Media literacy can reduce stereotypes; mass communication research samples lack diversity
The media people consume inform much of their daily lives, including how they perceive others. A pair of recent studies from the University of Kansas show that a media literacy intervention can help reduce the stereotypes people have about black Americans and that a majority of studies on journalism and communications of mass lacked diversity with samples that were too homogeneous.
Media Literacy and Racial Stereotypes
Joseph Erba, associate professor of strategic communication at KU, conducted a study examining the effects of a media literacy intervention on racial stereotypes. He found that when readers read a news story about sports, drugs, or welfare—topics that disproportionately stereotype the black community—those who participated in a media literacy intervention had fewer stereotypes than readers who did not have one. Erba and Yvonnes Chen, an associate professor of strategic communication at KU, had previously conducted research on a media literacy intervention with college students.
“We have seen these interventions successful in reducing stereotypes among students, particularly about African Americans and Latinas/os,” Erba said. “But they were face-to-face, one group at a time. We wanted to look at an intervention that could be done online with a larger sample.”
Erba conducted an online experiment with more than 700 white Americans who read a story on a fictional sports, drug, or wellness news website. Participants were given one of three stories at random, and half were given additional context to read – the online media literacy intervention – and half were not. All then answered questions about their attitudes towards black subjects in explicit and implicit terms in agreement or disagreement with the statements of the Pro Black Attitude Scale and the Symbolic Racism Scale, two previously validated research instruments.
The results showed that those who received the intervention had fewer stereotypes than their counterparts. Those who read sports history showed the greatest difference in stereotypes, followed by drug history, while those who read welfare stories showed no difference. The intervention included additional context for readers in all three domains. An example for sports history included information about educational inequality in the United States and the number of black Americans who had to hope for an athletic scholarship to continue their education after high school. The criminal intervention included information on how members of the black community are more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses, even though they do not use or sell drugs at higher rates than White Americans, and the history of welfare included information about the difference in welfare benefits and income inequality between black and white Americans.
The uneven reductions in stereotypes between subjects could be due to the level of stereotyping associated with each in the minds of the audience, but the fact that the intervention showed reductions is encouraging, said Erba, who presented his findings at the ‘International Communication Association in 2021. It also noted that those who received the intervention were asked for their opinion on reading the news with the additional context included, and they said they enjoyed reading the news more than those who did not. haven’t received the context.
“Journalists tend to think of themselves as objective observers and don’t want to appear biased, so we wanted to see if this added context affected how people perceived the news source,” Erba said. “Not only did the intervention work, but there was no difference in confidence levels, and the participants appreciated the news even more when they received it. It’s a win-win in terms of concerns me.”
Erba continues to test the online media literacy intervention with college students to see if a different sample produces different results. At a time of racial tension, unrest and heightened calls for social justice, a media literacy intervention that can reduce stereotypes holds promise, especially when research has shown that the black community is overrepresented in coverage. media as perpetrators of crimes, underrepresented as victims of crimes and in other negative lights, he said.
“What we have very little information on is how we can intervene to mitigate these effects,” Erba said. “Media literacy is a very rich field. We have research on the effects of media on behavioral measures like smoking and alcohol, but very little on race.”
Who are the masses in mass media research?
Another KU study found that mass media research over the past decade-plus has depended on samples lacking diversity, which may call into question researchers’ actual knowledge of the effects of mass media on population.
Erba; Peter Bobkowski, associate professor of journalism and mass communication at KU; Brock Ternes of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and former KU graduate student; and Yuchen Liu and Tara Logan, former KU graduate students, wrote a study in which they conducted a census of 1,278 mass communication studies, all published in six high-impact communication journals from 2000 to 2014. They have found that when studies reported on the demographics of their samples, they relied heavily on young, educated white women. The study was published in the Howard Journal of Communications.
In the 2000 US Census, Latinas were the largest minority for the first time. The American population has become more diverse since then, but many studies that form the basis of knowledge about media effects in America lacked samples that reflected this diversity.
“We step back and say, ‘We have these results, but how did we get here?’ This study shows that we may not know as much as we thought about media effects, because we based them on a series of studies in which the sample may be too small,” Erba said.
The American Psychological Association recommends that researchers record and include demographic information about their study samples, including age, gender, race, income, and education level. Several of the studies did not include any information on demographics, and the authors point out that demographic reports improved over the 15-year study period. Three-quarters of studies reported gender, two-thirds reported age, two-fifths reported race/ethnicity, and one-third reported education. Although reporting has improved, the authors point out that when the information was included, it showed that the majority of study participants were young, with an average age of 30; 60% were women; the vast majority were white; and most had at least 13 years of education. Therefore, the average participant was not representative of the entire US population.
Years of research have highlighted the importance of how a person’s identity, including age, gender, education, race, income and other factors, influences how they interacts with mass media in areas such as health communications and news coverage. However, when the samples are not diverse or too homogeneous, this limits the implications of the studies for the whole population.
“I hope this study will add to the conversation taking place in the social sciences about how inclusive our disciplines are in their faculty ranks, research and publications,” Bobkowski said. “This study provides an additional data point to support the critical assessment of our collective work and commitment to do better.”
The authors argue that not only may mass media research not know as much as previously thought about media influence, but that researchers should actively take steps to reverse the trend. First, they recommend recording the demographics of study participants and exploring potential differences between participants representing different demographic intersections. They also challenge researchers to be more aware of sampling techniques by recruiting more diverse samples and remembering that people identify with social identities at different levels.
“A lesson from this study is the need to improve how mass communication addresses social identity. Measuring participants’ identity and identity salience only adds minutes to a study. , and the ratio of these variables adds only a few sentences to a manuscript,” the authors wrote. “Exploring the role these variables may play vis-à-vis the media makes the results of a study more transparent to readers and may lead to new insights. Mass communication researchers should reflect on the identity of their participants and critically evaluate what their results reveal and, more often than not, don’t reveal it.”
Media literacy can improve attitudes toward minorities on predominantly white campuses, researchers say
Joseph Erba et al, Who are the “masses” in mass communication research? Exploring the demographic characteristics of participants between 2000 and 2014, Howard Communications Journal (2021). DOI: 10.1080/10646175.2021.1971123
Provided by the University of Kansas
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