Communication and Race

By: Johnson
The most critical aspects of media performance with regards to race and ethnicity are issues that relate to the quality of its representation of the lives of people of color. Accuracy and diversity are aspects of media performance that will allow for a careful evaluation of how it represents people of color. Evaluating media performance is important because of the utilization and reliance on the mass media for much of society’s reflexive monitoring and evaluation of reality. The performance of mass media is important in regards to race and ethnicity because the mass media are the primary source of indirect or mediated experiences that reinforce racial attitudes and beliefs that are integrated into cognitive structures (Gandy, 1998). Thus, mass media can be viewed as places where reality is constructed and racism may be reproduced. Accuracy Accuracy is an important aspect of media performance to consider in assessing the quality of its representation of the lives of people of color because of its assumed consequences of developing self-image and personal identity and its reflection of social reality that informs social policy (Gandy 1998). Shan and Thorton (1994) state that previous research of minority groups has shown that minorities are sometimes depicted as being “violent, primitive, and politically unsophisticated.” Furthermore, they postulate that certain types of behaviors among minorities may be “understood by whites as pathological or deviant” because of how the news media represent them. This representation is inaccurate because it ignores historical context and structural explanations for social trends. In addition, Shan and Thorton state that newsmagazines reproduce racism by perpetuating a racial hierarchy carried out by mainly whites and consumed by mainly whites that positioned blacks at the bottom. Entman (1990) found that local news stimulated the production of modern racism. Violent crimes committed by blacks was the largest category of local news. Of the eight times in which blacks were subjects of lead stories, six described violent crimes. In addition, blacks were shown as being more dangerous than whites. Entman states that “accused blacks were usually illustrated by glowering mug shots or by footage of them being led around in handcuffs, their arms held by uniformed white policemen.” Salwen and Soruco (1997) state that images of Mexicans in the press reflect racial stereotypes. The researchers point out examples in US press where Mexicans were labeled as “wetbacks” and associated with causing destruction by “introducing one of the world’s most destructive insect pest.” Gandy (1998) states that blacks are often portrayed as violent criminals. If they are portrayed in human-interest stories, these stories rely upon negative stereotypes. Like Entman and Gandy finding that minorities (blacks) experience inaccurate portrayals of being violent, Salwen and Soruco also report that Hispanics were framed in crime stories more frequently. Astroff (1989) conclude that mass media tends to reproduce or participate in the reproduction of inaccurate representations, stereotypes, of Latinos. US Latinos were transformed into “Spanish Gold” through the redefinition of (not the elimination of) traditional stereotypes. These stereotypes of Latinos were reinterpreted for the use of explanations of consumer behavior yet there was not any significant change, moving to a more accurate depiction, in the representation of Latinos in mainstream media. Diversity The concept of diversity is a multidimensional one. The FCC sought to promote diversity under two headings: one of maximizing consumer choice; the other of serving the public interest by ensuring an appropriate range of service from broadcasting and fairness in giving access and attention to minority groups. Diversity of program content, accessible to all segments of the audience, is necessary to insure quality representation of the lives of people of color. One of the goals of the media should be to represent or reflect the prevailing differences of culture, opinion, and social conditions of the population as a whole. The degree of correspondence between the diversity of the society and the diversity of media content is the key to assessing media performance. Diversity must be at the media content level and at the media system level and must promote racial proportionality and representation. Entman (1990) demonstrated that blacks were misrepresented in local news coverage. So-called bad news was often thought more newsworthy than good news and ethnic minority members were differentially more likely to identified in negative contexts. Salwen and Soruco (1997) report that, as of 1990, Hispanics did not receive proportional coverage in the news even though they accounted for 9 per cent of the US population. Also, statistics show that blacks have 2 per cent of roles in magazine content, and are often depicted in lower status occupations or criminal roles. Gandy (1998) state that the news coverage of race in the US is generally limited to the coverage of crimes involving violence and that minority groups are quoted less often and less extensively in US press. These studies and findings demonstrate how minorities’ images as being violent criminals are perpetuated and how negative images of minorities are the current themes in mass media. Accepting that the representation of the lives of people of color is not diverse because minorities are often viewed as criminals and in stereotypical contexts, it is no surprise that the media system level is also not diverse. Minority ownership of commercial broadcast stations account for only 3 per cent. Black managers in newspapers account for only 6 per cent (Hispanic only 3 per cent). And black managers in motion pictures account for less than 5 per cent (Hispanics less than 6 per cent). These statistics are depressing considering that there is solid evidence of a positive relationship between minority ownership and minority diversity in the workplace (Gandy, 1998). Obstacles There is evidence that the media operate under conditions of considerable pressure and constraint (Astroff, 1989; Brooks, 1995; Rodriguez, 1996). The media are often at the receiving end of a number of sources of power influences. These influences may range from traditions of past performance to pressures of competition. A strong awareness of, and sensitivity to, external pressures and demands is reported in many accounts of the media at work (Rodriguez, 1996; Astroff, 1989). These accounts make it clear that others often shape media performance. Rodriguez analyzed the nightly national newscast of the largest Spanish language television network in the US, Noticiero Univision, as an interaction between demands of the commercial enterprise that can enable media to meet performance goals. He concludes that professional and cultural demands can be integrated into the commercial profit motive, resulting in an “audience-centered, objective, ethnic minority national newscast” (p76). But Astroff’s (1989) findings differ from what Rodriguez concluded about Noticiero Univision. Astroff found that existing stereotypes of marginalized groups constrain and shape market recognition of minorities, accurate portrayal, and diversity of characterization. Because media’s product is a public rather than a private good and is exposed to immediate public assessment, the quality of the media’s product should be subject to much more scrutiny than other consumer products. The media are the primary source of indirect or mediated experiences that shape, reinforce, or eliminate racial attitudes and beliefs. But, the mass media is a business and thus is under business constraints with regard to performance. Commercial media have to be as efficient in their use of resources and financial returns as other businesses. But do to the nature of their business, media performance must be assessed by criteria which is much more demanding than normal business criteria.
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