In the 1990’s, I was part of a very interesting experiment in local news called Harlem Live.
The idea was rather simple. We gave video cameras to teenagers who lived in Harlem. We taught them to shoot and to edit their own stories. We asked them to show us what life was really like in Harlem – to find news stories they thought were interesting.
There was a rationale behind this.
Harlem is part of New York City, but in a way, it very much lives in its own world.
The only time local TV news stations would send a reporter to Harlem in those days (and this may still be true today), was to cover a murder or a fire or a shooting so some other crime.
As a result, what we might call the Media Footprint for Harlem was extremely negative. If you asked the average New Yorker if they ever went up to Harlem, they rarely did. “Too dangerous,” they would say.
I learned this for a fact when I had a one-man-show for my artwork at the Chashama Gallery on 125th Street. I cannot tell you the number of people who were afraid to visit the gallery – even on the opening night. “Nice, but too dangerous.”
The way the media portray a place is intrinsic to what people believe they know about it. I had an uncle who was a very successful corporate lawyer in Milan, but he refused to ever come to New York. “Too dangerous,” he told me. How did he know? He had seen Fort Apache, The Bronx, and Midnight Cowboy. That was enough for him.
The public perception of Harlem in the 1990’s was no different. Crime, crime, crime… and fires.
This, of course, led to a general disinclination for downtown New Yorkers (downtown being anything south of 96th street), to visit Harlem restaurants, shops and yes, museums.
For kids growing up in Harlem who, like the rest of us, got their education from watching TV, it was a disconcerting disconnect. What they saw on local news often bore little relationship to what they experienced in their day to day lives, but they knew it was not good.
So the idea was to empower them to tell their own stories – to find news stories that reflected the Harlem that they knew – and not the Harlem that the occasional visiting local TV news crew would seek out.
This, of course, was in the days before the Internet and the days before smart phones, so we had to give them video cameras and editing gear. Luckily, I had a ton of those in house.
The results were stunning – in two ways.
Much as hoped, they did indeed find great and very positive and uplifting stories about Harlem – shot them well, tracked them and cut them beautifully – great training pays off.
Stories in hand, I then went to visit all the local TV news stations to see if anyone would air them.
My answer from all – a resounding no.
“Not real journalists.”
“Can’t trust their sources.”
“We only air things that our reporters make.”
And so on.
That, in itself was perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from the experience.
If you liked this story, please check out my new book THE RISE OF THE MEDIAVERSE.