We live in an increasingly diverse world, not only in terms of ethnic heritage, but also in the forms of communication available. With so many information resources to choose from, how do we make sure that communication campaigns reach target audiences? Ethnicity is often implicated in the formation of knowledge gaps, in which certain portions of the population receive and gain knowledge through the media at a faster rate than others, creating a difference between information “haves” and “have-nots”. As a result, the issue of ethnicity and exposure to communication becomes particularly important when trying to ensure equal access to information pertinent to life in the twenty-first century.
Ethnic groups are distinguished by common culture, language, religion, and/or ancestral origins. There are no internationally agreed upon ethnic categorizations because history often plays a role in what aspects are considered most important for ethnic identity. For example, the historical conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland makes religious affiliation imperative to ethnic categorization, whereas the history of immigration in the US leads to a greater focus on ancestral origins. Most research tends to use broader racial categories to define ethnic groups. In the US, for example, census categorizations of “White/Caucasian,” “Black/African-American,” “Hispanic/Latino,” “Asian,” and “Native American” are used most often in research, with most concentrating in the three largest ethnic categories – Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. Occasionally case studies focus on a specific ethnic group as defined by religion or country of origin.
Ethnicity is viewed mainly as a potential co-variate in message exposure studies and appears in the literature when ethnicity is a significant predictor of exposure and/or effects. Ethnic differences in use and/or communication connections could account for some of the significant findings attributed to ethnicity and are therefore the focus for this article. The two goals of this article are: first, to review some of the findings of studies comparing ethnic groups in media use and connections; and second, to encourage a shift in the way that we study ethnicity and communication connections in the future.
Ethnic Comparisons In Media Use And Connections
Early media use research in the US concentrated on television viewing. The general consensus of these studies was that African-Americans and Latinos watch more and report greater satisfaction with television than Whites. Blacks use television for entertainment and as a diversion, and Latinos more for entertainment and information. Both Blacks and Latinos prefer watching programs featuring characters or topics representative of their ethnic groups (Greenberg et al. 2002). This preference for ethnic identification with television personalities likely spreads beyond these two ethnic groups. In recent years, reality television producers have successfully appealed to a more diverse audience by seeking ethnic diversity while casting the programs.
Recent studies of ethnic groups in the UK found a slightly different relationship with television than found in the US. Ethnic minorities in the UK – including Mixed, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean, Black African, and Chinese ethnic categories – watch less television than the general population. These ethnic groups are more likely to have cable television and Asians, Chinese, and Middle Eastern groups, in particular, report preferring ethnic channels (OfCom 2007).
Ethnicity is also a common feature in digital divide research. While most studies in Europe show that income, not ethnicity, is a key element in the digital divide, in North America studies indicate that lower-income Blacks and Latinos have less access to the Internet and other new communication technologies, while Asian-Americans lead other ethnic groups in Internet access. In the UK, Black Africans are least likely of all ethnic groups to have Internet access (OfCom 2007). Programs around the globe are attempting to increase Internet access for all ethnic groups and income levels. However, even amongst those with access, ethnic differences still exist. African-Americans are more likely than Whites to search for information on new jobs, places to live, religion, and to download music, video, and audio clips online (Spooner & Rainie 2004). African-Americans indicate more appreciation for the ability to learn new things on the Internet, while Whites are more likely to report the importance of the Internet for staying in touch with family and friends (Spooner & Rainie 2004). Whites are also more likely than Hispanics to indicate interpersonal benefits from the Internet (Hacker & Steiner 2002).
Marketing research tells us the most about ethnicity and use of other media. African-Americans and Latinos are said to listen to more radio than other ethnic groups. Whites/Caucasians are most likely to read newspapers daily, followed by African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos/Hispanics. However, while circulation numbers are down for the traditional newspapers (readership has shifted to online formats), ethnic newspapers have shown some growth in recent years (Project for Excellence in Journalism 2007). Magazine readership studies (e.g., PReSS 2006) indicate that African-Americans prefer magazines targeted to their ethnic groups (e.g., Ebony, Jet, and Essence) over general interest magazines, while Asian-American adults prefer news publications not found in the top ten magazines for general audiences and other ethnic groups (e.g., Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal).
Moving Beyond “Use” Of Specific Forms Of Communication
In today’s media-saturated environment, it no longer makes sense to study single forms of communication. A person can “use” multiple forms of communication simultaneously. For example, a person can watch television, check email, play computer games, and talk to someone on the phone at the same time if they desire. Media use studies do not capture this intricacy. Several researchers have stressed the value-added of examining media in context so as to be able to assess their relative importance. The importance of any particular communication connection is relative to the importance of all other available and appropriate options. People usually connect to more than one communication option to achieve any particular goal; that is, they operate in context of the best choices available.
It has been shown that people construct different communication ecologies in order to achieve their everyday goals. For example, while you might find that local newspapers are the best way to find out what is happening in your community, talking to other parents or reading parenting magazines may be more important when determining how to discipline your child for misbehaving in public. Therefore, while an ethnic group might spend more time using particular media, recall measures may find they were less exposed to particular messages because they were not connecting to the medium for that type of information. Exposure rates may be higher when the messages appear in media that the group spends less time using but considers more important for specific goals. So instead of studying ethnic differences in the use of television, the Internet, or other form of media, the goal should be to identify the communication ecology – the web of interpersonal and media (new and old or mainstream, and local and/or ethnic) connections that ethnic groups construct in the course of everyday life to reach specific goals.
Moving Beyond Broad Ethnic Comparisons
There are some indications that there may be as many differences within broad ethnic categories as there are between ethnic groups (Resinicow et al. 2002). There are variations within Latino-Hispanic, Asian, and African-American groups based upon socio-economic status, ethnic backgrounds, identification with countries of origins and/or specific regions of a country, language use and accent, and city versus rural distinctions. Acculturation plays a role in whether immigrants of various ethnic backgrounds prefer media in their native language to that of their host country. Sharing a native language does not always lead to common media exposure since the meanings of words and cultural symbols can vary greatly between countries of origin that share a common language. In addition, even people within one country (e.g., China, Brazil, South Africa, etc.) can connect to different media based upon the use of different dialects.
While most research has concentrated on the dominant racial and ethnic categories (e.g., Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, and Asians), a couple of studies have broken new immigrant groups down further. For example, one study found that more affluent Caucasian and Chinese-origin groups had the highest quality of Internet connectedness, while Koreanorigin, Mexican-origin, and Central American-origin groups had lower-quality connections (Jung et al. 2001). Other studies have shown differences between Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants with regard to newspaper reading, suggesting a potential knowledge gap within the “Asian” ethnic categorization (Mansfield-Richardson 2000).
Not only will we get a more accurate picture of communication exposure when exploring intra-ethnic differences, there is reason to believe that geo-ethnic differences are just as important. The term “geo-ethnicity” refers to the interaction of ethnicity and geographical space. Studies have indicated significant communication differences between people of similar ethnic backgrounds who live in different communities – with different communication infrastructures – even when controlling for socio-economic status, immigration history, residential tenure, and home ownership.
These geo-ethnic differences can influence media connections. For example, Latinos in different communities in Los Angeles vary in their preference for mainstream English-language media rather than Spanish-language resources (Wilkin et al. 2007). There are also differences in the relative importance of television versus newspapers in these communities. While three Latino communities had extremely low Internet connections (less than a quarter of the community surveyed had Internet access), one of the communities studied had almost three-quarters of the sample connecting to the Internet. These geoethnic variances were not unique to Latinos. The study also demonstrated that Whites in two Los Angeles communities differed in their connection to interpersonal, television, and local versus mainstream newspapers.
There is no question that ethnic differences exist in exposure to communication and these differences can have implications for disparities between groups. With increasing diversity of communication resource options, ethnic and intra-ethnic exposure studies need to take place within an ecological framework.
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