Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Black and white television

The United States recently elected their first black president. In this era of multiculturalism, can we consider ourselves a race-blind society? If you were to ask around, chances are most people would claim they do not behave in a racist fashion. Unfortunately, racial biases are still around us, and a recent study in Science makes a worrying discovery about the subtlety of racial biases in every day television programming.

The study looked at 11 popular television shows that include recurring white and black characters of roughly equal status (for example, characters could include a black detective and a white detective or a white doctor and a black doctor, and overall, black and white characters are equivalently distributed in the hierarchy). The researchers selected sample clips from the 11 shows and removed the audio track. They then asked a number of white young adults to watch the soundless clips and rate how well each character seemed to be treated by other characters and how much it seemed each character was liked.

You’d think if the character statuses are roughly equal, they would elicit similar non-verbal responses. Well, think again. Overall, white characters elicited significantly more favorable responses when compared with black characters, meaning the subjects rating the clips thought that the white characters seemed more liked and better treated by others than black characters. The interpretation of this study is that common television programming exposes us to race biases. The subtlety of this bias lies in the fact that it is non-verbal: when a new group of white young adults was asked to read the written transcript of the clips, no such biases were found. The researchers then took the study further and showed that the perception of the non-verbal biases in television shows can influence one’s race association and racial attitudes.

What is the reason for the presence of this race bias in television shows? Are the actors spontaneously generating them? Are they scripted? What other types of biases might be communicated through television? This study definitely gives us food for thought…

Reference: The subtle transmission of race bias via televised nonverbal behavior (2009) Weisbuch M., Pauker K., Ambady N. Science 326:1711-4

One response to “Black and white television”

Anonymous said...

Not clear from the description here whether the bias was in the programmes or in the viewers.

If black viewers watched the same programmes, did they show the same assessments as white viewers did?

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