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A Journalist’s Art Project Highlights Media Bias Against Black Men

Antwaun Sargent

Antwaun Sargent

'Counternarratives' takes a closer look at media coverage in the age of “fake news.”

On the August, 25, 2014, The New York Times printed two separate stories, side by side, about the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. The items, collectively titled, "Two Lives at Crossroads in Ferguson," offered detailed profiles of the lives of the 28-year-old white officer and the 18-year-old black boy who, weeks before, graduated high school. Alexandra Bell had just completed her graduate studies in journalism at Columbia University when she came across the Times coverage and took issue with the pains the paper took to appear objective. The sentiment is squarely expressed in Bell's Counternarratives, a public art series whose first iteration titled, A Teenager With Promise, uses the Ferguson story as a way to examine historic and contemporary media biases against black males and people of color.

"Utilizing edits, marginalia, redaction and layout manipulation, the Counternarratives project highlights oppressive patterns seen in news," explains Bell to Creators. "I think what I am trying to do by using the newspaper as an art object is communicate the issues I have with journalism and the repeating of narratives as if nothing changes," she says.

"What does it mean if I'm reading the paper and reportage and see the same narratives? The same narratives about black people, black children and the police. I know it's a multitude of things, namely the institutional structure we are living in which exist on assumptions that produce for instance misleading headlines."

A Teenager With Promise, a diptych, recreates the 2014 Times front page as a redacted and manipulated poster that has been wheatpasted through the subway system and building walls throughout the city. One poster reimagines the entire front page of the August newspaper, known as A1, to reflect Bell's revisionist approach. Underneath the artist's front page headline, "A Teenager With Promise," sits a large image of Michael Brown against a light blue backdrop in his green and red high school cap and gown. The title of the work and headline is taken from the Times article subheading, "A Teenager Grappling With Problems and Promise," that introduced the Brown story. Bell condensed the headline to make Page A1 feel more like a memorial to the young teen who had his whole life ahead of him. In the second poster both articles appear side by side as they did in their original format but they are heavily redacted. Gone from the Wilson piece are the references to him as "a good cop" and from the Brown story, the line that called him "no angel" is redacted. The characterization of Brown as being "no angel" by the Times became a Black Lives Matter rallying cry at protests in Ferguson and around the country.

"The Mike Brown article always stuck with me," says Bell. "It was very clear to me that it would come first." It was an example of what the artist calls "objectivity gone wrong": "I think a lot of the decisions were made in service of what we know journalism to be and it ended up being clumsily and violent." From reading the Times pieces, Bell felt the writers' sense of "looking at these people the same way," created what she calls, "a false equivalency." "The way I redacted the text was pretty much to say let's be clear about what's going on here: you have a teenager and an agent of the state. I don't think anything I scratched out is untrue or justified Darren Wilson's killing an unarmed black kid."

Olympic Threat, the second installment of the campaign, focuses on the Times front page coverage of the Rio Games controversy surrounding the white American swimmer, Ryan Lochte, which inserted an image of the Jamaican olympic sprinter Usain Bolt. "The were previewing a story of Bolt by just using his image but the story surrounding the image was about Ryan Lochte, the swimmer the media called a boy despite the fact he was like 30 years old," says Bell [Ed. note: Lochte was 31]. She believes on a basic level if you read a headline and see a picture, you associate the picture with the headline and a great many people probably associate Lochte's fabrication of crimes with an innocent Bolt. The large-scale diptych also reveals Bell's editing process. One poster features highlights, roger notes, and inserted words, as if she edited the draft of the story before it was published, while the second shows only the changes. She wants viewers who encounters it on the street to read through the two versions to see how language alienates and affirms different communities.

Image credit: Alexandra Bell, Olympic Threat, 2017. Images courtesy of Dan Solomito for S,T Coffee/ Sincerely Tommy.

"I'm revealing my perspective," says Bell. "We all know that a narrative is a dominant story that is represented as the truth and a counternarrative is an alternative to that. With my manipulations, I am not falsifying information. I'm not even making it untrue by redacting, I'm leaving truth there but forcing a particular reading of the words on the page."

"In Trump times people are hypersensitive to media coverage and I am saying [unbalanced] reporting has always followed my community," she adds.

For more information on Counternarratives, click here.

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