Categorization in the Media essay   no comments

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Categorization, the process by which distinct entities are treated as equivalent, is one of the most fundamental and pervasive cognitive activities. It is fundamental because categorization allows us to understand and make predictions about objects and events in our world. The problem of understanding what criteria are used to group together entities in the same category is indeed central in categorization. Though most works on this topic have proposed that perceptual or structural similarity is the “glue” that binds objects of a same category, some psychologists have claimed that similarity is insufficient to account for the acquisition and use of categories and have proposed more abstract forms of criteria that make categories coherent and give them a kind of homogeneity in terms of the entities that belong to them.

The purpose of this study was to explore Caucasian viewers’ identification and misidentification of criminals featured in a newscast. Based on prior research in social cognition, it was predicted that viewers’ identification memory would vary as a function of the race of the criminal suspect featured, the race of the foils, and the viewer’s endorsement of anti-Black attitudes.

Perhaps the most striking finding in this study concerned the increased misidentification of African American foils months after participants had viewed a news story featuring a Caucasian suspect. Although misidentification ratings for all foils increased over time, this between-race confusion (i.e., remembering an African American suspect when a Caucasian had been featured) showed the most pronounced change. This finding is consistent with prior studies showing schema consistent distortions in recall of gender-related information (Drabman et al., 1981; Martin & Halverson, 1983). In addition, this finding illustrates the utility of assessing not only immediate reactions to media portrayals, but also reactions that emerge over time. Although many studies concerning media effects understandably rely on measurement of responses that occur during or immediately after viewing, long-term effects of media content presumably require some sort of retention on the part of the viewer. However, retention of media content does not imply accurate retention. Recall involves a process of reconstruction rather than simply retrieval of registered events. Consequently, as this study illustrates, measurement of immediate reactions to media portrayals may differ from recall of such content that occurs at a later time and that may be more likely to reflect viewers’ biases in encoding and recall.
One of the most damaging of stereotypes is the one that assumes that Blacks lack ambition and have no aspirations. Once these negative images begin to dominate in the minds of employers and teachers and bureaucrats, how is it possible for Blacks to be viewed as unique individuals filled with aspirations and desires? Racial stereotyping itself engenders conditions which perpetrate the situations that perpetuate the stereotypes. When people who are set up to fail do so, they are then called failures, and when they do not, they must be exceptional. But the reality is that most Blacks are exceptional by that standard. Though set up to fail, most do not. The media, however, most represents the extremes of the spectrum. Getting beyond racism means conscious affirmation of the worth and total uniqueness of each individual. It is a position consistent with our claim for the sanctity of human life.

We all generalize. According to contemporary brain research, we all have the propensity to develop stereotypes and draw on them. Stereotypes develop easily, rigidify surreptitiously, and operate reflexively, providing simple, comfortable, convenient bases for making personal sense of the world. Because generalizations require greater attention, content flexibility, and nuance in application, they do not provide a stereotype’s security blanket of permanent, envoi- late, all-encompassing, and perfectly reliable group knowledge. Schools need to face this challenge by helping students learn to understand and use, not abuse, generalizations. So how do we draw the line between stereotypes and legitimate generalizations? When does mass media treatment of a group and its members embody a group stereotype? I suggest a four-stage general model, based on three premises: Media makers recognize that consumers learn multiculturalism from the media; they realize some of this learning takes the form of internalizing stereotypes; and they sometimes draw on those stereotypes to meet what they feel are consumer expectations, in some cases (as common in advertising) manipulating those stereotypes to provoke desired reactions. To illustrate, take the common media image of Italian Americans as often involved in criminal, particularly mob, activity. Few other groups’ criminality has been so regularly trumpeted in the mass media. Although this does not mean all media depictions of Italian Americans committing crimes should be considered stereotyping, even non-stereotypical treatment may contribute to stereotype reinforcement.

Stage 1: Reality. Media treatments of societal groups and their individual members usually have some basis in reality, although it may not reflect the vast majority of that group. Some Jews are skilled in business. Some Muslims are fanatical terrorists. Some Christians are anti-Semitic. Some blacks are on welfare or are good athletes. Some white men can’t dunk a basketball. And some Italian Americans have been involved in crime, as have some Americans of most backgrounds. Therefore, the mere making of a few movies or television shows about Italian American criminals or offering news coverage of Italian Americans involved in crime is not compelling evidence of media stereotyping (any more than a few depictions of the other types of individuals just listed).

Stage 2: Seminal Treatment. Second comes the creation of a seminal, trend-setting, highly influential media depiction of members of a social group, drawing on selected aspects of that group’s reality. This might be a major motion picture, a widely watched and broadly discussed TV program or series, widespread news coverage of a single event, or a major story from a single media source, later picked up for broader media dissemination and interstitial commentary.
Such seminal media depictions establish a model for future media depictions of that group, reinvigorate a long-established pattern of depictions, or provide a new variation to the media treatment of that group. This occurred with The Godfather, first as a novel and later as a series of motion pictures. It was certainly not the first media treatment-not even the first movie-about Italian American organized crime. Italian American mob hearings and trials have long fascinated the news media, while movies incorporating Italian American organized crime have been around since the silent era. But The Godfather reinvigorated the theme. Not only did it give renewed impetus to the genre by demonstrating its immense commercial appeal; it also became a model that has remained popular to the present. It added to the American popular lexicon, injecting “an offer you can’t refuse” into long-term conversational repartee. Even the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, became concerned that his runaway hit movie had overly glamorized its young mob don. So in The Godfather: Part II, Coppola emphasized the degeneracy of the new mob leader.

Stage 3: Widespread Imitation. In this stage, other media sources imitate the seminal depiction, repeating it with variations. Movies incorporate a repeated pattern of plots, characterizations, and behaviors by members of the target group. Television series become imitative. Other media play up and embellish the seminal story. Why? Because some media makers recognize that audience expectations have been raised, creating a fertile ground to be tilled. With each addition to the media bombardment, the potential grows that media learning will occur as the stereotype becomes reified.
The aftermath of The Godfather illustrated that pattern. After The Godfather came other major films and TV “docudramas” about Italian American organized crime, as well as a slew of minor flicks about or including Italian American gangs. News stories about Italian American crime took on an added flourish. Italian surnames of public figures “gained” an added dimension-somewhat guilty until proven innocent. This momentum has carried to the present. Moreover, the post-Godfather era also witnessed a proliferation of individual Italian American movie and television criminals. In some cases, their ethnicity was integral to the plot. In other cases, however, their ethnicity had no significance for their screen actions, yet media makers saddled generic villains with Italian surnames. Taking advantage of presumed media-based learning, media makers drew upon and manipulated these media-conditioned stereotypes of Italian American criminality.

Stage 4: Humor, Parody, and Caricature. Once media makers assume audience learning has occurred, including the Internalizing or reinvigorating of stereotypes, the stage is set for media to derive humor based on that learning. Much of humor, particularly parody and caricature, depends on the establishment of predictable patterns of consumer thinking and reacting to labeled social categories. For that reason media humor provides a useful litmus test for the perceived existence and pervasiveness of stereotypes. Moreover, such humor demonstrates a willingness to draw upon and manipulate those receiver schemas of group knowledge and stereotypes. Those media maker insights into what stereotypes already lurk within consumers enable them to predict how audiences will react to parodies, caricature, or other types of group-based humor.
The release of the mob parody Prizzi’s Honor(1985) demonstrated the teaching effectiveness of The Godfather and its clones. This critical and box office hit relied heavily on media maker assumptions about media-honed viewer schemas on Italian Americans and criminality, illustrating their conviction that audiences already had such abundant stereotypes about Italian Americans as criminals and that these could be effectively tweaked. In the past decade, Italian American mob parodies have become a movie and TV staple, notably in the current hit cable-television series, The Sopranos.

Seminal media presentations create, strengthen, or legitimize depiction patterns for different social groups. Because such seminal textbooks usually attempt carefully (if not always delicately) to achieve some aspect of group authenticity, they may not actually be guilty of stereotyping. More important, they establish a model. By relentlessly copying that model, ensuing media makers harden the stereotypical nature of that image, often through mindless, careless, or exploitive repetition.
And so racial stereotyping itself engenders conditions which perpetrate the situations that perpetuate the stereotypes. When people who are set up to fail do so, they are then called failures, and when they don’t, they must be exceptional. But the reality is that most Blacks are exceptional by that standard. Though set up to fail, most don’t. The media, however, most represents the extremes of the spectrum. We must be Cosby or crooks. The vast majority of upwardly striving, hard-working, honest, good Black folks are not newsworthy. And so as long as the rich array of who we are, in all our colors and experiences, dreams and talents, is not recognized, then we will not get beyond racism. The individuality that is so much at the heart of the American ethos must be accorded to Blacks as well. You, each of us, must challenge away first impressions and seek to know us as individuals. We must engage in common cause and come to some degree of mutual respect. And I do mean mutual respect because we have learned through your distrust of our abilities, to distrust your sincerity. Let your actions prove us wrong. Let a first action be to let the media know that they must seek to represent Blacks in breadth. Study yourselves the privileges of Whiteness. Don’t take them for granted. They are true. Getting beyond racism means conscious affirmation of the worth and total uniqueness of each individual. It is a position consistent with our claim for the sanctity of human life. We cannot claim certain principles and then apply them selectively. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for me and mine, not you and yours. Liberty and justice for me but not for you. In all our wars, Blacks have fought to preserve those principles for all of us, only to have them consistently denied to many if not most of us. Operating by stereotype we function in a state of imperfect knowledge. The only person we can stand in judgment of, or know well, is we. Operating from a willingness to learn from and value everyone we encounter, we can grow beyond racism.

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