Images and Stereotypes


Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Contemporary Ethical Issues: Journalism
Elliot D. Cohen and Deni Elliott, editors
ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California

Overview of Topic

The list is endless and always injurious: African Americans play sports. Latinos are gang members. Native Americans are alcoholics. Wheelchair-bound individuals are helpless. Gays are effeminate. Lesbians wear their hair short. Older adults need constant care. Anglos are either racist or are rednecks. Homeless people are drug addicts. These and other stereotypes are perpetuated by visual messages presented in print, television, motion pictures, or computers-the media./1

But media stereotype because we stereotype. Since our brains naturally classify what we see, we can't help but notice the differences in physical attributes between one person and another. But it is not natural to stereotype. As with the printing term used to describe multiple stampings from a single mold, to stereotype is a short-hand way to describe a person with collective, rather than unique characteristics. It is easier and quicker for a photojournalist to take a picture of an angry African American during a riot than to take the time to explore in words and pictures the underlying social problems that are responsible for the civil disturbance.

Because visual messages are products of our sense of sight, pictures are highly emotional objects that have long-lasting staying power within the grayest regions of our brain. As Walter Lippmann wrote in his 1962 book Public Opinion, "Whether right or wrong, . . . imagination is shaped by the pictures seen . . . . Consequently, they lead to stereotypes that are hard to shake."/2

Consequently, media messages that stereotype individuals by their concentrations, frequencies, and omissions become a part of our long-term memory. The media typically portray members of diverse cultural groups within specific content categories-usually crime, entertainment, and sports-and almost never within general interest, business, education, health, and religious content categories./3 The reason this issue is of such vital importance is the fact that history has shown that stereotyping leads to scapegoating that leads to discrimination that leads to segregation that leads to physical abuse that leads to state-sponsored genocide. The media provide many messages and one of the most prevalent messages is that we are the media.

What the law says

Although there is little in case law concerned with visual stereotyping, an argument can be made that the false light branch of privacy law may be an outlet for those who feel they have been harmed by a negative stereotype.

Although nowhere in the US Constitution is the word privacy even mentioned, the First Amendment protects to a great extent what a media organization can publish./4 However, the Amendment is not an absolute immunization-the courts are. Civil courts hear complaints from individuals regarding violations of privacy. The result can be a tort-a civil wrong against another that results in injury. Because a privacy tort happens against a single individual-not as a group action-journalists may be forced to pay damages against the wronged party.

Courts have recognized four major branches of privacy law: 1) unreasonable intrusion, 2) unreasonable revelation of private facts, 3) unreasonably placing another person in a false light before the public, and 4) misappropriation of a person's name or likeness./5

For this discussion, the false light provision is the most appropriate. It is a violation of the false light branch to place another before the public if: (a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the other would be placed./6

False light includes embellishment-adding false material-and distortion-arranging images or words to give a false impression. For example, in Maryland a false light claim was lodged after a photograph was published of a man sitting in a backyard that was used to illustrate an article about murders, drug abuses, and economic hardships of teenagers in Baltimore. Meanwhile, in Michigan, a woman shown walking down a Detroit street successfully sued a television station that aired a story about prostitution in the area./7

The Photographers' Guide to Privacy published by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press outlines the variations of privacy laws for each US state. Although false light is invoked the fewest times in the cases reviewed for the publication, it is nevertheless an area of law that can result in a judgment for an individual pictured as an unflattering stereotype.

The issues

Most media experts come up with several reasons why the media stereotype-advertisers that demand quickly interpreted shortcut pictures, lazy or highly pressured reporters that don't take or have the time to explore issues within their multifaceted and complex contexts, few members of diverse cultural groups working as photographers, reporters, editors, or publishers in an organization, the presumed, conditioned expectations of readers and viewers to only accept images of diverse members within a limited range of content categories, and regrettably, and often denied, culturism. Culturism is a term that describes the belief that one cultural group-whether based on ethnicity, economics, education, etc.-is somehow better or worse than some other cultural group. Culturism may explain why mainstream media are slow to cover human catastrophes in remote sections of the world such as in Rwanda, Somalia, and South-Central, Los Angeles.

Specific Cases

The Minnesota News Council is an organization that "promotes media fairness through public accountability."/8 One of its services is to conduct public hearings after complaints of media coverage are received from individuals or organizations. Since its beginning in 1971, the News Council has received over 1,560 complaints. Over 100 have been reviewed by a hearing of 12 members of the media and 12 from the public. Although the News Council has no authority in its actions and those that bring a complaint must waive the right to sue, the purpose is "to help the public and the media create a moral force for fairness."

Nine of the cases brought before the News Council involved issues of racism, sexism, and stereotyping. Complaints included news sources who thought they were misquoted resulting in racist or derogatory statements that were untrue, a newspaper that failed to give adequate coverage in a sex-discrimination lawsuit, and a newspaper's survey that was thought to be biased by the way the questions were worded. Three of the cases involved visual material:

CASE 35. A high priest of the Church of Wicca (also known as the religion of witchcraft) complained that "... artwork, photographs and articles perpetuated negative and erroneous stereotypes about the occult." Included with the stories was a picture of an ex-occultist, Conlith Christensen, in artwork "depicting demons torturing a man." The complaint was upheld as it was the opinion that "... the placement of the photograph of Christensen was unfair and misleading."

CASE 39. Ben Sternberg, a professional boxing promoter complained that "the use of inflammatory graphics ... falsely implied ... that he was a racist and somewhat of a Mafia figure." His complaint was upheld as it was concluded that "... a photograph of Sternberg at ringside wearing dark glasses created the impression that he was some sort of a sinister 'Mafia figure.'"

CASE 75. A Sunday edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune featured an 8-page story with "25 photographs on teenage pregnancy, told as the personal story of one teenager, Makela Scott, a 16-year-old Black girl ...." The United Black Front claimed that the story was "unfair both to the young girl and to the Black community, and, indeed, promotes racial prejudice ... [because it] uses photographs which are insensitive to community values ...." Although the grievance was denied by the News Council, managing editor Tim McGuire noted that "We listened to complaints that we don't present Blacks in a positive light often enough and that we don't show Blacks just being average folks. We have raised consciousness among our staffers on that issue and have made some policy changes, such as urging our people to roam the minorities of our communities more to look for news and photo opportunities."

Perhaps these cases might have had successful hearings in a court of law had the complainants used the false light provision of privacy law.

Looking Ahead

Because most readers and viewers only have contact with those from diverse cultural groups through media representations, editors should make an assessment of the pictorial coverage of under-represented groups for their own newspaper or television station. If biases are found, photographers, reporters and editors should attend sensitivity training workshops with members of the public in order to promote more fair and balanced images.

One of the best prevention for stereotyping is to use your common sense and to be reasonable. If you're ever sued, success in the case may rest on whether a jury of your peers found your actions-either as a photographer, editor, or publisher-to be reasonable. In addition, show members of diverse cultural groups in everyday life situations. Have the courage to explore in words and pictures the underlying social problems at the heart of a violent act. Learn all you can about visual literacy so you can really look at the images in newspapers, magazines, and on your local television news show. Take the time to study the snapshots of your family and friends and the images printed, broadcast, and downloaded and question yourself and all who will listen about the meaning and ethics of the images we make and see.


1/See Paul Martin Lester (ed.), Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1996) and Paul Martin Lester, Visual Communication Images with Messages (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995).

2/Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

3/Paul Martin Lester, "African-American Photo Coverage in Four U.S. Newspapers, 1937-1990," Journalism Quarterly 71/2 (Summer 1994): 380-394.

4/Clifford G. Christians, Mark Fackler and Kim B. Rotzoll, Media Ethics Cases & Moral Reasoning (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995), 115-131.

5/Christians, Media Ethics, 115.

6/Photographers' Guide to Privacy (Arlington, VA: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Summer, 1994), 4.

7/Photographers' Guide, 13-14.

8/Information for this section comes from the home page of the Minnesota News Council.