Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ethical Representation in Media

Many of us have experienced the annoyance when that “type” of character pops up again: the dumb blonde, the bumbling husband, the trophy wife, the emotionally-repressed action hero, and so on. We may think of them as mere harmless caricatures or traditional stereotypes, but the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) see it as potentially harmful. To them, there is risk not only in the way people are portrayed, but who is (or is not) portrayed at all. The CAB’s Equitable Portrayal Code from 2008 elaborates on how radio and television ought to portray people in a harmless way.

The CAB’s concern with equitable portrayal is partially influenced by the Task Force for Cultural Diversity on Television, which conducted research looking specifically at the portrayal of ethnocultural and Aboriginal groups. They found three areas of concern: stereotyping groups, portraying groups of people inaccurately, and portraying groups of people people in an unbalanced way. The CAB Persons with Disability report had similar concerns regarding the portrayal of persons with disability.

We just don’t see certain groups represented enough, and when we do, that representation can color our view of them because it is the only exposure we might have of a certain type of person. Conversely, some groups are overrepresented, but portrayed in a negative or stereotypical way. In the 1990 Sex Role Portrayal Code for Radio and Television, they comment that “Canadian broadcasters recognize the cumulative effect of negative and inequitable sex role portrayal. . .” In other words, these pervasive cliches can negatively affect us. It is not always the result of one movie or commercial, but the overall context of movies or commercials that paint broad strokes and stereotypes can affect. If we saw just as many smart blondes as dumb blondes, and just as many bumbling husbands as effectual ones, would the negative effects of these stereotypes be diminished?

To give another real-world example: many people critiqued the American Oscars for being inequitable regarding its representation of races. This code appears to be unique to Canada and not many others adopt a similar stance on the issue. In light of the Oscars, America might also benefit from being held to an ethical standard like this.

So how does the CAB’s Equitable Portrayal Code combat these issues? Avoid portraying stereotypes, avoid negatively portraying people based on their status (race, sex, religion, disability, etc), and avoid using sexist language. What effect do you think something like this could feasibly have on negative stereotypes against various groups of people? There might be much debate over these topics, but these are important questions to be asking. Check out the rest of the code for yourself to see what you think!

There is plenty more information where that came from, and it can all be found in the links provided. More interesting ethical codes exist on the Ethics Codes Collection website, so feel free to look around!

The Ethics Code Collection is managed by the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions. Look forward to a new and improved website come September!

Written by Alice Amell and Tabitha Anderson

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