What is the Role of Ethnicity and Race in the Way Audiences Interpret Media Messages?
Ethnicity and race are somewhat very different terms with which to define the biological and social differences that categorize human beings. However, both are "founding structure(s) of social differentiation, and social recognition, as well as discrimination". (Castells, 1997 pp.56) This means that, within an industry as significant and influential as the media, these terms cannot be ignored or overlooked. The media will portray ethnicity and race in certain ways and thus, this will affect how audiences will interpret them, as all media contain desired readings. Yet, what is arguably even more important is how these messages are then interpreted by the audiences. Ethnicity and race have a role to play in how audiences identify themselves, and then how they identify others, not only in day to day life but through the media.
Although race is considered to be a more biological aspect of an individual, its history as the basis for oppression and exploitation of various groups could have some argue it to be more socially constructed than a dictionary definition may lead people to believe. Yet, both ethnicity and race serve to categorize and classify people in everyday life. These social constructions and distinctions, although not always apparent or the most significant, are applicable to all aspects of life, they help individuals to perceive the people and world around them. This role of ethnicity and race is perpetuated by the media as it provides us with "representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why" (Hall, 2003 pp.90) Media positions itself as a dominant and powerful influence on how its audiences perceive the world as it brings information and opinion into nearly every area of their lives. Despite these representations being based on reality, it cannot be denied that many media sources manipulate information in order to convey a specific message. When dealing with delicate aspects, such as ethnicity and race, the media can become highly influential.
I refer to ethnicity and race as 'delicate' because they can be defined and constructed in many different ways by different groups of people. This is usually very precarious ground for media because they do not wish to impose their own interpretation in fear they will provoke negative reactions from their audiences. Yet, when race or ethnicity becomes a focus or particular issue in a topic or story within news media, information is often manipulated to create specific and intended messages. Or "that a racialization of events may be transmitted more or less uncritically to audiences" (Downing & Husband, 2005 pp.5) Even entertainment programs cannot be said to be void of this kind of construction of ideas for "even when entertainment messages do not have explicit or intentional political agendas, they show power relations" (Larson, 2006 pp.13) From this, we can see that race and ethnicity affect what kind of information is purveyed in the media. What has also been brought to light is that this information is often put together in such a way as to construct a message or meaning which is, assuming the media has an influence on how people perceive the world and interact, to then be attached to the world around them. Ethnicity and race affect the messages created by the media, what these messages are and how they are conveyed, and this in turn then has the potential to determine how an audience interprets that message. What must be considered, however, is that audiences interpret media messages in a variety of ways. When dealing with the issues of race and ethnicity these can be heavily affected by how the audience members classify and identify themselves. Thus, representations are capable of being accepted, negotiated or challenged by audiences and this very much applies to the topics at hand.
Stereotypes are not just assumptions and associations constructed by the media around particular groups of people, they are social conceptions that are generated and developed through social relations and this process occurs quite naturally. "Race categories and the meanings attached to them are not static" (Downing & Husband, 2005 pp.3) and representations in the media reflect this. What is particularly important when talking about stereotypes within the media is that they can be presented negatively, neutrally or positively. When talking about how audiences interpret these messages, which is essentially what stereotypes within the media are, what is arguably most significant is how the audience identifies themselves. In particular, whether or not they belong to the ethnic or racial group that is being stereotyped and following this, whether or not they interpret it to be a positive of negative portrayal. What is not taken into consideration in stereotypes is individual or internal variation. Media stereotypes often "classify the world in terms of the categories of race" (Hall, 2003 pp.90) and so messages are often generated on this basis. Although we, as audiences, do not go through everyday life "perceiving everything through the self-conscious prism of our ethnicity" (Downing & Husband, 2005 pp.18), when it is addressed in the media, our own experiences, opinions and values affect how we might interpret and receive these constructed representations, these messages. Our own ethnicity and race with which we identify is a strong determinate as to whether we accept or reject the messages conveyed by the media.
However, more recently, stereotypes have come to be fairly less extreme and to allow for some internal variation. This goes to show that, within the media, "the stereotypical content of racial attributions is palpably capable of altering in order to retain a credible reflection of changing social relations" (Downing & Husband, 2005 pp.12) Castells even goes so far as to argue that "race matters, but it hardly constructs meaning anymore" (1997 pp.63) Perhaps what constructs the meaning behind ethnicity and race is their portrayal within the media itself, on their own these social aspects can produce very little meaning in today's world, the media however "are especially important sites for the production, reproduction, and transformation of ideologies." (Hall, 2003 pp.90)
In this way, despite the audience being themselves categorized into various ethnicities and races and that this may affect how they interpret media messages, Downing and Husband express the idea that even if we knew what ethnic or racial group an audience belonged to, this does not necessarily directly and consistently affect the ways in which they interpret media messages. "Their ethnic sensibilities may or may not be engaged" or, if they are, they are "essentially subordinated by another contingent identity cluster." (Downing & Husband, 2005 pp.18) This effectively means that, although the ethnicity and race of the audience may be said to play a significant role in the way these audiences read media, it cannot be taken as the 'whole picture'. Ethnicity and race are just two social concepts of many that would play a role in an audience's interpretation of a media message. Castells extends on Downing and Husband's idea by noting that "ethnic materials are integrated into cultural communes that are more powerful, and more broadly defined than ethnicity" (1997 pp.63) In other words, the role of an audiences ethnicity and, or race may be overshadowed or encompassed by other social facets that bear more significance to them when interpreting media messages.
What must be considered, however, is the media's construction of these messages. And this is perhaps where ethnicity and race can be said to affect audience's interpretations the most. Because the media have to be so careful, and therefore so purposeful, in their representations and portrayals of ethnicity and race, particularly when considering stereotypes, the messages they give out are in fact more likely to affect the audiences interpretation. Ethnicity and race, as significant and important social aspects, heavily shape how the media portrays them and, as we have discussed, this portrayal can be accepted or rejected by audiences. Ethnicity and race seem to play a more significant role for media producers in how they represent these topics, in turn, their representation, the messages they purvey concerning these social aspects, affects how the audience might interpret them. More directly, how the media present them, what messages they create with them, will shape and influence how an audience is encouraged or persuaded to interpret them.
Downing and Husband (2005) observe that "the activities of the media are subject to extensive monitoring and critique" (pp.145) and although this may be true, there is none more widespread or more important than that of the audience. If race and ethnicity are "being specified as a source of meaning and identity" (Castells, 1997 pp.57) within the media, then those who view the media and gauge the messages within it, will judge certain portrayals by their own experiences and knowledge. That means referring to their own ethnicity and race in relation to that portrayed in the message. In this way, we can see that ethnicity and race affect the audience as a group, using their own ethnicity and race to interpret other representations. But also that the media construct a lot of the meaning surrounding ethnicity and race in today's world and that this means they can often guide how they wish an audience to interpret their representations.
- Cashmore, E (1997) The Black Culture Industry. London: Routledge
- Castells, M (1997) The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Limited
- Dennis, E, E & Pease, E, C (1997) The Media in Black and White. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers
- Downing, J & Husband, C (2005) Representing Race: racisms, ethnicities and media. London: Sage
- Gabriel, J (1998) Whitewash: Racialized Politics and the Media. London: Routledge
- Hall, S in Dines, G & Humez, J, M (2003) The Whites of Their Eyes: racist Ideologies and the Media in, Gender, Race and Class in Media, a Text-Reader. London: Sage
- Larson, S, G (2006) Media and Minorities: the Politics of Race in News and Entertainment. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.