Stereotypes in the Media: So What?
Stereotypes in the Media: So What?
All good research should answer the very basic question, "So what?" The
answer to this question not only justifies why one spent the time and
on the project, but also why any of the rest of us should be concerned
about what the research uncovered. It tells us why the research is
important. In this paper I examine a very basic "So What" question
concerning society, race, and the media: Racial stereotypes in the media:
So What? Why are stereotypes in the media important, and why should we
At first glance, it seems absurd that such questions need to be answered.
It is almost a truism that racial stereotypes in the media are important -
so much research has been done about stereotypes in the media that they
must be important. Similarly, there is the intuitively appealing
that stereotypes in the media are harmful. Since stereotypes are
viewed only as presumably false over-generalizations made by socially
dominant groups about socially oppressed groups and are extremely
in the media, they must be bad. But why? If so many people consciously
disavow any belief in or endorsement of the stereotypes that circulate
through society, why are they important, and why are they bad?
These are important questions to answer for several reasons. Critical
scholars and others who are concerned about the ideological and social
effects of stereotypical media representations need to be able to point
more concrete mechanisms than simply "learning" or "modeling" if they
expect their arguments to carry any weight outside of the academic world.
Conversely, researchers in the empirical tradition must acknowledge
very real ideological effects that may arise from these
This paper is an attempt at providing a framework for answering these
questions. After briefly considering other approaches to the importance
stereotypes, I will ground this research in a broader perspective of
social reality beliefs. Since stereotypes involve an evaluative
as well as a descriptive one (Seiter, 1986), I will also discuss the
relation of social reality beliefs to conceptions of social power. The
heart of this paper, however, is an hypothesized theoretical framework
connecting the social circulation of racial understandings to the
cognitions of individuals via language, using Livingstone's (1990; 1992)
template of textual interpretation. I will conclude, then, by
what this all means, why stereotypes in the media may be important,
what we can do about it.
Roughly speaking, answers to the question "Why are stereotypes in the
media important?" fall into two broad categories: 1) Stereotypes are
important because of what they do, and 2) stereotypes are important
of what they mean. Interestingly enough, these two categories also
roughly parallel the division between traditional/empirical researchers
critical/cultural scholars. I realize that this is a gross
over-generalization, but I use it because it suggests that the two
of thought will ask different questions about stereotypes and the
This is important, because the answers they come up will tend to lie
different levels of analysis - one individual, the other societal - and
thus the connections between them can be complex.
Much of the empirical research on stereotypes has been concerned with the
effects stereotypical representations of minorities in the media may
on audiences, or assuming these effects and trying to empirically
the presence or absence of the stereotypes in particular media texts.
is often assumed that the repeated presentations of social groups in
particular ways in the media can have affects on how audience members
about people in those groups. Such assumptions have often gone untested,
however, as researchers instead concentrate on showing that particular
social groups are overwhelmingly portrayed in stereotypical manners.
Cultivation research, for example, is one area that is explicitly
concerned with repeated exposure to media content and subsequent effects on
social reality beliefs, although most work on the cultivation effect has
involved exposure to media violence and beliefs about violence in the
world. Although I believe in the basic tenet of cultivation - that
long-term, repeated exposure is where communication effects are to be found
- I believe that Gerber and his colleagues have done little to support
their cause. Cultivation research assumes a lot - it assumes that only
overall media exposure is important to belief formation, that there is
room for individual interpretation of media content, and that some
"learning" goes on (for example, see Gerbner et. al., 1980). The
psychological mechanisms involved in cultivation have to be laid out, which
I attempt to do later in this paper, or else the whole enterprise is
subject to questions of spuriousness (Hawkins and Pingree, 1990).
The critical/cultural school, on the other hand, approaches the importance
of stereotypes in the media from the perspective that they signify racial
understandings and social relations in the society at large, as well
signifying the power relations within a society. The word "signify" is
used quite deliberately and should not be taken to mean "reflect,"
"reflection" suggests that the media simply act as a "mirror" or a
to the world and any stereotypes they contain are simply those present in
the world at large. "Signify" is used because the word suggests a
of selection and exclusion, as well as the re-presentation of
Crucial to this is the idea that there is no absolute reality in the
empirical sense. Instead, our idea of what is "real" is constructed from
the social world around us, a social world that includes different
groups, with different power relations between them, and the media.
The contribution of the media to people's image of the rest of the world
was recognized early in this century when Walter Lippman talked about
"pictures in our heads." These pictures are formed not only by our
personal experiences, but also by what we learn from other people. Later,
Kenneth Boulding (1956) further discussed the "image" that we all keep
our thoughts about the rest of the world. Boulding voiced some
apprehension at the fact that as people become more dependent on the media
for their information about the world, the possibility for erroneous
of the world increases. While we have many images about the world, very
few of them are actually based on personal experiences - one single
simply doesn't have the time, resources, or capacity to go out and
everything there is to learn firsthand. Consequently, much of what we
"know" about the world comes from agreeing with other people that a
particular fact is "true," what can be called "agreement reality," (Babbie,
1992). Both Lippman and Boulding realized that in light of the fact that
much of our knowledge - those images and pictures in our heads - come
from personal experiences but from other people, the media could play
role in providing some of these images and pictures that make up our
agreement reality. And since it is these images of the world that people
base their behavior on, and not necessarily any "objective reality,"
possibility for serious media-based consequences is great.
In this context, social reality may be thought of that large portion of
unverified information that is shared by us and by the others around
and that as they seem to have the same information and ideas that we
come to believe that everyone "ought to" see things the way we do (McLeod
and Chaffee, 1972). This conception of social reality is directed
the individual, but the phrase "social reality" can be looked at in
of social reality or social reality. "The first group takes the
cognitive system of the individual as its unit of analysis, and lets
social reality refer to the person's frame of reference in a social
situation," (McLeod and Chaffee, 1972: 52). The second group, "examine the
social system as their unit of analysis, and look on social reality as
the actual agreement or consensus among members of that system,"
and Chaffee, 1972: 52). In this second vein, Gerbner places social
in relation to culture, where culture, "is a symbolic organization that
cultivates our conceptions of existence, priorities, values, and
relationships... [it] provides the overall framework in which we imagine
what we do not encounter directly, and interpret what we do encounter
directly," (Gerbner, 1990: 251). Thus, social reality is a very
construct determining human interaction, and human interaction with
Stereotypes can be thought of, then, as a particular subset of social
reality beliefs - they are understandings about particular social groups
that we have learned from our social world. Such meanings and
representations are not universally agreed upon, however. Marx would
remind us that the dominant understandings of a society tend to be the
understandings of the dominant social groups of that society. Those who
are in a dominant social position have the power to define the
understandings, and thus have tremendous ability to make their
appear natural and unarguable. This is what Roland Barthes referred
the power of myth, and myth, he said, is a system of communication
turn History into Nature (Barthes, 1973). In other words, myths take
social/cultural differences and make those differences appear natural.
this will be important for my theoretical framework, this deserves
For Barthes, the analysis of myth begins with semiology, the analysis of
signs. Signs can be thought of as elemental units of conveying
and all models of meaning basically share a similar form (Fiske,
sign is the associative relation between a signifier, which is the
representation of a physical entity provided to us by our five sense, and
its signified, which is the mental concept we think of when we
that representation. (This particular conceptualization of signs is
the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure; it is the one Barthes used, so I
use it here). To make this clearer, I will borrow an example from
These are two marks on a piece of paper - one is a closed curve; the other,
a pair of straight lines bisecting each other. If this was the beginning
of a game of tic-tac-toe, their meaning would end there. However, if
is read as a word, then they form a sign, composed of the patterns of dark
and light from these marks that hit the rods and cones of your retina (the
signifier), and the mental image of a particular type of animal (the
signified). The relation of your concept of "ox" and the physical
of oxen is what Saussure calls "signification," and it is how we give
meaning to the world (Fiske, 1990: 44). This is the function of
For Barthes, however, this is not where the ascription of meaning ends.
Myth gets its meaning by taking that which is a sign and making it a
signifier in a second-order relation. That is, it takes something that
already has a meaning "based" on some sort of "reality" and makes it a
signifier for another meaning. Words, pictures, objects - they may all
signs in various ways, but myth makes them all words in a
they come to mean something else. As myth does this, it does not
appropriate all the meaning from the original sign. Instead, myth is
selective. It appropriates some meaning and disregards others, and so
myth offers is not so much reality but
a certain knowledge of reality... In fact, the knowledge contained in a mythical
concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations.
One must firmly
stress this open character of the concept; it is not at all an
essence; it is a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation,
whose utility and
coherence are above all due to its function. (Barthes, 1982:
By doing this, myth takes away the history of a sign and distorts it into
something vaguely familiar but nonetheless ambiguous.
Barthes notes that just as a particular mental concept can be represented
by a number of signifiers, so too can myth be activated by a number of
signs. In fact, for Barthes, myth only exists across a large number of
signs, and no one sign can embody the whole of a myth. Myth is too
nebulous to be captured by a single sign. And since myth is so nebulous,
the connections between these various signs and myth need not be made
explicit. One of the consequences of this, Barthes asserts, is that the
mythical meaning of the original signifier becomes naturalized. A
more ominous consequence is that myth thus becomes depoliticized speech.
Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them;
simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them
a natural and
eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that
of an explanation
but that of a statement of fact (Barthes, 1982: 132).
I've included this discussion of myth because Barthes' conception of myth
has clear links to the study of stereotypes. I think it can be
argued that racial stereotypes are manifestations of racial myths.
(1986) laments that not enough researchers bother to define what they
when they use the term "stereotype," and that this makes interpreting
conclusions across studies difficult. I intentionally omitted a
of "stereotype" until I could develop the appropriate foundation, but now
that I have done that, let me define a racial stereotype as the
operationalization of racial myths as social reality beliefs concerning
members of racial groups based on perceived group affiliations. Such a
definition highlights the constructed nature of racial stereotypes:
rely on myths for their grounding, yet the myths themselves are not
grounded on anything more substantial than a loose association of nebulous,
dehistorized signs. Since they are social reality beliefs, they concern
that "large amount of unverified information" that people generally
because the people around them accept it. Also, since they are social
reality beliefs, that means they can be viewed as from the social
perspective (the beliefs about the world by individuals) and the
reality perspective (the agreement of individuals in a society about
nature of the world). That suggests that there is the possibility for
misperception (certainly a negative consequence) and resistance (certainly
a positive consequence). If the "people around you" don't share that
particular set of unverified information, then that suggests room for
argumentation with the stereotypes, and hence the myth.
Before I can begin to lay out the proposed framework for interpreting the
importance of stereotypes, I have to completely change gears and delve
cognitive psychology. I do this for two reasons: 1) Because it is
important to remember that stereotypes and the racial myths they depend
are not entities in themselves that circulate in some abstract
level of analysis independent of the individuals who use them, but
exist only because people with brains interact with them every day;
because my framework depends on one particular model of human memory,
among several that are hotly debated in the psychological literature.
While it could be argued that any model of human memory could be worked
into the framework I propose, I feel that the one that I discuss fits
particularly well, and best explains how racialized myth can manifest
itself in the everyday workings of the brain and hence our everyday
interpretation of the world.
When considering human memory, several important questions have to be
addressed: How do we encode the stimuli our five senses encounter into
memories we can store? How do we store those memories, and where? How
we find a memory once it has been stored? These answers psychological
researchers have proposed have been many and varied, and have led to
intense debates: Do we encode everything we encounter, or are we
encoders? Do we store semantic (i.e. categorical and conceptual) and
episodic (i.e. personally encountered event) information in different
structures, or in different ways within the same structure? Do we store
all relevant memory for something in discrete locations (i.e. neural
or is it distributed across many locations? When retrieving "relevant"
memories, are all memories considered relevant, or can the context
connected with those memories limit what is recall? As it is beyond the
scope and purpose of this paper to discuss alternative models, I will
attempt to justify why the particular model of human memory used was
over others (for a terrific discussion of human memory and the competing
models developed to explain it, see Greene, 1992). For the purposes
this paper, however, it is necessary to answer the above questions so
the reader can understand how individuals may encoded, recall, and
The model that I think best explains the functioning of human memory can
be called an Instance/PDP model. "Instance" refers to the way in
perceived stimuli are stored, while "PDP" stands for parallel
processing and refers to the way in which the traces arrange and store
semantic and episodic information. The model is based on the work of
(1988 - for automaticity and the way in which stimuli are perceived and
encoded), Hintzman (1986 - for how semantic information can be derived
episodic instances), and McClelland and Rumelhart (1985 - for how trace
conglomerations can store different types of information, as well as
When a person perceives something, he or she does so via the five senses.
These senses convert physical stimuli into electrical impulses and then
sends those impulses to the brain. This much is known, but what
next is a matter of speculation. Mental activity (i.e. what one is
thinking) can, in some ways, also be considered a "sense," and for my
purposes will be included as a source of stimulus to be encoded in
According to the instance theory, every stimulus a person attends to is
automatically stored in the brain as a trace (Logan, 1988). The trace
basically a recording of the physical features that were present in
stimulus (as recorded by the five senses), and can be thought of as a
series of plusses and minus representing the perceived presence or
of the elemental features of that stimulus (elemental features would
include horizontal lines, vertical lines, color, depth, frequency of
sound, etc., and a blank would represent that a particular feature was
attended to - Hintzman, 1986). An analogy might be the way audio and
visual information is stored digitally, where information is broken down
digitally into a series of ones and zeroes, and a trace could be
represented graphically by something like Figure 1.
[--- Pict Graphic Goes Here ---]
Figure 1 - a trace for the perception of a particular dog named Fido (see
In addition to an attended stimulus being automatically encoded in memory,
every time that stimulus is perceived, all relevant traces previously
encoded are also automatically retrieved from memory. This retrieval
not necessarily mean that it is automatically implanted in
but rather that it is primed and can affect subsequent processing.
obligatory encoding and retrieval does not mean that every stimulus
encoded or retrieved equally well - that is dependent on the amount of
attention a person paid to that stimulus at the time of encoding
1986). However, the more times that a stimulus is perceived, the
will be to retrieve it, and with consistent, repeated exposure, the
retrieval will become automatic (Logan, 1986). Automaticity in this sense
means that a particular process occurs without conscious awareness or
control, and is the result of repeated consistent exposure. This will be
Memory for an instant, then, is stored as a series of traces that record
what the senses perceived. Meaning is presumably derived from these
traces, although the exact process that governs the extraction of meaning
from traces is unclear. While instance theory would appear to
episodic memory well, it can also cover memory for semantic (that is,
conceptual) information also. Since semantic information is conceptual
(for example, our knowledge about what makes up a stereotype for a
particular social group) and concerns our knowledge for things we haven't
directly experienced, many memory theorists have suggested different
structures of memory in order to handle it. However, Hintzman (1986)
suggests that instance theory can handle semantic information, and
that while episodic information can be thought of as being stored within a
trace, semantic information is stored across traces. According to
Hintzman, categorical information, for example, is derived from all the
individual traces that contain examples of that category. When the
category itself needs to be accessed, it is the conglomeration of all of
these specific examples that are accessed and utilized. Using a
mathematical computer model, Hintzman (1986) has shown how a system can
describe very accurately the prototype for a category by being shown
encoding only distortions of that prototype. That is, the system can
describe the prototype without ever having witnessed it by simply
conglomerating the individual distortions. Consider the earlier example of
encoding the trace of Fido. If one had encoded traces for Fido, Spot,
Benji, Rex, Snoopy, etc., then the conglomeration of all of these would
produce an echo for the prototype "dog," (I will ignore here the role
linguistic learning - it will addressed later). This, too, will be
PDP memory models like McClelland and Rumelhart's (1985) also rely on
mathematics to demonstrate for their descriptive power. The strength of
PDP models is that rather than storing traces in different locations,
"superimpose" traces and can still account for both semantic and
information (McClelland and Rumelhart, 1985: 160). This is a strength
because, in addition to greatly enhancing storage capacity, the model is
more parsimonious than neural node models and better accounts for
a. An interesting feature in the McClelland and Rumelhart (1985) PDP
of memory is that it can be used to associate very different sets of
stimuli, so that after the system has been exposed to associated stimuli
often enough, it will, like Pavlov's dog, automatically associate one
of stimuli with the other.
Up until now, I have avoided the bringing language into this model, but
its inclusion can no longer be ignored. Hintzman explicitly refuses
include language in his model, but I would argue that it can be
accommodated quite easily. Language is, after all, a set of aural stimuli
(in the case of spoken language) or visual stimuli (for written
and thus could be easily accommodated by the definition of trace that
uses. In fact, the McClelland and Rumelhart (1985) use a very
Hintzman-like feature list as well, but include a place for language
that feature list by including a label. The question of "How do we
which label to apply to what features?" can then be answered via the
auto-associator: we come to associate particular symbols and sounds
(language) with particular lists of features (meaning) by repeated,
consistent exposure. As a person learns language, they associate the
sounds or symbols with the "meaning," until the association of the words
with the meanings is automatic. From this perspective, then, language
extremely important to learning and knowledge, and this is why I think
Hintzman can't dismiss the confounding affect of language.
Hintzman also would not approve of my using his model in a paper about
stereotypes, because he insists that semantic representations encoded
memory probably aren't as important as abstracting them from episodic
traces for three reasons: 1) "Abstractions derived from one's direct
experience may be encoded only rarely;" 2) even if they were, they play
insignificant role since they would be a few traces lost among the many
that a person has already encoded; and 3) even if they do play a
significant role, it is important to determine when they do play this role
and when they do not (Hintzman, 1986: 423). Hintzman concludes that
the extent that abstract knowledge as such is stored in memory, it has
special status or function. All experiences to which one attends are
encoded as episodic traces," (Hintzman, 1986: 423).
What Hintzman overlooks is the fact that much of what we humans attend to
has been "abstracted" for us. Learning abstract concepts happens all
time, because we communicate via language and language is abstract to
with. While Hintzman might argue that traces of abstract concepts (like
what is a dog, for example) are insignificant compared to the many
experiences we have encoded (with dogs), I would argue that much if not
most of our experiences with semantic concepts are not via direct
e but by vicarious experiencing via shared knowledge. That is, to
idea of what a dog is, you not only abstract from all the traces of
personal encounters with dogs, but also from all the traces you have
seeing the word "dog" in print and thinking of a dog, hearing the word
"dog," as a youngster learning that "dog" was a word that began with the
letter "d," watching Lassie on television, seeing Alpo ads in
seeing paintings of dogs, etc... that is, the sum of all your
irect or otherwise, with our culture's shared understanding of what a
is. These are all encounters that we have experienced, mind you, and
each one has produced an episodic trace in memory. If, however, an
"all that is dog" is then subsequently produced and encoded as well, then
many of the traces in memory will be "abstract," as many of them will
descriptions of the prototype rather than distortions of it. Rather
abstracted, semantic traces being lost in a sea of experienced
traces, the reverse may be true - at least for those of us who've never
What emerges from this discussion of memory, then, is the importance of
language and context. As language is learned, particular sets of
(encoded in memory in traces) become automatically associated with
particular words and phrases. Recall that automaticity, in the
psychological sense, is something that develops with repeated and
consistent exposure, and once it is achieved, it occurs relatively
effortlessly and without conscious control or awareness. Since language is
something that we learn via repetition and consistency, and fluency
represents the unconscious and effortless use of language, it seems
reasonable to conclude that the use of language to access meaning quickly
becomes an automatic process. Since traces presumably include all the
information that was attended to, the traces contain a lot of context
was encoded in memory as well. This suggests not only that what you
a "thing" could be important in determining what features you attend
which you ignore, but also that over time contexts that occur frequently
would be automatically associated as well. That is, particular
would automatically prime not only what that language "means," but
frequently occurring context that language has been encountered with as
well. Thus, in addition to the "meaning" of language being available
subsequent cognitive processing, a number of "related" meanings -
from encoded context - would be primed as well. Furthermore, this
automatic contextual priming is only related to the "meaning" of the
language insofar as it has often been encoded at the same time the
has been encoded or accessed. Hence, while it often may be, their is no
logical necessity for the context to be explicitly related to the
If this discussion of the cognitive association of language and context
sounds vaguely similar to Barthes' discussion of how signs can connote
only their explicit meaning but also the myths associated with them,
similarity is purely intentional. I can now begin to answer the
question of importance I posed in the beginning of the paper: Racial
stereotypes in the media are important because they are a significant
contributor to the maintenance of racial myths by consistently and
repeatedly offering associations between language (in the forms of signs)
and context (myths) that are consistent with these myths. This has
important results: 1) With repeated exposure, automaticity between
certain signs and certain myths will develop; and 2) since automatically
primed contexts are available for subsequent processing, myths will
the processing of subsequent information.
A caveat should be immediately added: I will not say that the media are
the only source of myth-consistent information, nor will I say they
most important. Family and educational institutions I think are at least
as important from the perspective of an individual learning language
the context surrounding it, and clearly as one grows older friends and
co-workers also become influential. This having been said, the media
important purveyors of this information not only because they are
used by people, but also because the media do consistently and
incorporate signs that connote racial myths. If repeated exposure
adds more relevant traces that will be conglomerated for
and repeated exposure of these stereotypes in a wide variety of
(news, drama, comedy, music, and sports, for example) increases the
linguistic cues that can be used to access these traces, then clearly the
media become an important purveyor of stereotypes.
A second caveat that I feel is important to add is that I do not mean to
imply a conscious or conspiratorial use of racial myths by those in
media. While clearly the link between pejorative racial epithets and
racial myths is relatively explicit and can be assumed to include some
amount of intent, the link between, for example, the six o-clock news
report of a gang-related shooting in (predominantly black) north
Philadelphia and myths about the black man as beast is less explicit and
presumably without intent. However, for this framework, the presence
myth-consistent signs in the media is what is important, not so much
behind their presence,
What this framework now needs is to make explicit the link between the
existence of these myths in the media and how they find themselves into
peoples' cognitions. A link must be made between these two - simply
assuming exposure is not enough - or else this theoretical framework
be open to one of the criticisms of cultivation research, namely
spuriousness. The link, I believe, comes from the work of Sonia
Livingstone (1990; 1992). She proposes first of all that the proper
analogy to use between viewers of television content and that content
itself is that of a reader and a text, an analogy that I will use for the
rest of this paper. She favors this analogy because it implies
act of consuming television content is a much more active and engaging
process than "viewer" suggests. Similarly, the use of the term "text"
implies that media content is much more complex and open to differing
interpretations than "message" suggests. Also, by "text" I mean the
arsenal of signs that can be used to convey meaning (for example, the
perimeter haziness in a visual frame that connotes a "flashback" or
"dreaming"), not just words.
Livingstone's basic framework is that how people interpret a media text is
based on a negotiation between qualities in the text and qualities in the
reader. Qualities in the text would include such things as how that
is structured, the form of the text, its degree of openness (see
and more importantly for our discussion, what sorts of social
understandings are infused in the language of the text. Reader
would basically include everything the individual reader brings with
her at that time - cognitive skills, past experience with the medium, a
particular emotional state, and more importantly for this discussion,
social history and all the memory traces connected with it. The
interpretation that comes out of this is the result of the text pulling
meaning in some directions and the reader working the meaning in other
directions. Pingree (1992) has refereed to this process (perhaps more
accurately) as a tug-of-war. And like a tug-of-war, both sides are on
equal footing and (presumably) evenly matched - the text initially has
as much control over the interpretation that the reader will end up with
as the reader does.
This suggests that media texts can be read in more than one way. The
degree to which a media text supports this "differential reading" is the
degree to which it is open or closed (Eco, 1965). Fiction, in this
is generally thought to be more open - that is, more open to varied
readings - than nonfiction (news, for example). While the openness or
closedness of a text can be an important structural quality of the text
that can influence the subsequent interpretation, it is important to
in mind that the reader can be just as varied. Livingstone (1992)
that some readers can be uncreative when it comes to interpreting a text,
while others can be very creative. The result of this tug-of-war thus
falls somewhere between the two poles, and is the particular
interpretation of the text that the reader ultimately makes and stores
memory. Variations between interpretations along this "scale" are
analogous to Hall's (1973) notions of dominant readings (interpretations
that are closer to the textual interpretation and presumably
little creativity on the part of the reader), subordinate readings
(interpretations that are the result of equal tugging between a text and a
creative reader), and oppositional readings (interpretations that are
from the intended reading of the text by very creative and active
With two continuous variables interacting like this, it may first seem
like any interpretation is possible, and that there should be as many
interpretations as their are readers. In addition to not be logically
necessary, the number of interpretations that can result is limited by
several important factors: 1) The people who put media texts together
usually want the readers to get their message, so they have an
structure texts in a way that readers can understand them without too much
activity (Livingstone, 1992); 2) similarly, readers wish to get meaning
out of texts, so they will use the structures presented them in order
try to find meaning; and 3) perhaps most importantly, the medium
text and reader is language, and language limits the range of possible
interpretations. Thus, while variation in the interpretations of media
texts is possible, the range is by no means limitless, and is unlikely
to be very large (Pingree and Hawkins, 1992).
Once again, language is very important, and I believe that the link
between the racial myths that circulate in society and the cognitions of
individuals that are related to them occurs via the Livingstonian
negotiation of interpretation using language as the medium. To put it
another way, using the Pingree analogy, language is the rope in the
tug-of-war: It is the one thing that connects the two opposing forces.
Language is what connects particular understandings of the social
(discourse) with the cognitive labels that are used to organize
memory traces of an individual.
With language playing such a central role, I must now try to explain what
I mean by it, as I have been rather loose with the term throughout
paper. Earlier, I noted that "language," when used in terms of
could include any sign used to convey meaning. Indeed, on both sides of
the equation (inside the text and inside the reader), I still intend
language to mean the set of signs that we as human beings use to convey
meaning. However, during the negotiation of meaning, language here
imply the signifier not the signified. The signifiers used in
(the physical sounds or visual lines and curves) are the common rope
between the text and the reader, and the struggle develops over what
signifieds are to be attached. The text determines the signifiers used,
but it has no control over the signifieds the reader attaches to it.
Again, because we share a common language and share a great deal of
reality beliefs, the two will often converge. Since the signifieds a
person attaches to signifiers, however, are learned and encoded as traces
with a whole lifetime's worth of context, the particular inflection of
meaning that a person creates from a particular sign can be different
what the text intended. While the minuscule difference between
of a signified from a signifier may not be important by themselves, since
language consists of a string of many signifiers, differences can
into noticeable variations in interpretation. Thus, it is the form of
language that is common to the text and the reader, and variation
out of the differences between the meanings attached to that form.
Language performs this linking function because individuals use language
to associate particular labels with particular (personal) meanings and
particular personal experiences. Since the memory model that I'm
from believes that the conglomeration of all relevant memory traces is
accessed whenever a particular trace-relevant stimulus is attended to,
language can thus determine which relevant memory traces will be called
into mind and which will be ignored. Therefore, language can influence
interpretation of a particular media text by influencing which relevant
memory traces will be used to interpret that text and which will not.
However, since this works based on the linguistic labels specific
individuals use to code their personal memory traces, the language used in
a media text can call to mind different relevant traces for different
people. These need not mean that every individual have a unique
understanding of the every situation - we are, after all, social beings and
tend to experience the world with other people. It is reasonable to
assume that people who share certain experiences and backgrounds will
certain understandings of the world, and hence will tend to make similar
interpretations of texts.
It is important to keep in mind that the media do not reflect the world in
any empirical sense, but instead help construct and maintain it by re
-presenting particular meanings and understandings of "reality." The
are part of the larger social process that constructs and encourages some
meanings (generally those of dominant social groups) over others
socially subordinate groups), and it does this via discourse (language
that is infused with particular meanings [and myths] and not others).
despite their clear connections with the dominant groups of society,
texts are not necessarily dominating. Members of a society whose
circumstances or experience do not necessarily reflect dominant
understandings can read the same media texts quite differently. As
O'Sullivan et .al. (1983) and Van Dijk (1993) note, the individual is the
site where discursive struggle takes place. Often members of those
subordinated groups that are being defined in particular ways will attempt
to construct and re-present themselves in a different way, which is
discursive struggle arises - a struggle over how the world is defined,
understood, and interpreted through discourse. Since it is in the
individual that meaning is made, and meaning is made via language not
discourse, different meanings can be made from the same language. They
use the same words, but the meanings - the discourse - will be different.
Recall that I said racial stereotypes in the media are important because
they are a significant contributor to the maintenance of racial myths
consistently and repeatedly offering associations between language (in
forms of signs) and context (myths) that are consistent with these
Also, with repeated exposure, automaticity between certain signs and
certain myths will develop, and since automatically primed contexts are
available for subsequent processing, myths will affect the processing
subsequent information. Since it is reasonable to assume that
affects the bond between a signifier and a signified just as much as
between a sign and a context, and in light of the Livingstone framework
the commonality of the signifier, it can be added that racial stereotypes
in the media strengthen the link between particular signifiers and
particular signifieds, thus strengthening the ability of signs to carry
Thus, for the average white viewer who grew up in a typical manner, this
framework suggests that every encounter with a myth-congruent
representation in the media should not only automatically prime the myth,
but then affect subsequent processing in a myth-congruent manner, and
should do so quite automatically and without the individuals conscious
awareness or control. An interesting speculation to be sure, but there
some empirical support. In a study by Patricia Devine (1989, study
subjects (all of whom were white) were first primed by being shown a
words (consistent with the stereotype of blacks) below the subject's
threshold for conscious awareness. That is, subjects saw the words, but
they were flashed so quickly that subjects could not consciously
or recall them. In what subjects believed to be an unrelated task,
subjects were asked to read a paragraph about a racially unspecified person
engaging in ambiguously hostile behaviors and then evaluate that person.
What Devine found was that when subconsciously primed with racial
stereotype-congruent stimulus, both prejudiced and non-prejudiced subjects
subsequently made stereotype-congruent evaluations of the
racially-unspecified target person. Furthermore, although the prime
specifically avoided any reference to hostility (part of the
black men), subjects nonetheless appeared to activate that portion of
stereotype in evaluating the target paragraph. She suggests that
stereotypes are so well learned that they become automatically triggered in
individuals whenever a person from that particular group is attended to, a
conclusion that the framework proposed in this paper supports.
Although struggle and resistance to the myths carried by some signs is
certainly possible under this framework, the pervasiveness of myth,
including in the media, suggests that this will be no easy task.
Furthermore, results like Devine's (1989, study 2) can understandably make
one pessimistic. However, Devine also gives us cause for optimism.
another study (Devine, 1989, study 3), she asked subjects to list in
minute as many terms, both socially acceptable and not, they could
for the group black Americans. Shortly afterwards, subjects were given
ten minutes to complete a thought-listing task. While both
and high-prejudiced subjects came up with similar numbers of
non-pejorative terms in the first task (reflecting the automatic and
pervasive nature of the stereotype), there were significant differences
the thought-listing results. High-prejudiced subjects were much more
likely to include stereotype-relevant thoughts than low-prejudiced
subjects, despite the fact that the stereotype had been primed in each of
them and that their label-listing task demonstrated no significant
differences. Devine concludes from this study that low-prejudiced subjects
were engaging in controlled processing to suppress the automatically
activated stereotype. "Moreover, low-prejudiced subjects appeared
reluctant to ascribe traits to the group as a whole," (Devine, 1989: 14), a
result that also supports my proposed framework, as it suggests that
differences in the conceptual notion of "black Americans" on the semantic
level exist between low- and high-prejudiced subjects.
As Seiter (1986) points out, much of the empirical research of social
psychologists tends to concentrate on the descriptive character of
stereotypes while ignoring the evaluative component. This is a serious
oversight (not one made by Devine, however), since it ignores the
importance of ideology and the power to define inherent in stereotypes.
Seiter (1986) also points out that most researchers tend to focus
on minority stereotypes and their relation to implicitly white
By doing so, Seiter argues, scholars overlook the importance of
stereotypes and how media texts interact with non-white audiences.
strength of the framework that I propose is that it can accommodate
these criticisms. The evaluative component was demonstrated by the Devine
(1989) study and can be explained in terms of the framework as further
context consistently and repeatedly included in the portrayal of social
groups in media texts. As for stereotypes about whites, the proposed
works just the same.
One interesting result of the model is that it can offer an explanation
for exnomination (Barthes, 1973), which literally means "unnamed."
Exnomination refers to that which is naturally assumed by society as
natural and which therefore does not need to be subject to debate.
Although clearly linked with myth, a good way to think about exnomination
is that it refers to core myths of the dominant (O'Sullivan et. al.,
that are usually unnoticed, unnamed, and subsequently unchallenged.
as myths find their way into people's cognitions via repeated and
consistent use in language, exnominated myths would do the same except that
the labels and language used would be completely different. Since
exnominated myth works by not being named or made explicit, these myths
would exist in people's cognitions far in the natural background, if
attended to at all (remember, something has to be attended to in order to
be encoded). Thus, just as stereotypes work cognitively via the
language used, exnomination works cognitively by the lack of labels or
language used to describe it.
The answer to the "So What?" question thus goes something like this:
Racial stereotypes in the media can influence our interpretations of
content in a way that supports dominant racial myths. By
priming racial stereotype-congruent interpretations of subsequent media
texts, and by doing so repeatedly and consistently, stereotypes in the
media can maintain unjust, harmful, and dominating understandings of
by influencing the way individuals interpret media texts. Such
priming can occur whether or not the individual involved necessarily
believes in the stereotype, and although people can subsequently argue
against the automatically primed constructs, in a sense the damage has
already been done. The linguistic labels have been strengthened yet
ready to move interpretation in the direction of dominant understandings
whenever one's guard is down.
What to do? Well, such a framework suggests that for those of us who have
already been socialized into automatically engaging the racial
stereotypes, we have to be ever-vigilant to realize that this is going on
and take the time and effort to consciously rework our interpretations
media content into an interpretation that is less stereotypical. This
demands a critical and active reader of media texts. And since
and repeated exposure leads to automaticity, we can attempt to dilute
myth-congruent associations by consistently and repeatedly engaging in
critical media interpretations.
At the same time, such a framework suggests that we should try to foster
critical and active reading in the next generation of media consumers,
that they may be less likely to develop automatic stereotype-congruent
interpretations. Such fostering of critical media reading skills needs
work hand-in-hand with ways of reducing the amount of
depictions in the media. This issue, of course, is a sticky wicket,
demands of fostering a less racially stereotypical media can easily come
up against First Amendment principles of free speech. Clearly some
compromise between these two socially desirable principles needs to be
worked out. Although critical reading of media texts is a good step in
right direction that each individual can take, battling racism is a
difficult challenge as it is without having to constantly be battling the
automaticity of our own brains.
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Stereotypes in the Media:
Bradley W. Gorham
University of Wisconsin - Madison
5115 Vilas Communication Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
A Paper submitted to the Mass Communication and Society Division,
AEJMC National Conference, Washington, DC., August 9 - 12, 1995
Stereotypes in the Media: So What?
This paper is an attempt to provide a satisfying theoretical framework
for how stereotypical representations in media texts can link
social-level racial myths with individual-level cognition. Barthes'
theories about semiotic signs and myths are examined and linked
models from cognitive psychology concerning human memory and
processing of categorical information. Using language as a medium,
Livingstone's interpretive framework is proposed as the link that
connects mythical social understandings with real cognitive
 Language in this sense is any set of signs that conveys meaning to m
embers of a
culture. Thus, in addition to written and verb
al forms, language in this sense can
include hand and facia
l gestures, video effects, musical moods - in short, anything that
systematically conveys meaning.
 What exactly an instance is,
or how long it is, is a matter of some debate in the
logy literature also.
 I say "presumably" because debate rages in the
psychological literature about exactly
what meaning is, how it relates to
the encoding of stimulus, or how it arises from
s, traces, and symbols. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss th
important and fascinating debate, so for further reading
see Searle (1990), Churchland &
Churchland (1990), Mandler
(1992), and Glenberg (under review).
 Although Livingstone designed h
er framework specifically around particular television
texts (soap operas
), I think it can be usefully applied to all media texts.