The Role of the Traditional Mass Media in “Making or Breaking” Ethnic Stereotypes

Katalin Bársony, executive director of Romedia Foundation, gave a presentation and participated in a panel discussion at the conference Inside the Struggle: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement & the European Roma Rights Crisis, at Central European University, Budapest, held between December 7 and 8, 2015. Other participants of the section and the subsequent panel discussion were Callie Crossley and Vera Messing, the panel was moderated by Ellen Hume. Below are excerpts from Ms Bársony’s presentation.12362872_563945573764589_8903102281231028675_o

“A lot attention has been given lately to how the Internet is changing the way we consume media content. But this recent development, as is turns out, does not reduce the power of television to shape our world. But there is a new twist. According to recent studies of the so-called  ‘second-screen phenomenon’, a growing number of viewers keep an eye a mobile phone or tablet on while they watch TV—using social media to communicate with peer groups in virtual  ‘water-cooler conversations’.

It can be argued, then, that the ideas cultivated on television gain in influencing power as they are relayed and disseminated through the social media. Given prevailing patterns of media consumption, new media technologies actually serve on one hand to amplify the power of television and with the democratization of technology it also serves to amplify residual opinions as they become producers.

When we turn to the question of stereotypes of African American in the United States, I would argue that a majority of Americans know and understand the American racial order through media representations of the ‘Black ethnic other’. The representation of Blacks in professional sports of  key significance. Black media personalities like Michael Jordan, Jay Z and Beyonce, Spike Lee, and Oprah Winfrey focus, organize and translate “Blackness” into commodifiable representations and desires that can be packaged and marketed across the landscape of American popular culture.

Programs that center on black characters demonstrate television’s temporal pluralities in that they often make blackness a “commodity pleasure”, but only raise issues of power and privilege endemic to racial difference in discrete, bounded ways. At the same time, television’s representations of blackness demonstrate how television in the context of convergence enables unique viewing positions for minority audiences.

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A good example is the outstandingly popular HBO television series The Wire. With a large and largely African American cast, The wire ‘broke a mold of racial uniformity. In this portrayal, race is no longer invisible but racial representations are presented in the context of class and culture to create parallels between worlds and identities commonly presented as dichotomous. For five seasons The Wire used gripping portrayals of complex social issues to interrogate the daily interactions of disconnected communities in a society wrestling with racial identity.”

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While the representation of many other ethnicities or racial groups (e.g. Asians, African Americans, Latinos, Africans) has undergone some major transformations, and has expanded to include self- representation, the image of the Roma has scarcely changed since the publication of 19th century texts influenced by the then-powerful and eroticizing “Gypsy craze” in Europe. Since the 19th century, the literary and cinematic construction of the Roma as freedom-loving misunderstood outcasts with outstanding musical skills has dominated.

We can observe that in the first decade of the 21st century, Roma experts or decision makers still seldom appear in the media in the framework of Roma-themed stories – the experts featured are exclusively non-Roma. This absence is particularly striking in the light of the representation of minorities in American or Western European media, where experts belonging to minorities are regularly given screen time even in the context of “non-minority” themes.

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It is an important question in this framework, therefore, whether the rise of the Internet and the de-professionalization of media content creation can in any way substitute for the decrease in traditional opportunities and transforms the landscape of minority portrayals in the public sphere. The emancipatory dimension of the Internet is crucial as a new platform for the expression of minority voices. But we must recognize that it also acts in many respect to amplify the mainstream narrative.”

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