What may be more important to public policy is that the fears and perceptions of the white middle-class mainstream shape the stories that the media choose for coverage--perpetuating stereotyped images of black or Latino perpetrators and white victims, for example, and accepting almost as a fact of life the widespread violence that occurs within communities of color. As Professor Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland points out, "there is a crucial difference between the public's awareness of a social condition, such as violence or poverty, and its conviction that this condition presents a problem to be tackled and solved." Steve Rabin, of the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, notes that the AIDS story has become framed in the public mind as a chronic epidemic of the underclass--one more minority urban problem we do not know how to solve. Unless something happens to change this perception, we are not likely to see any new resolve to raise the issue to a public priority. Violence, like AIDS, may be construed similarly as a problem to be contained rather than solved, unless something happens to change the images in the media, adds ABC News Senior Medical Correspondent George Strait.
Viewing violence only as a minority urban problem dangerously misconstrues the issue, Fullilove contends. However real the barriers of class, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation that divide us, we do not live in a social "mosaic" of self-contained groups. In her study of the AIDS epidemic, she has found that there are no "impermeable boundaries": "When you ask intravenous drug users, Do you have sex with people who don't use drugs intravenously? they say yes. And when you ask gay men, Do you ever sleep with women? they say yes." Nor is the "post-crack, post-trauma" culture confined to the inner city. The language and voice of the inner city--with their recognized commercial potential--have been absorbed into the mainstream popular culture of youth, aided by the mass media.
We cannot realistically compartmentalize people or their problems, owning some and disowning others. What we need, Fullilove asserts, is a more "ecological" understanding on which to ground our search for effective public policies. This entails broadening the discussion to include voices not usually heard through the mass media, Rabin observes, and "augmenting" media images, as Olmos suggests, to reflect the real diversity and interconnectedness of American people. By way of illustration, Olmos cites his own typically complicated ancestry: "I stand here as an African, by way of Asia, indigenous to this country, cross-bred with Europeans--which gives you this brown person, this 'Hispanic' person standing here in front of you."
"Is the media really serving a kind of substitute function for the socialization and the rearing of children?
"The problem is not violence. The problem is a whole host of other things that have to so with racism and hopelessness -- deteriorating communities, drug use, families that won't work, schools that don't work."
Professor of Human Behavior and Development
Harvard School of Public Health
and Professor of Child Psychology
Harvard Medical School