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Media representations of social groups have been a source of sociological concern 

- media often presents simplified & stereotypical representations

Stereotypes: 'widely-held beliefs about the characterisitcs of members of a social group'

  • A stereotype is closely linked with the idea of 'labelling' and commonly has negative consequences
  • not just media that is responsible for stereotyping - family, peers, schools etc all help to create & sustain stereotypes

Need to look into the 'extent to which the media creates stereotypes' & 'the extent to which the media reflects stereotypes within society'

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We experience many events first hand - meet people, go to school, visit different places etc - and so we make our own judgements based on our direct impression.

HOWEVER, we only directly experience a tiny proportion of the world - rely on the media for knowledge on the rest of the world i.e places/people/events

  • the information that we gain is 'indirect' - the media actually re-present the world to us
  • in doing this, the media will highlight some aspects & neglect others
  • the language & pictures they use will give a particular impression
  • media will attempt to provide an unbiased, objective view of the world, but it is impossible not to have been swayed/influenced in some way
  • media do not have very long to provide background info - means that 'shorthand' methods often used to describe things
  • media tend to rely on stereotypes already held within society to save on time
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The content of the media is greatly affected by advertising - increased competition & need to make profit has increased the use of advertising                                                                     Due to advertisers being concerned with making profit, they must present images that appeal to people and encourage them to buy products - stereotypes often help here                                                                                                                                       

One stereotyped that is commonly portrayed in advertising is the 'nuclear family':                                                                                                                      - this is presented as the norm/ideal family 'cereal packet family'                                                                 - media advertising creates a 'magic world' where the meaning of life for the family is consumption          - family can achieve happiness/contentment through the goods they buy

Williams along with other sociologists is concerned with the effect of this 'obsessive consumerism' - arguing that our preoccupation with consumer goods means that we as a society do not concern ourselves with trying to improve the structures of our society

Media & advertisers use stereotypes to sell a whole way of life. The rich/consumerist lifestyle is stereotyped as the way to live through lifestyle progs.  - encouraging us to consume to be happy

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1970s/1980s - many studies using content analysis presented a remarkably consistent picture of the 'patriarchal' nature of the media

TUCHMAN's 1978 book 'Images of Women in the Mass Media' is classic example of this type of study. Found the following: 

  • Women overwhelmingly presented in two roles: domestic (housewife/mother) and sexual. Men were portrayed as authority figures, workers, breadwinners & sportsmen
  • Men outnumbered women by 3 to 1 on TV - Women suffered 'Symbolic annihilation' by the media through 'absence, condemnation or trivialisation'
  • Game shows, quizzes and discussion programmes were presented by men (authority figures)

BUTLER & PAISLEY (1980) support Tuchman's findings in their analysis of TV advertisments:

  • 90% of voiceovers in adverts were male - again showing male authority
  • 70% of women compared with 10% of men, were shown doing domestic chores/selling domestic goods (washing up liquid)  - men presented as recipients of women's labours: eating the food, wearing freshly ironed clothes etc
  • 60% of women were shown in family roles, compared with only 16% of men


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When media portrayed women outside this stereotype, was often in negative terms:

  • e.g. study of gender representations in American media found that: women shown in paid employment often had unstable relationships with male partners; married women with jobs, particularly demanding jobs were more likely than a full-time housewife to be portrayed as unhappily married

 TUNSTALL (1983) when summarising the main findings of the studys on gender representation from 1960s-70s, pointed out that:

  • although similar numbers of men are fathers & husbands, media has much less to say about these roles
  • media also ignores that over half of British women go out to paid employment

FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE : gender representations outlined above are an aspect of patriachy (a social system based on male dominance)  - Women portrayed as either domestic servants or sex objects, in both cases playing subordinate/ supressive roles                                                                     

Media representation suggest these roles are natural/normal - Feminists see this as an example of 'Patriachal Ideology' (set of beliefs which distorts reality & supports male dominance)

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Some evidence to suggest that representation of gender roles have become more equal & less stereotyped:

2 more recent content analysis studies of gender representations on prime-time TV identified the following changes:

  • significant increase in proportion of main female characters - from 18% in 1992 to 43% in 1996
  • massive decrease since the 1970s in the proportion of women whose main occupation was represented as a housewife - now only 3%
  • marked shift towards equality within the last two decades - 'female & male characters are likely to be as intellegent, talented & resourceful as eachother' (Gauntlett 2002)
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Films, Soaps & Sitcoms:

Gauntlett: Films - argues women & men now have similar skills & abilities in films today.     - Although 'Charlie's Angels' focuses on women as physically attractive, they are also presented as 'smart/multi-skilled'

Brundsman et al: Soaps -  TV now features 'strong women'  - soap storylines now often driven by women e.g. Peggy Mitchell, East Enders

- Women now feature in TV genres that they usually wouldnt appear in - police drama's - showing them in authoritive roles e.g. The Bill/Prime suspect

Sit-coms: women no longer portrayed in 'traditional feminine roles' - now commonly show women who refuse the 'straightjacket' of femininity 

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Women's Magazines: evidence of changing gender representations are also evident in mags

Ferguson (1983) -

  • conducted a study on young womens mags from 1949-1980
  • found that they promoted a traditional idea of femininity
  • dominant assumption was that girls should aspire to be beautiful in order to get a husband & once married should become home makers & carers

In contrast:

focus of mags since 1980's is on women seeking control of their own lives rather than being dependent on men

  • now more focus on sexuality than romance - traditional idea of feminity is challenged - women no longer portrayed as the weaker sex
  • women encouraged to be assertive, confident & supportive of eachother
  • mags turn tables on men - encourage women to be sexual aggressors rather than sexual objects
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Some sociologists have interpreted these changes as reflecting societal developments - increased genger equality & greater confidence amoung young women

However, some feminists are less convinced:

  • found that men still took 63% of speaking roles
  •  research on TV sports coverage - sportswomen continue to be under represented - what little their is tends to 'sexualise & devalue women's sporting accumplishments'
  • point to the fact that even when women celebrities/presenters are introduced, they are young, glamorous & **** - still sex objects
  • overwhelming message in media is still that women need to look good for their man - reinforced by sheer amount of cosmetics, fashion, plastic surgery advertisments in womens mags

 EVAL - No doubt that women are still greatly under-represented & theres still along way to go for equality in the media. 

HOWEVER there is sufficient evidence to indicate that media representations of women are improving and are less likely to rely on traditional stereotype or portray women in a narrow range of submissive roles

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Research into media treatment of ethnicity has emphasised the way in which minority ethnic groups are almost always seen as a 'problem'                              - tend to be represented as the cause of disorder and crime

Minority ethnics are also greatly under-represented in the media - very few people of colour in top media positions & few programmes are aimed at minority ethnics

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GUMG (amoung others) - shows how news & current affairs programmes are nationalistic - developed countries are presented as problems: disasters, wars, famines etc

From MARXIST point of view: these portrayals reinenforce capitalist system by showing White western culture as superior

Until recent years, Blacks have been portrayed as servants/figures of fun/slaves    - now been replaced by 'Tokenism': where minority ethnics are included to show the media product is not racist

Argued that the media operates within a culture that sees foreigners (esp. blacks) as inferior - media emphasises racial conflict/problems & presents negative images of minority ethnics to the audience

As the media is people's main source of information, it is likely to increase prejudices - likely to increase problems in mixed-race areas

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Negative representation of minority ethnics was particularly noticable in earlier decades:      e.g.         Racism in the Press:

Van Dijk (1991) - focused on reporting of ethnic relations in 1980s - studied sample of British newspapers. Mainfindings:                                                                                                                 1) positive representation of White British citizens & negative representation of non-White British                                                                                                                                                                    2) minority groups quoted less often/less fully than others                                                                                                                                                                 3) White authorities (esp. police/politicians) were the major speakers

Overt & Inferential Racism: Hall (1995) -

  • Overt racism - is apparent when racist arguments are presented favourably. Overt racism sometimes occurs but more often 'Inferential Racism' is the problem
  • Inferential Racism - occurs when coverage seems balanced but is biased on racist assumptions. TV news and current affairs progs. make an effort to be balanced yet debates are often based on the assumption that black people are 'the source of the problem'.
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Much of the research on racism and the media relates to the 1970's-80s

- in recent years, there has been growth in both the number & range of representations of minority ethnic groups:

Fim, TV drama & Comedy:

  • in Britain, public service broadcasting has allowed Black programming to develop on Channel 4 & BB2 - led to the emergence of Black British cinema through films such as 'My Beautiful Laundrette'
  • Recent years, media developed primarily for minority ethnic groups have become popular with white audiences e.g. Black sit-com 'Desmond's' and Asian comedy 'Goodness Gracious Me' and films such as 'Bend it like Beckham'
  • Abercrombie 1996 - Black & Asian actors are now playing 'ordinary' characters, no longer presented as exotic/dangerous - gives message that they are just like white people - this is apparent in progs. such as East Enders & The Bill
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Advertising - changing representations also evident in advertising:

  • 'colonial images & nationalistic emblems are relitevely rare in modern adverts and the under-representation of non-whites is no longer evident' (GUMG)
  • instead multinational corporations now acknowledge & celebrate difference
  • classic example: 'United Colours of Benetton' advertising series in which the message of human unity is based on an acceptance of ethnic & cultural difference - while some criticised this campaign for reinforcing ethnic stereotypes, this shift towards a postive view of difference can challenge racism

Some artists have attempted to challenge our traditional ways of seeing things by new forms of representation:

TOSCANI (photographer) - 'The Benetton campaign'; created a series of well known people with transformed racial characteristics:

  • E.g. the 'Black Queen' - reveals & challenges our assumptions that the British identity is made up of 'whiteness'.
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The News:

  • study from the 1990's of news reporting on TV, radio and newspapers presents optimistic picture - the content analysis revealed that most news items that dealt with racial issues put across an anti-racist message
  • Immigration was treated in a sympathetic way & press silence on racist attacks was no longer evidence
  • Multiculturalism & Islam were more likely to be valued than attacked
  • Minority voices were more likely to be heard

HOWEVER: extent of progress should not be exaggerated

While deliberate bias against ethnic minorities was found to be rare, about a quater of news items still conveyed a negative message about minority groups,

Traditional framework depicting minority ethnic groups as a social problem was at times very evident - esp. in tabloid newspapers

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Research indicates that media representations of ethnicity have changed - They are no longer simply based on the same old negative stereotypes. While old stereotypes do still persist, media representations of ethnicity are becoming more diverse and more positive

Functionalists would argue that media presentations of minority ethnics reflect their position in society - these depictions change to reflect the integration of minority ethnics into a mainstream culture

Pluralists would also argue that the poor representation of some minority ethnics reflects their current social standing - media is reflecting mainstream white opinions in its portrayal of minority ethnics                (NEWS VALUES: (conflict, crime & sensational) also play major role in their representation)

Marxists & Neo Marxists disagree: emphasize how media uses racism to promote the interests of the powerful  -

  • moral panic about immigrants/asylum seekers help to divide the w/c on racial grounds & produce false consciousness
  • blame for economic/social problems is focused on minority ethnics rather than real cause
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Research on media representations of social class is mainly focused on W/C

Under-representations of W/C:

  • many researchers note how rarely the average w/c person is represented in the media - BUTSCH carried out studies of 50yrs of comic books, radio, TV dramas and movies, found persistant pattern - under-representation of w/c & over-representation of proffesional/managerial occupations
  • in the news: w/c people likely to cross the screen only as witnesses to crimes or sport events, never as commentators or experts

The few representations of w/c there have been, have consistently been negative as the following points illustrate -

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Sit coms & Social class:

  • American study of Sit coms over 4 decades from 1946-1990 showed w/c males typically represented as 'baffoons' - dumb, immature, irresponsible
  • This character of the husband is found in almost all sit-coms of family's e.g. Flintstones, The Simpsons
  • In contrast, sit coms featuring m/c typically do not represent either parent as a baffoon & when they do it is the 'dizzy wife' not the husband (BUTSCH)

The News & Social Class:

  • GUMG - carried out series of detailed studies of TV news
  • argue that the news is not impartial but reflects the interests of powerful groups
  • coverage of industrial disputes e.g. strikes of the miners in Glasgow 80s is an example of this - not 1 of 21 interviews was with a striker but instead with management & experts
  • management & trade unionists (e.g. miners) treated very differently - managers were allowed to make their point quietly & at length, trade unionists had to shout over the noise & were interupted by reporters
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GUMG conclude that the overall impression given by the media was that workers caused strikes & that 'excessive' wage demands caused inflation

  •  this is only one interpretation of the cause and effects of industrial disputes but is presented as the dominant/authoritive one
  • this dominant view presents the w/c in a negative way

Soap Opera's & Social Class:   -Common feature is that they are mostly based on w/c communities - therefore in soaps, the w/c are not under-represented

Unlike other research of Social class, research into representations of class in Soaps has found a more positive representation:

  • Series such as East Enders/Coronation Street feature the w/c, which are continually represented as a close-knit community - seen by some as good as people interact with these fictional communities, compensating for loss of community in the real world
  • however, Marxists would see this as another form of alienation & false consciousness
  • also characters in soaps tend to be stereotypical and so could be argued to reinforce negative w/c stereotypes
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Different age groups in western societies are linked to their economic circumstance:

- adults (who work) have the most status & the young and the old (who its assumed dont work) have least status.

This leads to the following representations being seen in the media:

According to McQueen:

  • Children are helpless & innocent
  • Teenagers are irresponsible & rebellious
  • Middle aged are responsible & conformist
  • Old people are vulnerable & a burden
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Children often depicted in the UK media in fairly positive ways. Content analysis of media products suggests that 7 stereotypes of children are used:

  • as victims of horrendous crime e.g. Madeleine McCann
  • as cute e.g. in commercials for baby products/toilet rolls
  • as brilliant e.g. as hereo's for saving someones life
  • as brave little angels e.g. suffering from disease/disability
  • as accessories e.g. celebrities may focus on how their children humanize them
  • as modern e.g. media may focus on how children 'these days' know so much more at their age than other generations

Therefore children are represented in 2 ways: 1) as totally dependent & in need of protection/guidance   2) in a way that recognises diversity amoung children & their capability to deal with complex issues

  • However, most representations are positive, showing them engaging in pro-social actions such as telling the truth & helping others
  • Children also represented in TV commercials in ways that socialise them to become active consumers - encouraged to have appetite for toys & games
  • Some sociologists say this has led to the emergence of new family pressure: 'pester power' 
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1) Youth as consumers:

  • there is whole media industry aimed at youths - mags, internet, Tv progs, music downloads etc, network sites
  • aimed at socially constructing their identity through fashion, music, games etc

2) Youth as a social problem:

  • portrayed as unmoral & anti-authority
  • constructed as 'folk devils' that create moral panics
  • focus on youths membership in specific subcultures e.g. hoodies with value placed on crime/rebellion/drug-taking

Wayne et al: studied 286 stories focused spec. on youths. Out of these:                                         - 28% represented youths as celebrities & 82% represented youths as either perpentrators or victims of crime       - Therefore the main representation of youth's are as a violent threat to society

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Old age tended to be presented as a social & economic problem - with emphasis on poverty, ill health & loss of independence (Old are 'out of touch' with modern technology & lifestyles)

LASCH: argues that from a Marxist point of view, this negative representation is because the old are useless to capitalism - do not work/produce and most have little to spend on consumerism

When elderly do appear its most commonly in media that advertises age slowing beauty products, fitness aids & plastic surgery  - some say this is 'devaluing' old age    

- Therefore old age is presented as something that should be 'feared & delayed' 

However - on the whole the elderly remain largely 'invisible' in the media:

Supported by research from Age Concern: 2000, 21% of the pop. was 65+, yet only 7% of people on TV were of that age group - Elderly hugely under-represented 

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Representations of lesbians & gays:

  • sexual minorities 'mostly ignored/denied'
  • when they do appear, they do so in order to play a supportive role for the natural order and are thus narrowly & negatively stereotyped
  • common stereotypes include those of gay mem being identified by a 'mincing walk and camp voices' & lesbiens being identified as 'butch dungaree-wearing feminists' (McQueen)

Negative stereotype due to historical stigma once attached to gays:

  • homosexuality was once illegal - some still see it as wrong
  • 1980's - introduction of HIV/AIDs which happened prevelently in gay communites, became seen as the 'gay plague' -  gay men were seen as dangerous

Although homosexuality is now legal, and the 'rumours' of AIDS have been corrected, some people still hold a negative view of gays & lesbians which are still seen through represented in the media.                     However - this view is declining:

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With more societal acceptance of diversity, lesbiens and gays have become both more visable and less narrowly/negatively stereotyped in the media:

  • evident in advertising: advertisers more likely to engage in gay-positive marketing campaigns - to attract a new market of gay consumers
  • the promotion of safe sex to prevent AIDS - when first identified, was seen as a 'gay plague' - since then Gay activists & medical authorities have successfully challenged this
  • although gay men still represented as camp in sit coms, soaps present a less stereotypical gay character - as its long term, no need to immediately identify character as gay HOWEVER these gay storylines are still constructed from heterosexual point of view for heterosexual audiences
  • although mainstream media often continues to represent gays & lesbiens as 'outsiders' - they increasingly present a wider range of images of gay people - diminishing traditional narrow stereotypes from before E.g. Tv prog. 'Queer as Folk' focused on the lives of a variety of different gay characters rather than just one
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2 main ways of understanding and representing disability:

1) The Medical Model:

  • This views disability as a 'product of impairment' - focuses on physical difference such as blindness & being wheelchair bound
  • disabled defined as a group whose bodies do not function normally and who, as a result, are not capable of living a normal lifestyle

2) The Social Model:

  • this model views disability as the 'outcome of social barriers' - focuses on the obstacles/discriminatory practises that people with disabilities face
  • recognised that people experience impairments, but highlights the social barriers that prevent these people from living a normal lifestyle
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While a range of media images of the disabled can be identified, the most prevelent ones are comminly 'negative'

Bulsara: saw 3 potent images of the disabled: 'pity, dependent and flawed'

Philo (with GUMG):

  • found that TV & press reporting of people suffering mental disibilities often focus on violent incidents, despite the fact that only a tiny minority of people with mental health impairments are potentially violent
  • giving message to audiences that the disabled are dangerous

While most images of disability indicate that the 'Medical model' is the most dominant, there is little doubt that more media representations of the 'Social model' are appearing in the media:

  • e.g. in 42% of cases of disabled on TV, the social issues of prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination were highlighted.
  • indicating that disabled people are becoming more vocal about their demand for civil rights - becoming more accepted
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Under-representation of Disability:

Content analysis conducted between 1993-2002 indicated that people with disabilities appear infrequently & that there has been little change over the years:

  • In 2002, they made an appearance in 11% of the progs surveyed, but accounted for only 0.8% of all the people who spoke
  • Furthermore, the range of disabilites portrayed was very limited, being commonly those highlighted in the medical model e.g. blindness/wheelchair bound (very narrow image of disability)
  • Disability Discrimination Act 2005 (now the Equality Act 2010) - put in place to stop discrimination of disabled in the work place and in society in general (this includes in the media)
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The previous research has demonstrated continuity and change in media representations of different social groups.

However, their impact cannot be assed without looking at how audiences respond to the media

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Really useful resource

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