In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Race and Communication

  • Introduction
  • General Overview

Communication Race and Communication
Dana Mastro
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0297


There is little doubt that media use has a meaningful influence on how we view and treat members of our own and other ethnic/racial identities. Exposure to negative and disparaging representations of ethnic/racial groups in the media has been found to contribute to the development of stereotypes, prompt bias, promote prejudice and discrimination, and even undermine the esteem of ethnic/racial media users. Alternatively, seeing more constructive depictions can reduce stereotyping and encourage more favorable interracial relations in society. Given these considerable consequences, determining how and how often ethnic/racial groups are depicted in the media is meaningful. However, it is important to interpret such effects within the appropriate context. First, it should be acknowledged that media use is only one of numerous factors that can influence attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding one’s own and other ethnic/racial groups. Thus, none would argue that self-concept, stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, or other aspects of interracial dynamics in society stem from any single cause (including media). This does not mean, however, that media use cannot causally increase the likelihood of such outcomes. Instead, it suggests that factors ranging from the amount of time one spends with media, to the number and quality of representations of different groups across media, to one’s own experiences and values, together and individually, can contribute to ethnic/racial views and dynamics at the individual and societal levels. It is also important to acknowledge that the statistical effects of media use are small. In other words, when you consider the magnitude of the influence of media exposure on user’s racial attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, the impact is modest. This should not be assumed to mean that the practical effects on interethnic/interracial outcomes are inconsequential. Small effects can still have pronounced implications when considering the massive size of the population of media users alongside the fact that media use is cumulative across time, platforms, and devices. This means that even a small effect can have a considerable impact as the influence accumulates across multiple exposures throughout the day, over a lifetime, and across the vast population of media users in society. Indeed, nearly everyone in society uses media, repeatedly throughout the day and across time, which nearly guarantees that the bulk of the population has been exposed to the messages about race/ethnicity offered in its content, potentially contributing to the ways that people think about and behave toward ethnic/racial groups at any given time.

General Overview

The manner in which different groups are characterized in the media is the fundamental determinant of the effects that are likely to result from media use, as discussed in the comprehensive overviews of the literature provided by Dixon 2019 and Mastro 2016. As such, understanding how ethnic/racial groups are characterized is critical. What this means is that who is represented, how often they are represented, and the ways that different groups are represented are all meaningful. Despite notable improvements in the representations of some groups over the decades, it is fair to say that depictions have been slow to change over time and have proven fairly stable across platforms (e.g., TV, film, videogames, etc.) and genres (e.g., sitcom, drama, romance, etc.), with variations depending on the ethnic/racial group. For example, the narrow representation of Muslims in the news is explored in Bleich and van der Veen 2022. Similarly, a discussion of how immigration is framed in the news, and the implications for views on immigration policy, is detailed in Haynes, et al. 2016. In addition, representations that identify or acknowledge the broad sets of cultures that embody different ethnic groupings and/or socially constructed racial categories are rare. Instead, it is the norm in media to either ignore or homogenize diverse ethnic/racial groups. In other words, there is insufficient acknowledgement in the media, if it exists at all, that, for example, Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans are distinct and not merely interchangeable members of a Latino demographic category, as discussed in Mastro and Do 2020, summary of depictions of Latinos in the media across time and platforms. The history of promoting images of Native Americans in a manner that supports the dominant, White culture is also given thorough treatment in Kelly 2017.

  • Bleich, E., and A. van der Veen. 2022. Media coverage of Muslims: Introduction and overview. In Covering Muslims. Edited by E. Bleich and M. van der Veen, 1–17. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780197611715.003.0001

    Addresses the tone and topics addressed in news coverage of Muslims in the United States and other global regions.

  • Dixon, T. 2019. Media stereotypes: Content, effects, and theory. In Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Edited by M. B. Oliver, A. Raney, and J. Bryant, 243–257. London and New York: Routledge.

    Summary of media depictions of ethnicity and race, theories of media processing and effects, and the effects of exposure.

  • Haynes, C., J. Merolla, and S. K. Ramakrishnan. 2016. Framing immigrants: News coverage, public opinion, and policy. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

    Documents news depictions of immigration policy across mass media outlets and addresses the implications on consumers’ immigration policy views.

  • Kelly, C. 2017. Representations of Native Americans in the mass media. In Oxford research encyclopedia of communication. Edited by C. R. Kelly. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.142

    Addresses historical and contemporary representations of Native Americans in a range of media and public contexts. Available online by subscription.

  • Mastro, D. 2016. The role of media in the well-being of racial and ethnic groups. In Handbook of media use and well-being: International perspectives on theory and research on positive media effects. Edited by M. B. Oliver and L. Reinecke, 409–421. New York: Routledge.

    Comprehensive overview of depictions of ethnic/racial groups in the media and the effects on the well-being of ethnic/racial media users.

  • Mastro, D., and K. Do. 2020. Stereotypes of Latina/o populations. In Media stereotypes: From ageism to xenophobia. Edited by A. Billings and S. Parrott, 113–131. New York: Peter Lang.

    Summary of media representations of Latinos across platforms and over time as well as the implications of exposure of media consumers.

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