I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion about the media and violence against women. The seminar was organized following the appearance of a controversial cartoon in the Casco Bay Weekly which depicted the mutilation of women. Although the forum focused on women in the media, it raised the larger question of whether the media reflect society accurately.

When CBW ran the “Chef Al’s Fowl” cartoon, women’s groups across Portland protested. But the cartoon prompted more than feminist outrage; it raised the issue of media’s social responsibility.

The cartoon was used to illustrate the larger issue of the portrayal of women (specifically crime victims) in the news. Advocates cited the media’s tendency to make female victims seem responsible for the crime committed against her. Audience members at the forum agreed, criticizing journalists for feeding a frenzy of violence in American culture.

They suggested reporters allow personal bias to influence reporting, thereby instilling our own values in the news. The seminar raised the question, “Do you think the media has a responsibility to say when enough is enough [in terms of violence]?”

It was a night of contradiction. On the one hand we were chastised for bias in our reporting, but on the other we were accused of not helping to curb the glorification of violence in this country. In order for us to say “enough” to violence, we would have to use our personal judgement in censoring the news. We decide to not take that stand, valuing fair reporting over a duty to initiate social change. We leave the social change to the public we report on. When those who live in our community begin actively seeking change, our duty is to give them equal coverage in our pages. When people begin to demand change, our responsibility is to reflect it.

Journalistic ethics require us to be impartial, but the public is not bound by the same restriction. Media will cover change when it happens, and the public can use the news to effect that change.

Getting the news you want does not have to be a passive act. To ensure you are as informed as you would like to be you must take an active role.

1. Get your news from a variety of sources. There are plenty of alternative publications which offer different perspectives on issues. Think of it as taking your news vitamins. The more viewpoints you read, the more thorough your understanding.

2. Ask questions. If a story leaves you with lingering questions, write to the reporter. Let them know which stories you feel deserve a follow-up.

3. Get involved. Write letters to the editor. Believe me, editors see letters as a valuable avenue for dialogue with readers and take them seriously.

The news media rely on the public for news. You can change the type of news we report by your actions. Getting involved with your community and local media can bring good news to the front page.

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