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9.5.1: Ethical Issues in Mass Media

  • Page ID
    108057
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    Learning Objectives

    • Explain the importance of racial and gender diversity in mass media.
    • Identify the ethical concerns associated with race and gender stereotypes.
    • List some common concerns about sexual content in the media.

    In the competitive and rapidly changing world of mass-media communications, media professionals—overcome by deadlines, bottom-line imperatives, and corporate interests—can easily lose sight of the ethical implications of their work. However, as entertainment law specialist Sherri Burr points out, “Because network television is an audiovisual medium that is piped free into ninety-nine percent of American homes, it is one of the most important vehicles for depicting cultural images to our population.”Sherri Burr, “Television and Societal Effects: An Analysis of Media Images of African-Americans in Historical Context,” Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 4 (2001): 159. Considering the profound influence mass media like television have on cultural perceptions and attitudes, it is important for the creators of media content to grapple with ethical issues.

    Stereotypes, Prescribed Roles, and Public Perception

    The U.S. population is becoming increasingly diverse. According to U.S. Census statistics from 2019, 39.9% of the population identifies its race as non-white, 51% as female or female-identifying, and 8.6% are disabled yet in network television broadcasts, major publications, and other forms of mass media and entertainment, representation is either absent or presented as heavily stereotyped, two-dimensional characters. Rarely are Black, Indigenous or People of Color depicted as complex characters with the full range of human emotions, motivations, and behaviors. Meanwhile, the stereotyping of women, gays and lesbians, and individuals with disabilities in mass media has also been a source of concern.

    The word stereotype originated in the printing industry as a method of making identical copies, and the practice of stereotyping people is much the same: a system of identically replicating an image of an “other.” In D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that relied on racial stereotypes to portray Southern whites as victims in the American Civil War, stereotypes—especially those disseminated through mass media—become a form of social control, shaping collective perceptions and individual identities. In American mass media, the white man is still shown as the standard: the central figure of television narratives and the dominant perspective on everything from trends, to current events, to politics. White maleness becomes an invisible category because it gives the impression of being the norm according to Joanna Hearne, “Hollywood Whiteness and Stereotypes.”


    9.5.1: Ethical Issues in Mass Media is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.