Changing Attitudes and Assumptions about Race

How can the media promote racial justice and equity?

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinNicole LaMarcaChristina Shane-SimpsonElliott Bowen
Jun 10, 2023

"Race Matters" is a PBS NewsHour series designed to encourage national dialogue around racial inequities in the US. Supported in part by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, the stories in this multi-platform series document racial disparities in housing, education, employment, health, wealth, and other aspects of American life, highlighting the harmful impacts of structural racism (whether seen in laws, policies, ideologies, or institutional practices) on people of color. Race Matters is in keeping with the efforts of racial justice organizations to develop more accurate news reporting free of racial bias.

We were the external evaluator of the Race Matters project. To determine the extent to which the series changed public attitudes on race, we conducted two national surveys with viewers — one in 2021, and one in 2022.

What Did We Learn?

Race Matters had a clear, positive impact on respondents' attitudes. Slightly more than 1 in 4 (27%) of those we surveyed told us that the series had changed their attitudes or opinions.

In their open-ended responses, participants often pointed out how Race Matters gave them a new appreciation of structural barriers to racial equity. Many viewers became newly aware of how laws, policies, and institutional practices place racialized groups at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a safe place to live, buying a home, gaining admission to top colleges and universities, or avoiding violence at the hands of police. As they learned about these things, many respondents also became more supportive of efforts to confront racism and remove obstacles to racial equity. This is a promising result, and suggests that news stories like those created through the Race Matters project have the potential to promote racial justice and equity.

Methods and Participants

If you're interested in understanding how we measured this series' impacts, in what follows, we provide some details on our evaluative methods for this project.

As previously noted, we conducted two national surveys with audiences (one in 2021, and one in 2022) to determine the extent to which Race Matters changed public attitudes on race. Those who completed our survey were first asked to answer a series of questions designed to measure their knowledge of and attitudes toward racial (in)equity. For this, we used three different attitudinal scales. Next, respondents watched one of the following news reports from the "Race Matters" series:

After watching their assigned story, respondents answered several questions about its content and credibility. They were then asked a second set of questions based on the same three attitudinal scales we began our survey with. They also provided us with demographic information, and had the opportunity to provide open-ended responses.

Across our two years of evaluation, a total of 997 individuals completed this survey. In terms of their demographic characteristics, the individuals who completed our survey generally reflected the diversity of the US population. Survey respondents were somewhat better educated and somewhat more aligned with the Democratic Party than the US population as a whole, but their residence patterns (urban, rural, and suburban) aligned with the geographical distribution of the country's inhabitants, Roughly equal numbers of men and women submitted responses, and although most (75%) identified as "White or Caucasian," our survey population included representative numbers of Black / African American (14%) and Asian (7%), respondents, and a considerable number of Hispanic / Latinx (7%) respondents. (About 19% of the US population is Hispanic / Latinx.)

Let's Put it to Work!

One of the things that made Race Matters so effective was the way stories in this series aligned with recommendations from existing anti-racist initiatives (including those put forward by groups such as Color of Change). Instead of presenting people of color as sources of instability, as undeserving of help, and as wholly responsible for the hardships they experience, Race Matters placed racial disparities in the context of systemic failings – including the lack of a social safety net, the elimination of social programs, and structural racism. In all of these ways, Race Matters offers a model for reporting on difficult issues like inequity and structural racism. Some of the key takeaway recommendations from this project include:

  • Narrate stories from a humanistic standpoint, highlighting and amplifying the lived experiences and voices of racially diverse groups.
  • Contextualize stories, emphasizing the connection between people's experiences and the broader historical, social, and cultural constraints that shape their lives.
  • Avoid language that perpetuates harmful, negative assumptions.
  • Directly challenge misconceptions and stereotypes (for example, stories that associate people of color with crime and social instability).
  • Use demographic data to correct prevailing assumptions about people of color (for example, the erroneous belief that Black families comprise the majority of welfare recipients).

About this Article

This material is based upon work supported in part by the Kellogg Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kellogg Foundation.

Photo by Amanna Avena @ Unsplash

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