K-State professor finds that media can change society's attitudes

August 15, 2003

In a recent study that examined perceptions of gays and lesbians by others, Kansas State University psychology professor Richard Harris asked one group of people to think of a positive gay or lesbian character from a television show or movie and asked another group to think of a negative gay or lesbian character from media. A third group, the control group, was asked to think about an unmarried media character, but sexual orientation was not mentioned. All three groups were then asked to complete a personality rating of that character, followed by a survey of their attitudes toward gay and lesbian people in society. Those who had been asked to think of a positive character had more positive attitudes toward gay men in society than those who had been asked to think of a negative character or the control group who thought of an unmarried character.

One of the most striking aspects about the responses, however, was that more than two-thirds of the participants thought of comedian and former sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres or one of the gay characters from the popular television show "Will and Grace." Harris said this suggests that such very popular shows may have a "potentially huge influence to increase tolerance for gays and lesbians in society."

Harris explained that popular media and entertainment have been used to change perceptions and increase education about other types of social issues, especially medical issues, in the past.

"In Africa, government and medical interests have given money to entertainment industries to create shows with gripping plotlines that address the problem of AIDS. In South Africa and India, shows were written that attempted to increase the status of women and encourage more of them to become professionals," Harris said.

In the United States, the media has often dealt with cancer awareness and prevention. The Centers for Disease Control worked with the writers of "ER" to encourage screenings of cancer, and "Beverly Hills 90210" had an episode in which one of the characters was diagnosed with and learned about skin cancer. In the 1970s, First Lady Betty Ford and several movie stars publicized that they had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which significantly increased the rate of mammograms.

However, one of the most notable instances was the morning that a colonoscopy was done on television.

"After her husband died of colon cancer, Katie Couric had a colonoscopy and aired it on the "Today Show" to educate others about colon cancer," Harris said. "Recent research shows that shortly thereafter, there was a 20 percent increase in the rate of colonoscopies. No public service announcement would ever have that much effect. She probably saved and will save a lot of lives."

Harris explained that studies of these and other media moments provide evidence that entertainment is usually more effective than public service announcements and other more direct means of publicizing issues and advocating behaviors. However, his study is unique in that it reveals the increased significance of popular shows in changing social stereotypes of specific groups.

"We need to look at popular shows more closely," he said. "In the past, people have done content analyses of particular groups on TV, but those studies don't reflect the popularity of the show. This study suggests that 10 shows addressing an issue may be less significant than if one of those shows is a top 10 show."

This fall, Harris plans to begin a similar study on the popular media representation of another minority group. He explained that several studies have been done comparing the media portrayal of blacks and whites, but there is very little media representation of Latinos, Native Americans, or Asian and Arab Americans. The way they are portrayed will affect the behavior and perceptions of others toward these groups in society, so it is important to apply this research and consider those implications, he said.

"Media is something that psychologists should be concerned about. When research shows that people are spending four to five hours a day watching TV and there is evidence that teens are spending even more time on the Internet, we should know the effects of what we're spending so much time with."
-end-


Kansas State University

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