SPJ Reading Room
Stereotypes reflect lazy reporting
By Nerissa Young
Member, SPJ Ethics Committee, and visiting assistant professor of mass communications, Shepherd University
The sage said stereotypes persist because they contain an element of truth. Entertainment relies on stereotypes to make storytelling easier by playing off the inside joke. News reports shouldn’t rely on stereotypes for reasons that go beyond the political correctness movement. Journalism should serve the interests of fairness, accuracy and balance. Stereotypes further none of the three.
In today’s social climate, stereotypes in news are more a sin of omission than commission — at least that’s what the optimist in me would like to believe. Usage is born more of sloth than malice.
Each chapter of my Introduction to Mass Communications course includes a lab exercise designed to promote and provoke thought on the topic. I developed a lab on stereotypes for the chapter titled “Society, Culture and Politics.”
The purpose is to get students to look beyond the typical stereotypes having to do with race and gender. All stereotypes minimize the people they describe, and they go far beyond skin color and anatomy. Because stereotypes cut across religious, political and economic boundaries, I designed a set of topics to push the discussion in that direction.
The class is divided into discussion groups of three to four students. Each group draws a topic “group” from a cup and spends several minutes discussing and recording the entertainment and news portrayals of that group. I want them to determine whether a distinction between entertainment and news standards exists.
I developed group pairs with one easily identified stereotype and its apparent opposite. To illustrate the point of religious stereotypes, the group pair included Baptists and Presbyterians.
Following the individual group discussions, we have a class discussion of the portrayals. Students are invited to share their ideas and opinions about the portrayals. For groups who couldn’t find stereotypical portrayals, we discuss why that is the case and why the stereotypical group is so easily identified.
Students who were asked to describe “Baptist” portrayals came up with descriptions of holy rollers and TV evangelists. One student asked if all TV evangelists are Baptists. I explained that some are nondenominational while others embrace a denomination other than Baptist, such as Assembly of God.
The group charged with describing “Presbyterian” portrayals was at a loss. I first had to describe who Presbyterians are and that they are members of a Christian denomination. I briefly discussed the origins of the denomination and how it was considered the radical denomination in European society at the time of the Scots-Irish migration that Baptists are considered today in American society.
Students had fun with the discussion and said it made them think about stereotypes in new ways.