I recently met with a fellow writer and friend of mine who has been regularly contributing to a popular site that caters to a black female audience (Not Clutch). When I complimented her on the work I’ve seen so far, especially, in my opinion, in relation to the content that is usually featured there, she expressed her frustration about having to write at a lower level than the one at which she knows she is capable of writing. After having a particular pitch rejected by her editor, she was asked to curb her bigger ideas because the editor told her the site’s readers “weren’t that intellectual.”
As someone who has experience in the world of media, I understand that editors have to consider the needs and interests of their audience. I also understand that different outlets have different styles and specialties. However, I’m both offended and disturbed by what I see as somewhat of a trend among media when it comes to underestimating the intellect and concerns of black audiences.
First, as an editor, it is condescending and dangerously presumptuous to generalize about and insult the intelligence level of a group of people you’ve never met. It is bad enough that many of us have probably heard the insult that if you want to keep something from a black person, put it in a book, so why are we being purposefully limited by entertainment and information sources that were supposedly designed to serve our interests? My friend did not pitch an article on quantum physics (not that African Americans aren’t interested in quantum physics). It was not even a book review. Still, apparently the editor felt it was too complex a topic for the black women who frequent the site.
Although we were appalled by the editor’s statement, as young and educated black female writers, we were forced to admit the pressure we sometimes feel to write about the topics that seem to be the most prevalent and popular. Yet, the real question that not enough people seem to be asking is, “Who says black people (women in particular) only care about relationships, fashion, fitness, hair care, and celebrities?” Who says that even people who are interested in those topics cannot be “intellectual?”
Again, because I understand media, I understand that in many ways it can be one part content and two parts marketing. Particularly in today’s economy, fraught with stories about the difficulties brought about by the changing media model, people are going to publish what sells. By extension, in the page-view and “likes” driven online world, people are going to publish what they believe will generate the most traffic to their sites. This fact is not just one that applies to black media outlets and audiences, but to the public in general. It’s why Tom and Katie’s impending divorce was treated as a lead news story on every platform from local news to “AC 360.”
Are people more likely to read “7 Ways to Get the Relationship You Want” than they are to read about the European debt crisis? Unfortunately, many of them may be, but what ever happened to balance? As with many other issues, while it may be affecting the general population as well, the “dumbing down” of content can have an especially adverse affect in African-American communities.
For non-majority African-American readers, for every issue of the National Enquirer they may read, there is an issue of The Nation (or The National Review, whatever your preference), but there is already a lack of African-American media outlets covering the stories, topics, and issues our communities need to read, especially at the level at which they need to be covered. We cannot afford to have our own outlets selling us short, too, based on the assumption that we are not smart enough or interested enough to care about real issues.
If we think about media as a form of education and media creators as educators, we cannot simply continue to accept the myth that black readers are just anti-intellectual. Teachers do not (or at least should not) just feed students what they think they want to hear. They expose them to new information and, if necessary, help them to understand how and why the subject does relate to them. Readers, like students, may not initially know about or be interested in a topic. Unfortunately, they may never know if it is not presented to them.