Television Portrayals and African-American Stereotypes: Examination of Television Effects When Direct Contact Is Lacking

Article excerpt

A self-administered survey questionnaire distributed to Japanese international (n = 83) and White (n = 166) students measured stereotypes of African Americans and vicarious contact (television) variables. Results supported process-oriented learning models of behavior, but not a cumulative effect model of cultivation. The study demonstrated that the media could affect one's impression of other races and further suggested that effects of mass media are more significant when direct information is limited. Implications of an influential role of television in stereotype formation were also discussed.

Television has been considered an influential source of information that plays a role in constructing viewers' social reality.1 Since television conveys "simulations of everyday situations"2 and since it shares similar characteristics of real life events (e.g., sound and sight), vicarious experience via television may become a part of our social experience3 and serve as a basis for social judgements such as racial attitudes4 and ethnic stereotypes.5

Research needs to address the utility and significance of mediated information relative to firsthand (direct) information when people make a social judgement.6 Shapiro and McDonald,7 for example, have stated that mediated information is more likely to exert influence on those people who have had little or no direct contact with objects because they are lacking in a sufficient method of evaluating information. Armstrong, Neuendorf, and Brentar8 also have reported that media exposure affected White college students' racial attitudes, particularly for those who had little direct interracial contact. It has been suggested that because Whites represent the majority in the population, minority (e.g., African-American) groups are more likely to have interracial contact with members of the majority (White) group than with members of other (e.g., Japanese international) groups.9 This study, thus, will examine effects of vicarious contact via television on stereotypes of African Americans among White and Japanese international college students. This case study tests the key hypothesis that the less contact a group has with African Americans, the more television will influence their perceptions of African Americans. Stereotypes Stereotypes are defined as "cognitive structures that contain the perceiver's knowledge, beliefs, and expectancies about some human group."lo Once categorized as a member of a certain group, an individual is expected to possess the same characteristics (stereotypes) of that group and is evaluated on the basis of category-based attributes.ll Therefore, stereotypes are a set of beliefs about group characteristics or attributes.12

Stereotypes are not necessarily negative, but they can be destructive or bad when used by the dominant group to underscore majority-minority differences or to make some other (e.g, ethnic minority) groups inferior.'3 According to Berg, the dominant group would selectively impose stereotypical characteristics on any minority members depending on the perceived threat from the minority group in question. Harmful characteristics (e.g., childlike) are given to a minority group when the perceived threat is absent, while dangerous attributes (e.g., deficit) will be given when the perceived threat is present. Once a mutual relationship is achieved between the two groups, one is more likely to perceive the other as hard working, strong, and friendly.l4 Recent nationwide opinion polls on ethnic images in the United States15 revealed that of all other ethnic groups (African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans), Whites received the most positive (highest) scores in all traits measured (work ethic, wealth, dependency, violence, intelligence, and patriotism). African Americans obtained lower evaluations, ranking last in the three traits (violence, lazy, and dependence); and next to the last in the wealth and the intelligence trait. Another opinion poll by McAneny6 also reported that more than one-third (37 percent) of both African-American and White adults viewed Blacks as "more likely" than other ethnic groups to commit crimes. …