MEL Notes: Effects of Racial and Ethnic Minority Portrayals on Television

Posted by on Feb 29, 2016 in MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

This post is written in response to:

Ramasubramanian, S. (2010). Television viewing, racial attitudes, and policy preferences: Exploring the role of social identity and intergroup emotions in influencing support for affirmative action. Communication Monographs, 77(1), 102-120. doi: 10.1080/03637750903514300.

 

 Folasade Adesanya is a first year masters student in the Manship School of Mass Communication. Her research interests explore how exposure to news media influences individuals’ perceptions of race and police violence.


Racial minorities are generally given stereotypical roles in the media. We all know of Tyler Perry’s Madea, the tough, loud, short tempered and stereotypically “ghetto” African American character we love to watch. Or Sophia Vergara’s character on Modern Family – Gloria – who is the feisty, overly sexualized trophy wife from Colombia. These portrayals are often seen as no big deal, because it is “just entertainment” – not to be taken seriously. Dr. Srividya Ramasubramanian disagrees. She suggests that the media affect our opinions, attitudes, prejudices, and actions. The media can influence any and all of our cognitive processes – even something as seemingly unrelated as support for policy decisions (S. Ramasubramanian, personal communication, February 16, 2016).

Ramasubramanian conducted a study to prove this point. The study focused on how portrayals of African Americans and Latino Americans on television affect Whites’ attitudes toward them in real life. The high frequency of stereotypical portrayals of minorities on television presumably reinforces stereotypical beliefs in Whites and fosters prejudice. She hypothesized that the prejudicial feelings would ultimately lead to lack of support for pro-minority government policies like affirmative action (Ramasubramanian, 2010).

Approximately 274 White college students participated in a survey measuring perceived portrayals of racial/ethnic groups on television, stereotypical beliefs, prejudicial feelings, and policy support.

Ramasubramanian found that her hypothesis was supported. As perceived stereotypical portrayals of African Americans and Latino Americans on television increased, negative real life stereotypical feelings increased, hostility toward African Americans and Latino Americans increased, and support for affirmative action policies decreased. These findings suggest that television plays a prominent role in influencing viewers’ racial attitudes and policy preferences (Ramasubramanian, 2010).

What is even more significant about these findings is that they prove that the media affects many of our decisions and attitudes, even if we do not realize it. As for the best way to combat this issue – there is no clear answer. Ramasubramanian suggests having more diverse portrayals of all racial minorities on television as a logical start. We’ve seen shows like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince of Bel Air that attempted to diversify the portrayals of African Americans on television. Still, African Americans and Latino Americans need more representation in order for the media to be truly representative.

Furthermore, there are other minority groups that are essentially nonexistent on television. One of the very few examples of Asian American representation is ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, which has been criticized for being highly stereotypical. Additionally, streaming sites such as Netflix have made efforts to create content with diverse racial representation (i.e. Meet the Patels). This effort is recognized and should be continued, as well as extended to include other minority groups, including Native Americans and Middle Easterns.

Future studies might consider what factors could potentially mediate or moderate the effect stereotypical television portrayals have on White viewers’ beliefs, attitudes and actions regarding minorities. Gilliam, et. al. (2002) found that Whites from diverse neighborhoods were less willing to accept stereotyped depictions of Blacks, while Whites from predominantly White neighborhoods were more quick to endorse such stereotypes. If neighborhood composition mediates the effects of stereotypical portrayals of minorities, then neighborhood composition will probably also have effect on policy preferences; Whites who live in more diverse neighborhoods will probably be more likely to support affirmative action policies.

Another factor that could be tested is amount of media consumed. One could hypothesize that White individuals who are light television viewers are less likely to view racial minorities in a stereotypical way in real life, less likely to have prejudicial feelings toward racial minorities, and are more likely to support pro-minority policies than heavy television viewers.

A similar survey could be distributed to White Americans asking about their television viewing habits (independent variable), endorsement of racial minority stereotypes, prejudicial feelings against minorities and support for pro-minority government policies (dependent variables).

There are plenty of ways these findings can be applied to what is going on in the world today. Ramasubramanian has mentioned that she wants to use her research to change the system of perpetuated stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination against racial minorities (S. Ramasubramanian, personal communication, February 16, 2016).

These findings can be applied to other government policies. One example would be policies that hold police officers accountable for treating civilians with respect and discourage excessive force/murder without cause (i.e. body cams). Law enforcement has a history of discriminating against racial minorities. Media consumers controlling the amount of television they watch, as well as more production of quality minority portrayals could lead to support for holding officers accountable for their abuses of power.

Ramasubramanian is optimistic that the media will become more representative. She additionally stresses the importance of media literacy, calling audiences to be more critical of the media they consume. (S. Ramasubramanian, personal communication, February 16, 2016). An improvement in the quality of media portrayals will hopefully lead to increased racial tolerance in future generations.

 

References

Gilliam Jr., F. D., Valentino, N. A., & Beckmann, M. N. (2002). Where you live and what you watch: The impact of racial proximity and local television news on attitudes about race and crime. Political Research Quarterly, 55(4), 755-780.

Ramasubramanian, S. (2010). Television viewing, racial attitudes, and policy preferences: Exploring the role of social identity and intergroup emotions in influencing support for affirmative action. Communication Monographs, 77(1), 102-120.