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Race and Mass Media Portrayals

Assume you are a Negro from Africa and contemplating emigration to the United States, but before doing so, you wanted a sense of the state of black/white relations there. However your only sources of information are certain American local news telecasts and “The Cosby Show”. You would be very confused because the TV news portrays blacks in a disproportionate way as criminals (Klein and Naccarato) while the image on “The Cosby Show” is that of affluent, affable and well adjusted professionals ( Lewis and Jhally).

Which is correct? The answer is neither. Why is this true? The answer is that the respective portrayals are driven by the demands of the advertisers involved. The Klein and Nacarrato article states that the news advertiser at one time thought the audience preferred an emphasis on sensational crime stories, especially where the perpetrators are blacks and youths.

They assumed this would appeal as it would reinforce the notion that these groups were largely responsible ant therefore the public would pressure the authorities to come down hard on them in the interest of fighting crime However recent trends have called into question this assumption as more accurate, representational, balanced in depth analysis are gaining in popularity as the ratings reflect. In the past whites were more often than not both the owners and the “face” of TV stations ( in the sense most anchors were white).

Recently I have noted, especially with national networks like CNN, more diversity not only in race but also in viewpoints expressed. Personally I hope the trend continues toward more balanced in depth reporting of good news as well as bad involving all segments of society. Also if a race is represented in certain types of crime more than their portion of the population, an examination be done to see if other factors are involved and not simply race alone.

The Lewis and Jhally article points out that the very different image of blacks as affluent, affable professionals while possible is definitely not typical. I have not personally seen the show, so I cannot comment on the accuracy of this depiction, but assuming it is correct, once again it is largely driven by the influence of advertisers, although in a very different way. US advertisers usually prefer portrayals of the middle and upper classes as they are more likely to be the main audiences and able to afford the advertised products.

In counties where at least some of the funding comes from the state, one is more likely to see lower classes represented as the popularity of the UK based long running “Coronation Street” attests. The authors used focus groups, especially black and white , to get a cross section of opinion. In general bith groups liked “The Cosby Show as it fits in with the egalitarian ideals of the “American Dream”.

While felt smug as the show seemed to imply that anyone including blacks could make it if they worked hard and became professionals. On the other hand, blacks liked the fact that it counteracted the news negative depiction of blacks as “low life” criminals and also for many it was like a fantasy, in that they could dream about the trappings of wealth even though they had no realistic chance of attaining it. Setting was more important than plot and character development.

In conclusion, it is my view that both the one dimension characterization of blacks as criminals and as affluent, affable professionals of “The Cosby Show” are atypical and the United States will not improve its’ race relations until there is grater recognition that both blacks and whites are complex individual people with both good and bad traits. I believe the media, especially TV and both fact and fictional, should better reflect this reality. References 1). Klein, Roger D. and Stacy Naccarato “Broadcast News Portrayal of Minorities. Accuracy in Reporting” 2). Lewis, Justin and Sue Jhally. “Television and the Politics of Representation”

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