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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Giving the County a Black Eye

Any process of labeling people or places is fraught with generality. Who is really "wealthy" or "poor," or what people are actually "right" or "wrong"? What geographical areas are accurately described as "depressed" or "thriving," or what municipality is sufficiently "emblematic" or "ideal"? Most often, labeling involves stereotyping in that the labels involve assumptions that people make about the characteristics of all members of a group.

Stereotyping can be very problematic in conflicts. Groups tend to define themselves according to who they are and who they are not. And their opponents are often viewed in very negative ways. Face it - an opponent is  expected to be aggressive, self-serving, and deceitful. People in one's own group are seen in generally positive ways. Similarly, if problems occur, blame is often placed on "the enemy."

The media does often work in stereotypical formats. Media stereotypes are legion, and they are inevitable, especially in the advertising, entertainment and news industries, which need as wide an audience as possible to quickly understand information. These stereotypes act like codes that give audiences a quick, common understanding of a person or group of people—usually relating to their class, ethnicity or race, gender, sexual orientation, social role or occupation.

Lately, much talk has arisen about the media's portrayal of Scioto County. The problem of prescription drug abuse has captured the attention of local, state, and national news services. The media has widely exposed the epidemic of rx drug abuse, and now some Scioto citizens are growling that the reports are doing very little other than painting the county as a negative, dangerous place to live. These people fear jobs and housing markets will suffer needlessly because labels such as "drug infested area" or "addiction prone community" will dominate the understanding of others as pessimistic stereotypes of the county.

The new transparency has created some problems of identity. However, the distressing statistics and the horrible reality of the situation in the county cannot be denied. I know of no one here who relishes news stories and commentaries that create sad visibility.

The fact is that the problems in the county have been tabled too long, and now shock and awe is unavoidable. The media is in the ratings business, so their concentration on the gory details feeds the curiosity of their hungry audience. And, we all realize that headlines focus mainly on misfortune while ignoring positive efforts that relieve many heartbreaks in tragic situations.

Many have complained about the coverage of A&E Intervention and a conceived negative light portrayed through its focus on two actual addictions. One must remember that the content of the show was directed and produced by A&E, not by the Scioto Rx Drug Task Force or by any local group committed to fighting drug abuse. I'm sure many positive aspects of the struggle against addiction would have not hit the cutting room floor if those involved in the movement here would have been in charge of the composition.

Another label that is currently being debated is "faith-based." I have heard that some are genuinely concerned that the movement to improve conditions in the county is too involved with faith-based efforts at the expense of pushing more secular initiatives. I assume people who have this opinion have reason to distrust certain prayerful groups.

In response, I can attest that the Scioto Rx Drug Task Force has been energized beyond measure with the addition of its faith-based organizations. The faith-based leadership and their flocks have provided much essential focus and vital energy in some pretty dark hours. Not merely content with staying behind the pulpits or in the pews, these reverent individuals take their positive message to the streets. The result has been a phenomenal outpouring of love. I discount those who question faith-based motives; I believe these people systematize with some measure of selfish attainment.

I guess labeling honest reports as "mudslinging journalism" or labeling good Christian efforts as "Bible-thumping evangelism" will continue. It's not that I do understand those with concerns who question - I do. I merely beg those who stereotype to expose themselves firsthand to the positive, much-needed efforts that already exist. The goal is not to denigrate Scioto County or to pose for a photo op. Public exposure has always been considered necessary as a primary step towards fixing the problems, but it is not an end in itself.

The truth is that positive change is afoot. Each segment of the movement is tightly connected and keenly focused on a common goal - to save lives while making Scioto County a safer, better place to work and live. The beauty of the grass roots movement lies in the diversity of its members. To label its members or its efforts as "negative" does it a disservice.

To say that the news of the health epidemic is harmful, in some measures, to the county is really something very difficult to judge. That judgment is reserved for those who insist on analyzing the headlines. The intent of those bent on revealing the truth has nothing to do with giving Scioto "a black eye." Rather, the intent of allowing visibility is to grant access to the real core of the problem. As the underbelly is revealed, the real causes of consumption can be attacked. That battle is being fought on many fronts as I type these words.

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