Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 71, No. 1, 2015, pp. 171--185
Intervening in the Media’s Influence on Stereotypes
of Race and Ethnicity: The Role of Media Literacy
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Texas A&M University
This article provides a review of the research record on the potential for media
literacy education to intervene in the media’s influence on racial and ethnic
stereotypes, and explores the theoretical concepts that underlie these efforts. It
situates media literacy theory and practice within particular emphases in the field
and synthesizes qualitative and quantitative studies. Quantitative research on
the effect of media literacy training and mediated counterstereotypes on reducing
racial/ethnic prejudice is described. In addition, we report qualitative data from an
ongoing study of early adolescents who took part in a media literacy curriculum
on stereotypes. The research record reveals that although the topic is severely
understudied, media literacy education holds great promise for its ability to shape
media-related knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors and encourage an active and
critical stance toward media.
Media have been shown to have the potential to promote or to call into
question stereotypical views of social groups, including those defined by race,
ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity (Mastro, 2015; Tukachinsky, Mastro, &
Yarchi, 2015). Accordingly, there is promise for education efforts addressing the
media’s role in stereotyping to mitigate the effects of exposure to negative or
narrow media depictions of social groups and possibly even enhance the positive
media influence of exposure to nonstereotypical and favorable media depictions.
∗Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Erica Scharrer, Department of
Communication, University of Massachusetts Amherst, N312 Integrative Learning Center, Amherst,
MA 01003. Tel: 413-545-6339 [e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org].
2015 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
172 Scharrer and Ramasubramanian
Can media consumers’ examination of the principles and practices behind me-
dia production, media content, and media reception facilitate critical analysis of
media’s treatment of underrepresented social groups and open up their views of
race and ethnicity? Might media literacy education help to increase knowledge
and/or shape attitudes about media’s roles and practices pertaining to race and
ethnicity? The research concerning these critical questions is in its nascent stages.
However, a number of studies on these and other related topics, as well as ongoing
efforts by the authors of this article, shed light on this socially significant issue.
Prior to reviewing the relevant body of research, it is necessary, first, to situate the
notion of media literacy as intervention within the broader field of media literacy
Media Literacy: Theory and Definitions
Media literacy has been defined as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate
and communicate messages in a variety of forms” (Aufderheide, 1993, p. xx), and
the goal of encouraging critical thinking regarding media content and practices has
been closely associated with media literacy education (Martens, 2010; Scharrer,
2007; Silverblatt, 2008). Yet, disagreements remain in conceptualizations of media
literacy regarding issues such as the role of media production skills; whether cri-
tique should involve activism against mainstream commercial media; and whether
the purpose of media education should include protecting young people from neg-
ative influence or whether such purpose is too dogmatic or misguided (Hobbs,
1998). Some scholars (Buckingham, 1998; Kubey, 1998) have drawn a distinction
between two different approaches—one favoring the role of pleasure and creative
expression; assuming an active audience (focusing on what youth do with me-
dia) and the other approach, considering media literacy education as a potential
intervention in media influence (focusing on what media do to youth and what
can be done about that). In the latter category, when one considers media literacy
education as an “intervention,” the necessary underlying assumption is that there
is a relationship between media use and some (undesirable) outcome that needs
to be addressed. At the same time, the observation that many media literacy cur-
ricula blur and blend these approaches has also been voiced in the field (Scharrer,
2007). In our review and synthesis of the literature, we bring together qualitative
approaches (often more aligned with the “what youth do with media” approach)
and quantitative approaches (often aligned with the “what media do to youth, and
what can be done about it” approach) in an attempt to fully explore the available
data on the topic. Studies on the topic of racial and ethnic stereotypes employ
various methods that range from interviews, focus groups, and in-depth analysis
of student work to surveys and experiments. However, media literacy education
has largely been conducted toward the shared goal of critiquing narrow media
practices and representations, acknowledging and envisioning broader and more
Media Literacy Education 173
balanced practices and representations, and working toward a more just range of
There are a number of pertinent theoretical underpinnings of media literacy as
intervention, including inoculation theory (McGuire, 1964) which suggests prior
exposure to a persuasive attempt (particularly when encountered through a critical
lens) can help to reduce the impact of subsequent persuasive attempts. However,
we caution that the use of the term “inoculation” brings to mind a powerful effects
model of media influence that is likely to be an oversimplification; connoting a
uniform and unavoidable response occurring as if through a “hypodermic needle”
or expressed as resistance to influence via media literacy education.
Potter (2004) has advanced a cognitive information processing framework,
which posits that media literacy is facilitated through increases in media knowledge
(about media content, effects, industries, etc.), which together with the individual’s
information processing efforts, help to stimulate competencies such as the critical
analysis of media. Media literacy, in turn, can produce immediate outcomes such as
critical viewing skills, heightened awareness of media influence, and decreases in
perceived realism of media texts. Finally, Austin’s message interpretation process
(MIP) model (Austin & Meili, 1994) suggests individuals process media messages
and internalize or reject them based on comparisons of the media message to an
individual’s sense of generalized others as well as to the individual’s personal
experience. The model introduces affective and cognitive processing routes and
presents a number of variables that predict which route the individual will employ
in making sense of the media message.
Quantitative studies of media literacy educational efforts regarding such top-
ics as violence (Rosenkoetter, Rosenkoetter, Ozretich, & Acock, 2004; Scharrer,
2006), body image (e.g., Tiggemann, Gardiner, & Slater, 2000), advertising (e.g.,
Rozendaal, Lapierre, van Reijmersdal, & Buijzen, 2011), and alcohol and tobacco
use (e.g., Austin & Meili, 1994) indicate media literacy interventions can, indeed,
shift attitudes and promote knowledge. Yet, some of these studies suggest that
completely disrupting media influence (such as media literacy preventing young
people from experiencing susceptibility to advertisements, e.g., Rozendaal et al.,
2011 or to images of a thin ideal, e.g., Tiggemann et al., 2000) can be more difficult
Jeong, Ho, and Hwang (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of 51 quantitative
studies of the influence of a “structured media literacy intervention” (p. 459).
The overall effect size was moderate (d=.37), indicating a positive role of
media literacy interventions in shaping multiple outcomes. The effects were most
substantial for knowledge (d=1.12), followed by effects on consumers’ belief that
media exert an influence (d=.60), realism (d=.54), criticism (e.g., skepticism,
understanding of persuasive intent, d=.29), attitudes (d=.28), and behaviors
(d=.23). Media literacy interventions with longer or more sessions resulted in
larger effect sizes whereas interventions with more components (such as critical
174 Scharrer and Ramasubramanian
analysis of media clips in addition to student activities as well as hands-on media
production assignments) were associated, perhaps counterintuitively, with smaller
effect sizes. Age did not have a role in shaping effect size, although participants
varied from children to college students. For the current focus, it should be noted
that only one of the 51 studies in the meta-analysis dealt directly with our topic of
racial and ethnic stereotyping (i.e., Ramasubramanian & Oliver, 2007). The fact
that behavioral effects appear to be more resistant to change compared to effects
on knowledge and beliefs about media should be noted, as well.
Effectiveness of Media Literacy Interventions in Reducing Racial and
Despite these theoretical explanations and continuing development in other
topic areas, there are currently very few studies of the role of media literacy
education in reducing stereotypes. The majority of the existing research on the
topic employs qualitative methods to closely examine young people’s responses
to curricula that include the critical analysis of media depictions of racial and
ethnic stereotypes. An even smaller number of quantitative studies are avail-
able on the topic. These are most closely associated with the media literacy as
intervention conceptualization and typically take an experimental approach to
study the effects of media literacy training and counterstereotypes on reducing
Very few experimental studies examine the role of media-based interventions
on racial/prejudice reduction (Cole et al., 2003; Gorn, Goldberg, & Kanungo,
1976; Paluck, 2009; Ramasubramanian, 2007, 2011). Most of these studies have
examined the role of children’s educational television programs. For example,
Gorn and colleagues (1976) randomly assigned Canadian nursery school children
to either the experimental condition where they watched multiracial inserts from
Sesame Street or to the control condition. White children in the experimental
condition reported a greater willingness to want to play with non-White children
than those in the control condition. Similarly, exposure to positive intergroup
messages in Sesame Street also reduced intergroup stereotypes among Israeli
and Palestinian children (Cole et al., 2003). Media-based interventions aimed
at reducing intergroup conflict and increasing harmony with adult populations
are fewer still. Paluck (2009) conducted a field experiment in Rwanda where
participants were assigned to listen to either an experimental 20-minute radio clip
about prejudice, violence, and trauma or to a control clip from a soap opera about
AIDS. The two groups did not show any statistically significant differences in
Media Literacy Education 175
terms of beliefs about bystander responsibility, interracial marriage, and trauma
related to conflicts.
Given the quasi-experimental nature of prior quantitative research studies on
media literacy interventions, it is very difficult to understand the processes by
which media literacy educational materials lead to prejudice reduction. Most of
the literacy training materials themselves contain many examples of stereotypes,
which make it unclear if the instructional content itself acts as a prime in activating
stereotypes. Another drawback is that most studies have been conducted with
school-age children although media literacy is a lifelong skill and practice. In
addition, even if there is a control group within a study, it is challenging to isolate
Ramasubramanian (2007) conducted a lab-based experiment that compared
White-American audiences’ implicit racial prejudice in response to a 12-minute
media literacy training or control video, after which they read stereotypical or
counterstereotypic news stories featuring African Americans and Asian Indians.
The findings suggest that implicit racial prejudice was most effectively reduced
when a combination of audience-centered and message-centered approaches were
used. Audience-centered strategies take a more motivational approach by devel-
oping media literacy and critical viewing and thinking skills among audiences,
with an example being a scenario in which an expert (such as a media literacy
facilitator) explicitly encourages a negative view of stereotyping by appealing to
audiences’ cognitive processing. In contrast, message-centered strategies such as
exposure to counterstereotypes (e.g., a media example featuring a depiction that
runs directly counter to a common stereotype used as an experimental stimulus)
may offer a more proactive alternative to achieve similar goals, which are easier
to manipulate and require less mental effort than motivational strategies.
Social psychological research on motivational approaches to prejudice reduc-
tion informs us that negation training, emphasis on self-enhancement goals, and
motivation to appear nonprejudiced can curb or change even implicit prejudice
(Blair, 2002; Stewart & Payne, 2008). However, the main concern with these
strategies is that they require substantial cognitive resources and concerted efforts
on the part of the perceiver. There is also a possibility that stereotype suppression
can sometimes lead to ironic boomerang effects. For example, avoidance strategies
lead to unintended stereotyping (Macrae, Milne, & Bodenhausen, 1994; Monteith,
Sherman, & Devine, 1998). Similarly, Ramasubramanian and Oliver (2007) found
boomerang effects such that those in the media literacy condition were more likely
than those in the control group to report higher stereotypes.
Prior research has shown that exposure to counterstereotypic exemplars in the
media can have a positive effect on intergroup relations (Bodenhausen, Schwarz,
Bless, & Waenke, 1995; Dasgupta & Greenwald, 2001; Mastro & Tukachinsky,
2011; Power, Murphy, & Coover, 1996; Ramasubramanian, 2007, 2011, 2015;
Ramasubramanian & Oliver, 2007). For instance, Power and colleagues use media
176 Scharrer and Ramasubramanian
priming to show that participants are less prejudiced in their interpretations of news
stories in a subsequent task. Similarly, Bodenhausen and colleagues (1995) use
the generalized appraisal model to show that when White audiences are not made
conscious of the atypicality of successful and likable African American media
celebrities, they are more likely to have positive attitudes toward this racial/ethnic
out-group in general.
Dasgupta and Greenwald (2001) varied the likeability and the race of ex-
emplars (e.g., Denzel Washington compared to Mike Tyson, Tom Hanks com-
pared to Jeffrey Dahmer) and used the Implicit Association Test to determine
whether accessibility of the exemplar affected individuals’ automatic racial atti-
tudes. Results showed that exposure to the Black, liked individual and the White,
disliked individual led to lower scores on pro-White attitudes among participants.
Ramasubramanian (2011) conducted an experiment using an exemplar-based
model of policy reasoning. The study suggests that exposure to counterstereo-
typical media exemplars (i.e., positive vs. negative African American celebrities)
decreases internal causal attributions for failures of African Americans and in-
creases support for affirmative action. Similarly, experimental findings (Rama-
subramanian, 2015) show that exposure to counterstereotypes as compared to
stereotypic exemplars in news stories about African Americans are associated
with lower subtle symbolic prejudice and increased support for affirmative action
Overall, the quantitative research on media literacy interventions suggests
that they are likely to be most effective when used in conjunction with message-
centered approaches such as exposure to counterstereotypic media exemplars.
These media-based approaches to prejudice reduction serve as an effective, viable,
and proactive strategy to motivational techniques such as negation training. Medi-
ated contact with positive out-group media characters is a less anxiety-provoking
and more practical approach to prejudice reduction compared to traditional inter-
group face-to-face positive contact (Bodenhausen et al., 1995; Schiappa, Gregg,
& Hewes, 2005).
Qualitative approaches to the topic of media literacy education regarding
race and ethnicity typically employ open-ended data gathering techniques and
foreground the complex relationships between media consumers and media texts.
Hobbs, Cabral, Ebrahimi, Yoon, and Al-Humaidan (2010) gathered qualitative
evidence from interviews and student work to investigate the potential for media
literacy lessons to reduce stereotyping of the Middle East among third and fourth
graders. Students who had participated in the lessons were able to articulate the
notion that popular media helped to form their impressions of the Middle East,
and they used their own research about the region to identify stereotypes and
Media Literacy Education 177
inaccuracies within visual images supplied by the researchers and within a 13-
minute clip from the film, Aladdin.
Vargas (2006) worked with a group of transnational Latina teenagers—
foreign-born or first-generation female U.S. adolescents—in a program focused
on resistance of the stereotypical, often pejorative, media portrayals of Hispanic
and Latina individuals. Using an ethnographic, in-depth interview method, Vargas
observed that, toward the completion of the program, the participating teenagers
showed recognition of the underrepresentation and stereotypical depictions of
Latinos/as in media and examined the distance between their own perceptions of
self and the mainstream depictions they critiqued.
Yosso (2002) shares findings from a critical media literacy curriculum in
which Latino/a community college students in California examined clips from
films depicting Latinos/as stereotypically—as unsuccessful students, unengaged
parents, and as violent or hypersexual. Qualitative analysis demonstrated that
students responded to the curriculum in one of three ways: confrontation—
challenging the stereotypes they saw in the media clips; motivation—sparking
the desire to prove the stereotypes wrong; and navigation—articulating specific
plans to enact roles directly opposed to the stereotypes they encountered. Brooks
and Ward (2007) used discourse analysis to study college students’ responses to
a course on race, gender, and media, and found students’ responses to films and
class discussion remained largely connected with a colorblind ideology in which
race is considered unimportant and White privilege is unquestioned.
Dunlop (2007) put into place a 2-week long media literacy curriculum among
high school students in a predominantly White suburban context in the Midwest
and used grounded theory to organize interview data regarding students’ views on
media representations of race. Data indicated that some students had understood
a link between systemic social issues and racial stereotypes in the media, whereas
others showed defensive or deflective views, including those that reinforced in-
groups and out-groups (“Us vs. Them”) and those that suggested the issue was
germane only to “other people.”
Through a college-level media literacy course entitled “Thinking Television
Project” (TTP), Kavoori (2007) aimed to engage college students in challenging
stereotypical media depictions of African Americans through media reading and
production activities. Students demonstrated awareness and critical thinking about
the role of media in perpetuating racial stereotypes about African Americans,
and were also shown to be conscious about the influence of the commercial
media landscape on the images that are advanced in media. Nevertheless, when
it came to their own media productions, they still relied on stereotypical racial
portrayals of African Americans in constructing the plots and characters, and used
the assumption that audiences would read their productions as satire as a means
of defending their decisions.
178 Scharrer and Ramasubramanian
There are a number of conclusions to draw from this body of existing qual-
itative research. First, there is some evidence (among even the very young) that
media education can promote an understanding of the role of media in producing
and reproducing stereotypes related to such social groups as Arabs (Hobbs et al.,
2010), Latinos (Vargas, 2006; Yosso, 2002) and Blacks or African Americans
(Kavoori, 2007). Importantly, some of these studies examine such knowledge and
critical awareness among members of nondominant groups themselves. Doing
so extends research conclusions regarding media consumers’ self-perceptions, in
ways that challenge and defy the narrow mainstream depictions (Vargas, 2006;
Yosso, 2002). There is some evidence that media literacy education can promote
an understanding of the systemic and structural conditions that shape racial con-
ditions in society (Dunlop, 2007). At the same time, there are also indications
that media literacy can inadvertently reinforce distinctions perceived between
in-groups and out-groups (Dunlop, 2007) or promote the misplaced notion of a
colorblind ideology that assumes racism is a condition of the past (Brooks & Ward,
2007). Indeed, Kavoori’s (2007) finding that college students were able to critique
African American stereotypes in the media and understand that commercial forces
allow for such depictions, yet still reproduce stereotypes when asked to create their
own media messages demonstrate just how embedded prejudicial views can be.
New Qualitative Media Literacy Data on Media and Stereotypes
Another original, and currently ongoing, research project conducted by Schar-
rer and her colleagues employed a media literacy lesson plan that focused on
depictions of violence in the media, economic explanations for the presence of
media violence, and the presence or absence of gender, class, race, and ethnicity
stereotypes in media content. A total of 60 sixth graders from a rural, predomi-
nantly White location in New England participated in the project (46% female).
Participants provided data in the form of written responses to homework ques-
tions. An inductive approach was utilized to explore the degree to which students’
writing reflects critical thinking about stereotypes and violence in media. To this
end, the analysis identified themes in students’ homework responses that represent
the ways in which they made sense of the lessons. The study draws from prior
analyses of the themes present in early adolescents’ qualitative responses to a me-
dia literacy curriculum on violence and gender stereotypes (Scharrer & Wortman
Raring, 2012; Walsh, Sekarasih, & Scharrer, 2014).
One class of participating sixth-grade students (n=17) was shown media
clips to critique, which a prior informal survey showed they were familiar with;
specifically, recent and current television programs, movies, and video games.
Another class of participating sixth-grade students (n=13) was shown older
clips that they may not already have been familiar with, to attempt to ascertain
whether the degree of relevance or attachment to a media example might shape
Media Literacy Education 179
the capacity to critique it. One clip pertaining to ethnic stereotyping was from
the highly popular sitcom, Modern Family, and featured Sophia Vergara’s Gloria
character on an emotional, loud rant in which she mixes Spanish and English
words and uses an angry tone played for laughs for its incomprehensibility. A
clip showing racial stereotyping was from the reality television program, Dance
Moms. In the clip, Abby (the dance coach) made Nia, an African American girl,
dance what Abby called an “ethnic dance” entitled “They Call Me Laquifa.” Nia
was the only non-White contestant in the reality show, and was the only dancer
that was asked to do an “ethnic dance.” The clip included a depiction of Nia’s
mother taking offense.
Other clips used in the media literacy lessons pertained to gender stereotypes
and included a clip portraying masculine gender roles on Duck Dynasty andaclip
in which a female character (Kristen Stewart’s Bella) is rescued by a male character
in the film, Twilight. Finally, students were shown a clip from the reality television
program Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and were prompted to consider social-class–
based stereotypes. Data pertaining to the gender and class-based stereotypes were
considered outside the present scope and therefore were not included in great
detail here. In their assignment, students were given the option of choosing one of
these clips and responding in writing to the questions: How would you feel if you
were portrayed in these limited ways? What messages are producers trying to get
across through these depictions?
What is most striking across the group of sixth-grade students who were
presented with the presumably relevant and familiar media clips was their over-
whelming tendency to choose to discuss the clips having to do with gender stereo-
types rather than racial or ethnic ones. Among the four students who did address
race or ethnicity, one student, Caleb (a pseudonym, as are the other mentions of
participating students’ names), responded to the Modern Family clip, noting “no
one could understand what she said.” Susan brought up the same clip and reported
that she would feel “Racial discrimination, and if I am doing this (speaking in
the way the character had), I would be called stupid.” Finally, Anna wrote “If I
were born in Colombia like Gloria from Modern Family I wouldn’t want to be
portrayed as loud and can’t speak very well.” Just one student, Karen, discussed
the Dance Moms clip and noted, “In Dance Moms, I would probably feel bad
because just because she was a different color/African American doesn’t mean
she can’t choose what she wants to wear and stuff and pick a song and her theme.”
Among the 13 sixth-grade students who critiqued the less familiar media
content, none chose to focus on racial or ethnic stereotypes in their written work
despite the lesson plan for their class including a critique of clips from the films
Karate Kid (for Asian stereotypes) and Lawrence of Arabia (for Arab stereotypes).
Instead, they responded to a clip from the television show Smallville in which the
Lois Lane character is rescued by the Superman character and to a weight loss
clip targeted toward women.
180 Scharrer and Ramasubramanian
Follow-up questions asked students to consider the positive role of media
in depicting individuals and social groups as well as the negative potential of
such depictions. In this case, the distinction between whether the sixth graders
saw more or less recent media examples appeared not to matter at all. Among the
themes emerging regarding the negative consequences of media stereotypes, many
students wrote about potential effects on audiences. Ben, for instance, suggested
“People will try to live up to stereotypes” and Daniel expressed concern about
“when people think they have to be like the people in the ads.” Megan wrote,
“Media can display people in a negative way because of their race and gender and
make you feel that way too.” Zachary had this to say about media: “The media
is pretty much a big example of stereotypes and making people not feel good
enough. It can make people feel left out ...”
Another emergent theme was around emphasizing differences among people
rather than similarities. Karen, for instance, expressed the following: “Sometimes
it’s not okay for them to single people out because of there (sic) race or religion or
anything different about them.” Finally, a third theme within responses regarding
the negative role of media in depicting social groups was that stereotypes send
messages that are limiting and inaccurate. Emily suggested, for example, “They
can be dangerous because it makes people assume things and prejudge others
without getting to know them. Although, some people aren’t like the stereotypes,
so they are thought to be who they aren’t.” Jackson suggested that media “gives
us limited information about people, places, and things.” Anna combined the first
theme about concern about effects and the third regarding the limits of stereotypes
in her response, suggesting media stereotypes are important “Because it can make
people feel they have to act a certain way. . . That you should fit in with a certain
Within responses having to do with positive effects of media depictions of
racial and ethnic groups, the prevailing emerging theme was exposure to diverse
experiences and points of view. Ben, for instance, wrote “It shows us different
experiences from different people” and Emily pointed out the media “can help us
understand other people because they try to tell us what other people like to do. So
we know how other people live and what they usually do.” Aaron suggested, as a
positive, “It can help us by showing someone’s view and maybe that can relate to
other people’s views.” Somewhat similarly, Jennifer pointed out the positive pos-
sibilities of “Showing you people’s point of view. Knowing different experiences.
Understanding them as a person.” Jackson noted the favorable possibility that
media “can help us to understand others, other places” and Megan suggested that
“Media can help us understand people’s point of view by displaying experiences
and reactions in a different way.”
There are a number of tentative conclusions to draw from this small sample of
predominantly White early adolescents and their responses to media literacy lesson
plans focusing on media and stereotypes. First, it is overwhelmingly apparent that
Media Literacy Education 181
when given the choice to write about any of the media clips examined, the sample
of sixth graders in these data generally chose to take up gender stereotypes rather
than racial and ethnic or social class related stereotypes. This could be interpreted
in view of their own race (again, most were White, although a small number were
Asian) and ethnicity (most were non-Latino) and may suggest they related more
to the gender portrayals they had seen and critiqued as a class. Yet, it also may
be an indication of discomfort in speaking about race, or even a greater acceptance
of race- and ethnicity-based stereotypes. Finally, the choice of particular media
examples/clips used to broach the topic may have also shaped responses. Even in
the class in which recent/preferred media content was used as media examples,
perhaps the small number of students who chose to discuss the racial and ethnic
stereotypes did so because they found the Modern Family and Dance Moms
examples to be unappealing; a condition that was perhaps also created, in the
class in which older/less preferred content was used (again, with Karate Kid and
Lawrence of Arabia as options not taken up at all by students). This is certainly
a limitation of the current approach, as is the small sample of primarily White
students from a relatively privileged economic background and the short duration
of the media literacy unit on race and ethnicity in media.
Nonetheless, if we consider the quotes from the writing assignments among
those in the first class that did, indeed, engage with the racial and ethnic media
stereotypes, a range of responses to the exercise are apparent. The three sixth
graders who responded to the Modern Family Latina stereotype clip, for example,
ranged from a purely descriptive reaction (Caleb’s noting that it was hard to
understand the Gloria character) to a personal response (Anna’s confession that
she would not want to be depicted in that way) to a more evaluative outcome
(Susan’s use of the label “racial discrimination” to describe the clip). For the
one student who wrote about the Dance Moms depiction of the stereotyping of
an African American character, it is difficult to know whether Karen understood
the degree of offensiveness of the actions of the dance coach, as her response
mostly focused on the lack of choice the coach imposed on Nia rather than the
stereotypical assumptions underlying the coach’s choice for Nia.
Finally, in the data from all 30 sixth-grade students in their written responses
to the question asking them to consider both positive and negative potential in
media’s representations of social groups, the prevailing positive theme was that
such representations can be used to understand multiple points of view and expe-
riences. The main negative themes were that media representations tend toward
the restrictive and therefore may impose effects on audience members. Students
variously described such effects on nondominant racial and ethnic group mem-
bers themselves (e.g., people may feel “inferior” or “bad” or may even act in a
way that fits the stereotype) as well as on dominant groups’ views of out-groups
(e.g., Emily’s reference to “prejudging” others on the basis of media stereotypes).
Clearly, these young students were grappling with the ways in which media could
182 Scharrer and Ramasubramanian
potentially constrict and constrain views of self and others according to race
and ethnicity or, conversely, open them up to additional information, complex-
ity, and understanding by providing depictions that extend beyond one’s own
first-hand experiences. When considering responses across both the positive and
negative consequences, we see this group of early adolescents is able to reason
through the potentially contradictory ways in which media can shape views of self
and other, for better or for worse.
Many of the critical questions in the opening paragraphs of this article remain
unanswered by the social science research record to date, including perhaps the
most important question of all: Can media literacy education reduce the media’s
role in perpetuating stereotypes? We have precious little data to apply to that
socially significant question. It is our hope that this article will inspire researchers
to take up this important topic in future research.
Although limited in size and scope, the existing quantitative research can be
used to draw some preliminary observations. In other topic areas, for instance,
we have seen evidence of successful outcomes associated with media literacy
education, particularly when curricula are focused and cohesive as well as when
they employ multiple and longer sessions (Jeong et al., 2012). Future media lit-
eracy efforts addressing racial/ethnic stereotypes and targeting outcomes such as
criticism, considerations of realism, fostering of knowledge, and shifting of both
attitudes and behaviors (all measured in the Jeong et al.’s, 2012 meta-analysis)
would do well, then, to attend to these characteristics. The work of Ramasubrama-
nian also points to the importance of employing auspicious media exemplars that
provide White non-Latino audiences with a positive intergroup experience (albeit
a mediated rather than face-to-face one) (Ramasubramanian, 2007, 2011, 2015;
Ramasubramanian & Oliver, 2007).
Positive depictions and the potential for the media to play a progressive role in
intergroup dynamics in society are also an important component of the qualitative
research. In the data presented in this chapter, for instance, the early adolescent
participants (most of whom were 12 years old) were readily able to articulate the
possibility that media depictions that defy stereotypes could function positively in
society by promoting multicultural understanding and diverse points of view. The
media literacy participants of color in the Vargas (2006) and Yosso (2002) studies
were motivated to demonstrate how their own actions and identities ran counter
to the narrow depictions of mainstream media that they critiqued.
At the same time, of course, many depictions of people of color in commercial
media do embody stereotypes, and students can be inspired to critique those
depictions and the institutional forces that create them in another potentially
fruitful component of media literacy education. The current data and the other
Media Literacy Education 183
research reviewed in this chapter, although limited in size and nature, suggest
adolescents as young as age 12 readily recognize the limits of popular media’s
treatment of race and ethnicity and the harm that can come of such treatment
to members of racial and ethnic “minorities” as well as to White individuals’
perceptions of and interactions with these groups. Such findings have important
implications for the social issue of ethnic and racial stereotyping, suggesting that
media literacy efforts with young people can, indeed, help to address prejudice
and racial bias and promote an appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism.
By acknowledging media and popular culture as an important socializing agent to
interpret, analyze, and critique, such efforts can operate alongside more traditional
subjects within the educational curriculum to direct young people toward more
nuanced understandings of identity and social groups. Based on our research and
others’, we suggest future efforts should: (1) carefully consider the complementary
analysis of media stereotypes as well as media counterstereotypes in a media
literacy educational framework; (2) utilize contemporary examples from media
content with which young people can relate; (3) actively involve young people in
the curriculum rather than employ a “top–down” or overly dogmatic approach;
and (4) probe racial and ethnic media stereotypes in their own right, lest students
limit their analysis to other social groups presumably “easier” to critique, such
as those defined by gender. With media use occupying increasing amounts of
young people’s daily experience, future social science research is needed to fully
understand the role of media literacy in intervening in the formation of racial and
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ERICA SCHARRER (PhD, Syracuse University, 1998) is Professor and Chair in
the Department of Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She studies media content, opinions of media, media effects, and media literacy,
particularly regarding gender and violence.
DR. SRIVIDYA RAMASUBRAMANIAN (PhD, Penn State University) is Asso-
ciate Professor in the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University.
She studies media effects and media stereotyping processes, especially in the con-
text of race/ethnicity and gender. Her work looks at the media as a positive tool
for prejudice reduction and media literacy.