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Public Discourse and Intergroup Communication

Summary and Keywords

Discourse analysis is focused on the implicit meanings found in public discourse, text, and media. In the modern era, public discourse can be assessed in political or social debates, newspapers, magazines, television, film, radio, music, and web-mediated forums (Facebook, Twitter, and other public discussion). Research across a variety of disciplines has documented that dominant social groups tend to employ certain discursive strategies when discussing minority groups. Public discourse is often structured in ways that marginalize minority groups and legitimize beliefs, values, and ideologies of more dominant groups. These discursive strategies include appealing to authority, categorization, comparison, consensus, counterfactual, disclaimers, euphemism, evidence, examples, generalizations, rhetorical questions, metaphors, national glorification, and directive speech acts. Evoking such discourse often enables prevailing dominant groups to reify majority social status, reinforce negative assumptions about minorities, and maintain a positive public social image, despite deprecating and, sometimes, dehumanizing references.

Keywords: public discourse, intergroup communication, consensus, metaphors, speech, rhetoric


Discourse analysis is the study of text, talk, and language. From a practical standpoint, language is employed to develop and enforce laws, educate and socialize people, manage resources, and navigate both personal and public relationships. Essentially, language allows us to maintain the past and shape the future. Discourse enables an understanding of the ways that people accomplish social, cultural, and political identity through communication. This focus provides a lens through which to better understand how language is evoked to establish, reinforce, challenge, and sometimes, change social, status, and cultural relationships between groups.

Giles and Johnson (1981) suggested that language is a dependent variable that reflects intergroup relations and an independent variable that affects intergroup relations. The language people use during interpersonal, public, or mediated exchanges is often shaped by intergroup categories, labeling, and social identity. In other words, discourse both reflects and reinforces broader attitudes, values, and behaviors in a society. Intergroup communication principles have been applied to racial, nationality, ethnic, religious, gender, disability, and even familial interactions, to name a few. Particularly relevant to recent public events are the intergroup language issues emerging during political, geopolitical, and immigration conflicts. Intergroup judgments and attitudes can shape collective emotions and behaviors towards “Others.” Given the frequency of recent violent acts of terrorism and consistent regional conflicts, it is evident that intergroup tensions continue to prevail.

This chapter is focused on language, public discourse, and intergroup communication. In what follows, intergroup communication theory and principles are introduced in terms of language, power, and discourse. Next, the evolution of discourse analysis will be traced, with attention to the interdisciplinary foundations of this paradigm. Following this, public discourse research will be reviewed in terms of traditional media and new media to demonstrate how public discourse and intergroup relations are interconnected and mutually influencing. Political public discourse strategies are then highlighted in terms of how public political figures use language to shape public opinion. To conclude, future possibilities for improving intergroup communication interactions are addressed. The goal of this chapter is to provide readers with a foundation for the intergroup communication and discourse analytic paradigms, in order to promote more extensive public dialogue and, hopefully, research into the cognitive and social mechanisms that promote or conversely impede effective intergroup communication.

Intergroup Communication

Giles (2012) identified four general Principles of Intergroup Communication that shape language use during intergroup interactions. The primary principle posits that groups are able to institutionalize unique cultural identities by transmitting and preserving information about cultural identity, often through common language use. Listener perceptions of a speaker’s accent or language choice have received considerable attention by scholars in the last several decades (see Giles & Marlow, 2011, for a review of language attitude models). Secondly, language and communication are used to mark and define the multiple categories that reflect group membership, access, and boundaries. Sometimes, these categorizations and identities are imposed externally, such as when dominant groups label and define minority groups in a society. Thirdly, the communication norms that define various groups may actually modify or redefine intergroup relations in a society. This may happen, for instance, when political rhetoric about immigrants (or other minority collectives) enhances negative attitudes, views, and behaviors towards members of such a group. Lastly, members of minority groups may access resources of more dominant groups through various communication accommodation practices, such as when a Mexican-American chooses to speak Standard English at work or when multiethnic Locals in Hawai’i speak Standard English for gainful employment (Marlow & Giles, 2008).

According to Lippmann (1922), stereotypes are culturally shared impressions about groups. Stereotypes may help people make sense of reality, understand their place in the world, and defend the values or positioning of their group. Allport (1954) theorized that stereotyping is a cognitive process that involves rationalizing intergroup relations and prejudice. In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers in Europe focused on social identity and intergroup relations, seeking to understand the ways in which psychology influenced perceptions and behaviors during intergroup interactions.

Drawing from past work, Tajfel (1981) suggested that stereotyping provides people with an opportunity to establish positive social identities for their in-group, explain social events that are problematic, and justify actions committed against others in a stereotyped group. Such normative interpretations of reality tend to be shared among group members and, sometimes, between many groups. Social identity theory posits that people have an inherent need to establish a positive social identity and that groups seek to achieve this goal by differentiating and elevating the status of their group, when compared to other groups. People may evoke three distinct strategies in these efforts that include competition, social mobility, and creativity.

Social competition strategies take place when people identify strongly with their in-group, perceive that group boundaries are impermeable, and that prevailing hierarchy norms are not legitimate. Social competition takes place when people value their own group and seek ways to achieve higher status, accept negative stereotypes about others as a justification for status enhancement, and reject negative stereotypes about their in-group. This approach may manifest in social movements that involve linguistic or cultural revival, intergroup conflict, and—in extreme cases—acts of violence and terrorism.

Social mobility may be engaged to establish more favorable social identity when people perceive that group boundaries are permeable and an opportunity exists to pass between one social group to another. Social mobility is most often engaged when people do not have strong in-group identification and view the current hierarchy as legitimate and fixed. People using this strategy may achieve a more favorable identity by disowning their authentic group and seeking to align with a higher-status group. Social mobility takes place when people from minority race, nationality, religious, class, or orientation groups attempt to “pass” as members of a more favored dominant group.

Finally, social creativity strategies may be engaged to establish a more positive identity when people perceive that the status hierarchy is stable and to avoid comparison or competition with competing out-groups. To actuate social creativity, people may compare their in-group to other lower-status groups, initiate bidimensional status conclusions (adopting the stigmatized identity, but adding a positive trait to their in-group), and/or reject stigmatized ideas about their in-group (Reid & Anderson, 2010). Despite the utility of social identity theory, this approach does not explain why some people may focus on stereotyping particular groups when compared to others and how stereotypes are cognitively represented when people are seeking to enhance their in-group identity.

Self-categorization theory provides some help in understanding social identity salience or which elements of self-identity are activated, when, and with what effects (Oakes, Haslam, & Turner, 1994; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). According to this theory, most people have several identities that may be experienced as independent from one another. For instance, people may define themselves based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, class, age, or occupation, among other group memberships. People make sense of identity by assigning in-group defining prototypes that help to define and prescribe what is considered appropriate behavior for an in-group member. Interactions and information from a given interaction may cause people to organize reality based on appropriate or relevant social identities.

Self-categorization theory posits that three variables may determine the appropriate fit that people perceive regarding group memberships. The first issue shaping the categories people may select involves biological history, group loyalty, and social or cultural values. This issue tends to contribute to certain categories being available for use or reuse during social evaluations. Second, people tend to focus on noticeable stimuli, such as accent, skin pigment, or gender, which are then assigned certain categories or values and employed during evaluations of self and others. Third, people may also assign categories of normative fit to certain groups based on observed attributes and norms about behaviors that reflect and define particular groups.

Social identity that becomes salient may influence people to draw from prototypes about certain groups even for themselves. In-group prototypes may be internalized, which can then form the foundation for self-stereotyping, while out-group prototypes may allow people to remain loyal to previous identity commitments and perceptions of intergroup relations.

Language and Intergroup Communication

Language use is inherently connected to intergroup relations in several ways. Maass, Salvi, Arcuri, and Semin (1989) found that a linguistic intergroup bias (LIB) may cause people to describe socially desirable in-group behavior and non-desirable out-group behavior in language that is more abstract as compared to language describing undesirable in-group behavior and desirable out-group behavior. Reid and Anderson (2010) suggested that people may use linguistic tactics like ethnophaulisms, code words, and narrative stereotypes to enhance in-group identity when an identity threat is perceived. Mullen (2001) researched the use of ethnophaulisms and found that people may use six mutually exclusive categories when organizing groups. Personal names, personal traits, physical traits, food habits, group names, and other traits are applied to reference various groups and then employed to justify inequality or social exclusion. Typically, negative and less complex ethnophaulisms are applied to less familiar groups. Mullen found that groups who have historically been assigned noncomplex ethnophaulisms were less likely to become naturalized citizens in the United States, less likely to be allowed to immigrate, more likely to occupy dangerous jobs, and less likely to intermarry. They also found that negative ethnophaulisms have been associated with higher rates of suicide and economically segregated housing circumstances. Drawing from the contributions of Mullen (2001), Reid and Anderson (2010) theorized that when different groups enter into social competition, ethnophaulisms are more likely to become fixed and negative, while intergroup alliances and harmony reduce negative valence and adverse meanings in ethnophaulisms.

Code words allow people to express stereotypes in ways that minimize the likelihood that others will view them negatively, given the generally modern political and cultural values toward social equality. Subtly nuanced language may allow people to express prejudice that will evoke perceptions of accessible categories by listeners, through “racially tinged code words” (Reid & Anderson, 2010, p. 102). For instance, during public discourse, politicians may promote their agenda by evoking phrases such as, “inner city youth,” “welfare queen,” and “quotas.” In fact, Hurwitz and Peffley (2005) discovered that people with negative stereotypes of African- Americans were more likely to endorse imprisonment as an effective solution to crime prevention when the question labeled the group “violent inner-city criminals” as compared to “violent criminals.” In this example, the “racially tinged code-word” “inner-city” can influence listeners to believe that the perpetrators under question are likely to be racial minorities (e.g., Blacks or Latinos), rather than Caucasian.

Power and Intergroup Communication

Specifically addressing language, Ng and Bradac (1993) identified ways that people may use language in order to maintain power. Especially relevant for the study of public discourse are misleading words. Misleading words involve the use of devious or equivocal messages, lying, evasion, metaphors, evocative words, and masking. Devious or equivocal messages may be developed in situations when people attempt to mitigate the harshness of criticisms or directives. Equivocal messages are often employed when a respondent must reply to a question, but the only available direct response would lead to negative consequences. This strategy is often used during political, litigation, or diplomatic discourse and involves presenting information that will meet the questioner demands, without responding with a yes or no. Ng and Bradac (1993) presented an example of a courtroom proceeding where an individual is being questioned, “Were you convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol last year?” The respondent may answer by stating, “I still have my driver’s license,” which would lead listeners to potentially conclude that the individual did not get convicted because they still had a valid driver’s license. Effective devious communicators are cognizant of the chain of inferences that listeners may engage, based on an expressed statement or proposition.

Evocative words have the powerful ability to evoke strong emotions and beliefs in listeners. Ng and Bradac (1993) suggested that evocative words are loaded, in that they are instruments that can be used to provoke certain thoughts, feelings, or responses towards a desired direction in receivers. For instance, using the phrase “undocumented immigrants” would potentially evoke a very different response than the term “illegals.” Relatedly, metaphors assign someone or something a name that belongs to something else and are created when attributes of one thing are viewed as residing in or imposed upon another thing. The force and impact of a metaphor will depend on whether the metaphor is implicit (“AIDS is like a plague”) or explicit (“People with AIDS are a plague”). By applying the ancient plague metaphor,

we try to understand—and explain—AIDS as a foreign invasion that originated from the Dark Continent and that is a disease incurred by people both as individuals and as members of a risk group (immigrants with darker skins, gays, and drug addicts) from which the general population should be protected (Sontag, 1988). The plague metaphor . . . generates fear, inculcates guilt, and inflicts stigma

(Ng & Bradac, 1993, p. 139).

Relatedly, Ng and Bradac (1993) identified four masking strategies that are used to influence listener perceptions. These involve truncation (shortened forms of expression), permutation (word positioning in a sentence), generalization (general statements about people or situations where verbs are not specified), and nominalization (reframing an activity carried out by someone as an unfortunate event without any named active participants). Such linguistic approaches enable speakers and writers to present information in a simplified, sensationalized, and, sometimes, inaccurate manner. In this way, public figures and media may influence and persuade public opinion to promote a particular social, cultural, or political agenda.

Social identity, categorization, and stereotypes are inextricably connected. Social cognitions and evaluations shape impression formations, which in turn, influence the language people use to describe and discuss various groups and intergroup interactions, more generally. Through language, people enhance salient social groups, degrade out-groups, and justify prevailing systems of privilege, power, and control. In the next section, the development of discourse analysis will be reviewed, in addition to discourse strategies that some people may engage to describe or discuss minority groups without conveying overt prejudice.

Discourse Analysis

Molder (2009) provided a historical overview of the discourse analysis tradition. Early on, discourse analytic frameworks were applied in the field of linguistics. In the 1950s, a linguist named Harris coined the term “discourse analysis” in his research while assessing general principles of language use. Twenty-five years later, Sinclair and Coulthard assessed the development of three-part linguistic sequences, playing out between a teacher-initiated conversation, student responses, and feedback provided by the educator. This approach sought to understand the ways that real-life interactions unfold across organizational settings. It was later criticized for the characterization of quasi-syntactical rules, much like subsequent work by Brown and Yule. Despite challenges with these earlier approaches, research like this became the foundation of the social science approach to discourse analysis.

Later discourse analysts endorsed the social science tradition and sought to distinguish language as something not viewed as a passive medium for conveying information, but rather, language was now viewed as an active tool employed to construct reality and the world. Reality is something constructed through words, language, and meaning. Some analysts in the discursive tradition emphasized that people are actively constructing reality through various linguistic tools that assign credibility, expertise, blame, or mitigation. Contextual issues are accounted for in terms of the interaction, environment, and cultural climate. Foucault, for instance, emphasized the power of discourse to create and constitute actual reality, rather than merely a reflection of reality as some had suggested previously.

In the 1970s, Foucault introduced the notion of power and defined ways in which discourse constitutes language and meaning. According to Foucault, institutional influence and rules govern the way discourse constitutes knowledge about topics like sexuality, imprisonment, hysteria, and romantic love. These “sets of statements,” from a discursive perspective, enable institutions to establish authority, define rules on how to discuss certain issues, and determine how various topics are considered, managed, and organized thematically. Foucault’s critical analyses emphasized the historical and structural foundations of discourse, although this approach has not resulted in a unique methodological approach for analysis.

Following the critical work of Foucault, Gilbert and Mulkay applied the sociology of science perspective to discourse analysis and assessed the ways in which people utilize speech through the use of interpretative repertoires. Gilbert and Mulkay were biochemists who sought to understand how scientists manage the truthfulness of their own and others’ work. One component of the interpretative repertoire deals with empiricist repertoire that emphasizes impersonal rules, experimental data, logic, and chronology. Contingent repertoires, on the other hand, were applied to informal settings and emphasized explanatory sources of speculation, social networks, and personal commitment.

From the discursive psychology framework, Potter and Wetherell (1987) approached discourse analysis through the lens of ethnomethodology and poststructuralism. From this view, someone sharing their opinion is not necessarily revealing a mental state, but is rather performing a social action, complimenting, blaming, or mitigating responsibility. Views and attitudes are developed and redeveloped to align with a specific functional context. This is the reason that opinions tend to exhibit considerable variation across different interactional settings.

Billig and colleagues emphasized the importance of understanding the ways that ideological dilemmas are reflected in everyday talk and discourse. According to this approach, ideologies always invoke or maintain a set of counter-ideologies. For instance, one example would include a situation where the “notion of individual freedom may be drawn upon to make up for the flaws of social responsibility and collective ideals and vice versa” (Molder, 2009, p. 314). In this way, themes that seem contrary within or between ideologies function as useful “error accounts” that mutually implicate each other in terms of the way ideologies work.

In the 1990s, critical discourse analysis shifted to include the specific linguistic strategies that reflect and reinforce social inequality and power issues in society. Regardless of distinct approaches, critical discourse analysts focus on the way that language reflects and normalizes social relationships between dominant and marginalized groups where inequality may manifest (racism, sexism, and the like). For instance, critical discourse analysts examine the ways that men and women are represented in the media or the ways in which certain race or ethnic groups are addressed in public policy or news documents.

Despite similar perspectives, some critical analysts emphasized the cognitive representations people develop, such as Van Dijk, who assessed socio-cognitive processes that often underpin racist discourse. Other researchers exposed the relationships between distinct levels of social practices, social order, and the way dominant and marginalized groups engage public discourse for “making meaning.” According to Van Dijk (2006), social and political ideologies include fundamental beliefs about groups of people that include general and abstract “mental models.” These kinds of schemas tend to remain fairly stable over time and may reflect ongoing social struggles between certain groups in a society. Socialization discourse that occurs during family, peer, and media-based interactions shape and reify notions of “the Other.” In this way, people learn about the world from an intergroup framework (Van Dijk, 1993).

Shi-xu (2014) developed the Chinese Discourse Studies Paradigm to promote human cultural coexistence, harmony, and prosperity among all peoples and cultures of the world. Shi-xu (2016) emphasized the importance of cultural discourse study, which identifies the ways in which intercultural coexistence and harmony may be achieved, especially in situations where marginalized communities occupy less relative advantage in comparison to more dominant groups. Past research conducted from the mainstream or Western cultural discourse tradition has emphasized the role of the speaker, while minimizing the hearer’s perception, interpretation, and response. Overlooking the mutual co-construction of meaning during private and public interactions may omit broader international and intercultural globalization forces that shape human communication interactions and outcomes (Coupland, 2003). This is especially so considering that less powerful nations, cultures, and people tend to adapt and realign to accommodate dominant systems (Shi-xu, 2016). This approach will prove to be very useful in the future for scholars who seek to analyze the mutually influencing nature of public discourse and meaning in the modern era. As Shi-xu (2014, p. 46) wrote:

Both Asian and African basic world views are holistic and harmony-oriented . . . If this world view is adopted in discourse theory and research practices, then we will be able to see for example that what Asian, African, and Latin American people are saying today and how they say it have to do not only with their histories and cultures, but also with what the Western world has said and done. Further, we can evaluate communicative practices in terms of whether they are conducive to unity and harmony, or detrimental to them—precisely the kind of academic work that is badly needed in today’s international culture of division and alienation.

As previewed, the discourse analysis tradition has been influenced by several disciplines, enabling a more thorough understanding of the cognitive, social, cultural, and political mechanisms that influence the way people discuss various issues. Emerging discourse analysis scholars have several valuable frameworks and approaches to utilize for meaningful scholarly and social activity. The next section discusses the connection between public discourse and intergroup communication paradigms.

Public Discourse and Intergroup Communication

Habermas (1989) developed the theory of the public sphere to account for ways in which democratic dialogue can take place through free access, discussion, and rational debate. Originally, Habermas applied his theory to the rise of the bourgeoisie class in the 18th and 19th centuries along with modernistic values compelling a more active public to expose and critique the actions of their political authority. Habermas envisioned public dialogue occurring at coffee houses, salons, and table societies, which provided venues for private individuals to engage organized, free, and critical debate. The theory is predicated on assumptions about the notion of “selfhood”, or the ability to transcend personal values related to race, class, gender, culture, or other group memberships, in order to advocate for the public good. Dialogue through face-to-face conversation provides the vehicle that enables individuals to achieve enlightenment while creating a “public sphere.” This notion, however, has been challenged by critics, who assert that “the art of self-abstraction can be the ethical moment of transcending the particular, but also a major source of domination because the ability to abstract oneself in publicity . . . has always been an unequally available and distributed resource” (Cho, 2009, p. 815). As Cho clarifies, public discourse can enable some members of the public to critique authority, but more often, it appears to be administered in reinforcing hegemonic ideology, values, and actions.

In modern societies, prejudice is usually considered to be a negative attribute. To reduce the likelihood of being viewed unfavorably when discussing diversity issues, people may deny, justify, or blame the target group for existing circumstances or problems (Weatherall, 2012). In addition, several reoccurring discourse strategies have been identified in order to better understand public attitudes about minority groups. Van Dijk (2006) previewed several strategies that people may employ to discuss minority groups in a modern era that espouses social equality. By strategically defining public discourse concerning certain groups, people are able to overtly maintain their own positive image as non-prejudiced, while still endorsing a prejudicial and hegemonic agenda. Appealing to an authority refers to an expert or moral leader in order to enhance the legitimacy and believability of claims. Categorization and subcategorization organizes people and groups by labels. For instance, when people categorize immigrants as “legal” or “illegal” they are engaging this strategy. Comparison is also often used when speakers evaluate the similarities and differences between in-groups and out-groups. Through consensus or the “power in numbers” approach, impressions of broad agreement and support for a given viewpoint, stance, or issue is buttressed and reinforced. Counterfactual reasoning or speculation about what might take place under different circumstances is also frequently used in public discourse and debate. For example, this tactic may take the form of a politician inviting the public to “imagine how much worse our fiscal status would be if we allow illegal immigrants stay in the country.”

Disclaimers are also frequently applied when people discuss modern race or diversity issues because they enable speakers to “save face” by presenting a positive image of self and a negative impression of the other. Such a tactic often takes the form of someone overtly claiming they are not “racist” immediately prior to issuing a racist term or statement. Relatedly, people may also employ euphemisms to talk about race or immigration issues, such as when someone criticizes a public advertisement or situation for being too “politically correct” because it promotes diversity and social inclusion. Euphemisms are akin to the use of “code words” like “welfare queen,” “inner-city youth,” and “quotas” as mentioned earlier.

Generalizations about distinct groups appear frequently in public discourse about immigrants, in contrast to the use of concrete stories or examples as evidence. Van Dijk (2006) noted that generalizations are most often engaged to reinforce negative prejudices about immigrants or other stigmatized groups. Rhetorical questions or hyperbole are also applied in reinforcing persuasive appeal, such as when a speaker asks a question they intend to answer in their next statement. Further, slanted metaphors are sometimes offered as visual imagery to enhance a biased perception. Examples of slanted metaphors include referencing immigrants as “waves of water,” “social parasites,” “terrorists,” or other dehumanized entities (Marlow, 2015; Santa Ana, 1999). In summary, both intergroup and discourse analysis paradigms identify how language is used to promote and reinforce prejudicial attitudes and ideologies. In the next section, traditional media, new media, and public discourse research will be discussed in relation to intergroup interactions.

Traditional Media and Public Discourse

Public discourse reflects and reinforces intergroup relations. Media ownership and content have been found as important issues that may influence intergroup interactions. Harwood and Roy (2005) suggested that media ownership is one important aspect of group vitality (Harwood, Giles, & Palomares, 2005), and such control may be used to reinforce the interests of more dominant groups while subordinating less advantaged groups. From the intergroup framework, media ownership (or the lack of it) is an essential element contributing to the institutional representation of group vitality and social status (Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977). Limited institutional representation of minority groups prevent the dissemination of diverse perspectives or interests (Harwood & Roy, 2005).

Traditional media discourse, as seen in television and newspapers, has been found to reflect and reinforce dominant cultural ideologies. For instance, discourse about immigrants is often marked with an “Us” or “Them” modality (Ono & Sloop, 2002). This kind of social positioning may influence people to engage in discussions about immigrants in ways that are intergroup in nature, by elevating the status of their in-group and demeaning the status of the “out-group.” For some, being in the presence of an immigrant or seeing them in the media is sufficient to evoke intergroup framing (Chang & Aoki, 1998).

Common themes that emerge in traditional public discourse about immigration imply that immigrants spread disease, strain fiscal or social resources, commit crimes, take jobs away from “real” Americans, and are unwilling to assimilate (Miller, 1994; Streitmatter, 1999). Santa Ana (1999) analyzed discursive metaphors of immigrants in the Los Angeles Times and found that immigrants were referred to as animals, weeds, debased people, or commodities. Stewart, Pitts, and Osborne (2011) applied discursive analysis to the topic of immigration in a regional U.S. newspaper. They found that the phrase “illegal immigrants” conveyed negative stereotypes and attitudes low in optimism, implying that immigrants lacked commonality with the general population.

Traditional media have been found to have an agenda-setting and priming effect. This refers to mass audience perceptions about various issues in society (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). News discourse also mediates how majority groups develop negative perceptions of out-groups, especially when there is minimal intergroup contact between the majority and minority group (Van Dijk, 1987). However, as Ferguson (1998) noted, it may be too simplistic to conclude that newspapers influence the lens through which people perceive and make sense of the world. Rather, newspaper discourse should be identified as one of a number of contributors in the ideologies that mass audiences develop about various groups in society.

According to Harwood and Roy (2005), media content, quality, and diversity shape intergroup impressions and outcomes. In terms of media content, ample research has suggested that media depictions of different groups, including women, minority cultures, and elderly adults are not “fair” (Greenberg & Brand, 1994; Harwood & Anderson, 2001, 2002). Jakubowicz (1995) found that the hegemonic agenda often promoted by the U.S. media has serious consequences for Native Americans. Further, Daley and James (1992) identified the efforts of Alaska Natives to control their own indigenous television aimed at protecting their community and culture was subordinated by dominant media interests. Likewise, dominant political interests and media hegemony contributed to negative effects for Native Hawaiians, including the near-extinction of the Hawaiian language (Henningham, 1992; Marlow & Giles, 2006). Moreover, Zickmund (1997) found that some media owners have even permitted their television channels to promote support for racist and obvious hate-based ideologies.

Media quality deals with portrayals about various people in society and form the foundation for prevailing cognitive and social representations of groups. Bird (1999) found that the “savage” depictions of Native Americans have evolved over time, yet demeaning stereotypes still form a majority of media images. Merskin (2001) found that Native Americans are mostly depicted in U.S. advertisements in negative and stereotypical ways. Also, African-Americans have been portrayed as lacking family involvement (Harwood & Anderson, 2001). Likewise, both Latinos and African-Americans have been overrepresented as criminals (Dixon & Linz, 2000). Women have been depicted as maintaining low-level employment status (Ferrante, Haynes, & Kingsley, 1988). Gorham (1999) posited that mass media prime racial stereotypes in ways that support dominant ideology and racial myths. By portraying people from less advantaged groups consistently in negative ways, media promote dominating, unjust, and damaging perceptions of minority groups and inhibit effective intergroup relations in society.

Research in Indonesia has established a “naming bias,” in that Christian and Muslim newspapers overtly blamed out-groups when reporting on intergroup conflicts (Ariyanto, Hornsey, Morton, & Gallois, 2008). In addition, Malaky, Sedlins, Plaks, and Shoda (2010) found that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Japanese, and Chinese were inclined to label out-groups as “goyim,” “heathens,” “infidels,” “gaijin,” and “waiguoren” (Giles, 2012). Intergroup labeling can define in-group identity (Hogg & Giles, 2012), prompt hate speech and stereotypical talk (Haas, 2012), promote denigrating out-group labels and humor (Maass, Cadinu, Guarnieri, & Grasselli, 2003), enhance the linguistic intergroup bias (Ellis & Maoz, 2012; Reid, 2012), and exhibit sensationalized or skewed media portrayals (Choi & Giles, 2012; Haridakis, 2012). Media content reflect group status, convey social and cultural ideologies, and depict intergroup relations, more generally (Harwood & Roy, 2005). In the next section, new media and public discourse research are discussed, as they may influence intergroup relations.

New Media and Public Discourse

Given the increasing popularity of the Internet for entertainment, news, and social networking purposes, discourse research in this area has also gained momentum. One of the challenges for intergroup communication in the new media era involves an increased opportunity for the perpetuation of racist, sexist, homophobic, and disability targeting discourse in an environment that is mostly unregulated and uncensored. News and networking websites often monitor public posting forums to prevent the use of blatant racist or hate comments. However, the modern era has ushered in a new kind of “Othering,” one focused on implicit and covert “racism without racists” (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).

Van Dijk (2004) maintains that racist discourse manifests in two ways: It is directed at ethnically diverse others, about ethnically diverse others. Racist hate speech has been found in football discourse (Butler, 1997), among other popular culture organizations. For instance, Cleland (2014) found that racist discourse is prevalent on English football social media sites and that fans use this forum to express hostile and resistant hate speech about Islam and multiculturalism. More recently, Marlow (2015) analyzed publicly posted comments in response to the multilingual “America the Beautiful” Coca-Cola advertisement that aired during the 2014 Super Bowl. This study found that one-third of ad respondents applied degrading, dehumanizing, and derogatory labels and metaphors to immigrants in the United States. This included referencing immigrants as terrorists, parasites, criminals, and a fiscal burden, among other worse references. Nativist, patriotic, and ethnocentric ideologies criticized and castigated immigrants that sang in the commercial, and more generally, all immigrants. Marlow (2015) proposed the Model of Normalized Hate Speech to illustrate the ways that hate speech is applied, normalized, and reinforced among some dominant groups towards marginalized community collectives through private conversations and public commentary.

Malmqvist (2015) also located racist satire discourse in humorous online postings about EU migrant beggars on the popular Swedish web forum Flashback. The study found distancing and generalizing in characterizing immigrants as dishonest, criminals, Gypsies, immoral, and animals (pigs). Couched in humor, satire, and masking, people evoke racist discourse online, reinforcing problematic intergroup attitudes. Törnberg and Törnberg (2016) applied critical discourse analysis and topic modeling to analyze 50 million posts on Flashback. Critical discourse research isolates analysis to a limited portion of text, while topic modeling is a computer program that applies inductive empirical categorization by indexing and organizing massive data sets. Their study found anti-feminist and Islamophobic sentiments embedded within feigned support for gender equality and feminism. This position was then used as a launch pad to attack multiculturalists and their supporters. They wrote,

Gender equality is used deliberately as a discursive strategy among certain groups in order to criticize immigration, but also to “reveal” what is seen as hypocrisy and contradiction within . . . “the politically correct” establishment that is alleged to both embrace feminism and immigration

(p. 414).

From a broader perspective, the Internet also provides a public forum largely unregulated for various special interest groups to organize. Networking and communicating across state, national, and international boundaries is easier than ever before for ideological extremists who seek to achieve a variety of racist or hate-based goals. New media frequently provide a forum for disseminating ideas that reinforce the traditional superiority of “Us” and the inferiority of “Them.” According to Klein (2012), cultural extremists have adopted an “intellectual façade” through Internet websites. Holocaust denial “research” institutions (anti-Semitic groups), “traditional family” advocates (antigay/lesbian campaigns), and other organizations like Stormfront and Vanguard News Network combine racist agendas with political issues that are mainstream, calling into question affirmative action, immigration, or whether former U.S. President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

Klein (2012) proposed a theory of information laundering for the mainstream public by hate groups. Using the Internet enables groups to develop user-friendly websites that seem to reflect legitimate educational, social, or political sources. Sometimes, these organizations may even borrow information from legitimate sources to report news or facts. Especially problematic is the fact that many websites like this are linked to conventional search engines and interconnected social networks, which can lead unsuspecting information seekers to extremist content. Content from these websites is quickly moved outside of the original domain, merging with mainstream social and public spaces, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other political or news blogs. Hate-based messages that may appear in a routine Internet search or social media website hold the potential to influence ideas and attitudes of the general public, further promoting the extremist agendas of this kind of organization.

For instance, Klein (2012) described an incident in 2010 where mass emails were distributed by New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Mr. Carl Paladino depicting President Obama as an African tribesman beating on bongos in “his” native attire. The name of the video was entitled, “Obongo,” and the clip originated on a white supremacist video-sharing website ( One of the most serious issues today for intergroup scholars deals with emerging media and the new opportunities they provide for hate groups to organize and disseminate into mainstream media and networking websites. The next section will review the ways in which public figures and politicians may employ public discourse to shape public perception, attitudes, and intergroup relations.

Political Public Discourse

Public discourses reflect and reinforce intergroup relations. Advertisements that evoke nationalistic appeals have been found to predict collective self-esteem among people who identify deeply with their country (Pedic, 1989). Media organizations and politicians have been found to manipulate information and public opinion to promote agendas, political leaders, or the status quo (Giles et al., 1977). Indeed, Mackey-Kallis and Hahn (1991) found that the Reagan’s “Just Say No” (D.A.R.E) morality campaign was effective in defining social problems like drug use, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and abortion as “issues of morality” (involving self-will and personal restraint). By shifting the responsibility of social problems from the arena of medicine and politics to personal morality, the resolution of these issues became suddenly a question of personal control. They wrote, “This liberation represents a potentially debilitating paradox: we are free to control our own actions because the government tells us we are free” (p. 2). By framing public social problems as private issues, the Reagan administration effectively undermined public support for populations suffering from such afflictions, while building support for reduced government involvement and funding. The Reagan administration (and later U.S. administrations) also engaged public discourse surrounding “Nukespeak” (the language of nuclear development) through acronyms, jargon, and euphemisms that disguised the nature of nuclear systems, fighting, and war (Schiappa, 1989).

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) discussed the ways that past U.S. presidents have evoked war metaphors to distort reality and to accomplish policy changes and war strategy. Indeed, during the 1940s and 1950s, metaphors like “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were created to normalize and domesticate the nuclear bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. More common in the modern era is the reference of nuclear bombs as “nukes” (Cohn, 1987), while bombs with less radiation fallout have been labeled as “clean” or “less dirty” than others (Hilgartner, Bell, & O’Connor, 1982). Most egregious, perhaps, was Mr. Reagan’s attempt to label the MX Missile “The Peacekeeper” (Kauffman, 1989), which was given the “Doublespeak” award from the National Council of Teachers in English (Totten, 1984).

Shephard (2006) analyzed the public rhetoric promoted by the W. Bush administration to establish public support for U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan post 9/11. The study found that the United States (and the U.S. military) were glorified as masculine, daring, and “the greatest force for good in world history” (p. 21). Employing nationalist, religious, and gendered discourse enabled this Bush administration to position women and children in the United States and Afghanistan as “Helpless Victims” requiring intervention to capture “the Enemy Abroad.” U.S. superiority, civilization, and social advancement were juxtaposed with the “Irrational Barbarian,” or “the men (who) . . . plan, promote, and commit murder . . . have no justification for their actions . . . heinous acts of violence perpetrated by faceless cowards” (Shephard, 2006, p. 26).

As part of the information campaign, Afghanistan was defined as harboring al-Qaida and weak, in comparison to U.S. depictions as politically and militarily strong. Mr. Bush stated in 2001, “If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they become outlaws and murderers themselves . . . Stand with the civilized world or with the terrorists” (Shephard, 2006, p. 27). In order to reassure the American people that the U.S. was engaging in humanitarian assistance for suffering civilians, mostly women and children, a softer approach was later used. Mr. Bush stated, “As we strike military targets, we’ll also drop food, medicine and supplies to starving and suffering men, women, and children of Afghanistan” (Shephard, 2006, p. 29). Fifteen years later, U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist activity continues.

Politicians and public figures also use public discourse to promote social and political agendas. In 2011, Fox News analyst Peter Johnson suggested that children from undocumented U.S. immigrants should occupy a type of “second-class” citizenship. According to Johnson, this would mean that, “if your parents are illegal, in this country, then you would not be conferred the same type of citizenship (as others).” When asked “Well, what kind of citizenship would you get?” Johnson responded with, “I don’t know and this is something that I think we need to discuss in this country” (Media Matters, 2011). Public discourse like this creates negative “mental models” (Van Dijk, 2006) of immigrants, elevates the status of those who are “legal” citizens, and degrades those who are “illegal.”

Hate speech serves several social functions, including cognitive shortcuts, ego protection, delegitimizing “The Other,” maintaining power, and impression management (Ruscher, 2001). In June of 2011, conservative Dutch populist Mr. Geert Wilders was acquitted by a Dutch Court for inciting hatred against Muslims after he drew a comparison between Nazism and Islam when he compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In an email sent to party members, Wilders proposed the Quran be banned from the Netherlands (Jolly, 2011). In 2016, Wilders was called to trial again for inciting public hatred of the Dutch-Moroccan community with degrading and inflammatory discourse.

More recently, journalists have compared some of the current public rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump to the ideologies and terminology evoked by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. For instance, Mr. Trump has been recorded as saying that Mexicans are “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists,” women are “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” and that the United States has become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world.” Strikingly familiar to the requirements imposed during the Holocaust, Mr. Trump even proposed that all Muslims register in a federal U.S. database.

Since his inauguration in January 2017, Mr. Trump has attempted to impose a “travel ban” on people from seven different Muslim countries about entering the United States. On April 30, 2017, ABC News correspondent Mr. George Stephanopoulis featured White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. During the discussion, Mr. Priebus referenced a recent “tweet” by Mr. Trump stating, “The failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” Such statements suggest that the current U.S. President is considering a constitutional amendment to sue the New York Times for stories “he does not like” (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 30, 2017).

From a historical perspective, rhetoric and public discourse have been consistently employed and controlled for political and military purposes at the expense of many thousands and even millions of lives. Arendt (1951) explored similarities between Hitler and Stalin in terms of ideology, public rhetoric, and information campaigns. Both Nazism and Stalinism were movements that managed to enlist state power through propaganda, public rhetoric, and discourse. Relatedly, Lu (2004) described ways in which government discourse shaped thought, culture, and behavior during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Posters, slogans, public denunciation rallies, public debates, documentation of confessions, and other rituals were public information tools used by Chairman Mao’s regime between 1966 and 1976. Lu (2004, p. 5) wrote:

Also, at this time human rights were wantonly violated, human dignity was gravely undermined, and crimes against humanity went unpunished . . . All the while the entire country spoke one political language, sang the same revolutionary songs, and performed the same loyalty dances and rituals. Anyone who dared to deviate from such conformity was severely punished with torture or execution.

According to Frohardt and Temin (2003) of the United States Institute of Peace, media play a profound role in defining the way people view the world and relevant issues. Consider that in Rwanda, before the genocide took place, a privately-owned radio station broadcasted messages intended to instill fear about an upcoming attack by Tutsi militia. Also, prior to the conflict in Serbia, a state-owned television station aired messages that soon there would be an ethnic cleansing against Serbians. Examples like this demonstrate how public political discourse can be pivotal in defining and framing intergroup relations.

Given the reality of intergroup tension and conflict today, the question remains: What can be done to help promote more positive intergroup impressions, attitudes, and interactions? In the epilogue, applications of intergroup principles for promoting more effective connections across intergroup boundaries will be discussed. Future research in the area of traditional, new, and public discourse analysis are then proposed, before concluding with final impressions about the future of public discourse and intergroup relations.


To conclude this chapter, several approaches to improving intergroup communication through media and discourse are previewed. Media have been found to influence the topics people perceive as important and the ideas and attitudes people adopt (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). Given the ongoing perpetuation of many negative stereotypes about minority groups in the public media, consumers could become more active, resistant, and vocal towards media writers and producers who depict minority groups in derogatory or inaccurate ways. Realistic and diverse depictions of people from minority backgrounds communicating effectively with individuals from dominant groups may cultivate more positive attitudes towards diversity in general.

Indeed, Ortiz and Harwood (2007) found that improving intergroup attitudes could be achieved by exposing people to positive intergroup interactions, as portrayed in television. More positive representations of intergroup outcomes may prime people to be curious about increasing participation with intergroup dialogue in ways that are positive. Ellis and Maoz (2012) found that transforming conflicts require four end goals. These include (1) learning about the experiences of others, (2) honestly assessing your own group and how their actions have contributed to the problem, (3) acknowledging and empathizing with experiences of the other group, and (4) acquiring more cooperative ways of relating to each other. Through television, film, and other media, intergroup communication could be depicted more realistically and favorably, illustrating people engaging in the strategies identified by Ellis and Maoz (2012). Such depictions would begin to portray people from diverse groups as able to resolve difficulty, move past conflictual history, and establish respect and tolerance through better communication. This may be one method of attempting to establish positive attitudes, especially among populations hesitant to engage intergroup interactions due to previous socialization or past negative experiences. From a broader perspective, such media support may even serve to model a kind of “best practices” approach to communication interactions with diverse others, which could alleviate some of the anxiety and tensions associated with intergroup contact and relationships.

Drawing from the work of Habermas and the “public sphere,” it seems that the interconnection between traditional media and new media is also important for consideration. When people consume television, film, and news, they often dialogue over their responses and reactions in an online forum. Promoting more engaged and harmonious intergroup interactions in traditional media would most likely also prompt more positive public dialogue and discussion, which may increase the opportunity for genuine learning and positive experiences between people of diverse groups. The coffee houses, salons, and public meeting places of the past have been replaced by online dialogue via Facebook, Flashback, Twitter, YouTube, and other social, political, or news blogs.

On the other hand, the anonymity provided in the online discussion forums also serves as a double-edged sword that may be used to promote intergroup dialogue by some, yet possibly usurped by others in promoting hate-based agendas that thwart intergroup harmony. The theory of information laundering proposed by Klein (2012) accurately identifies that one of the most pressing issues for social justice advocates in the modern era deals with emerging media and the opportunities they provide for hate groups to organize and disseminate into mainstream media and networking websites. Practically speaking, there are few solutions for managing such a situation, given the freedom of expression provided by the World Wide Web in the current form. Perhaps, the solution to minimizing the impact of modern hate speech is not in attempting to eliminate such activity, but rather in working to cultivate more opportunities for positive intergroup education and communication, especially in younger generations that may not have fixed attitudes and may be more open to learning about diverse values, cultures, and practices.

According to Amichai-Hamburger (2012), the Internet represents another avenue for alleviating intergroup conflicts through online games, empathy-building exercises, and training social change agents. The Internet enables people to engage with others while enjoying greater anonymity and control, while diminishing the importance of physical cues that can sometimes contribute to intergroup judgments. Opportunities like this enable those from stereotyped or stigmatized groups the ability to interact with others in an environment free from prejudice and discrimination. Likewise, these forums permit people from more dominant groups to interact with others not knowing their racial or cultural identity. Presumably, creating positive relationships prior to knowledge about group membership should encourage people to get to know one another as individuals, rather than as representatives of their particular groups.

New media learning opportunities may instill curiosity and motivation to interact with people of different backgrounds and lifestyles. Amichai-Hamburger (2012) suggested that Internet solutions to intergroup conflict should begin when children are young, because even at six years of age, children already exhibit stereotyped perceptions about others (Rideout, Vandewater, & Wartella, 2003). One approach that can be used to encourage effective intergroup relations is out-group cultural components exposure (OCCE). This approach repeatedly exposes children to positive and informative material about a given out-group culture, which should result in more favorable attitudes in the future and greater willingness to communicate. Amichai-Hamburger (2012) identified this approach as ideal for individuals who do not already have established negative views towards an out-group and for parents who “may be aware of their own stereotypes and prejudices toward the out-group, but may wish to free their children, since it does not touch on any issues of conflict and is unlikely to be perceived as a threat to them or to their children.” (p. 185). Educational and community-based systems would be well-equipped to provide the most access and inclusion toward this end. There are many options for collaboration among educators, advocates, and government or community organizations in working together to establish resources and infrastructure that support more peaceful attitudes and relationships in societies.

In addition, minority groups should actively recruit and train representatives and spokespeople to create and develop accurate and supportive images and media campaigns for their designated cultures. Such campaigns can focus on searching out appropriate media for presenting these multicultural interactions and images to different elements of the general society. Moreover, leaders and representatives of minority groups can develop accurate mediated messages and information campaigns for distribution among educational institutions. Colleges and universities are an obvious source for information campaigns. On most college and university campuses minority groups have freedom to establish organizations that can utilize campus media to present information and functions that accurately and positively portray their groups to the university population and general public. Given that the university is, in general, the training arena for future professionals and leader representatives, it seems an obvious location to develop and train change agents with positive messages of acceptance and tolerance for diversity.

The grim reality is that the people most often impacted by negative portrayals, hate speech, and offensive public rhetoric are those already existing at the margins of society; immigrants, the poor, women, and children. Giles (2012) discussed how the publishing of demeaning images of Muslims in a Danish newspaper in 2006 incited violence and death among Muslims across the globe (many of them children). Anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to proliferate among some public figures, yet “free speech” laws often protect them from any corrective consequence, even when the results are tragic and violent. Given this reality, it seems imperative for news and media organizations to become much more aware of the short‑ and long-term effects of disseminating such demeaning images and to “step up” and hold themselves accountable to the diverse publics that they serve today. Considering how modern public media enable consumers to exercise influence and control through letters, emails, petitions, boycotts, and social organizing, there is ample opportunity for the public to organize and express collective disapproval for such negligent portrayals by media organizations.

With great privilege comes great responsibility. Individuals who occupy more dominant social groups need to view biased media depictions and hate speech as detrimental to a peaceful society. Majority social groups have a responsibility to organize and challenge media and public figures that target minority groups. Holding media and public figures accountable may take the form of public protests, corrective discourse, voting behavior, and more active civic/political engagement. Given ongoing intergroup conflict at the local, state, national, and international level, it is clear that change is necessary. When people from majority and minority collectives begin to stand together and demand more accountability from media and public discourse, greater intergroup appreciation, tolerance, and respect will prevail. As a society, we must do our part to influence media and discourse to reduce intergroup division, suspicion, and hatred. The future of our civilized world depends on this.

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