Looking at Race

woman stands in front of crowd
Emily Wiley

Mary Beth Oliver discusses how media stereotypes influence viewers' perceptions.

Professor of communications Mary Beth Oliver—host of today's Research Unplugged conversation—took a moment to think before answering a question from an audience member in a standing-room-only crowd. The issue before her: How do we prevent young people from absorbing racist messages from the media?

Oliver's reply was thoughtful and succinct. "I propose," she answered, "that we teach students how to watch television." Around the room, heads nodded in tacit agreement. In context, the suggestion does not seem quite so far-fetched, since recent statistics show that Americans—especially youth—spend upwards of nine hours a day connected to media.

Oliver's research focuses on portrayal of race in the mass media—television in particular. She noted that, in schools, students are justifiably taught to read novels and poetry critically, but very little, if any, attention is given to the analysis of the media.

Oliver has a particular interest in studying portrayals of African-Americans in news coverage and entertainment. She suggests that images of African-Americans on news broadcasts, movies, and television programs (particularly "reality" police shows, such as "Cops") create and reinforce stereotypes among viewers.

"Even if we don't believe that we hold stereotypes, or if we don't agree with the stereotype being projected, the message still affects us subconsciously," she said. "Those cognitive structures are in place."

She cited one recent example of this "implicit stereotyping" that came out of coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In a Yahoo! online photo gallery of post-hurricane New Orleans, two images with nearly identical content were compared. In one, a Caucasian couple was shown wading through water after "finding" food in a grocery. The other image depicted an African American man in the water with food after "looting" a grocery store.

According to Oliver, this is one example of the consistent portrayal of African-Americans in the media. She noted, however, that although these messages are powerful and often subconsciously affect the viewer, it is possible to filter fact from fiction.

"We need to educate people from a very young age so they can become 'critical consumers' of these media messages," she said. "When we are so completely submerged, it becomes difficult to see past the images we have grown accustomed to."

Mary Beth Oliver, Ph.D., is professor of communications and co-director of the media effects lab. She can be reached at mbo@psu.edu. Anne Marie Toccket is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at aut112@psu.edu.

Last Updated October 12, 2005