Television Viewing and Perceptions about Race Differences in Socioeconomic Success

By Busselle, Rick; Crandall, Heather | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Television Viewing and Perceptions about Race Differences in Socioeconomic Success


Busselle, Rick, Crandall, Heather, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Since early in the study of mass communication, social scientists have been aware that news reports and fictional stories do not necessarily reflect objective or statistical realities. As Lippman (1922) pointed out, media images construct pseudo environments that only approximate reality. The selection and presentation of even a single example from a broad category of issues can influence viewers' perceptions and understandings of that category (Zillmann & Brosius, 2000). Further, media portrayals are not rhetorically isolated facts or unrelated images. Gerbner has argued that over time the media tell stories that provide viewers with an understanding of how society operates and why things are the way they are (Gerbner, 1972; Gerbner, 1999; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). With respect to race and poverty, the media's construction of reality influences media consumers' understanding about who is poor and why they are poor. Individual stories and exemplars about race and poverty become summary messages about Blacks and Whites (Entman, 1994). Ultimately, citizens may be only slightly aware of the differences between statistical reality and that which is socially constructed, and behave as though reality and media images are one in the same.

This study focuses on perceptions about the relative socioeconomic success of Blacks and Whites, the perceived reasons for differences in success, and how those perceptions are related to exposure to three television genres--news, drama, and situation comedy. We interpret the observed relationships in light of McConahay's (1986) conception of modern racism.

Modern Racism

Modern racism (McConahay, 1986; also see Rada, 2000, for a discussion of media and symbolic racism), like several theories that describe current manifestations of anti-Black sentiment in America, focuses on two core elements in America's collective value system: egalitarianism and individualism (Katz, Wackenhut, & Hass, 1986). On one hand, Americans believe all people should be treated equally and may object if they perceive that hard-working individuals are treated unfairly: On the other hand, Americans believe individuals should be self-dependent and hardworking, which allows for the acceptance of unequal status if those less fortunate are perceived as lazy, criminal, or in some way deviant. Modern racism (McConahay, 1986) follows this logic by suggesting that most White Americans disavow traditional racist beliefs, such as Blacks are less intelligent than Whites or that racial segregation is appropriate. At the same time, however, White Americans justify their opposition to affirmative action and anti-poverty programs on the grounds that discrimination and racism are no longer problems and, therefore, any socioeconomic inequality that befalls African Americans is the result of personal failure rather than systemic injustice.

It has been argued that television supports the underlying beliefs of modern racism by dichotomizing African Americans into two socioeconomic categories: Blacks are portrayed either as educated, employed, and situated comfortably in the middle class or as poor, unemployed, or criminal in America's underclass (Dates & Stroman, 2001; Entman & Rojecki, 2000; Gilens, 1999; Jhally & Lewis, 1992). These portrayals will be described in detail below. As Gilens (1999) and Entman (1994; Entman & Rojecki, 2000) argue, television's images of Black Americans not only explain who is poor but also explain why the poor are poor.

Entertainment Television's Portrayal of Race, Poverty, and Crime

In 1996, African Americans accounted for 16% of the characters in prime-time television on the four most watched networks. About half of those characters played major roles; one third appeared in sitcoms; slightly more than one third appeared in crime programs; and none appeared in evening soap operas, such as Melrose Place (Mastro & Greenberg, 2000).

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