Columns & Commentary

The State of the Media: Raceless or Racist?


The representation of minorities on television in shows and news coverage affects how people perceive minority groups and how they see themselves.

Seven-year-old Tori Elliott stopped and turned toward the 1990s-style, analog TV set that was placed in the living room of her Indiana home. The 2000 movie “Life-Size” was on Disney Channel. She already owned the VHS, but she still watched it religiously on TV.

The movie wasn’t her favorite because of the storyline nor the inspirational message of becoming a better version of yourself. What drew the biracial girl with an African-American father and a white mother to the movie was the fact that Tyra Banks, an African-American, held a leading role.

“When you are a minority, and you are that little girl, you always see [that] your role models don’t look like you,” Elliott, a sophomore athletic training major, said. “But when I saw Tyra Banks on this movie “Life-Size” that I loved, she was basically like me. I just felt taken aback. Like what? This is real? This can happen?”

Growing up, Elliott learned at a young age to accept that white representation on TV was all that she would get. Being biracial, she assumed that she would never see a person who looked like she did starring in a movie or TV show.

“It bothered me a little because I was wondering, is that all that’s in the world?” Elliott said. “The way I grew up, I always saw every kind of color. I was wondering why TV didn’t do that.”

There are more than 318 million people in the United States, and of those, 62 percent are white. The 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, HDR, states that minorities only held 16.7 percent of leading roles in films for 2013, despite the fact that minorities made up around 37 percent of the population.

The media sometimes depicts minorities in stereotypical ways. There’s the sassy black side-kick, the bold and aggressive black woman, and the sexy Latina woman, to name a few.

The HDR states that when marginalized groups are not presented in the media, or when minority representations are stereotypical, inequality will be reinforced and established in society.

This marginalization of minorities by the media is what Dr. Melinda Messineo, the chairperson of the department of sociology and an associate professor of sociology at Ball State University, said could cause the public to have a narrow and biased perception of minorities if the media is their only insight to these groups.

Social circles and networks of support tend to reflect the race and ethnicity of a particular individual, as well as the demographics of the population. Seventy-five percent of white Americans say they only have white people in their social circle and 65 percent of black Americans report only having black people in their social group.

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Click to enlarge

Messineo said that the more accurate media representations of minorities are and the more contact an individual has with a different racial group, a person’s perception of that group will be more authentic.

“We don’t know what we don’t know, and how we construct our identity of others is through mediated representations,” Messineo said. “So if you only see African-Americans as athletes or on crime show dramas, what you have to work with as those building blocks of understanding about that population is based on the things that you have seen. And so that tends to distort our view of those populations.”

When particular groups are consistently identified as dangerous by the media, the public may consequently build up resentment toward those groups.

This is demonstrated through Americans’ perception of Muslims after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center. Between 2000 and 2001, hate crimes committed against Muslim Americans increased by 1,700 percent, according to the Journal of Muslim Mental Health.

Americans who frequently watched TV news were more likely to develop fear and anxiety toward Muslims than Americans who did not frequently consume TV news after 9/11, according to “Fueling our Fears: Stereotyping, Media Coverage, and Public Opinion of Muslim Americans,” by Brigitte L. Nacos and Oscar Torres-Reyna.

Their book used the example of Americans’ sense of unease toward Muslims after 9/11 to help explain how media consumption affects our perception of fear and anxiety.

“The visual imagery of TV seems to be the key to the heightened levels of fear and anxiety among avid media consumers,” the authors said researchers concluded. In the case of 9/11, graphic images of the rubble that was once the World Trade Center towers and the constant replaying of the planes crashing into the buildings caused an increased fear among Americans. When TV news depicts dramatic or horrific images, those images often stay in the viewers’ minds because they are difficult to forget.

Research on the representation of minorities in national network news found that whites were more likely to be represented as perpetrators of crime, victims of crime and as police officers, according to the December 2003 issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. African-American and white offenders were represented accurately in regards to crime perpetration rates. African-Americans were also underrepresented as victims and as police officers. The study also mentions that it is important to keep in mind that network news typically does not cover crime to the extent that local news stations do. Therefore, local news stations may have different representations than what this study found.

According to the American Press Institute, 87 percent of Americans reported getting most of their information through TV news, whereas 82 percent use local TV news stations to access the majority of their information.

In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that nationally, black individuals committed crime 1.8 percent more than white individuals.

However, the rates at which the police stop people of different races may not be equitable in all parts of the country. An investigation of the Ferguson Police Department by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice found that African-Americans were disproportionally impacted by more unlawful police stops and arrests than whites were. The 2015 report also found that the FPD was in violation of the constitution by frequently arresting and detaining citizens without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

The need for this investigation of the FPD came after unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by FPD officer Darren Wilson. Public outrage at the shooting led to riots in Ferguson, Missouri for weeks after the incident.

After the shooting of Brown and the riots that pursued, national network news channels presented their coverage of Ferguson to their audience in a way that catered to their target audiences’ perception of racial issues, according to National Public Radio. Fox News questioned white privilege, MSNBC focused on showing sympathy toward the family and The Daily Show criticized Fox News for their coverage, according to NPR. Each program accommodated to their audiences’ view on racial issues.

It’s important to have a standard procedure for covering crime so that race is represented accurately, said Steve Jefferson, a crime beat reporter on the eyewitness news team for WTHR.

Though he said that he does not believe minorities are overrepresented as crime perpetrators on the news, he said as a crime reporter you must be aware that sometimes race does play a role in crimes committed, like in the case of hate crimes.

“I think that sometimes their cases are highlighted depending on the crime itself. But every newsroom that I’ve worked in, I’ve basically strived to make sure that crime, regardless of race, are covered the same when it comes to exposure, showing mug shots and even mentioning the race of a perpetrator,” Jefferson said. “Depending on what part of the country you’re in, sometimes this is irrelevant, and depending on the crime, sometimes it’s not mentioned at all.”

Messineo said that Americans who consume high amounts of media are more likely to feel they will be victimized, and tend to overestimate minorities being criminals. Low media consumers who are from the same demographic area tend to not possess these fears.

Just as media can affect one’s fear of victimization, it can also affect one’s self-esteem. TV news and Hollywood media are both mediated representations of groups of people that have the ability to affect the public in various ways.

TV exposure is directly related to the confidence of preadolescent children. It has been shown to decrease the self-esteem of white girls, black girls and black boys, but increase the self-esteem of white boys. The study said it’s possible that television reinforcement of racial and gender stereotypes could explain why all of the children except for the white boys experienced a decrease in self-esteem. This link between TV and self-esteem is demonstrated through a study done by Nicole Martins and Kristen Harrison published in the Communication Research journal.

Elliott’s perception of herself has been affected by media representations. She has always been proud of her biracial identity. However, a mostly white media and a lack of women who looked like her made her feel singled out and alone at times. A lack of minorities, and specifically biracial women, in TV and movies often made her feel excluded as a child.

“It kind of made feel like a little bit of an outsider on occasion,” Elliott said. “Why is TV so centered around that one race…what about the other races that are out there?”

In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a test on 253 African-American children to see the effects of segregation. The children were given four dolls, identical in every way except for the color of their skin. They asked the children to give them the doll that had a “nice color” and the doll that looked like them.

Their research showed that the children were able to determine their own and other races, but when it came to picking which one had a nice color, two-thirds of the African American children selected were in favor of the white dolls.

The “Doll Test,” as it has come to be known as, continues to be replicated today. In 2009, Good Morning America conducted the experiment on 19 black children and found that 47 percent of the girls questioned said the white doll was prettier.

Messineo said this might be the result of whites being represented as beautiful in the media, which leads to minority children learning to not see themselves as beautiful.

“You [also] learn your definition of beauty through what you see in the media culture and in other places. It has a dramatic effect on their perception of what’s possible,” said Messineo. “It distorts their perceptions of themselves as much as it’s distorting nonminority individuals.”

In the last four years, there has been an increase in diversity of theatrical films and TV shows. The HDR reported that the number of cable scripted shows that have a mostly minority cast increased by 2.4 percent from the 2011-2012 season to the 2012-2013 season.

ABC shows like “Black-ish,” and “Fresh Off the Boat” are attempting to break stereotypical portrayals of minorities by allowing these groups to take control of the their own story.

Besides being an all black cast, “Black-ish,” which profiles upper-class parents struggling to keep their African-American children connected to their ethnic culture, is produced by a mostly black crew. Creator Kenya Barris, and executive producer and “The Nightly Show” host, Larry Wilmore, are a few of the black individuals taking the lead.

The HDR states that for the 2012-2013 season, more than 89 percent of cable scripted show creators were white.

Messineo said that with accurate perceptions of minority groups, eventually stereotyping a person due to their race becomes useless to an individual because they understand how inaccurate that representation is.

Tori Elliott

Ball State student Tori Elliott said she loved the 1997 “Cinderella” that starred Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston because there was a “world of diversity” that she said reflected her own. She said it was nice to see people like herself on TV because it represented the world she knew.

Although Elliott believes it will be awhile before biracial women like herself are represented more in the media, she will never forget the moment she realized media was improving on racial representation.

In 2009, Elliott returned from school and went to her room to do homework. She sat on her bed, textbook in lap and idly did her work to the noise of the TV in the background, when a trailer for a new Disney movie came on. She jolted up and turned toward the screen.

It was a trailer for the 2009 animated film “The Princess and the Frog.” Elliott’s mind went blank, her head tilted and her eyebrows shot up in confusion. This has to be a joke, she thought.

“I did not expect Disney to just come out like that. Because, yeah, they’ve had Jasmine and yeah, they’ve had Mulan, but those were in totally different countries,” said Elliott. “But when Disney pulled out “[The] Princess and the Frog” and Princess Tiana, that was a huge deal. Now you see Princess Tiana dolls and Barbie dolls that are black. And you just never saw that before.”

Elliott considers this movie a giant step for media, especially since she doesn’t think many movies have represented diversity well since “Life-Size.”

“I felt like this pushed so many doors open for media itself,” said Elliott. “Now finally, somebody did it, now that door’s open. You can only go from there.”

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