Media Trust, Critical Empathy, And The Black African American Image

(Editor’s note: This is a piece branching off in idea from another piece, entitled,”The Ideal Of Media Trust And The Black African American Image”. Please read that piece first if you have not already.)

In the last piece I discussed a little about “media trust”, and I also mentioned I would discuss “critical empathy” further. Let’s continue firstly with more ideas regarding “media trust”.

In the previous post, we defined “trust”, thusly:

Trust is the dynamic of imagination incrementally allotted based on the fruition and fulfillment of expected, entertained, or sold outcomes. It is our faith that someone or something will do what they or it has a history of doing, what we imagined or hoped they or it would do, or what they or it has communicated that it would do.

What is the primary vision we have of the outcomes of mass communication? Is it solely entertainment? What are the primary outcomes of mass communication? Is it solely entertainment? Please read those queries over, because I did not ask the same things twice.

I want to quote, somewhat at length, these two passages from “The Black Image In The White Mind”:

Racial isolation heightens the importance of the messages Whites receive about Blacks from the mass media, and especially from the most widely consumed source-television. Its constant stream of messages designed to inform, pleasurably distract, and, above all, put targeted audiences in the mood to buy creates two influential roles for television. Along with other media, it is both a barometer of race relations and a potential accelerator either to racial cohesion or to cultural separation and political conflict. Because Whites control mass media organizations, and because Whites’ majority status makes their tastes the most influential in audience maximizing calculations, media productions offer a revealing indicator of the new forms of racial differentiation. Beyond providing a diagnostic tool, a measuring device for the state of race relations, the media also act as a causal agent: they help to shape and reshape the culture.“The Black Image In The White Mind: Media And Race In America”, Robert M. Entman & Andrew Rojecki, pg. 3


But, having only limited personal experience with
Blacks, and raised in a culture where race is highly salient and Black persons rest at the bottom of the social hierarchy, Whites may be more likely to remember the negative than the positive in all the unplanned, media-generated impressions. Psychologists have found more generally that people remember negative information most readily. By what they both do and do not convey, the media can stimulate Whites’ tendencies to imagine, exaggerate, and misunderstand group differences. ibid., pg. 8

Once again, I ask, based on our agreed upon definition of “trust”, what is the imagined outcome of US Black media representations? What is the actual outcome? Do US Blacks even have a collective– or enough of a collective and vested interest– plan for the media images that studies have shown impact the perception of US Blacks? Should we not question the creation of content that presents US Blacks to audiences that have no other information about US Blacks but the media presentations? Has leaving the power of US Blacks media presentation in the hands of Whites and money hungry Blacks been a successful venture thus far?

These are just questions. Some you might have answers to, some you might not. My purpose so far is to remind you that you already have a system of media trust in operation, the question is: are you taking conscious advantage of it? Who do you trust with the operation of content creation, production, and dissemination of the US Black Image? Who should you distrust? Do you know?

Moving on…

As I promised I would, I want to begin defining the ideal of “critical empathy”. In Berrys Gaut’s research essay entitled,”Empathy and Identification in Cinema”, the concept of imaginative identification is introduced and defined as such:

In saying that I identify with someone, a target T, what do I mean? As we sometimes say, we “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” Here one means that one imagines oneself in that person’s situation. Call this imaginative identification.The notion of someone’s situation should be construed broadly so as to include not only her external situation but also all of her properties, including her mental ones—we can talk of imagining believing what she believes, imagining feeling what she feels, and so on. Since there are many aspects of a person’s situation, identification is aspectual: I can identify with a person in respect of her beliefs, her feelings, her perceptions, and so on. To identify with some person, T, epistemically is to imagine believing what she believes; to identify with her affectively is to imagine feeling what she feels; to identify with her perceptually is to imagine seeing what she sees.We can refine this notion. In the case of fictional characters, we need to construe “what she believes” as “what it is fictional that she believes,” and so on. Further, we need to rule out coincidences.– Berys Gaut, “Empathy And Identification In Cinema”


Distinct from affective identification is empathic identification or empathy. We can imagine feeling terror at the near-destruction of humanity, but it is also possible actually to feel terror at this merely imagined scenario: We can feel
genuine emotions toward merely imagined or fictional situations– ibid., pg. 3

What I want to deal with here, very quickly, is this notion of identifying and emotionally connecting with people that do not exist outside of written scripts and fictional bodies of work. Some of us lack an ability to resist feelings of connectivity with fictional characters. Even worse, some of us feel more connected to “people” that do not exist than to those that do. This is a lack of critical empathy. At what point do we begin to separate our feelings for a Black Woman that does not actually exist? At what point do we begin to critically assess where and when our empathy should be employed or allowed free emotive expression?