Considering Race in Media Production

Jessica Gehrke (Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Jessica Gehrke, a graduate of the Bethany Lutheran College Communication program, teaches in the Department of Communication at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. Her courses include Public Address, Intercultural Communication, Professional Communication, and Public Relations. After working in public relations for several years, she returned to academia to teach and is currently working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, focusing on Rhetoric. Her research interest focuses on how public memory is shaped by popular culture.

I have to admit, I love a good romance novel. I (try to) turn off my academic brain and ignore things that I could analyze, and instead escape into a story where boy meets girl, they deal with a problem, and find love. It's one of my favorite escapes and I appreciate that there are some well-written Christian romance stories out there.

The controversial book

So when I saw a news article about how a Christian romance novel's award had been revoked because of concern over how it depicted the massacre at Wounded Knee, I was interested since it addressed one of my favorite forms of entertainment and my academic research interests. Moreover, the debate over the award revocation highlighted issues within media production that we, whether Christians producing media or Christians sending Christian messages through media, need to consider in order more effectively to show and share God's love with others. I want to first provide some examples of the issues with media production and then consider what questions we should be asking in order to better share God's Word.

Racial Issues in Media Production

In the past year racial issues have been centered in the public eye in the United States. Related concerns and commentary about how media address these issues have been topics of conversation, from how to address race and policing in television, to how a reboot can offer a needed different perspective to the 1960s, to recognition of the value of having shows about Native Americans run and acted by Native Americans.

These opportunities, however, are not the whole story. Concerns continued to be raised about representation within media. For instance, even as the comedy series Rutherford Falls on Peacock received praise for telling stories of indigenous people, critics raised worthwhile questions about how those stories are presented and balanced with the story's other characters, such as how the show centered on familiar problems for a white character when more stories could be told about Native Americans. These issues are not isolated: when a medium portrays an underrepresented group, the expectations are high and concerns about representation arise because groups are invested in how they are represented. For instance, Peter Feng (2020) wrote about how Asian Americans hoped for authentic representation in the sitcom All-American Girl, and he described their bitter disappointment and subsequent criticism of the show. Melissa Click and Sarah Smith-Frigerio (2019), through focus groups, captured some of these complexities as black women shared their desire to see themselves represented on television, and therefore appreciated the show Empire, yet at the same were concerned that one of the characters was portrayed broadly rather than realistically. These stories matter, as sociologist Herman Gray (2005) argued, because media is one of the prominent areas for us to see, discuss, and develop cultural meanings about race.

These problems are compounded by a lack of diversity in media. In a recent public letter to PBS, for instance, documentary maker Grace Lee requested that PBS review their programming choices, noting that an upcoming documentary on buffaloes would "merit 80% of the airtime afforded to Asian American history." Mainstream media focuses on telling a diverse set of stories of white individuals, but not so much for other cultural groups — and if they do, they often don't succeed or are criticized For example, Hoerl (2007) considered how media reviews of the movie Panther also limited its potential influence as a counter-memory, and Whitt (2005) analyzed the stories that may not have appealed to white audiences in a short-run TV show.

These problems aren't limited to secular productions; Christian productions are also affected. Christians who produce media for outreach also need to be aware that these issues exist and that we need to address them within our own practices. As we work to share the Gospel message, we need to consider how we are showing concern for others in what stories are told and who is telling those stories.

Consider the example I mentioned at the start of this piece: how a Christian romance novel by a white author reflected Native American history. It shouldn't be a surprise the romance genre already has some limitations: the stories generally are about white men and women, written by white authors. In this case, however, the controversy was not just that there are few diverse voices. There is concern the author presented an inaccurate portrayal of what happened at Wounded Knee in 1890, used Bible verses to justify an event, usually described as a massacre today, while ignoring historical context, and provided a happy-ever-after for someone who participated killing people at Wounded Knee — impacting readers' understanding of the massacre and of Native Americans. The main character is horrified by the event he participated in, and the publisher states the book's goal was not to glorify a massacre since the main character tries to atone for what happened. But we also should recognize that these concerns raise important questions about how sharing the Gospel message could be hindered.

Communication scholars help us understand that how history is presented affects our understanding of the past in ways that can reinforce stereotypes or hide elements of the past that nations would prefer to ignore (Martin & Nakayama, 2018). In this case, a reader could conclude that a massacre was justified by Scripture since in the opening scene Bible verses are quoted between two soldiers, while no mention is made of the conditions that led to Wounded Knee. A white audience has a "feel-good" story, but what does it do for Native Americans? Does it perpetuate harmful stereotypes of who were the "good guys" and "bad guys" in our nation's dealings with Native Americans? Does the story help marginalized people feel included as God's children, or does it exclude their experiences and the situation's realities? The underlying messages and impact — part of what communication studies can help us uncover — should be part of the conversation as we produce media for our outreach efforts.

Next Steps

My goal here is not to place blame or say we can't watch certain shows or read certain books. Rather, I want to emphasize that we need to acknowledge these problems in both secular and Christian media production circles and consider how to address them.

As Christians who want to share the Gospel effectively, I argue we have a responsibility to recognize in these issues the opportunity to produce better media and further our Gospel outreach. When we don't, we can impede the sharing of the Gospel. People were turned off from a particular Christian romance novel because of its presentation of who was seen as redeemable, while passing over the United States' policy of mistreating Native Americans that led to their (understandably) fighting for their land, culture, and rights. As Christians, we know God in Christ has redeemed everyone, no matter their sins. We need to consider this: how we tell certain (white) stories could turn people away from the Gospel message.

So where do we go from here? In order to share God's Word through media formats more effectively I suggest we start by reflecting on ourselves, our practices, and where we can make meaningful change — asking ourselves:

  • Whose stories are we telling, producing, and sharing? How are we using our platforms — whether books, websites, podcasts, movies, or something else — to include others?
  • How has what I have learned in school, from production workshops to history classes, affected how I view race? How can I educate myself on these issues (and avoid tokenizing someone from a marginalized group)?
  • As we educate ourselves, we can ask who are we inviting to the table? Are we actively seeking ways to increase diversity in who can share their visions and ideas? What are strategic ways to do so?
  • Who benefits from the story we are telling? Who will feel included — and who will feel excluded?

There are no easy solutions to these problems, nor do I claim to have the answers. But I do believe we need to ask these questions in order not only to change our individual actions, but also to guide how we develop, write, and produce Christian media. By acknowledging that we cannot not consider how race affects our communication, we can better share the Gospel message. In Christian love, we can do no less.


Bates, K. G. (2020, January 4). Racism scandal in the romance writing industry. NPR.

Bates, K. G. (2021, August 5). Romance Writers of America was doing better with race—until a recent award choice. NPR.

Click, M. & Smith-Frigerio, S. One tough-Cookie: Exploring Black women's responses to Empire's Cookie Lyon. Communication Culture & Critique, 12(2), 287-304.

Deggans, E. (2021, September 24). ABC's new 'Wonder Years' succeeds by centering a black family in history. NPR.

Feng, P. X. (2020). The burden of representation in Asian American television. In L. K. Lopez (Ed.), Race and Media: Critical Approaches (pp. 79-91). New York University Press.

Gray, H. (2005). Cultural moves: African Americans and the politics of representation. University of California Press.

Harris, E. A. (2021, August 30). In literary organizations, diversity disputes keep coming. The New York Times. Editors. (2019, May 21). Wounded Knee. History Channel.

Hoerl, K. (2007). Mario Van Peebles's Panther and popular memories of the Black Panther Party. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 24(3), 206-227.

Lee, G. (2020, October 22). To truly reflect diversity, PBS must end its overreliance on Ken Burns as 'America's Storyteller.' Current.

Lopez, K. (2021, April 22). 'Rutherford Falls' Review: Ed Helms confronts racist history in a misguided Peacock comedy series. IndieWire.

Martin, J. N. & Nakayama, T. K. (2018). Intercultural communication in contexts. 7th Ed. McGraw Hill Education.

Shivaram, D. (2021, August 13). 'Reservation Dogs' is a game changer for Indigenous Representation on TV. (2021, August 13). NPR.

Thompson, S., Harris, A., Deggans, E. (Hosts). (2021, September 13). As 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' winds down, it's time to assess its complicated legacy. [Audio podcast episode]. In PopCulture Happy Hour. NPR.

Whitt, J. (2005). Frank's Place: Coming home to a place we'd never been before. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 33(2), 80-87.

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Jamie Wells (Bethany Lutheran College) 2021-10-18 8:19:23pm
I really enjoyed how you explained that the industry, although telling many diverse storylines such as real-world problems, they tend to do so with a focus more on white people. Many people think of how they're telling the story and not who they are telling it about. I think this helps make it clearer.
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-10-19 2:56:20pm
Thank you--I agree, because we are so used to what is "normal," it can be hard to recognize how we may be participating in problems.
Noemi Cervera Evangelista (Wisconsin Lutheran College ) 2021-11-08 10:36:44pm
I definitely agree, with the focus of the storyline being on a white characters experience it is hard to bring up other issues. Not everyone can relate, people of color experience things that white people don't. There should be more thought going into media, especially Christian media about being inclusive and wanting to bring more people in instead of unintentionally turning them away.
Eva Delgado (Bethany Lutheran College ) 2021-10-19 12:12:18am
Equality among ethniticies is really important to me, so your article captured my attention right away. I have noticed more details that appear in movies that I had never paid attention to thanks to your explanation and analysis of the media industry.
I also agree on the fact that racial issues are being taken more into consideration and I think it is something positive. As explained in the article, the insdustry tends to focus more on white people; it is important to have diversity and to represent different types of audiences.
I truly enjoyed this article.
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-10-19 2:58:50pm
I agree with you--this is an important, and something I have become more aware of as I have taken coursework as a graduate student. I hope we as a church, including our media production (but also education, outreach events, etc.) consider how we can serve our neighbor in how we thoughtfully approach racial issues.
Marisa Shevey (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-10-29 4:58:27pm
The first thing that stood out to me in this writing was the mention of how the media Christians put out into the world is a reflection of God through us. Because of this, we have to be very careful about the media we put into the world to ensure that God's mission is properly portrayed to the world. Too often, I see such hateful things put out by Christians into the media that don't give glory to God's kingdom at all. It worries me that we may be abusing the power of media to drive the world further away from the love of God, rather than using it as a tool to draw them in and evangelize. Because media does have such a profound effect on everyone it touches, monitoring the things we put out into the media and considering how it will affect its audience is of the utmost importance for us as Christians.
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-04 1:22:02pm
Thanks for your comment Marisa! I think you are right that we do need to aware of the potential impacts of what we produce--which is a lot to think about!
Ellie Baldwin (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-03 4:58:51am
Jessica Gehrke,

Your article captured my attention almost immediately, because I am raised in a white family with the exception of my adopted African American sister. I appreciate that you are speaking up for people of all races and ethnicities, because equality among ALL people is something I have become very passionate about throughout my life. What I found most interesting about your article is that you emphasized the importance of communicating the truth about our past and our nation’s history, rather than not acknowledging it at all. As Christians, it is our responsibility to share the Gospel message out of love, so we do that by recognizing these issues and problems that we may deal with in the media or any other platform.

Something that you touched on but that I’d like to know more about is the example that you gave of the lack of diversity in the media. You explained the story of a complaint written to PBS that a buffalo documentary was taking up the time that could have been dedicated to Asian American history. Is there any way that Christians could take note of this in their home churches as well? So much of the church is based on old, traditional German practices and this can seem uninviting to newcomers who may be of a different race or nationality. Is there a way that we could incorporate more diverse church services or special Sundays dedicated to certain cultures and how they celebrate and worship Jesus? Could this then be used in the media by sharing this on the Internet with others so that they can see that Christians are aware of the racial issues that exist and are addressing them to our own practice?

Thank you for your continual efforts at learning to connect more with other races in the media production, because your work is very critical and important to Christianity. I know that you or I do not have all of the answers right now on how to solve the big question of racial issues, but I pray that you keep encouraging people like myself through this article to be aware of these rising conflicts in the world around us. God’s blessings to you as you expand on your thoughts and ideas of this topic, in which I encourage you to keep doing so!
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-04 5:16:46pm
Hello Ellie,

Thank you for your comments! I think you ask a great question about how we handle diversity in our churches. I think there are ways Christians can apply these issues of diversity in media to how we present ourselves through outreach, and it is a great point that what is familiar and comfortable for us may be confusing or offputting to others. What a blessing that God has given us freedom in how we worship him! The liturgy offers many valuable blessings, yet we may have church members who don't really know why we do what we do, so education for ourselves is important, too. For our outreach and making change, I also think education is an important step--that we aren't creating change for the sake of creating change, but we are seeking ways to share God's Word with other people, which means we have to consider change. Granted, since I teach communication, I think it is a great starting point--but I do think taking what we know academically about racial and cultural issues and thinking about what practices will help and what practices may cause harm is also important. For your suggestion of sharing things online, I think about churches/ministries that started having tough conversations last year about race and shared them online (and Time of Grace did a presentation about their production last year: I think it is important to keep having those conversations and providing updates to make change. I pray that we as a church will continue to have these conversations, and then implement what we learn.
Carly Heuer (Wisconsin Lutheran College ) 2021-11-05 1:06:12am
I agree we need to focus much more on who we are portraying. This does not just include Christian books, but also movies. If we look at movies like "The Road to Emmaus" and "Come Follow Me" many of the cast members, including the ones who play Jesus and his disciples, appear to be white. We can all agree that this was not the case, as Jesus and his disciples lived near and around the Middle East. Because the WELS, especially in Wisconsin, is predominantly white, it already could be daunting for people of color to consider joining it. Portraying these types of characters as white will not help share the message. We need to use this tool in a positive way that will invite people in, not push them away. Taking the different cultures and backgrounds of people into account is very important to outreach.
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-06 1:24:26am
Thanks for your comments Carly! How we portray Jesus is a great point when we are thinking about how others may perceive our outreach.
Tom Kuster (Christ in Media Institute) 2021-11-06 2:35:23am
Professor and artist Bill Bukowski and his talented video-producer son Jeff explored how visual artists portray Christ in last year's GOWM conference – cut and paste this address:
Noemi Cervera Evangelista (Wisconsin Lutheran College ) 2021-11-08 9:14:14pm
This is a great point, personally I have always been turned off by Christian movies for several different reasons. Like you mentioned the cast is usually if not always predominantly white, when yes in fact the story of the Bible took place in the Middle East. But even when the story does not take place in the Middle East most of the characters are white, wether it be a testimonial or a story of a miracle. There is also the issue where people can get turned off by a common trope where a white main character "saves" an "underprivileged minority" and turns them to faith. This is a very common trope not just in Christian media but also in secular media , the "white savior complex". The character can have good intentions but this trope is often seen as or implies that a person of color needs the help of this white character to get anywhere or insight change. This trope can turn away many people of color from Christian media which is the opposite of what that particular media should want to do. Overall I really liked the questions included in this article that can help someone think about how this all can change for the better.
Margaret Menges (Martin Luther College) 2021-11-05 4:19:51am
Ms. Gehrke:

Wow! What a thought-provoking article. Growing up, I have been surrounded by people of all ethnicities and races because of the city in which I was raised. However, my church has always been predominantly white and a lot of the media that the world has seen has also been predominantly white. You stated that mainstream media focuses on telling a diverse set of stories of white individuals, but not so much for other cultural groups and that if they are told, it is often misconstrued and receives a lot of hate. It can be hard to notice those things, especially when it has become “the normal”. I feel that it has sadly also become “the normal” to have our WELS and ELS churches be predominantly white as well when that should not be the case. The gospel message is for EVERYONE and there needs to be a way in which the church can address issues that the media may not.

You touched on how media is used to tell a story, develop an idea, and lead a discussion on race. I feel like a lot of the divide within the church is not necessarily from a lack of empathy or even from hatred itself, but rather a fear of the new. Yes, this is probably because of the media, and also, as Germanic Lutherans, we are often stuck in the way of tradition and opening up to new cultural ideas can be difficult for a lot of people. There have been discussions within different churches if clapping is ok, that is how traditional it has been. That being said, the media that the church produces lacks even more diversity. While I agree that diversity within the church is an issue that needs to be addressed and that we need to do a better job of listening, how would you handle the push-back from the other side? How do you help those who are so traditionally bound that they do not want to accept new ideas and diversity within the church? Is this simply an issue that you only can address within yourself?

Thank you again for your article and the many ideas which you shared.
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-06 1:38:38am
Hello Margaret,

Thank you for your comments and questions! You make a great point about how we often don't notice what is "normal," (and we don't notice much of culture around us). I also think you are right that is hard to change. We are used to what we do, and changing requires a lot of work. I do think media influences how we perceive these issues, especially as our choices as to what to consume has increased, but I agree, our culture is complex and there are several things that influence how we think and act.

You have a great question about how to deal with pushback. One option is to listen. Even if we don't agree or find what someone is saying is problematic, it can be more productive to listen and exchange ideas--the goal is that by listening and being open, that will help spark change, as opposed to going in set on changing minds. I think it is also helpful to consider what causes the pushback--is it personal experience? Is it concern about what will happen to them? Is it that someone hasn't had the chance to be exposed to other groups' experiences? That can also help us know what background knowledge is needed. One other consideration I believe is important is if someone is concerned the goal in addressing these issues is to shame someone. I believe it is helpful to emphasize the goal is to do better in our outreach moving forward, and to do so, that means acknowledging what could be better, which is uncomfortable. Forming groups to work together is also important, I think, both within and across churches and ministries. This is work that will take more than one person.
Elise Johnson (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-09 4:01:52am
I really enjoyed your reading your article/ presentation. It made me consider the level of cultural awareness that people who are Christian have. Obviously, Jesus has saved everyone, he loves everyone, and is for everyone however I feel that because of lack cultural awareness and representation, many people, especially those who come from other cultural backgrounds that aren't white, might not feel welcomed or supported, whether it is intentional or not. Personally, I grew up in the WELS and most people I knew/ interacted with were white and the people I saw represented, at least in the religious/ Christianity settings were white as well. Also, there wasn't really any talk or teaching of how to be a culturally aware or sensitive person despite this we are taught from a young age to evangelize. I think this probably has led many people to continue to be culturally unaware into adulthood and as a result things like controversial book are produced. This blunder obviously did not draw people closer to Jesus, it is more likely they are driven away. Again, this is why representation matters so much. Representation of who is writing, who is being represented in them, and how those people are being represented. Representation in media shapes people's perceptions of themselves and of others. In the case of Christian media, representation shows how Christians might view other cultural groups/ historical events etc. The way in which people outside of Christianity perceive Christians is so important, especially if we want to share Jesus with them. I think it is imperative then that many Christian people become more culturally aware and recognize the importance of representation. This is not to say that we should be more culturally aware only as a way to evangelize or be performative about it. Instead we should do it out of true empathy, kindness, and love like Jesus had shown to us.
Jessica Gehrke (Wisconsin Lutheran College) 2021-11-09 6:23:09pm
Hi Elise, I think you make a great point that being culturally sensitive aligns with a Christ-like attitude to serve others!