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Media literacy can improve attitudes toward minorities on predominantly white campuses, researchers say

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

LAWRENCE — If a stereotype or negative representation of a group of people is repeated often enough, it can be accepted as a realistic portrayal — especially for audiences who have no meaningful relationships with such groups other than through the media. Researchers at the University of Kansas found that when they held media literacy interventions to help students understand how and why media present racial minorities the way they do, their attitudes toward blacks and Latinos improved.

Research has shown that one of the most important factors in whether a racial minority student returns to school is if he or she feels welcome on campus. And predominantly white universities across the country have been the center of student protests advocating for a more inclusive learning environment in recent years. The finding that media literacy interventions can improve racial attitudes has far-reaching potential to improve race relations on campuses across the country, the researchers say.

Joseph Erba, assistant professor, Yvonnes Chen, associate professor, and Hannah Kang, doctoral student, all in the William Allen White School of Journalism & Mass Communications, performed a semester-long study in which they developed and conducted two types of media literacy interventions — theoretical and applied — with students at a predominantly white university. Both approaches showed improvements in students’ attitudes toward blacks and Latinos. A control group that took part in no media literacy intervention did not show a change. Two months after the interventions, the effects of the applied approach were still present, whereas the effects of the theoretical intervention disappeared.

The researchers have similar scholarly backgrounds in studying marginalized groups, social change and media effects. Protests and racial unrest on campuses across the country inspired them to see if media literacy, which has been applied in improving attitudes toward alcohol, drugs, violence, sexual assault and other topics, would also have an effect on racial attitudes.

“This project came out of the question of 'what can we as instructors do, even if only for a few students, to make their college experiences better,’” Erba said.

Study participants were all journalism majors taking part in an introductory data collection and interpretation class. Those in the applied group discussed the racial categories used in U.S. Census data. Each student wrote all of the listed racial categories on an index card and had two minutes to write the first words or descriptions they associated with each race on the card. They then turned it over and exchanged them with other students five times until they had a new card for which they did not know who wrote the descriptions.

“They were asked to look at the notecard they came up with. Most of the time they were looking at a card similar to the one they created,” Erba said. “Then we discussed where those stereotypes came from and why media use them.”

The participants then viewed clips from “Crash,” a film dealing with racial tension, for specific examples of media representations of different races.

The theoretical intervention group discussed with students how media create identities for different groups and common representations of different races in popular media. Students were then asked to take on a different racial identity and write down how media portray members of this group and how these portrayals may affect how they perceive themselves as well as how others perceive them.

Both interventions emphasized how media such as television and movies are more likely to present black and Latino characters as gang members, poorly educated, poor-speaking or living in poverty while white characters were much more likely to be presented as wealthy, successful and much less often as criminals. White characters are also more likely to show traits of individual differences, whereas black and Latino characters tend to be more homogeneous. Black and Latino cultures are very different, each with a unique history and American experience, yet they are often lumped into the same stereotypical categories in media. Erba said they wanted to study attitudes toward the two groups as blacks and Latinos are both the most stereotyped in American media and also have the lowest college graduation rates.

Students in both intervention groups, as well as those in the control group, completed a questionnaire about racial attitudes at three points. The first was at the beginning of the semester, before the intervention, then after the intervention, which took place at mid-semester, and finally two months after it had been completed.

All of the students were also asked about their daily media intake. All groups averaged about three hours a day of media across platforms.

Erba, Chen and Kang presented the study at the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications conference in August. The study won the best faculty paper award in the Minorities and Communication Division.

While the sample size in the study was small, the authors say it shows great potential for media literacy interventions to improve racial climates on campuses across the country. They encourage other universities to try a similar approach, especially at predominantly white universities. Such interventions could benefit everyone from administrators, faculty and those in leadership positions to students of every level. It could also help individuals from all racial backgrounds, the authors argue.

“When it comes to racial attitudes, we’re still very segregated,” Chen said. “Students share the same campus, which can help them overcome their differences, but you have to have meaningful connections to change perceptions of a whole group. Media literacy could represent an effective first step to demystify media representations and encourage students from different racial backgrounds to interact with each other.”

Photo: An image from the Oscar-winning film "Crash," which was viewed as part of the media literacy study. Lions Gate Films.