Black Youth and Mass Media: Current Research and Emerging Questions S. Craig Watkins, Associate Professor of Sociology and Radio-Television-Film, The University of Texas at Austin Introduction Young African Americans have not participated as long as their white counterparts in the media culture industry (Nightingale 1993). In truth, it is difficult to discern a substantive relationship between black youth and the mass media prior to the 1960s. The initial exclusion of blacks from popular media culture is attributable to two main factors: 1) a lack of discretionary income on the part of black youths and their families and, 2) racial exclusionary practices on the part of the culture industries. Important economic and educational advances since the 1960s have sharply increased black household and discretionary income (Farley and Allen 1987) and also help to establish a viable African American consumer culture. By the late 1960s and early 1970s the film (Guerreo 1993; Watkins 1998) and television industries (Gray 1995) began responding to the shifting sensibilities of black youth culture by creating products that specifically targeted black youth. It was also during this time that the wider distribution of television occurred, thus exposing black youth to American consumer culture in ways unknown to previous generations (Nightingale 1993). A primary aim of this paper is to outline some of the important research findings and emergent issues that examine the changing relationship between black American youth and the mass media industry. Black Youth, and Media Stereotyping: The Media Effects Paradigm The widespread distribution and consumption of mass media continues to generate intense debate concerning the extent to which products like film, television, and music video affect youth behavior and social development. A primary aim of the “effects paradigm” has been to explore how media socializes youth into behavior that impairs their ability to mature into socially responsible and productive citizens. As black youth have experienced greater access to the products and services manufactured by the mass media industry, additional questions have emerged. One specific site of inquiry involves the effects of mass media stereotyping on the self-esteem and cognitive development of black youth. For most of its history the mass media industry has produced images that distort and misrepresent the complexities of the African American experience. Contemporary media representations of African Americans can be best described as paradoxical: blacks are simultaneously underrepresented and overrepresented in American media culture. For example, blacks appear more frequently in both television (Zinkhan 1990; Licata and Biswa 1993) and magazine advertisements (Taylor 1995). But blacks are also more likely to appear in minor or background roles (Wilkes and Valencia 1989) or during black oriented programs (Licata and Biswa 1993). Analysis of the television industry confirms that executives, writers, and directors tend not
to place African Americans in dramatic story-plots and programs (Gray 1995). Blacks are most likely to appear in genre formats (i.e., situation comedies, variety shows) that are nonserious, light-hearted, and non-threatening. Moreover, a study of local television news programs from twenty-nine cities found that African Americans tend not to appear as oncamera news sources, reporters, or be included in news stories about non-racial issues (i.e., the economy) thus leading to a pervasive form of marginalization (Campbell 1995). Whereas blacks are underrepresented in many areas of mass media they are overrepresented in television sports broadcasts and crime and violence related portrayals. Ironically, Sharpe and Curry (1996) argue that while images of blacks in magazines has increased, this may actually be a counterproductive trend because blacks are predominantly portrayed in athletic roles. Similarly, Bowen and Schmid (1997)...
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