Racial Profiling in the Media:
Investigated Through a Ritualistic Lens
University of Colorado at Boulder
Despite historic and continued efforts to overcome racial disparities within our nation, in today’s culture we are constantly bombarded with prejudicial and discriminatory images and ideas. When turning on the news and glancing through the pages of a local newspaper, ethnic minorities are the central focus of crime features and are thus portrayed as the prime source of crime in our nation. Similarly, victims of criminal acts who are of an ethnic minority are rarely featured, as Caucasian victims claim the spotlight in media forums. Sadly, as a result, a faulty depiction of crime and offenders has resulted which lends to the perpetuation of prejudicial beliefs in our country. At the crux of this issue is the problem of racial profiling that exits in various realms within our society. Specifically, as illustrated, racial profiling in the media is of greatest concern.
Racial profiling is an apparent and problematic aspect of local media today as it serves to further biases and stereotypes in our culture. This issue results due to a miscommunication by the reader who assumes that the images and facts portrayed are representations of racial groups as a whole. The continued barrage of these images by the media furthers this problem as it further reinforces false constructed social realities. Communication scholar Bradley Gorham researched this problem in the article "News media’s relationship with stereotyping" (2006). Gorham maintains that, “stereotypic images of Blacks persist in the dominant media…as a result, stereotypes are perpetuated within the culture in subtle, yet highly effectual ways” (Gorham, 2006, 289). In addition, a 1991 study conducted by Northwestern University on the images of races in local TV news programs, concluded that television stations serve to promote what researchers deem ‘modern racism’ or “the continued, though muted, antagonism between races” and that in their efforts to overcome racism, stations have actually served to worsen “racial hostilities” (Bowling, 2004). This problem is greatly intertwined with our interactions with the media and the cultural implications that result. To better understand the complexities of this problem it would be beneficial to view this concern through a theoretical lens and specifically through the socio-cultural theory known as the ritual view of communication.
In order to further delve into the problem at hand it is first necessary to present a comprehensive understanding of the ritual theory of communication that was originated by James W. Carey in his work entitled “A cultural approach to communication” (1989). In this pioneering piece, Carey identified two contending models of communication known as the transmission model of communication and the ritual model of communication.
The transmission model of communication, which is currently the dominant model in our society, views communication as a process by which information is transmitted through signals and messages across space for the purpose of control (Carey, 1989). This model of communication was founded through the religious ideologies that dominated the mindsets of religious missionaries who sought to spread the word of God through movement in space (Carey, 1989). The belief that communication or the diffusion of information and the physical movement of people or goods were inherently linked gave further impetus to this view of communication (Carey, 1989). While grounded in the belief that communication resembles physical transportation, the transmission model thus is dominated by terms such as “sending” “transmitting” and “giving information to others” and is similarly thought to function as a source of influence across space (Carey, 1989). Although this model dominates our current conceptions of societal interactions and communication, Carey (1989) avows that this model fails to recognize the rituals that are embedded in the act of communication and thus offers a novel view of communication known as the ritual model.
The ritual view of communication evolved as a result of the conceptualization that communication is highly ritualistic and is greatly influential on our sense of community and societal relationships. The ritual view of communication, similar to the transmission view, has roots in religious ancestry as it emphasizes the importance of rituals such as prayer, chant and ceremonies over information transmission as in sermons and religious instruction (Carey, 1989). While understanding that both of these models have roots in secular culture, Carey (1989) theorized that these models view the communication process differently and are thus distinct in the usual types of communication employed. Carey (1989) infers that the archetypal case of ritual communication is, “the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality” (Carey, 1989). Subsequently, the ritual view is defined by terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” and “fellowship” rather than physical descriptors of information sending (Carey, 1989). The terminology employed by the ritual view illustrates that at the crux of this view is the metaphor of ritual ceremony and the concern with the preservation of society and the representation of shared beliefs. Additionally, Carey (1989) maintains that the ritual view of communication sees greater value in meaning reproduction and that it serves moreover as a way to maintain, order and control our social realities and conceptions, “(the ritual view) sees the original or highest manifestation of communication not in the transmission of intelligent information but in the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action” (Carey, 1989, 4). This cultural world that Carey (1989) references is created through the projection and embodiment of community ideals into a material form such as news stories, dances and plays. These embodiments, as Carey implies, serve to structure our world and reality as they create an “artificial though nonetheless real symbolic order that operates to provide not information but confirmation, not to alter attitudes or change minds but to represent an underlying order of things, not to perform functions but to manifest an ongoing and fragile social process” (Carey, 1989). The contention that the ritual model serves to create confirmation, to represent an underlying order of things and to maintain social processes is visible when we interact with media. As illustrated by Carey (1989) the ritual model of communication has great implications for the media and our interactions with it. As a result, this model of communication serves as a helpful lens through which to consider our current problem of racial profiling in the media and our false conceptions of crime that are produced as a result.
The problem of racial profiling in the media and its effects on audiences is a result of the ways in which we interact with the media. Through the ritual lens, interaction with media is viewed as comparable to attending mass or a ritual event and not as a medium through which information is distributed. Furthermore, under the ritual view, media acts as a dramatically satisfying ritual, which serves to portray a certain structured and ordered view of the world (Carey, 1989). This idea that the media projects and confirms a particular view of reality is critical in understanding the problem of racial profiling, because the reality that the media portrays is that racial minorities are criminals. This reality or rather dramatic interpretation is thus absorbed by members of our culture, which then contributes to the creation of the false conception that criminals are dominantly ethnic minorities.
The ritual view suggests that when reading or viewing the news, individuals’ conceptions are not altered nor do they gain new understandings of the world, thus when reading the newspaper individuals continue to reaffirm their conceptions of minorities as criminals rather than changing it (Carey, 1989). Again, instead of gaining new information, the ritual view suggests that the media serves to project the current ideals and social views created by the community onto the audience, in an effort to maintain the current social process (Carey, 1989).
The ideologies projected by the media serve to form social groups and designate certain social roles, such as the “criminal role” in racial profiling. Carey contends that under a ritual view, “news is not information but drama. It does not describe the world but portrays an arena of dramatic forces and action… and it invites our participation on the basis of our assuming, often vicariously, social roles within it” (Carey, 1989). The social roles that are assumed through interaction with the media, as seen through the ritual view, lends to the problem of racial profiling. Bradley Gorham explains that the ideologies projected in the media contribute to group stereotyping and categorization, “ideologies are the cognitive reflections of our social, political, economic, and cultural “position” within the social structure… this means that ideologies, even less than their component attitudes, are not individual, but group based” (Gorham, 2006, 291). This idea is pertinent to our understanding of racial profiling because ideologies are repeatedly reinforced upon society, and if ideologies are group based and remain unchanged, than it is easy to understand how racial profiling continues to exist.
Sociologists David Pritchard and Karen Hughes, in their research entitled "Patterns of deviance in crime news," contribute to the idea that racial grouping that occurs through the projection of ideologies and shared social knowledge is responsible for racial profiling in the media. They suggest that individuals understanding of social groups is founded in the social knowledge that is shared by members of society (Pritchard & Hughes, 1997). This shared social knowledge, which is created through ritual communicative acts such as reading a newspaper, is subject to bias, particularly it is dependent on what the media chooses to consistently portray. They argue that this shared knowledge about social groups such as racial “criminal” groups, “helps audience members to mark the outer edges of their group and to reinforce their shared cultural identity” (Pritchard & Hughes, 1997, 49). By “marking the outer edges” of their group when viewing media, individuals contribute to the rigid social organization and categorization of individuals on the basis of race (Pritchard & Hughes, 1997). Thus the building of a cultural identity, which is an important factor to the ritual perspective of communication, has negative implications on our culture as it contributes to discrimination.
In sum, as illustrated and argued by Carey (1989) media presents their own view of reality in an effort to “give life an overall, form, order, and tone,” however, this tone is of discrimination and bias. Further, the information that is “constructed” and “maintained” an effort to organize society, in fact serves as “a control and container for human action” and racial identities thus leading to prejudice, racism and discrimination (Carey, 1989). It is apparent, through the help of the ritual view of communication that media and its implications on our culture contribute greatly to discrimination in our nation.
The ritual view is obviously a helpful theoretical lens to understand racial profiling as it emphasizes the role and implications of communication and the media in our culture. While this view sheds great light on this problem, it also has some major limitations that restrict its application to the real world. While the ritual view is important because it allows us to see communication as more than a transformation of knowledge, and instead as a way in which we as a community build shared identities and values, it does so in too simplistic of a way that downplays the true complexities of these communicative acts. While through the ritual lens it is apparent that communication rituals are important in every day situations as a way to build community, promote ideologies and values and to create a shared identity, the ritualistic lens fails to show the great complexities of these cultural attributes. Within the ritual view we are unable to see beyond the basic functions of a ritual communicative act to see the importance of questions such as: Why were ideologies, values and beliefs originally put in place? Why are they of great importance? And who has the power to maintain, control and structure our realities? In accordance with this, the ritual view fails to reveal the power dynamics that exist within our society and communication. Power dynamics shape the very foundations of the ritual view including the identities, ideologies and meanings that are consistently reproduced to create social order. In addition, all cultural rituals such as reading a newspaper, attending a meeting, watching TV and celebrating a holiday are all in some way effected by a power dynamic. Further, as our society is based on a hierarchy that is dependent upon factors such as education, wealth, class, gender and race it is apparent that our rituals would similarly be interlinked with these hierarchies. Specifically, the powerful choose what realities and ideologies to promote, how to organize society and maintain the “fragile” social order. As seen with the problem of racial profiling, the media, which is controlled by top members of the hierarchy, has the power to control the “realities” that are promoted through their medium. As such, realities can be distorted, negative implications can result and communication problems may arise, thus it is essential to consider power dynamics when analyzing real world problems.
The systems model of communication works to include power dynamics and can thus be an important lens through which to view a communication problem (Deetz, n.d.). The systems model, while based on the metaphor of negotiation, sees the importance of power dynamics in all “sending” and “receiving” of communication messages through space (Carey, 1989). The systems model also highlights one other critical factor of the communication process that the ritual model fails to include, which is the creation and production of new meaning over time (Deetz, n.d.). This notion is critical, I believe, to the evolvement of society, our culture, values, ideologies and our realities and is thus a great shortcoming of the ritual model of communication.
As illustrated, the problem of racial profiling is greatly intertwined with cultural ideologies, social roles and the perpetuation of these ideas over time. The ritual view is thus a helpful critical lens to this problem as it greatly emphasizes how communication rituals serve to create, promote and reinforce shared realities, beliefs, social roles and ideologies. While this theoretical lens is beneficial in gaining an understanding of this particular problem, it has various shortcomings that prevent it from being useful and applicable to all real world situations and communication problems. While not paying critical attention to power dynamics and the importance of the production of new meaning, the ritual view fails to be a universal lens in which to view real world communication problems.
Bowling, D. (2004). The problem with MWP news stories: Are missing persons news? if so, why only missing white people? Retrieved October 10, 2007 from MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4669495/.
Carey, J. W. (1989). A cultural approach to communication. In communication as culture: Essays on media and society (pp. 13-23). Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Deetz, S. (n.d.). Linear or systems models of communication. Communication 3210, University of Colorado at Boulder.
Gorham, B. (2006). News media’s relationship with stereotyping: The linguistic intergroup bias in response to crime news. Journal of Communication, 56, 289-308.
Pritchard, D. & Hughes, K. (1997) Patterns of deviance in crime news. Journal of Communication, 47(3), 49-67.