Stereotypes are positive or negative generalizations indiscriminately attributed to members of a group (Tamborini et al. 2000). They have a significant impact on individuals’ perception of and interactions with members of different social groups by conveying information about the social groups’ capabilities (e.g., fast learners, good athletes), personalities (e.g., shy, violent) and/or socio-economic status (e.g., educated, powerful, poor).
While stereotypes may come from personal interaction, they are often acquired indirectly from exposure to mass media. The media are powerful in developing, reinforcing, and validating stereotypical beliefs and expectations concerning certain groups, particularly when the audience’s personal experience with those groups is limited. Media conveniently package information about social groups into simple, identifiable images, thereby assisting audiences to more easily accept and understand people and things they have not closely experienced. LaFerle and Lee (2005, 142) argue that “to provide an efficient path to cultural understanding, mass media employ stereotypes as a convenient categorization tool. The stereotypical images found in media messages are easily accepted because they are usually simple and have little ambiguity.” They “act as self-perpetuating expectations about groups and their members, by directing attention to information that is consistent with the stereotypes. Information that is inconsistent, on the other hand, tends to be ignored, discounted, or interpreted so that it confirms the initial impression” (Peffley et al. 1996, 311).
Function Of Social Stereotypes
Media from which audiences may receive stereotypical messages include television, films, newspapers, music, and any other source of mediated advertisement, entertainment, education, or news. In an effort to reach a broad audience with a clear message, the media often uses stereotypical categorizations of individuals or groups based on attributes such as ethnicity, gender, class, employment, sexual orientation, religion, mental or physical disability, and age. These stereotypes are automatically activated when audiences encounter cues or symbols in mass media (Peffley et al. 1996; Abraham & Appiah 2006).
The media use common cues to help prompt the particular stereotype(s) to be applied in a given situation. This is useful since most groups are subjected to more than one stereotype. For instance, women may be portrayed in the media as nurturing mothers, aggressive businesswomen, or sexually alluring jezebels. Each portrayal has its own set of verbal and visual symbols to help the audience invoke the proper set of stereotypes.
Stereotyping is not inherently bad or harmful. In our complex world, stereotyping is necessary and helpful to simplify and organize the environment, enabling us to determine how best to respond in a given situation. There are complimentary or positive stereotypes that have been shown to play an important role in intergroup relations and in countering negative stereotypes, leading to enhanced images of certain groups (Czopp & Monteith 2006; Kawai 2005). For example, although there is a dearth of empirical research on the use of media in reducing stereotypes, educational television programs that depict counter-stereotypic content have been shown to reduce children’s negative stereotypes toward and increase their positive attitudes about ethnic minorities (Bogatz & Ball 1971).
In the absence of primary information or knowledge, media stereotypes can help guide us through unfamiliar social situations or experiences with foreign cultures. For example, stereotypes about international businesspeople may help a job candidate decide what to wear to an interview with an investment banker or how to interact with corporate representatives during a meeting. Positive stereotypes about doctors’ intelligence may help the patient feel more comfortable before surgery. A traveler who has never visited China may use Chinese stereotypes to help guide her interactions with Chinese natives until she has enough direct experience to confirm or refute her stereotypical impressions. It is generally not until stereotypes are used in negative ways – to serve as the foundation for negative prejudice – that stereotyping becomes particularly problematic, potentially leading to discrimination and intolerance of certain groups.
Examples Of Negative Stereotyping
Some of the most blatant examples of negative stereotyping can be seen in the depiction of certain ethnic groups in the media. For example, negative stereotypes of Israeli–Palestinian relationships in the media have had dire consequences for children in the Middle East. Research has shown that exposure to ethnic media has been associated with Palestinian children’s descriptions of Israelis as people who “want to put us in jail” and “shoot at us,” and with Israeli-Jewish children’s descriptions of Arabs as “terrorists” and people who “want to take our land” (Cole et al. 2003). Similar negative stereotyping of Arabs can be found in Russian media. Yelenevskaya and Fialkova (2004) argue that since many Russians have had no direct contact with Arabs, the negative stereotypes Russians hold toward Arabs that characterize them as hostile, dogs, and dirty are borrowed from the mass media.
Other problematic ethnic stereotyping has been found in: German news media and cinema that negatively stereotype Turkish and Muslim women (Ewing 2006); Japanese children’s books that negatively stereotype blacks as Sambos; American movies that ubiquitously portray Russians as evil (Molnar 1989); and Australian films that frequently describe ethnic minorities using negative racial epithets like “wog” and “chocko” that distinguish people with darker skin from lighter-skinned members of the ethnic majority (Speed 2005).
In American media, many of the most blatant examples of racial-ethnic stereotypes are associated with black people. In the early years of American television blacks were routinely characterized as lazy, untrustworthy, and unintelligent, relegated to largely demeaning roles designed to entertain white audiences. and shown living primarily in ghettos and slums (Mastro & Greenberg 2001). Even today, Crowdus and Georgakas (2002, 9) argue that sitcoms like those appearing on the WB and UPN networks are often “borderline minstrel shows” that conjure up negative stereotypes of blacks “still acting as buffoons and coons”.
Television news portrayals of blacks are far more negative, over-representing black perpetrators, under-representing black victims, and over-representing white victims (Dixon & Linz 2000). News stories make associations between blacks and negative issues such as violent crime, drugs, poverty, and welfare by situating these stories alongside noticeable images of blacks (Martindale 1996; Entman & Rojecki 2000). These news stories send powerful messages to audiences that most blacks are violent, criminal, drug-addicted, and on welfare, “and because these images come from the news media, which claim to represent reality and to provide unbiased information about society, Anglos tend to believe the images are true” (Martindale 1996, 21–22).
Effects And Challenges
Stereotypes in the media can impact audience opinion. For example, research on the effects of ethnic and racial stereotypes demonstrates that exposure to negative ethnic imagery in the media adversely influences later evaluations of ethnic minorities (Mastro & Tropp 2004). The simple exposure to stereotypical images of poor blacks in the media has led audiences to perceive greater disparity in socio-economic status between blacks and whites (Gandy & Baron 1998), and perceive that blacks are more economically disadvantaged than whites (Armstrong et al. 1992). Although whites’ stereotypes of blacks as poor do not match actual poverty statistics, they do closely resemble racial representations in the news media that feature blacks as poverty-stricken (Peffley et al. 1996).
It is important to realize that stereotypes are permanent fixtures in our mediated society and in our minds. Given that stereotypes are associated with a variety of groups and once formed are not easily dismissed, greater efforts should be made to disseminate accurate and diversified depictions of groups that appear in the media. Although media stereotypes can be negative, they are useful and necessary in providing information about unfamiliar people and places we might not otherwise encounter without the assistance of the media. Our challenge is to use stereotypes as convenient tools for navigating through millions of media messages, without succumbing to their most powerful shortcoming –the tendency to ignore the diverse thoughts, behaviors, and contributions of the unique individuals behind the stereotypical images.
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