By Jaevion Nelson
Poor and vulnerable Jamaicans wrestle with a number of social and economic ills that disproportionately affect them. Politicians and people who influence public discourse for, among other things, crime and violence, illiteracy and unplanned pregnancies too often blindly blame them along with dancehall music. On top of that, they are routinely forced to contend with negative and reckless media portrayals about them.
Seemingly, our media are oblivious that misrepresentations of particular groups influence how the public perceives and interacts with them. It also impacts how they see and understand themselves as a community. People who are victims of this kind of framing are women, especially victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse; the homeless; drug users; sex workers; gays and lesbians; and, of course, the poor.
According to Krizay (2011), this framing has a "strong power to manipulate public preferences to serve the interests of elite social groups, [which] leads to the stereotyping and devaluation of those less powerful groups" such as those previously listed. Media clips such as the "people that are deadin'" and "who don't willin fi live wid di dump, join di dump" are articulate examples of Schadenfreude centred on poor and vulnerable Jamaicans.
Must we continue to make a mockery of the poor? Isn't it obvious something is wrong if the presenters can hardly keep a straight face sometimes when they introduce the 'Bite of the Week'? Shouldn't we focus on eliciting reactions that result in change to the benefit of these people?
What do we do? We jeer and crucify them with our laughter. I must admit I am not blameless. I, too, have laughed without realising the desperate situation of these people who so bravely demand our attention and help.
Look at roots plays - a multimillion-dollar industry that overwhelming thrives on the foibles of the poor. Even the security minister is guilty of this when he made a tenuous link between dancehall music and how it legitimises the lotto scam.
We should really ask media practitioners (both traditional and new) to stop treating poor Jamaicans like this. I'm making a conscious effort not to laugh at these kinds of sound bites (as funny as they may seem).
TURN A NEW LEAF
The important question is: When will all of thise stop? Who will take some responsibility to divorce ourselves from the labelling, blaming and shaming of our poor and vulnerable brothers and sisters? Will any media entity or practitioner make a conscious effort to represent them in a more balanced way this year?
Of course, this is not unique to Jamaica, but it is no excuse to subscribe to the status quo. We all have to make a conscious effort to represent people and their struggles in a more nuanced way. Inasmuch as we become irritated when, regardless of the accuracy, foreign media portray negative images of our beloved country, we should be bothered by how local media represent us, too.
Many of us will wonder why we should care if we don't belong to any of these groups? The truth is, you don't have to belong to any of them or experience these problems first-hand to identify with their plight and be empathetic. Moreover, given that media are not an abstract part of social structure, they must become aware of the way in which they can, and often do, enforce social structures and perpetuate segregation.
Kim Crosby reminds us, "We are sensitive creatures and we don't live in a vacuum. All of us, we are affected deeply by everything around us, from the over-representation of some of us in the media to the under-representation of others."
Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.