Misrepresentation In The Media Provide an example of some form of misrepresentation in media over the years (includes: staging news, re-creations, selectiv

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 Provide an example of some form of misrepresentation in media over the years (includes: staging news, re-creations, selective editing and fictional methods). Give some background for context and answer; why, in your opinion is this an example of misrepresentation and why is it egregious? Provide the link to the example. Additionally for the Week 8 discussion, consider media bias. Both conservative and liberal sides claim that there is media bias (to the other side of their beliefs) yet, it is evident that there is bias on both sides. It is no secret that the traditional views of the following 3 media outlets are as follows: Fox News–Conservative/Right, MSNBC–Liberal/Left, CNN–Moderate. 

21st Century Communication: A Reference
Handbook

Media Portrayals and Representations

Author:James D. Robinson

Edited by: William F. Eadie

Book Title: 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook

Chapter Title: “Media Portrayals and Representations”

Pub. Date: 2009

Access Date: March 3, 2022

Publishing Company: SAGE Publications, Inc.

City: Thousand Oaks

Print ISBN: 9781412950305

Online ISBN: 9781412964005

DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412964005.n55

Print pages: 497-505

© 2009 SAGE Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the pagination of the online

version will vary from the pagination of the print book.

Media Portrayals and Representations
Media portrayals and representations

Communication scholars and researchers have long been interested in the way things are portrayed in media.
Much of this concern stems from the pervasiveness of media in our daily lives. Currently there are more
than 300 million people living in the 111,384,000 households in the United States. Recent Nielsen estimates
suggest nearly every home in the United States has at least one television. The 114 million households with
televisions have the sets on for about 7 hours per day, with the average viewer watching TV about 30 hours
per week. Television viewing represents about 30% of the average American’s leisure time and is the single
largest leisure activity for most Americans. In addition, the Internet is becoming as ubiquitous as television.

The average American spends about 2.3 hours per week using the Internet for entertainment purposes.

While an extensive review of media usage patterns is outside the scope of this chapter, it is clear that if other
media choices are included, such as time spent listening to the radio, reading newspapers, magazines and
books, listening to music, watching movies, and playing video games, Americans spend a great deal of time
with media. With so much media stimulation going on, it is no wonder that researchers spend a great deal of
time discerning what sights, sounds, and vicarious experiences audience members are likely to experience.
While this chapter will focus primarily on television, those interested in studying media portrayals research
can examine media content in any of the aforementioned formats or channels.

Concerns about the way things are portrayed in media generally stem from two perspectives that we can call
the “mirror of society” view and the “social influence” view. Scholars operating from the mirror of society view
examine media content because they believe that such examinations provide insights into the nature of our
culture. They believe that media portrayals are a reflection of the way society thinks or feels about an issue.
In a simple sense, the mirror of society view suggests that what you see in the media is a reflection of what
society thinks or feels.

Hacker (1951) and others have suggested that examination of media portrayals is important because the
social status of groups and individuals can be identified through these portrayals. Hacker argues that groups
of high social status will appear more frequently than will their low-status counterparts and that the portrayals
of high-status groups and individuals will be more positive. Conversely, members of groups believed to
be held in low esteem or who are of relatively low social status in society—such as the elderly—appear
very infrequently in media. Evidence supporting this perspective is quite strong. Even the most cursory
examination of the portrayals literature demonstrates that some groups are systematically underrepre-sented
on television over long periods of time. On television, adults tend to be disproportionately white, young,
attractive, wealthy, and male.

Because of its pervasiveness, social critics often focus their attention on media portrayals on television. The
ubiquity of television is often offered as an argument for studying TV content, but portrayals scholars have
studied many different channels including comic books, radio, magazines, newspapers, music videos, the
Internet, billboards, film, commercials, brochures, record covers, CD cases, and greeting cards.

While the media portrayals literature often focuses on television, literature reviews focusing on a particular
portrayal across a variety of different channels can provide further evidence to support the notion that
media are a mirror of society. For example, researchers examining portrayals of the elderly appearing
in newspaper articles, magazines, prime-time television programs, children’s programming and cartoons,
magazine advertisements, letters to Dear Abby, children’s literature, poetry, TV advertisements, magazine
cartoons, birthday cards, and even jokes report that older adults are indeed underrepre-sented, occupy less
prominent roles on television, and are often portrayed negatively.

By using media portrayals as a barometer of social status, researchers can make comparisons between the
U.S. and other cultures. Research examining portrayals of the elderly in cultures where the elderly are held
in higher esteem, such as China, Japan, and Korea, find the elderly represented quite differently. Older adult
characters are found more frequently, occupy more prominent roles in the programs, and are portrayed in a

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more favorable light.

A much more common view adopted by media portrayals researchers is based on the notion that media
portrayals affect audience members and their attitudes. From this perspective, scholars and social critics
are concerned that inaccurate or stereotypical portrayals have a negative impact on audience attitudes and
perceptions of reality. This social influence view is much more commonly employed in the portrayals literature
and is predicated on a much wider set of theoretical underpinnings than the relatively simple notion of media
mirroring society. In general, the social influence perspective or view suggests that media portrayals affect
audience members but does not explain the theoretical mechanism causing these effects. Thus, a number of
middle-range theories have been offered up by scholars to provide the specifics about how media portrayals
influence individual audience members and ultimately society. The next section of this chapter examines
some of those theoretical perspectives and discusses some of the research that has been produced from
each perspective.

Theories Commonly Employed in Media Portrayals Research

Perhaps the most widely accepted theoretical explanation for media effects was first proposed by Albert
Bandura (1977) to explain how television violence affects children. His theory—social learning theory—is in
its most simple form a theory of modeling or imitation. Bandura believed, and much subsequent research has
demonstrated, that in

addition to learning through the “trial and error” of their own behavior, children can also learn vicariously
through the observation or modeling of others. In fact, Bandura suggests that anything that can be learned
from direct experience can also be learned vicariously or by watching someone else—real or
imaginary—enact the behavior. He further contends that people can often learn things more efficiently through
modeling or imitation than they do through their own trial and error efforts. Research into the social learning
process clearly indicates that audience members can and do learn vicariously from media models.

Social learning is far more than the mere imitation of mediated models, however. In addition to being able
to watch the model behave, audience members can also learn about the consequences or outcomes of
performing the model’s behavior. Thus, from a social learning perspective, it is important not only to identify
the types and frequencies of particular behaviors occurring but in addition to identify the outcomes or
consequences of those behaviors. For example, a researcher interested in portrayals of sexual harassment
might also examine the consequences of sexually harassing behaviors. If the harasser is punished or socially
ostracized, the audience member may learn not to engage in sexually harassing behavior. If, on the other
hand, the mediated portrayal of harassment is accompanied by a laugh track indicating harassment is just
a “joke” and sanctioned by other characters, the audience members may learn that harassment is not a big
deal. Clearly, that is not the message anyone involved in the writing of a television show intends to send, but it
is nonetheless a distinct possibility—particularly within the realm of the situation comedy. The relevance of this
theory to the study of media representations is even clearer when you realize the use of multiple models and
models of high social status, when the situations or context of the model performing the behavior is realistic,
and when audience members find themselves in situations similar to those presented in media.

The effects of social learning are not short-lived and have been shown to last as long as a month.
Furthermore, when media portrayals provide detailed accounts of some target behavior and portray the
consequences of such actions as positive, even if the positive outcomes are transitory and the deviant action
is later punished, people can and do learn the antisocial behavior. The ultimate negative consequences can
be easily forgotten or misunderstood by some audience members, and others may attribute the failure to
unrelated factors (e.g., bad luck). In fact, Bandura (1986) suggests that audience beliefs about the nature of
the behavior and its consequences often outweigh direct experience with the behavior and its consequences.
Reliance on the source for information further increases the likelihood of social learning occurring.

Thus, from a social learning theory perspective, media portrayals provide models for audience members
to acquire new behaviors and insights into the consequences of those behaviors. Social learning theory,
however, assumes that audience members have the ability to control their behavior and do so based on their
understanding of the consequences of the behavior as well as their own moral and experiential worldview.

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So audience members do not mindlessly imitate what they see on television but rather use what they have
learned—that is to say, the behavior-consequence link in their decisions about how they should behave along
with what they believe to be right or wrong in their decision to enact or not engage in a particular behavior.

Another very common theoretical rationale employed in media portrayals research is the cultivation
hypothesis. First proposed by George Gerbner (1969), the cultivation hypothesis suggests that when people
watch television, they are acquiring or cultivating a view of the “real world” that is shaped by the way things
are portrayed on television. Unlike a more traditional conception of learning, where the individual audience
member does not merely learn the information presented to them via media, Gerbner argues that people
do not intentionally or voluntarily adopt attitudes based on the information provided by a single television
program, but rather, they acquire or “cultivate” a view of reality that is based on underlying cultural themes
that occur throughout television programming. It is the underlying themes that cause audience members to
cultivate a view of reality that more closely approximates the portrayal of reality in media. These underlying
themes are things such as “The world is a scary place,” which arise because so many programs are
predicated on the assumption that bad things happen all the time. Other such themes include “Might makes
right,” which is based on the notion that violence is a common solution to problems; “It is ok to be impolite
if you are being funny,” which assumes that being funny is valued more than other social norms; and “The
elderly are a dying breed,” which suggests that the elderly are not valued.

The most interesting and perhaps the most controversial aspect of cultivation hypothesis is that it is the
underlying myths or themes that run throughout media that are of concern to audience members. This is
quite different from more traditional learning theories, which suggest that people learn about the world from
television in much the same way they learn about anything else. They are exposed to the content, attend to
the content, retain or store the content in their heads, and are able to recall the information when they need
it. Cultivation effects occur without audience awareness of the process. Cultivation effects are particularly
pernicious because the audience need not be aware that they are being exposed to those underlying themes
and are consequently less able to defend themselves against the effects of media exposure. A further
complicating factor is that it makes very little difference what audience members watch on television since
the myths and themes are so pervasive that they run throughout television. In theory, the audience will be
influenced just as much by watching the news or educational programming as they will from watching Jerry
Springer or Dog the Bounty Hunter. Television is seen as a primary vehicle of story in our culture, and
television is seen as a primary vehicle for the inculcation of our young. Whether the story is Hansel and Gretel
or Live Free or Die Hard, the moral, myth, or theme is the same.

So the cultivation hypothesis has been widely used as a theoretical rationale for studying media content and
is particularly popular as an explanatory mechanism because it allows researchers a great deal of latitude in
deciding not only what they will study but also how they will study it. Studying manifest variables such as the
age of the actors is one thing, but with cultivation as a rationale, researchers can also study underlying or
more interpretative behaviors, such as character values or incidents of being polite.

More recent conceptualizations of the theory have begun including two additional concepts—mainstreaming
and resonance. While these are outside the scope of this article, suffice it to say mainstreaming and
resonance are concepts used within cultivation to explain exceptions to the general cultivation rule, which is
“The more you watch, the more likely you are to view the world as it is portrayed on television”—regardless
of other factors such as education and personal experience. Resonance occurs when viewers have direct
experience in addition to the symbolic experience they gain through media exposure. People who have
been mugged and watch a lot of television tend to think that the world is an even more dangerous place
than do those individuals who watch a lot of television but have never been the victims of violence.
Mainstreaming refers to those instances when heavy viewers from different backgrounds view the world
similarly—even when their backgrounds suggest that they should not. For example, audience members with
a high socioeconomic status (SES) should view the world as being less dangerous than would audience
members from a lower SES. This is because people from a low-SES background are more likely to have
personally witnessed or experienced violence. Thus, mainstreaming and resonance are used by scholars
conducting cultivation research to explain those anomalies that occur among respondents who are either
more different than they should be or less different than they should be, based on their experiences.

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While social learning theory and the cultivation hypothesis are most commonly employed, a variety of
other theories can be and have been employed by media portrayals researchers. Most often, researchers
employing other theories focus less on media portrayals and more on the impact of those portrayals on
audience members. Agenda-setting research also places an emphasis on media portrayals but generally
focuses on the representation of issues by media more than character demography or behavior. Maxwell
McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) first proposed their theory of agenda setting in 1972 in an article
examining the impact of media on the 1968 presidential campaign. They suggest that media do not so much
affect audience behavior or even attitudes toward a particular topic. But media are most effective, according
to McCombs and Shaw, at influencing the importance or salience of issues in the minds of audience members
based on the prominence the issue receives in media content. In short, media can raise audience awareness
levels about an issue by frequently discussing an issue. Thus, agenda-setting research often entails analyzing
the content of some media channel (e.g., the newspaper) to determine which issues have been discussed,
how many column inches were devoted to the issue, and where the stories were located within the newspaper
(e.g., front page and above the fold). Once the prominence of the issues has been identified, the researchers
typically survey audience members to find out how important they think those issues are. Often this is done
by simply asking the respondents to rank the issues in importance. Agenda-setting effects are determined
by finding a correlation between the prominence of the issue in media content (e.g., the number of times the
issue was written about) and the importance audience members place on the issue (e.g., the rank they assign
to the issue). In short, when an issue receives a great deal of attention, audience members should rate that
issue as being more important than other issues that have received less attention.

Researchers initially focused on the first level of agenda setting. This first level corresponds to the preceding
description of agenda setting. Such researchers simply identified an issue—say gun control—and then
determined the prominence of that issue in media content. More recently, researchers have begun examining
what is often described as the second level of agenda setting. While scholars are not in 100% agreement on
the definition of the second level of agenda setting, it is reasonably safe to say that researchers examining the
second level go beyond the frequency of issue portrayals in media to include the characteristics or attributes
related to the issue presented by media. So in the case of the issue of “gun control,” portrayals can be
framed as constitutional arguments (e.g., “The Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms”), self-defense
arguments (e.g., “The police don’t come until the crime has been committed, so you must protect your own
family”), or firearms-as-the-devil’s-tool arguments (e.g., “The widespread availability of guns in the United
States contributes to or causes crime”). How the argument or issue is framed, as well as the characteristics
of the issue that receive attention by media, is included in the analysis of media content. In terms of content
analytic investigations, this means that the category systems are more complex and do not just include
measures of issue portrayal frequency but also categorize issue portrayals by the type of depiction. This
extension of the theory provides researchers a more complex and more specific measure of media portrayals.
Generally, the more specifically two variables are measured, the higher the degree of correspondence you
will find—assuming that a relationship actually exists between the two variables.

One criticism that has been levied against agenda-setting research has been the lack of a theoretical
mechanism to explain why the prominence of an issue is related to audience perceptions of issue importance
or salience. This shortcoming appears to have been remedied by Iyengar and Kinder (1987), who suggested
that the mechanism underlying agenda setting may be the same mechanism that is used in cognitive
psychology to explain “priming effects.” The simplest way to understand priming is to think of the mind as a
device that needs exercise to be effective. When an individual gains information, that information is stored in
an area of related information so it can be found or recalled in the future. When information in one storage
area is activated or employed, the other information in that area is also exercised or activated. Consequently,
when issues and their attributes are framed in a particular way, all that information is stored together within the
mind and is recalled together on subsequent recollection efforts. Thus, when the National Rifle Association
(NRA) pairs the issue of gun control with family safety and frames the issue in the Second Amendment of the
Constitution, all those issues and related issues are stored together and are all activated when any part of
that issue is relevant. Priming goes further, suggesting that not only are the issues stored together, but with
exercise or activation, those beliefs are more easily recalled than other, less often considered beliefs.

It is important to note that agenda setting has traditionally focused on the prominence of issues in media
content and the corresponding levels of salience or importance audience members place on that issue.

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Priming is a cognitive theory that focuses on how information is organized, stored, and retrieved within
the brain. Thus, the correlations observed between media portrayal frequency and audience perceptions of
salience are actually attributable to the way information is stored within the brain. This extension certainly
does not reduce the value of the theory; rather, the addition of priming as an explanatory mechanism for
agenda setting helps us better understand why issue prominence in media influences audience estimates of
issue salience. It also helps explain why issue prominence does not affect all audience members in the same
way. Some audience members have different types of information stored within that cognitive schema, and
consequently, mentions of issues by media activate different information based on their idiosyncratic methods
of storage.

While agenda setting, cognitive priming, and issue framing are not the same phenomenon, they often occur
together. Examining not only the issue of prominence (agenda setting) but in addition the characteristics of
the issue employed in the message (framing) and the other issues organized within the cognitive structures
of the audience members (priming) provides a strong theoretical rationale for the studying of media content
and portrayals.

Bradley Greenberg (1988b) proposed the “drench hypothesis” as an explanatory vehicle for the effects of
media portrayals, though this is far less commonly employed as a theoretical rationale for studying media
content or portrayals. Greenberg’s argument is clear and persuasive. In the drench hypothesis, Greenberg
suggests that a single event can be far more influential or life changing than a series of smaller events. Events
such as the shootings at Columbine High School, the Kennedy assassinations, or the space shuttle disasters
(Challenger and Columbia) can have a much more pronounced effect on audiences than the stalagmitelike
effects that occur over time with repeated exposures to much smaller and less meaningful events such as
shootings by fictional characters on prime-time programming.

Greenberg is suggesting that highly memorable and impression-leaving events—real or fictional—can be
more influential than repeated exposure to the small, less-memorable portrayals that occur on television.
Seeing a single automobile accident—such as the death of Princess Diana—can be much more influential
than the cumulative effects of a season full of NASCAR accidents or a lifetime of chase scenes from
Hollywood. Proponents of the drench hypothesis recognize that, in terms of media portrayals, sometimes less
can be more.

Greenberg also recognized that the argument underlying the cultivation hypothesis is weakened by the fact
that audience members are still affected differentially by media portrayals. Some heavy viewers of violence,
for example, view the world quite differently from other heavy viewers. This suggests that audience responses
to portrayals differ, to some degree, by audience member. Thus, any theory focusing on the impact of the
influence of media portrayals must take into consideration that audience members are affected differentially
by the same message or series of messages. If audience members are affected differentially, then it is a
logical necessity to recognize that different portrayals have different levels of influence on audience members.

While only a few studies have attempted to empirically test the drench hypothesis, the empirical evidence
supporting the position is promising (see Bahk, 2001; Reep & Dambrot, 1989). There is, of course, potential
for tautological reasoning when using the drench hypothesis. Portrayals that are highly memorable or have a
high impact influence audience members more than low-impact portrayals do. Of course, the problem stems
from the fact that if drench effects are observed, then the assumption is that the portrayals were high impact.
If drench effects are not observed, however, it is not an indictment of the theory but rather evidence that the
image was not impactful enough. This potential does not negate the utility of the theory but rather reminds us
to scrutinize carefully the assumptions of the theories before we employ them.

What is very important here is the recognition that media portrayals can and undoubtedly do affect audience
members differentially and that single events or portrayals can be just as important as or more important than
the cumulative effects of media portrayals. This is not to say that the cumulative effects of media portrayals
are unimportant. Rather, it is to suggest that the potential for media effects is a complex and multifaceted
issue. The effects of portrayals may influence audience members cumulatively as well as from a single
exposure. Similarly, audience members may also go relatively uninfluenced by media portrayals as well.

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It is also important to note that while all of the theories discussed here examine the same issue—media
portrayals—they are all quite different. Agenda setting focuses on how issue prominence in media content
influences audience perceptions of issue salience. Priming theory focuses on how information is stored inside
the head of viewers and accessibility. Accessibility here means that people are able to recall information
because they have been primed or provided the opportunity to exercise that recall through exposure to media
portrayals. Cultivation suggests that media portrayals influence audience members as a cumulative effect.
Furthermore, cultivation theory suggests that it is not the information in the portrayals per se causing the
audience to cultivate a particular worldview. Rather, cultivation suggests that the themes that run throughout
media content are the culprit and not the portrayal itself. This nuance is often lost in discussions of portrayals.
Audience members do not learn that elderly people are not highly valued in our culture from the content within
media depictions of older adults. Rather, the audience members cultivate a negative perception of the elderly
because they are underrepresented or depicted in a negative or stereotypical fashion. Those perceptions
come from shows that contain older adults as well as shows that do not. By favoring younger adults on
programs, the show is helping audience members to cultivate the perception that older adults are not so
important. Finally, social learning theory suggests that audience members can and do learn.

Research Methods and Portrayals Research

Communication scholars employ a variety of different research methods in their quest to understand media
portrayals, but the vast majority of the studies employ content analysis. Perhaps the most important scholar
writing about content analysis was Ole Holsti. In his classic treatise on the subject, Holsti (1969) defines
content analysis as “any technique for making inferences by objectively and systematically identifying
specified characteristics of messages” (p. 14). Holsti was one of the first scholars to recognize that the
technique could be used with text as well as any other durable data including photographs, oral
communication, Web sites, brochures, or television programs. Content analysis is a research technique that
takes samples of media content (e.g., a television program, newspaper article, Web site) and reduces the
content into more manageable categories. For example, a scholar looking at media portrayals of race would
watch the television program and every time a character appears on the screen would classify that character
by their race. Thus, at the end of the study, the researcher would be able to make claims about the racial
composition of television such as “12.5% of the characters on television were black.” In this way, researchers
can examine how closely the characteristics of television mirror the characteristics of reality. For example,
Robinson and Skill examined television portrayals of the elderly and found that only about 2.5% of the prime-
time television viewers were 65 years of age or older. Obviously, the key to meaningful content analytic
studies includes the development of content categories (such as the racial cohorts on television or the types
and frequency of sexual harassment behaviors on television). In addition, it is imperative that anyone trained
as a coder can reproduce the same or nearly the same results from the same data. This reproducibility of
results is called reliability in the realm of research methods and is critical to the researcher employing content
analysis as a research tool.

Of course,

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