The Relevance of Cultural Identity: Relying upon Foundations of Race and Gender as Laypeople Plan a Newscast

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Abstract

This study placed eighteen groups of African-, European-, and Latin-Americans (divided by race and gender) into the role of news producers; each peer group was charged with planning a hypothetical TV newscast from a list of realistic stories. The study investigates the relevance of cultural identity as these groups went about their task, and found clear differences in the extent to which cultural identity was articulated, the type of identity considered (race, gender, religion), whether the focus was on the ingroup or outgroup, and whether the references were affirmatively or negatively valenced. The study also compares the content different cultural groups included in the newscasts. Assuming that a context can function actively to "weave together" (rather than the more passive conceptualization of context as that which surrounds), this research concludes that discourses of separateness, of narrowly defined identity, and of inequality were common; the context enacted by participants revealed a strained, uneven social fabric.

Since the early 1980s, when Stuart Hall (1980) theorized the processes of encoding and decoding, and David Morley (1980) began empirical examination of the encoding/decoding model, scholars have investigated the variety of social forces that help construct audiences' readings of mediated texts. Now classic research such as that conducted by Ang (1985); Hobson (1982); Liebes (1988); Liebes & Katz (1990); and Radway (1984), as well as more recent analyses and anthologies (Gillespie, 1995; Livingstone & Lunt, 1994; Morley, 1992; Seiter, Borchers, Kreutzner, & Warth, 1989), have contributed to an understanding that the interpretation of media content is not based on simple demographic variables. Instead, as the present monograph argues, social positions structure and restrict access to various codes and discourses; hence identification with a cultural subgroup and the concept of relevancy are both major factors in determining how a text will be read (or whether it will be approached). As Money (1985, p. 239) wrote, "The meaning of the text will be constructed differently according to the discourses (knowledges, prejudices, resistances, etc.) brought to bear by the reader, and the crucial factor in the encounter of audience/subject and text will be the range of discourses at the disposal of the audience."

Cohen's (1991) presentation of relevancy nicely articulated the interrelationship of text and audience in the creation of meaning. Playing on Katz & Foulkes' (1962, p. 378) description of the fully audience-centered uses and gratifications tradition (which asks "not `What do the media do to people?' but `What do people do with the media?"'), Cohen asserted that "the concept of relevancy does not separate what the text does to viewers from what viewers do to the text" (1991, p. 453). Fiske (1989; 1988; 1987) further argued that when considering relevance, the audience (members of which are socially and historically constructed subjects) precedes the text. Fiske's position was that various - but not limitless - meanings can be made from the text. The possible range of interpretations is bounded because "the viewer makes meanings and pleasures from television that are relevant to his or her social allegiances at the moment of viewing; the criteria for relevance precede the viewing moment" (1988, p. 247).

Though bounded, the range of possible interpretations of media content is sufficiently broad to have encouraged scholars, including Morley (1986), to conclude that the notion of classifying audience interpretations of television texts as representing preferred, negotiated, or oppositional meanings (Hall, 1980) should be revisited. Money (1986, p. 45) underscored the importance of the relevancy concept when he suggested that "we need to deal more with the relevance/irrelevance and comprehension/incomprehension dimensions of interpretation and decoding, rather than being directly concerned with the acceptance or rejection of particular substantive ideological theses or propositions. …