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Media Treatment of Race and Ethnicity

Media Treatment of Race and Ethnicity

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Published by: lelandpalmer1977 on Aug 31, 2012
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11/05/2012

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1
Media Treatment of Ethnicity and Race
 
The framers of the Constitution envisioned the press as a free marketplace of ideas for the public.Subsequent media formats delivered news, entertainment and information to the widest possibleaudience supported by advertisers who introduced an economic element. To gain popularity andattract the masses, media developed content that reflected the prevailing practices of society that,unfortunately, included unfair attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities. Media relied onimages and symbols as a shorthand system to communicate complex messages within space andtime limitations and audiences became accustomed to learning about minorities through thesemediated depictions. Beyond mirroring reality, the ubiquity and repetitiveness of racial andethnic representations in media have influenced public norms since their inception.Today, as in the past, mass media operate as a forum for the social construction of reality,influencing values and attitudes. Whether considering books, newspapers or magazines of earlyAmerica or current recordings, radio, motion pictures, television, video games, Internet andinteractive digital formats, scholars agree that mass media have been a significant cultural forcethroughout our history. Specific media influence, however, is a complex topic of debateregarding one’s response to negative racial portrayals as evidenced by myriad empirical,theoretical and projective studies differing in their conclusions.One consistent factor is that the message, sender and receiver must each be considered inanalysis. George Gerbner’s cultivation theory asserts that media viewers cumulatively internalizemessages that cultivate perceptions of reality. Consistent negative racial portrayals become one’s“truth” or worldview. Alfred Bandura’s social cognitive theory addresses the potential for individuals to hold erroneous perceptions of reality based on media, but contends that thedynamic interplay of personal, behavioral and environmental factors must be considered. For example, for people with limited direct contact with other ethnic groups, media become tools toform subsequent stereotypical opinions.The significance of audience reception of the mediated message was demonstrated when
All in the Family,
a 1970s television series, became the subject of numerous empirical studies. Whereasthe producers’ goal was to critique racial prejudice through creation of a bigoted, absurd leadcharacter, as he was viewed and interpreted by some, many viewers found him likable andsimilar to them with a pragmatic viewpoint. This selective perception hypothesis demonstratesthe complexity of mediated portrayals. Realistically, media images provide continuousopportunities for audiences to construct or reinforce ideological frames about people of particular races. They do influence, but in varying degrees, while mirroring the mores of society.
 
2
Race in Early Media and Entertainment
To discern mass media’s treatment of race and ethnicity, one must understand America’sunfortunate history of racism. Social relationships in early United States included prejudice anddiscrimination of people of color. Therefore, the repertoire of representations of minorities thatmedia offered paralleled that established ideology in newspapers and books of the 18th centuryand the predominant entertainment medium of the 19
th
century, theater. Buffalo Bill Cody’s popular “Wild West” shows played to packed houses as they boldly demonstrated the necessarytaming of the “savage” Indians while minstrel shows, the most popular form of Americanentertainment for 80 years, delighted audiences with comical stereotypes of bumbling negroesenacted by white actors in blackface. Each became popular content in subsequent radio programsand films.The turn of the century introduction of motion pictures began with imagery of cowboysannihilating “wild Injuns,” “greaser” films portraying reckless Mexican bandits and Asians asthe diabolically evil “yellow menace.” These characterizations were congruent with whites’ beliefs during this era. D. W. Griffith’s film
Birth of a Nation 
established the stereotypical prototype of blacks as morally inferior, unintelligent and potentially dangerous that enduredthroughout much of the century. This coincided with the nation’s common temperamentregarding blacks during slavery, Reconstruction, the segregationist period and early 20
th
century,when lynching of blacks finally ended.
 
The mid 20
th
century featured somewhat less obvious stereotypes in Hollywood, radio and earlytelevision. Native Americans continued to be “generalized’ in films and were still foundattacking white settlers unless cast as faithful companions to strong white cowboys as in
Lone Ranger 
with Tonto. Blacks were also congenial sidekicks, appearing as waiters, porters anddomestic workers throughout early television programs. Hollywood’s epic
Gone With the Wind 
speciously epitomized their happy, faithful relationship with whites and representative filmsshowcased black entertainers singing and dancing, reinforcing their submissive status in society.
Amos ‘n’ Andy 
made its television debut in 1951 as the first program with an all black cast buttheir characterizations were controversial and it was three decades before a major show featured blacks in lead roles.During this period political and economic matters between Latin American and the U.S. resultedin fewer pejorative representations of Latinos onscreen with the exception of the quintessentialhot-blooded males and tempestuous women. In the positively regarded
I Love Lucy 
of earlytelevision Cuban-American Desi’s explosion of Spanish malapropisms when confronted withLucy’s foibles sustained the stereotypical imagery of the quick-tempered Latino.Asian stereotypes were indeed pervasive but of differing qualities following World War II whenovert racism against Japanese suffused media from Hollywood films to cartoons with explicitscenes of Japanese soldiers delighting in applying torture techniques. Radio programs andmovies featuring corrupt or diabolical Chinese villains like Fu Manchu later replaced thesedepictions.Equally detrimental was the absence of many ethnic groups on television, termed symbolicannihilation, which maintained social inequality through lack of representation. A major quantitative study of race on television from 1955 to 1964 identified only one character in ten as
 
3anything other than white American, only one character in fifty as Hispanic, fewer than one in ahundred as Asian and one in two hundred as black. Dominance of white characters effectivelyrendered minorities invisible. Television, like film, was given a mandate to improve culturally.
Media Parallels Society
A new wave of studies on media treatment of race proliferated after 1965. Concurrently, societalattitudes regarding blacks improved after the Civil Rights era, whites became more aware of the past and current plight of American Indians, negative attitudes lessened toward Asianimmigrants, except for residual Viet Nam war tensions, and progress resulted from greater contact with Latinos as their numbers grew. Despite improvements, neither the media nor thecountry could declare equitable treatment of racial/ethnic minorities.Media scholars and sociologists conducted extensive research between the late ‘70s and 1997 todetermine the public’s perceptions of race and potential correlations with media representations.Conclusions are summarized briefly for six principal groups, although non-differentiation amongthem is also a form of misrepresentation.During the period studied, whites were usually portrayed as friendly, intelligent and, at times,egotistical, with males seen as upper class and females mostly attractive. Trait measurementresearch found whites to have the highest scores for wealth, work ethic, intelligence and patriotism. Attributes for blacks in the same years included inferiority, laziness, dishonesty andinsolence.Most predominant stereotypes attributed to Asian Americans were intelligence, being soft-spoken and highly educated while Latino/Hispanic Americans were thought of as having limitedaccess to education and employment, attractive, excitable and friendly. Terms describingAmerican Indians were alcoholic, lazy, on welfare or on reservations. Another ethnic categoryreceiving negative media portrayals became Arabs, commonly associated with terrorism andtraits of being radical, barbaric and anti-western.Other notable pejorative ethnic representations have been those of Italian-Americans as mobstersin the
Godfather 
films and
The Sopranos 
television series, Eastern Europeans such as Polishimmigrants as non-intelligent laborers, those of Jewish or Middle Eastern descent as dishonestand manipulative and Puerto Ricans and South Americans to be involved in illegal drugs.
Current Status
Economic concerns, media literacy education and political empowerment of people of color haveled to a greater variety of portrayals of non-whites in 21
st
century media. However, despitecontemporary media’s endeavors to avoid stereotypes, genre conventions such as the necessity of character shorthand in situation comedies, deadlines and time constraints of news programs andcommercial media industries placing profits over story development negate total stereotypeeradication.Progress is evident in films starring black actors and directors like Spike Lee who paint accurate portrayals of African American life, in addition to greater representation on radio and in print,although blacks remain underrepresented in leading roles. More sensitive representations of Asians began with
The Last Emperor 
and
The Joy Luck Club 
revealing cultural nuances of 

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