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date: 27 June 2022

Race and Ethnicity in US Media Content and Effectsfree

Race and Ethnicity in US Media Content and Effectsfree

  • Dana MastroDana MastroDepartment of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara


Research empirically investigating the influence of media exposure on issues of race and ethnicity has long documented that media use meaningfully impacts the cognitions, emotions, and behaviors of audience members. Certainly, media are only one among a number of factors that contribute to perceptions regarding (and actions toward) one’s own and other racial/ethnic groups. However, theory and empirical evidence consistently demonstrate that the manner in which racial/ethnic groups are characterized in the media can harm or benefit different groups, depending on the nature of these depictions (alongside other social and psychological determinants). Consequently, it is both practically and theoretically important to both identify how and how often different groups are portrayed across the media landscape as well as to assess the ways in which exposure to this content influences media audiences.

What quantitative content analytic studies have revealed is that there is variation in depictions of race/ethnicity in US media depending on the group, the medium, and the genre. Thus, whereas Blacks have achieved a degree of parity when it comes to the quantity of depictions on primetime U.S. television, there is variation in the quality depending on the genre. Further, the same advances have not been seen for Blacks in news, in film, and across other media forms and platforms. For Latinos, little has changed across decades when it comes to numeric representation in the media. When it comes to the quality of these portrayals, although some of the more egregious media stereotypes have faded, other long-standing media definitions of Latinos remain persistent. For other racial/ethnic groups, few images are presented. Within these infrequent images, a constrained set of characterizations often predominates, such as spiritual American Indians, tech-savvy Asian Americans, and terrorist Muslims.

Exposure to these representations has consequences. Consuming the images and messages associated with racial/ethnic groups in the media contributes to the formation, activation, and application of racial/ethnic cognitions. For racial/ethnic majority group members (i.e., whites), unfavorable media depictions can mean the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes: this can lead to outcomes ranging from unsympathetic policy positions to active or passive harming behaviors. When media characterizations are favorable, more auspicious outcomes emerge. For the racial and ethnic groups being depicted, the effects of exposure again depend on the quantity and quality of portrayals. Negative characterizations prompt shame, anger, and other undesirable emotions and lead to esteem problems. On the other hand, some research indicates that favorable characterizations can serve as a source of group pride, which boosts esteem.


  • Critical/Cultural Studies
  • Communication and Culture
  • Media and Communication Policy


Quantitative content analyses spanning decades reveal that representations of race and ethnicity across US media provide little in the way of evenhanded characterizations of racial/ethnic minorities (Mastro, 2009b). This is not to say that racial/ethnic groups are presented uniformly—quite the contrary. There is variation in both how and how often different groups appear in the media. Generally, what has been found is that racial/ethnic groups are underrepresented in the media when compared with their proportions of the US population. Further, in many cases these groups often constrained to a limited range of often stereotypical roles. However, this varies based on the group, the medium, and genres within media. Viewing these media depictions is consequential. Experimental and survey-based evidence consistently indicates that exposure to content offered in mainstream US media (including television, film, news, magazines, and the like) influences the cognitions, emotions, and behaviors of audiences (in a manner consistent with the media representation). Individual difference features of the consumer impact on this association, but media exposure is nonetheless linked with a variety of racial/ethnic outcomes. Given this, it is important to understand both how diverse groups are characterized in the media and what the range of possible individual and societal implications are when it comes to exposure to these messages. As such, the current article comprehensively reviews the existing quantitative content analytic research on depictions of race/ethnicity in U.S. media and details the documented effects of exposure to this content, both harmful and beneficial.

Media Depictions of Blacks

Quantity of Television Portrayals

Few depictions of blacks were offered on primetime television before the 1970s (Wilson, Gutierrez, & Chao, 2013). Quantitative content analyses of TV programming from the 1970s reveal that blacks constituted a mere 6% of characters (Greenberg & Brand, 1994), despite representing approximately 12% of the US population at the time (US Census Briefs, 2010). In the 1980s the number of blacks on primetime had risen to 8%, with this number increasing to 11% by the early 1990s (Greenberg, Mastro, & Brand, 2002; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). By the mid-1990s, the proportion of black characters on television (13%) was relatively equivalent to their proportion of the US population (12%). This numeric parity has continued, and in some cases it has even improved, with blacks making up approximately 16% of the characters on primetime television and 13% of the US population (Children Now, 2004; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000; Monk-Turner, Heiserman, Johnson, Cotton, & Jackson, 2010; Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2015). The rate of media representation is an important consideration as it is a marker of societal intergroup dynamics and can influence perception about the status, strength, and standing of groups in society. However, it is important to also consider these numbers in light of variations across genre, as viewership preferences (i.e., “media diets”) may result in different distributions of characters. Indeed, research reveals this to be the case.

In a series of examinations of primetime television programs spanning 1997–2008, Signorielli (2009a, 2009b) found that overall numeric parity for black characters on TV concealed the fact that they were isolated to a few channels and genres. In particular, black characters were predominately seen in situation comedies and on networks with lower overall viewership, namely UPN and The WB. A similar pattern was revealed by Harwood and Anderson (2002), who found that the increase in black characters on TV resulted from appearances in only seven of the 61 shows sampled. More specifically, Signorielli (2009a) found that genre distinctions exist based on race. Although almost half of black characters in her research were found in situation comedies, only 29% of white characters appeared in sitcoms. In addition, although over one-third of black characters were found in minority-centered programs, only 14% of other racial/ethnic characters are found in programs centered on minority characters. Given this, Signorielli (2009a) argued that continued segregation indeed exists on TV but is masked by the overall numbers that emerge due to programming with a preponderance of minority characters.

One should not dismiss these genre-based distinctions as insignificant. The norms and conventions within different genres means that the manner in which different racial and ethnic groups are depicted may vary and that depending on a viewer’s preferences, they may be exposed to one-sided images of blacks or not see them at all. For example, the extended time and narrative arc in dramas may mean that more multifaceted and complete characters are presented. On the other hand, sitcoms (given the shorter time and often abridged arcs) are less likely to provide such character development. Thus, the disproportionate representation of characters in sitcoms has the potential to be problematic as these characters may lack development (and even rely on stereotypic notions) that can prompt unfavorable real-world outcomes if these representations are unfavorable. How, then, are blacks depicted?

Quality of Television Portrayals

Taking a historical look at depictions of blacks reveals that many notable changes have emerged over the decades. In the 1950s portrayals of blacks were dominated by unfavorable archetypes such as loyal but subservient mammies and ridiculed buffoons (e.g., Greenberg, Mastro, & Brand, 2002; Wilson et al. 2013). Generally, black characters function to serve and amuse their white counterparts on television. However, changes began to emerge by the end of the 1960s. Although these new images of blacks offered idyllic representations of blacks and US culture (particularly when considering the realities of the era), programming during the latter years of this decade marked a positive change from the stereotypical messages offered on TV up to that point. Changes in the characterization of blacks again were revealed in the 1970s, during which time a number of sitcoms emerged that centered on the experiences of black families across varying backgrounds (e.g., Good Times). These shows were meaningful in that their predominately black casts helped bring more representations of black Americans to the small screen. However, even in these shows, depictions of blacks were still often stereotypical (e.g., lazy, unemployed) (see Ford, 1997; Greenberg, Mastro, & Brand, 2002). Further, characters harkening back to the mammy and buffoon persisted. For example, on shows such as The Jeffersons (1975–1985) more contemporary mammy characters appeared who deviated in appearance and lifestyle from these previous figures but reflected much the same overarching theme. In particular, these characters in the 1970s represented a range of skin tones and served affluent white and black families. However, in these updated sitcoms, blacks were often seen exclusively as care-free figures, leaving these characters underdeveloped. Overall, quantitative content analyses of the programming airing in the 1970s reveals that that the prevailing portrayals of blacks were as lazy, poor, and/or jobless (Ward, 2004) and in supporting roles (Gerbner & Signorielli, 1979).

The 1980s offered more professionally and fiscally successful portrayals of blacks in positions of greater status and authority (Harwood & Anderson, 2002; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005). This shift stems primarily from the success of The Cosby Show and has remained the norm. The average black primetime character on TV today is a middle-class male, found in a professional or law-related occupation.

Our understanding of how blacks are depicted on primetime television is more detailed and complete than our understanding of depictions of other racial/ethnic groups. This is owing in part to the fact that more blacks are seen on TV, which facilitates the use of quantitative analyses. In addition, such quantitative content analyses have focused attention on a range of theoretically and practically meaningful attributes (e.g., Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000; Monk-Turner et al., 2010; Signorielli, 2009a, 2009b). In so doing, this work reveals that TV depictions of blacks have moved beyond the unflattering images seen in the past. However, despite the rise in professional figures on television, black characters are often less respected and more disheveled than their racial/ethnic peers on TV. Yet, they are also represented as less aggressive than other racial/groups—a departure from earlier portrayals. When it comes to representations of black women, they are less likely than other racial/ethnic groups on television to be seen in professional occupations. When taken together, content analytic evidence suggests that although advances have been made in terms of the overall rate of portrayals, a number of unfavorable stereotypes seem to persist (at least in certain contexts or genres).

Quantity and Quality of Film and Advertising Portrayals

Portrayals of blacks in film and commercial advertising have been the focus of fewer quantitative content analyses than representations on TV. Although limited, work in this area reveals that these characterizations are not altogether unlike those seen on primetime television. In both domains, the number of black representations has increased over the years, to a rate that reflects their proportion of the US population (Coltrane & Messineo, 2000; Eschholz, Bufkin, & Long, 2002; Mastro & Stern, 2003). However, parity in the sheer number of portrayals does not appear to be indicative of equity in the quality of these characterizations. When it comes to film, blacks are most commonly featured in lower prestige positions than whites and are most often seen in movies with predominately black casts (Eschholz, Bufkin, & Long, 2002). In terms of commercial advertising, a similar pattern is revealed indicating that blacks are less likely than whites to be seen in authority positions (Coltrane & Messineo, 2000). Additionally, blacks (vs. whites) in commercials are more likely to be characterized as unemployed and aggressive (Coltrane & Messineo, 2000).

The Implications of Exposure for White Audiences

Theory and research on media effects, and the effects of television viewing in particular, suggest that both short- and long-term exposure can influence perceptions of diverse racial/ethnic groups (Punyanunt-Carter, 2008). Indeed, as Entman (1994) argued, viewing the portrayals of racial/ethnic minorities offered on television has the capacity to distort perceptions about these groups as well as provide rationales for why certain groups should be viewed in these ways. Certainly, then, the implications of viewing unfavorable and stereotypical characterizations of racial/ethnic minority groups is consequential. Broadly speaking, empirical evidence indicates that viewing such depictions among white audiences promotes harmful perceptions about blacks in society (e.g., Ford, 1997; Fujioka, 1999; Punyanunt-Carter, 2008), as well as unfavorable views on diversity-related policy issues such as affirmative action and policing (e.g., Busselle & Crandall, 2002; Tan, Fujioka, & Tan, 2000). In particular, research indicates that exposure to negative characterizations of blacks in the media can promote unfavorable attitudes and beliefs pertaining to intelligence, criminality, socioeconomic status, work ethic, and values (e.g., Dixon, 2007; Fujioka, 1999; Mastro & Kopacz, 2006; Peffley, Shields, & Williams, 1996; Tan et al., 2000). On the other hand, viewing positive depictions (under certain conditions) can produce more constructive and sympathetic views about diverse groups as well as more favorable policy positions among white audiences (e.g., Fujioka, 1999; Mastro & Kopacz, 2006).

The Negative Implications of Exposure for Black Audiences

A handful of research investigations have been conducted over the decades assessing the influence of exposure to media messages about racial/ethnic groups on minority group audiences. In an early study examining the implications of television use on the self-esteem of black adults, Tan and Tan (1979) found that exposure to entertainment television had a negative influence on self-esteem (controlling for age, education, and viewing other forms of content). On the other hand, viewing public affairs programming was not related to esteem. During this time period (i.e., the 1970s), portrayals of blacks on television were infrequent and largely stereotypical; often blacks were depicted as lazy and unemployable. Consequently, Tan and Tan (1979, p. 134) reasoned that “constant exposure to white-oriented TV entertainment programs or those which depict blacks in low status social roles causes low self-esteem in black audiences.” Of course causal claims cannot be made with correlational data. Still, these findings offer evidence that exposure to racial/ethnic stereotypes in the media are probably not harmless.

In a similar vein, Ward (2004) investigated the implications of media exposure on black (and white) high school students’ self-esteem. Her work revealed several genre-specific outcomes. First, viewing sports programs was negatively associated with racial self-esteem, performance self-esteem, and social self-esteem. Second, viewing music videos was also negatively correlated with performance self-esteem. On the other hand, primetime television use was unrelated to any measure of esteem. More current support is offered by Martins and Harrison’s (2012) longitudinal panel survey of black and white elementary schoolchildren. Their results revealed television use to be negatively associated with the self-esteem of black (but not white) children.

Media Depictions of Latinos

Quantity of Television Portrayals

At approximately 16% of the US population, Latinos comprise the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the United States (US Census Briefs, 2010). Despite this, Latino characters are rarely seen on television. This is a pattern of underrepresentation that has persisted for decades (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005; Mastro & Sink, 2016). In fact, the only decade during which the proportion of Latinos on television was comparable with their percent of the US population was during the 1950s. During that time, Latinos made up approximately 3% of TV characters and represented 2.4% of the US population. Although the Latino population has risen dramatically since that time, the number of Latinos on television has stagnated and even decreased during certain decades. In the 1980s, for example, Latinos constituted only 1% of television characters (Gerbner & Signorielli, 1979; Greenberg & Baptista-Fernandez, 1980) but constituted 8% of the population in the United States (New York Times, 1988, September). The negligible improvements that emerged in the 1990s (with Latinos representing between 1.1% and 1.6% of primetime television characters) were undermined by the fact that Latinos rose to approximately 11% of the US population during that decade (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005).

Several situation comedies emerged in the early 2000s which cautiously suggested the potential for improvements in the number of Latinos on TV. Shows such as Luis (2003), The Ortegas (2003), and The George Lopez Show (2002–2007) featured predominately Latino casts and seemed to indicate a shift in programming. Regrettably, such a trend failed to emerge. Both Luis and The Ortegas were canceled early in the 2003 TV season. Only The George Lopez Show was renewed, remaining on the air for five seasons. Thus, with the exception of ABC’s popular and critically acclaimed Ugly Betty (2006–2010), few shows with leading Latino casts were offered on primetime television. During that decade, a mere 3.8%–6.5% of the TV population was Latino (Children Now, 2004; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005). Although this marks a notable increase over previous decades, it falls well below their proportion of the US population at the time, at approximately 13% (US Census Briefs, 2010).

Analyses from content analyses during the 2010s suggest that the number of Latino portrayals on television remains strikingly low when compared to US Census data (with Latinos representing 16% of the US population). In fact, Latino characters constituted only 3% of the primetime population during the Fall 2013 season (Mastro & Sink, 2016). Additionally, research indicates that there are fewer Latino men in recurring TV roles (Negrón-Muntaner, 2014). Instead, Latinas are more likely than Latino men to be found in leading and secondary (e.g., minor) roles on primetime. Thus, despite the critical and popular success of The CW’s Jane the Virgin (featuring a predominately Latino cast), as of this writing the TV landscape appears to have made little improvement in terms of the overall quantity of Latino representations.

Quality of Television Portrayals

Historically, Latino characters on television have been limited to a narrow set of stereotypic and unfavorable characterizations (Greenberg & Baptista-Fernandez, 1980). This includes: (a) objects of ridicule—in other words, characters designed to provide comic relief by ridiculing or demeaning these figures based on their lack of intelligence, thick accent, and inferior status (Mastro & Greenberg, 2000); (b) criminals or cops—thus, characters on both sides of the law who embody the formulaic traits that typify such roles (Berg, 1990; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005); and (c) sex-objects—representing the object of sexual desire. These sexual figures are sensual but also hot-tempered and sexually aggressive (Berg, 1990). Regrettably, research indicates that only rarely are Latinos portrayed as having high-status jobs. In fact, compared with other racial/ethnic groups on television, Latinos are most likely to be portrayed in service positions (Children Now, 2000). That said, some of the more egregious stereotypes from earlier decades appear to be fading, at least from primetime television (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005); including those characterizing Latinos as unintelligent, dirty, and disheveled. Still, Latino characters remain overrepresented as accented and inarticulate (Mastro & Sink, 2016).

Quantity and Quality of Film Portrayals

Many of the patterns in representation found in televised depictions of Latinos also exist in popular film. Unfortunately, quantitative content analyses of depictions of race/ethnicity in film are less common than television. It is, therefore, difficult to offer insights into the numeric representation of Latinos in the movies. It seems probable, however, that trends in the underrepresentation of Latinos that exist on television are also likely in Hollywood cinema. This assertion is supported by a recent analysis of top-grossing films across 11 countries that found that Latinos constituted a mere 1.6% of the total population of characters in these movies (Smith, Choueiti, & Pieper, 2015).

A number of the characterizations of Latinos that have been common staples on television can trace their origins to the early days of film (Wilson et al., 2013). Early-20th-century cinema was marked by unflattering depictions of diverse groups and Latinos were no exception. Here, we saw Latinos presented as pillaging bandits, who were morally corrupt and intellectually lacking. As a result of outcry from Latin American countries (who were unwilling to continue to import US films if the treatment of Latinos remained so distasteful), the 1930s and 1940s represented a change in Latino depictions in film. Consequently, Latinos began to be presented as well-dressed and hot-tempered “Latin lovers.” Of course, these were romanticized and unrealistic figures (with some unflattering characteristics), but they were an improvement over the ethically bankrupt characters that preceded them. Portrayals of Latinos in Hollywood films remained positive during (and for a short time after) World War II, as the Latin American market grew—given that it constituted 20% of the foreign market business (Wilson, et al., 2013).

By the 1960s, however, films featuring Latinos decreased significantly, and a resurgence of depictions with Latinos as treacherous and dishonorable villains emerged. Of course, some exceptions can be identified during this decade (e.g., Stand and Deliver, Selena), however, the image of Latinos as gangsters and criminals persisted into the 1990s. More recently, a handful of Latino actors and filmmakers have achieved superstardom; however, their successes have not yet appeared to signal a change in the quality of Latino characters in the US film industry.

Quantity and Quality of Video Game Characterizations

Investigations into the characterization of Latinos in video games are uncommon. However, the research that does exist indicates that Latinos are (again) underrepresented compared with their proportion of the population. In the two published quantitative content analyses of race/ethnicity in video games, a troublingly low number of Latino characters were identified. In an examination of the top-selling game titles for seven major consoles. Knowlee and colleagues (2001) found that over 50% of player-controlled characters were white males, whereas Latino characters amounted to a mere 2% of video game characters. At the time of the study, Latinos constituted 12.5% of the US population, underscoring the disparity in representation. Further, this study’s finding that all of the Latino characters were male—and in sports games, particularly baseball—means that Latinas are completely invisible in the gaming environment. Similarly, in a study of 150 top-selling video games (which included 4,966 human figures) only 2.7% of characters were Latino (Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory, 2009). In this analysis, the vast majority of characters were white (80.1%). Moreover, Latinos did not appear as primary characters in any game (appearing only as secondary characters). If these data are representative of the current video game environment, it is fair to say that the meager gains in representation that Latinos have achieved on television are not being realized in the gaming world.

There is also limited evidence suggesting that some of the common stereotypes of Latinos that have been seen in other forms of media are perpetuated in this environment. For example, only 2% of the hero figures in video games appear to be Latino (Knowlee et al., 2001). In addition, 83% of Latino characters display physical harm and pain during gameplay—a finding that was of particular note given that Latinos appeared most often in sports games where violence does not usually result in the characters being seriously harmed. Although some have argued that Latinos (and blacks) appear more often in violent subgenres of gaming, which prominently feature brutal, and illegal acts (e.g., Everett & Watkins, 2008), empirical evidence for this assertion remains to be provided.

The Harmful Implications of Exposure on Audiences

Studies investigating the implications of viewing unfavorable media depictions of Latinos have consistently revealed that exposure can have a harmful influence on consumers. Among white audiences, both long-term exposure (over time) and short-term exposure (a single viewing) to negative characterizations of Latinos has been liked with: (a) stereotypic judgments about Latinos in society, (b) undesirable feelings toward Latinos, (c) attribution biases, and (d) reduced support for race-related policy issues (Mastro, 2003; Mastro, Behm-Morawitz, & Kopacz, 2008; Mastro, Behm-Morawitz, & Ortiz, 2007; Mastro & Kopacz, 2006; Tukachinsky et al., 2015). In addition, heavier television consumption strengthens the influence of the media’s messages on these outcomes, especially for audience members who have limited contact with Latinos in everyday life (Mastro, Behm-Morawitz, & Ortiz, 2007). Among Latino viewers, consuming such content is associated with perceptions of discrimination against Latinos in US society, as well as negative feeling about self and one’s group (Oritz & Behm-Morawitz, 2015; Schmader, Block, & Lickel, 2015).

The Negative Implications of Exposure for Latino Audiences

Given the content analytic findings reported previously, which indicate that Latinos (across decades, genres, and platforms) are frequently tied to negative stereotypes in the media (Mastro & Sink, 2016), it should come as no surprise that exposure to a variety of media content has also been found to be negatively associated with Latino adults’ and adolescents’ self-esteem and group conceptualizations (e.g., Rivadeneyra, Ward, & Gordon, 2007; Schmader, Block, & Lickel, 2015). For example, Schmader et al. (2015) examined the effects of exposure to stereotypic comedic and dramatic film depictions of Mexican Americans on Mexican American viewers. Their experimental results indicated that (controlling for group identification) viewing disparaging portrayals in comedy and drama damaged several aspects of self-esteem (specifically performance and social self-esteem), even when the content was considered entertaining. Moreover, exposure to negative Mexican American stereotypes presented in a comedic context harmed positive implicit attitudes toward Latinos, particularly among Mexican Americans who were highly identified with their ethnic group. Rivadeneyra, Ward, and Gordon’s (2007) work offers comparable results, indicating that consuming a range of mass media offerings negatively influences Latino adolescents’ self-esteem along a number of dimensions such as social and appearance self-esteem. This association appears to be particularly distinct among those high in ethnic identification.

Media Depictions of Asian Americans

Asian Americans constitute approximately 4.8% of the US population (US Census Briefs, 2010). However, so few Asians are depicted on primetime television that little more than their sheer rate of representation is known. Prior to the 1970s, images of Asians on television were nearly absent (Mastro & Greenberg, 2000; Wilson et al., 2013). From the late 1960s through the 1980s the number of Asian Americans on television increased slightly. This modest improvement was due to the popularity of a handful of programs set in Hawaii (the state with the largest proportion of Asian Americans). However, most of these characters were minor or background figures. Asian Americans constituted between 1% and 3% of the characters on primetime TV through the 1990s and into the 2000s (Children Now, 2000, 2004; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). During this timeframe, the proportion of the US population identified as Asian rose to 4% (US Census, 2000).

Looking more broadly across the media landscape reveals that Asian Americans (much like Latinos, Native Americans, and other racial/ethnic groups) are commonly presented as a homogeneous group, with ethnic and cultural differences almost entirely ignored (Mok, 1998). When depicted, they are frequently represented in a manner consistent with the “model minority” stereotype, which links Asian Americans with a number of desirable qualities such as intelligence, strong family values, and strong work ethic (Taylor & Stern, 1997). Despite the high status of these figures, however, Mok (1998) notes that Asians are most often assigned minor or background roles. Little more is known about the ways that Asians/Asian Americans are depicted in the media or the implications of exposure to this content.

Media Depictions of Native Americans

Native Americans are the most underrepresented group in mass media offerings. They are essentially invisible on primetime television. A content analysis of 12 primetime TV seasons spanning the 1987 to 2009, identified only three regularly occurring Native American characters, two of whom were the same character, whose show (Northern Exposure) appeared in two of the seasons included in the analyses (Tukachinsky et al., 2015). In other words, only two distinct Native American characters appeared across the 2,336 regular characters appearing in their sample.

Given that Native Americans are nearly (if not entirely) absent on television, they have not been the subject of quantitative content analytic investigations. What is known about their depictions on TV reveals that like other racial/ethnic groups they are presented as homogeneous. Despite the fact that there are over 500 federally recognized Native American tribes, mass media typically ignores the diversity within this group (Tan, Fujioka, & Lucht, 1997). Instead, Native Americans have often been featured as interchangeable and historical figures. This is particularly the case in Westerns, popular for decades in both film and on television. In these roles Native Americans are commonly characterized as vicious, cruel, uncivilized, and in “traditional” garments and headdresses (Tan et al., 1997).

Survey studies have found no association between exposure to these infrequent images and real-world stereotyping of Native Americans, among non-Native audiences (Tan et al., 1997); however, this may simply reflect the scarcity of any Native American exemplars in media fare. For Native American audiences, exposure to images of American Indian mascots (e.g., Washington Redskins; Cleveland Indians) and other common media characterizations of Native Americans (e.g., Disney’s Pocahontas) has been found to have a harmful effect on evaluations of personal esteem and community worth (Fryberg, Markus, Oyserman, & Stone, 2008). More specifically, experimental research reveals that exposure to stereotypical media portrayals American Indians can negatively influence American Indian college students’ achievement-related possible selves (i.e., hopes about one’s future self) as well as perceptions about the value of their community. However, to more fully understand the implications of exposure to representations of Native Americans on both Native and non-Native audiences, the impact of “invisibility” will certainly also need to be explored (Leavitt, Covarrubias, Fryberg, & Perez, 2016). It has long been argued that visibility itself is an indicator of a group’s status in society. If this is the case, persistent absence in the media would be expected to have a detrimental impact on Native Americans and possibly embolden unfavorable attitudes and behaviors among non-Natives.

Media Depictions of Arabs/Middle Easterners

Not much research has been conducted that quantitatively examines representations of Arab/Middle Eastern or Arab American/Middle Eastern American characters in the media. In an analysis of the 2003–2004 television season, Arab/Middle Eastern characters were found to constitute 0.5% of the total characters on primetime and 0.3% of the characters appearing in the opening credits of a show (Children Now, 2004). Nearly half of these characters (46%) were identified to be criminals.

Media Depictions of Indians and Pakistanis

The most recent analysis documenting portrayals of Indians/Pakistanis or Indian Americans/Pakistani Americans in the media is over a decade old. What this research reveals is that Indians/Pakistanis made up 0.4% of the total primetime television population and 0.3% of characters appearing in the opening credits at that time (Children Now, 2004). Although the number of South Asians appearing as regular or recurring characters on primetime television today appears to be on the rise (given the recent popularity of shows with lead or recurring Indian American characters); no systematic analyses have been conducted to support this contention.

Positive Implications of Exposure to Racial/Ethnic Media Depictions

As the research detailed previously reveals, the potential for media exposure to prompt harmful outcomes has been well documented. However, just as unconstructive media portrayals of one’s racial/ethnic group are likely to threaten or harm self-concept and self-esteem, favorable characterizations should encourage more auspicious evaluations of one’s self and one’s racial/ethnic group. A small number of studies support this assertion. For example, early research by McDermott and Greenberg (1984) revealed that exposure to black family television programming was positively associated with general self-esteem among black fourth and fifth graders, particularly those with positive attitudes toward the black characters.

Similarly, in Stroman’s (1986) survey of black elementary school children, television exposure was positively associated with girls’ self-concept. In this research, Stroman found that over 80% of the children in the study held positive attitudes toward the black characters they saw on television. Accordingly, the positive association with girls’ self-concept is unsurprising. However, the lack of association among boys leaves unanswered questions about how, why, what types of media characterizations can produce positive effects on audiences.

Ward’s (2004) research also highlights the important role that quality depictions of race/ethnicity can play in promoting positive outcomes among racial/ethnic audiences. Although identification with black characters and overall exposure to black-oriented media were not associated with improved self-esteem, her survey-based findings reveal that among black high school students, identification with black male characters was associated with higher appearance self-esteem.

The benefits of exposure to positive representations of one’s racial/ethnic group also have been demonstrated among Latino audiences. An experimental test examining the implications of exposure to a popular and well-liked Latina pop star (compared with a similarly popular and well-liked white pop star) among Latina audiences, indicated that exposure enhanced self-esteem in line with the characterization (McKinley, Mastro, & Warber, 2014, Study 1). In particular, watching the well-liked Latina musician generated ingroup favoring responses in terms of both perceptions of Latino musical ability and rhythmic ability. These favorable ingroup judgments elevated both appearance esteem and social self-esteem.

Certainly, conclusive evidence cannot be gleaned from the small number of studies in this area. Yet, these results point to the strong possibility that media messages can meaningfully impact on the self-concept and esteem of racial/ethnic audiences, given more plentiful and constructive characterizations.

Finally, it is important to note that favorable depictions of racial/ethnic groups also have been linked with prosocial effects among white audiences, including promoting propitious intergroup judgments, feelings, and possibly even behaviors (Mastro & Tukachinsky, 2011; Power, Murphy, & Coover, 1996; Ramasubramanian, 2007). In fact, this work reveals that even a single exposure to positive and likable racial/ethnic characters can improve white audience members’ attitudes about these groups, at least in the short term.

Further Reading


  • Berg, C. R. (1990). Stereotyping in films in general and of the Hispanic in particular. Howard Journal of Communications, 2(3), 286–300.
  • Busselle, R., & Crandall, H. (2002). Television viewing and perceptions about race differences in socioeconomic success. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 46(2), 265–282.
  • Children Now. (2000, September 20). Latinowood and TV: Prime time for a reality check. Retrieved from
  • Children Now. (2004, April). Fall colors 2003–2004: Prime time diversity report. Retrieved from
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