Media and Group Representations Essay

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The influence of media exposure on the cognitions we hold about our own and other groups in society is well established (see Mastro 2009). Research additionally documents that these cognitions impact a wide variety of behavioral outcomes. Given that Americans spend a staggering 13.6 hours per day interacting with media (Short 2013), understanding the manner in which different groups are represented in the media is of great social consequence. For reasons of space this entry concentrates on findings from the US.


When it comes to prime-time television, content analyses indicate that blacks are presented at a rate that meets or slightly exceeds their proportion of the US population (of approximately 13 percent); comprising between 14 and 17 percent of characters (Mastro 2009). In this programming, blacks are found nearly exclusively in sitcoms and crime dramas. The typical black character is a middle-class, male law enforcer or professional, in his thirties, discussing topics related to work (Children Now 2004; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005; Mastro & Greenberg 2000). Alongside average levels of job and social authority, black characters are among the least aggressive on prime time. They also are more hot-tempered, more provocatively dressed, and less professionally attired than their white peers.

In the news, blacks are depicted as perpetrators more frequently than whites and at rates exceeding real-world crime data (Dixon & Linz 2000a). Blacks also are seen as victims on the news less often than whites, but at rates nearly equivalent with real-world levels of victimization (Dixon & Linz 2000b). In terms of depictions as law enforcers, 91 percent of police officers shown on television news are white, whereas only 3 percent are black (Dixon et al. 2003). These figures are discrepant from US Department of Labor statistics, which identify 80 percent of officers in the US to be white and 17 percent to be black.

Other Ethnic Groups In The US

The portrayal of Latinos on contemporary primetime television is inauspicious, at best. Latinos are grossly underrepresented when compared with real-world demographics, representing only 4–6.5 percent of the prime-time population but approximately 16 percent of the US population (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005). Like blacks, Latino characters are confined primarily to sitcoms and crime dramas (Children Now 2004). They appear most often as family members; conversing frequently about crime-related topics (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz 2005). Generally speaking, Latinos are depicted as younger, lower in job authority, more provocatively dressed, lazier, less articulate, and less intelligent than their peers on television. Alongside blacks, Latinos are deemed the most hot-tempered characters in prime time. Moreover, when compared with other female characters on TV, Latinas are rated the lowest in work ethic and highest in verbal aggression.

Asian Americans make up about 3 percent of the characters on TV (and 4.6 percent of the US population), and are depicted primarily in minor and non-recurring roles, often centering on the work environment (see Mastro 2009). Native Americans represent less than 1 percent of the characters seen on primetime (if they appear at all) and approximately 1 percent of the US population. Their infrequent roles often are based in an historical context. A mere 0.2 percent of newspaper articles and 0.2 percent of films portray Native Americans (Fryberg 2003). When they are represented in the media, they are characterized in limited roles as spiritual, as warriors, and as a social problem.

Arabs/Middle Easterners represent 0.05 percent of prime-time television characters (Children Now 2004). Nearly half of these characters (46 percent) are portrayed as criminals. Research on film suggests that images of Arabs/Middle Easterners rarely deviate from a limited range of brutal portrayals, typically pertaining to terrorism or of a generally uncivilized nature (see Shaheen 2003). Indians/Pakistanis make up 0.04 percent of the TV population (Children Now 2004). The nature of these roles has yet to be documented.

Age, Gender, And Disability

Characters between the ages of 0 and 9 comprise 1.9 percent of the prime-time population (Harwood & Anderson 2002). Those aged 10–19 constitute 9.7 percent of TV roles. Characters aged 20–34 make up nearly 40 percent of television figures. Those aged 35–44 represent approximately 27 percent of roles. Adults from 45–64 make up 18.7 percent of prime-time characters, with only 2.8 percent of characters over age 65. When these figures are compared with US census data, several discrepancies emerge. Adolescents and children (particularly younger children), as well as seniors, are severely underrepresented. On the other hand, characters ranging in age from 20 through the early 40s are depicted at levels far exceeding that of the US population. In terms of the features associated with these different age groups, more positive images are linked with younger characters – seemingly, a function of diminishing perceptions of attractiveness as the characters age.

Misrepresentation also applies to gender. Although women outnumber males in the US population, they comprise only 28 percent of the characters in family films, 39 percent of the characters on prime-time TV, and 31 percent of those in children’s programs (Smith et al. 2012). Women are more likely to be depicted as parents in both family films and children’s programs, but not prime-time TV (a change from previous decades). When it comes to the manner in which men and women are depicted in the media, women are more likely to be sexualized than their male counterparts and less likely to be employed. When employed, women in the media are rarely shown in prestigious positions or scientific fields.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters comprise 3.3 percent of recurring characters on prime-time TV, and are equally divided between men and women (Glaad 2013). Among these characters, 71 percent are white, 15 percent are black, 8 percent are Latino, 2 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5 percent are ‘multiracial.’

Although 12 percent of the US population reports living with a disability, characters with disabilities are exceedingly rare in the media. Only about 1 percent of all recurring prime-time characters are portrayed with some type of disability (Glaad 2013). Among these, the majority are represented by non-disabled actors (at least on broadcast television).

When considering the significance of media representations in designating group status, strength and social standing in society, the disparities in the characterizations of the groups addressed here are indeed consequential, and warrant greater research attention.


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  2. Dixon, T., Azocar, C., & Casas, M. (2003). The portrayal of race and crime on television network news. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 47, 498–523.
  3. Dixon, T. & Linz, D. (2000a). Overrepresentation and underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as lawbreakers on television news. Journal of Communication, 50, 131–154.
  4. Dixon, T. & Linz, D. (2000b). Race and the misrepresentation of victimization on local television news. Communication Research, 27, 547–573.
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  6. Glaad (2013). 2013: Where are we on TV? org. At, accessed August 12, 2014.
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  8. Mastro, D. (2009). Effects of racial and ethnic stereotyping. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research, 3rd edn. Hillsdale: NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 325–341. Assoc.
  9. Mastro, D. & Behm-Morawitz, E. (2005). Latino representation on prime time television. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 82, 110–130.
  10. Mastro, D. & Greenberg, B. (2000). The portrayal of racial minorities on prime time television. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 44, 690–703.
  11. Shaheen, J. (2003). Reel bad Arabs: How Hollywood vilifies a people. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 588, 171–193.
  12. Short, (2013, October). How much media? 2013: Report on American Consumers. Institute for Communications Technology Management, Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California. At, accessed August 12, 2014.
  13. Smith, S., Choueiti, M., Prescott, A., & Pieper, K. (2012). Gender roles & occupations: A look at character attributes and job-related aspirations in film and television. Geena Davis Institute on Gender and At, accessed August 12, 2014.

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