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Harmful or Harmless: The Effects of Television Usage on Society's Perception of the Black Population

By Laura Briscoe

Television is a powerful medium of communication. It acts as the prevailing source of entertainment and information for the public, and previous research suggests that television acts as a catalyst for the formation of stereotypes (Cullingford, 2000). As a minority population, African Americans have been targets of stereotypical portrayals. Characterizations centered on racist beliefs about African Americans have been prevalent on stage and in television. Numerous modern sitcoms seem to contain implicit stereotypes of black people. When it comes to the African American family, television tends to portray the black family in a debasing light (Berry, 1998) and suggests dysfunction and instability. African-American characters’ mannerisms are also often centered-around buffoonery and senseless behavior (Hammer, 1992). Previous research has shown that television significantly affects the perception of African Americans and negative stereotypes have emerged as a result of watching black entertainment television (Fujioka, 1999; Ford, 1997). Cultivation analysis research investigates how exposure to television affects perceptions of social reality. It hypothesizes that heavy and light television viewers demonstrate differences in belief based on their viewing habits (Morgan and Signorielli, 1990). Heavy viewers are hypothesized to have beliefs that more closely reflect the reality presented to them on television. Personal experience, however, is believed to moderate the relationship between television viewing and beliefs. Contact plays a fundamental role in how people form opinions of others (Entman and Rojecki, 2000). Individuals with personal experience of a particular phenomenon tend to be less influenced by television portrayals of the phenomenon. Taking this into account, more experience (direct contact) with African Americans offsets the influence of negative television portrayals. Based on the above research, the following hypotheses were derived: H1: Heavy television viewing will be associated with increased stereotypes of black families being dysfunctional (direct personal contact will moderate this relationship). H2: Heavy television viewing will be associated with increased stereotypes of black population being irresponsible (direct personal contact will moderate this relationship). A survey design was used which measured sitcoms, family structure, family functioning (dysfunction), and irresponsibility. Contrary to expectations, no significant correlations were found between viewing sitcoms, direct contact, and stereotypes. Also, no moderator effects of personal contact were found on the relationship between television viewing and stereotypes. Reasons for non-significant results and other unexpected findings will be discussed.


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