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date: 28 June 2017

Race and Ethnicity in U.S. Media Content and Effects

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Research empirically investigating the influence of media exposure on issues of race and ethnicity has long documented that media use meaningfully impacts on the cognitions, emotions, and behaviors of audiences members. Certainly, the media is only one among a number of factors that contribute to perceptions regarding and actions towards one’s own and other racial/ethnic groups. However, theory and empirical evidence demonstrate, fairly consistently, that the manner in which racial/ethnic groups are characterized in the media can harm or benefit different groups, depending on the nature of these depictions (alongside other social and psychological determinants). Consequently, it is both practically and theoretically important to identify how and how often different groups are portrayed across the media landscape and to assess the ways in which exposure to this content influences media audiences.

What quantitative content analytic studies have revealed is that there is variation in depictions of race/ethnicity in U.S. media depending on the group, the medium, and the genre. Thus, whereas blacks have achieved a degree of parity when it comes to the quantity of depictions on primetime U.S. television, there is variation in the quality, depending on the genre. Further, the same advances have not been seen for blacks in news, in film, and across other media forms and platforms. For Latinos, little has changed across decades when it comes to numeric representation in the media. When it comes to the quality of these portrayals, although some of the more egregious media stereotypes have faded, other longstanding media definitions of Latinos remain persistent. For other racial/ethnic groups, few images are presented. Within these infrequent images, a constrained set of characterizations often predominates; such as spiritual American Indians, tech-savvy Asian Americans, and terrorist Muslims.

Exposure to these representations has consequences. Consuming the images and messages associated with racial/ethnic groups in the media contributes to the formation, activation, and application of racial/ethnic cognitions. For racial/ethnic majority group members (i.e., whites), unfavorable media depictions can mean the development of harmful stereotypes, which can lead to outcomes ranging from unsympathetic policy positions to active or passive harming behaviors. When media characterizations are favorable, more auspicious outcomes emerge. For the racial and ethnic groups being depicted, the effects of exposure again depend on the quantity and quality of portrayals; with negative characterizations harming esteem and prompting shame, anger, and other undesirable emotions. On the other hand, some research indicates that favorable characterizations can serve as a source of group pride, boosting esteem.