Research examining the influence of media exposure on audience members has long revealed that both the frequency and the nature of messages play a role in determining the outcomes of exposure. Consequently, documenting the manner in which different groups are represented in the media (alongside the rate of these depictions) is critical to understanding the possible implications for consumers, as exposure may be associated with the formation and application of group-based cognitions.
Group Representations In Television
Despite the proliferation of new media alternatives, television continues to dominate among audience members of virtually all ages and races. Indeed, Nielsen (2006) reported that daily household television viewing in the US had reached a record high of 8 hours and 14 minutes per day, with daily prime-time viewing additionally increasing to 1 hour and 54 minutes. Who, then, are viewers likely to encounter when tuning in to the wide variety of television offerings, and what features are associated with these representations?
Content analyses of current US prime-time television depictions of African-Americans indicate that they are presented at a rate exceeding their proportion of the population of the US (at approximately 12 percent). On average, African-Americans constitute approximately 14 percent of characters appearing on prime-time television (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005). Research suggests that African-Americans can be found nearly exclusively in sitcoms or crime dramas. In dramas, they appear most often in mixed-race casts whereas in sitcoms they are most often found in casts comprised principally of African-Americans (Children Now 2004).
A sketch of the typical African-American seen on prime-time television depicts a regular cast member who is a middle-class male law enforcer or professional, in his thirties, discussing topics related to work (Children Now 2004; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005). In addition to demonstrating average levels of both job authority and social influence, African-American characters are among the least aggressive on prime time (Mastro & Greenberg 2000). They also are rated more hot-tempered, more provocatively dressed, and less professionally attired than their white peers on television.
The picture of Latinos on contemporary US prime-time television is less favorable. Latinos are grossly underrepresented when compared with real-world demographics, representing only 4 percent of the prime-time population compared with 13 percent of the US population (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005). Like African-Americans, Latino characters are confined primarily to sitcoms and crime dramas (Children Now 2004). They appear most often as family members, conversing frequently about crime-related topics. Generally speaking, Latinos are depicted as younger, lower in job authority, more provocatively dressed, lazier, less articulate, and less intelligent than their peers on television. Alongside African-Americans, Latinos are deemed the most hot-tempered characters in prime time. Moreover, when compared with other female characters on TV, Latinos are rated the lowest in work ethic and highest in verbal aggression.
The near invisibility of Asian-Americans and Native Americans in contemporary primetime television often excludes them from quantitative assessments. In terms of numeric representation, Asian-Americans make up 1.5 percent of the characters on prime time (and 4 percent of the US population) and are depicted primarily in minor and nonrecurring roles (Children Now 2004). Native Americans represent less than 1 percent of the characters seen on prime time and approximately 1 percent of the population of the US (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005). Their infrequent roles often are based in a historical context (Merskin 1998). Similarly, 0.2 percent of newspaper articles and 0.2 percent of films portray Native Americans (Fryberg 2003). When they are represented in the media, they are characterized in limited roles as spiritual, as warriors, and as a social problem.
Little more than the mere quantity of characters is known when it comes to images of Arabs/Middle Easterners and Indians/Pakistanis in prime-time television (Children Now 2004). Arabs/Middle Easterners represent 0.05 percent of prime-time television characters. Nearly half of these characters (46 percent) are portrayed as criminals. Indians/Pakistanis make up 0.04 percent of the television population. In terms of the nature of these roles, they have yet to be documented.
Research assessing the representation of age groups in prime-time television dramas and sitcoms reveals variations in the number and nature of portrayals based on the age of the character. In terms of numeric representation, Harwood and Anderson’s (2002) results indicate that characters between the ages of 0 and 9 make up only 1.9 percent of the prime-time population. Those ranging from ages 10 to 19 constitute 9.7 percent of TV roles. Characters aged 20 –34 comprise nearly 40 percent of roles seen on television. Those falling between the ages of 35 and 44 represent approximately 27 percent of actors. Adults in the age range 45 – 64 make up 18.7 percent of the world on prime time. Finally, those over 65 constitute 2.8 percent of the prime-time population. When these figures are compared with US census data, several discrepancies emerge. Adolescents and children, particularly younger children, are severely underrepresented. The same is true of seniors, who are seen at rates well below that of their proportion of society. On the other hand, characters ranging in age from 20 through the early 40s are depicted at levels far exceeding that of the US population.
In terms of the features associated with these different age groups, Harwood and Anderson’s (2002) findings reveal that the favorability of portrayals declines with age. In other words, more positive images are linked with younger characters. This decrease in positive evaluations appears to be a function of diminishing perceptions of attractiveness as the characters age.
In the main, images of racial/ethnic minority children on prime-time television are uncommon. Only about 3 percent of the characters portrayed on prime time are children, and among these approximately 77.5 percent are white, 15.5 percent are African-American, 3 percent are Latino, 2 percent are Asian-American, and less than 1 percent are Native American (Children Now 2001, 2004). Beyond the sheer number of portrayals, little more has been documented regarding the portrayal of children on prime-time television.
Although women outnumber men in the US population, on prime-time television nearly two-thirds of the characters are male (Children Now 2004). In terms of the features associated with men and women, Glascock (2001) notes that female characters are more likely to be depicted as married and parents than are male characters. The type and status of occupations also varies based on the gender of the character. Women are less likely than men to be depicted as bosses and are seen in a smaller variety of roles than men. In particular, although both men and women are often portrayed as police officers, men are also frequently depicted as professionals such as judges, doctors, etc. Alternatively, women are seen in service roles such as secretaries and waitresses, as well as in traditionally female roles such as nurses.
Looking at the features of males and females on prime-time television reveals that, on average, women are younger than men, dressed more provocatively, and are more affectionate. Men, however, are more physically aggressive than their female counterparts on TV, particularly in dramas.
Images of gays and lesbians on contemporary prime-time television are infrequent, comprising slightly more than 1 percent of the prime-time television population (Children Now 2001). When depicted, these characters are most often white and are generally male. Typically, gay and lesbian characters are seen in situation comedies. On these shows they are mostly recurring characters (appearing in either primary or secondary roles). When seen in dramas, gay and lesbian characters are commonly found in one-time, nonrecurring roles.
Characters with disabilities are exceedingly rare on prime-time television (Children Now 2001). Only about 1 percent of all prime-time characters are portrayed with some type of disability. When these images do emerge, they are evenly divided between recurring and nonrecurring roles. Among these, over half of the disabled characters are white and the preponderance is male.
Group Representations In Advertising
Consistent with findings on representations of race on prime-time television, content analyses of minority portrayals in television advertising reveal that many of these groups also are underrepresented compared with the US population (Greenberg et al. 2002). Mastro and Stern’s (2003) investigation of racial/ethnic depictions in prime-time commercials found that whites make up approximately 83 percent of the characters seen in television ads, African-Americans 12 percent, Asian-Americans 2 percent, Latinos 1 percent, and Native Americans 0.4 percent. Although the sheer number of minority portrayals is low, these groups fare better when examining the proportion of ads in which minorities appear. Taylor and Stern (1997) noted that although whites are depicted in nearly all television commercials (98 percent), African-Americans are found in 32 percent of television ads, Latinos in 9 percent, and Asian-Americans in 8 percent.
The types of commercials in which different racial/ethnic groups appear have been found to vary. African-Americans are depicted most often in food/beverage commercials as well as in ads for financial services. Comparatively, whites are seen in a variety of commercials, most frequently those for cosmetics, technology, and food. Asian-Americans are primarily found in ads for retailers (Taylor & Stern 1997) and technology (Mastro & Stern 2003). Latinos are represented most often in banking/finance ads, and ads for soaps/deodorants. The infrequent Native American images in television commercials are found in ads for macro-retailers and automotives (Taylor & Stern 1997; Mastro & Stern 2003).
The roles associated with different characters also appear to differ based on the race of the character. Asian men are seen most frequently at work whereas Asian women are ordinarily outdoors. Latino men are found both at work and outdoors, with Latino women mainly shown outdoors. Both black men and women are most often featured at work. In contrast, white men and women are most often depicted at home (Taylor & Stern 1997; Mastro & Stern 2003).
Assessments of the manner in which different racial/ethnic groups are portrayed in commercials additionally exist. Content analytic research indicates that racial/ethnic minorities appear most commonly in minor or background roles as well as in group settings (Taylor & Stern 1997) and are less often seen in roles as parents or spouses (Coltrane & Messineo 2000). White characters in commercials also are far more likely to give orders than African-Americans, Latinos, or Asians (Coltrane & Messineo 2000; Mastro & Stern 2003). In addition, Coltrane and Messineo’s (2000) research finds that African-American characters, males in particular, are more likely than whites to behave in an aggressive manner. Mastro & Stern (2003) obtained parallel results looking at African-American females. Their findings also reveal that Latinos are depicted in a more sexualized manner than their counterparts on commercials, engaging in sexual glances, displaying alluring behavior, and wearing provocative attire.
Group Representations In Television News
Television news coverage portraying racial/ethnic minorities has been largely unfavorable and unrepresentative compared with real-world indicators, particularly for African-Americans. Although racial/ethnic minorities and whites appear with relatively equal frequency in news stories unrelated to crime, minorities are nearly twice as likely as whites to appear when the news topic is linked to crime. In these stories, African-Americans are typically characterized as threatening and unkempt, and are frequently shown in restraints.
In particular, when assessing portrayals of race on television news, content analysis findings show that African-Americans and Latinos are depicted as perpetrators at a higher rate than whites. Comparing these rates of representation with real-world crime reports reveals that African-Americans are over-represented as perpetrators on television news, Latinos are underrepresented, and whites are presented either at a rate comparable to that in the real world or are underrepresented (Dixon & Linz 2000a, b). In addition, 91 percent of police officers shown on television news are white and only 3 percent are African-American (Dixon et al. 2003). These figures are discrepant from US Department of Labor statistics, which identify 80 percent of officers in the US to be white and 17 percent to be African-American.
African-Americans and Latinos are also seen as victims on television news less frequently than whites. When these television victimization rates are compared with real-world crime reports, the results show that whites are substantially more likely to be portrayed as victims of homicide on TV than in the real world, whereas Latinos are less likely to be depicted as victims on TV than to be homicide victims in real life (Dixon & Linz 2000b). The rate of African-American victimization on television is nearly equivalent to that of the real world.
Numeric disparities also are evident in the racial and ethnic breakdown of on-air television newsmakers and those working off-air. In 2005, it was reported that the overall proportion of the racial/ethnic minority TV news workforce (21 percent) as well as the percentage of minority TV news directors (12.5 percent) had dropped slightly from previous years (Papper 2005). Although the proportion of African-Americans in the broadcast news workforce has remained relatively stable in recent years (at 10 percent), the percentages of Asian-Americans (2 percent), Latinos (9 percent), and Native Americans (0.3 percent) are down. Among news directors, the percentage of African-Americans has risen modestly (from 3.2 percent to 3.9 percent) over recent years whereas the number of Asian-Americans has remained constant (at 1.3 percent). The number of Latino and Native American broadcast news directors has dropped recently (at 6 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively). In addition, the vast majority of TV news general managers are white (93 percent).
Among on-air appearances, whites account for 77 percent of newsmakers and African-Americans 22 percent – with Asian-Americans and Latinos combined at 1 percent (Gant & Dimmick 2000). Moreover, white newsmakers appear as experts/professionals significantly more often than African-Americans.
Taken together, these data indicate that in terms of the quantity of African-American depictions on entertainment television and in advertising, this group has achieved equivalence when compared with their proportion of the real-world population. The same cannot be said, however, for other racial/ethnic minorities and social groups. Simply put, these groups scarcely exist on television. When attention is directed at the manner in which different groups are portrayed in the media, the picture becomes even less promising. Although African-Americans in fictional programming appear, to a degree, to be represented in more favorable roles (at least when compared to decades past) this is in stark contrast to their depiction in the news, where their images are largely unfavorable and unrepresentative compared with real-world indicators. Portrayals of the remaining groups are difficult to classify systematically, given their scarcity. When considering the significance of media representation in terms of designating group status, strength, and social standing, these disparities are indeed consequential, and warrant greater research attention.
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