Have you ever seen somebody across the room, passed a negative judgement and then come to know them as a genuinely good person? Sure you have, I have as well. It’s called stereotyping, many of us do it inherently and often without malice. One research group set out to determine if whether or not the media is enhancing this effect leading to inequality in judgements of others—specifically with African Americans being portrayed as violent and aggressive. The results were mixed and somewhat surprising.
Dr. Dana Mastro et al. dug into the concept of media priming—the idea that one stimuli can activate an existing mental construct. By nature, we all have existing biases.
Let’s use weather forecasting as an example. I’m a meteorologist and can tell you statistics have shown that day to day forecasts are correct about 93% of the time—a winning percentage higher than hall of fame sports coaches and even correct medical diagnoses. However, media priming, miscommunication and jargon (a whole separate issue) may create an idea that forecasters are “always wrong.” In late 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the National Weather Service, “way off” saying they offered no warning that intense snow bands would dump several feet of snow over Buffalo in a short time. This in fact wasn’t the case, as meteorologists had indicated the possibility of crippling snow, days in advance. I can easily dismiss these characterizations; however negative or unclear remarks may intensify a commonly known, existing bias for those who perceive forecasters as “always wrong.”
Mastro and the research team put together a survey to gauge reactions of Caucasian college students towards African American and Caucasian rape suspects. A local news station generated three fake newscasts with three stories each—two for control and one detailing a rape case. The only varying detail across all three newscasts was rape suspect’s race. The male suspects were described as African American, Caucasian or no race. Each participant would only view one of the newscasts and then complete a survey to assess suspect guilt, prison sentence, the likelihood of repeat behavior, suspect responsibility and victim responsibility.
Researchers felt that having “outgroup” status would influence participant reaction. Simply put, the less in common a participant had with a suspect, the less sympathy they would have. For instance, it was hypothesized that a Caucasian female would be the harshest judge of an African American male.
As it turned out, the signals weren’t as strong as anticipated. White males, due to “double ingroup” status, were more sympathetic to the white male suspects and assigned a bit more blame to victims. No significant findings were made with regard to race and victim responsibility. As far as punishment goes, the longest sentences were assigned to black male suspects by men and the shortest sentences were given to white or no race suspects by women. Indeed, ingroup or outgroup status did seem to dictate participant reactions more so than race.
For the purposes of identifying media priming, researchers (admittedly) could have done more to understand participant biases and stereotypes prior to the study. A method of measuring pre-existing racial prejudices and news consumption habits would have been beneficial in contextualizing the results. Those with preconceived prejudices may have leaned farther towards the hypotheses that race would be a factor in judgement. Not mentioned, but significant, would have been an understanding of the news landscape in the region of study. Theory suggests that recent and frequent examples come to mind more easily. For this study, if a rape crime had been in the news lately, wouldn’t it automatically skew the perceptions of participants? Additionally, infrequent news consumers are obviously less prone to the effects of media priming. Considering all of these measures could help to identify a more appropriate population for study.
Let us look at the next step. In the postmodern-electronic world of media, online platforms should be analyzed for media priming. In fact, would it not be reasonable to believe that the effects of priming are more intense? The vast digital media scape offers consumers easier access to information, from sources that have more control over their “own” message, towards a targeted audience. With sustainability motivations to maintain that core audience, we might find that characterizations are reinforcing biases and pre-existing stereotypes. Taken a step farther, research could look at audio/video online content versus text only. Perhaps with print alone, the effects of priming would be less intense than if there is an audible or visual element with the possibility of subtle social cues being transmitted.
Think about yourself, your career or area of expertise. Surely, at some point, one of these has been misconstrued and caused somebody to have the incorrect idea about you. Could exposure to media priming, bias, characterization and stereotyping have been the cause?
LINKS TO MORE:
Perspective on Forecast Accuracy: http://wxbrad.com/perspective-on-the-accuracy-of-meteorologists/
Cuomo Slams NWS Over His Own Ignorance: http://thevane.gawker.com/andrew-cuomo-slams-natl-weather-service-over-his-own-ig-1662362854
University of Arizona Dept. of Communication: https://comm.arizona.edu/
Michigan State University Communication Arts and Sciences: http://cas.msu.edu/
West Chester University Communication Studies: https://communication.wcupa.edu/
University of Missouri Communication: https://communication.missouri.edu/