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Children Say Television Distorts Its Portrayal of Minorities

National study highlights young viewers' desire to see more diversity

In the eyes of children, it's a white, white world on television. In sitcoms, dramas, and news shows, they see whites overwhelmingly appearing in positive roles - as rich, smart, well-educated, and more likely to be boss. By contrast, minorities, if present at all, typically play negative or subservient roles that cast them as maids, janitors, or criminals, and as poor, lazy, and less intelligent.

Those are among the findings of a new national study of children's perceptions of race and class in the media. Conducted by Children Now, a California-based advocacy group, the survey polled 1,200 children - Asians, Latinos, blacks, and whites - between the ages of 10 and 17.

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Four-fifths of children think it is important to see people of their own race on television. Yet they look largely in vain for Asian and Latino characters.

"It's mind-boggling," says Alvin Poussaint, director of the media center at Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. "Latinos, who make up over 10 percent of the population, are seen rarely. And Asian children are very aware that they're not there. When children don't see themselves, they think they don't count."

One Asian teenage girl complained that when Asians do appear, they are either shown as "kind of book-smart, or they're like the Kung Fu master."

Children of all races also agree that TV news media tend to portray African-Americans and Latinos more negatively than whites and Asians, particularly when the news is about young people. They see African-Americans shown doing "bad things" 35 percent of the time (compared with 9 percent for whites) and "good things" only 14 percent of the time (42 percent for whites).

Jewel Love, vice president of Motivation Entertainment Education in Los Angeles, sees other failings. "On sitcoms, blacks don't tend to see fathers. Whites do," she says. "There's more conflict on black sitcoms, and apartments are often messy." Adds Chuck D., a musician and a Fox News commentator, "If there are more than three blacks, expect laughter."

Young people also complain that programs segregate races into all-white or all-black casts. Explaining that they have friends of all races, they want programs reflecting that diversity.

Such stereotypes are far from harmless. "White kids who said they're afraid of blacks and Latinos say it's from what they see in the media, not from experience," says Dr. Poussaint.

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And as Donna Brown Guillaume, a producer, explains, skewed images result "if you only have one Latina character and she has a fruit bowl on her head. If you have only one, unfortunately that one has the burden of representing the whole race."

Maiya Williams, a writer and producer at Warner Brothers Television, offers two reasons for stereotyped portrayals. "Decisionmakers are isolated," she says. "It's a sin of omission, of not being aware of what the world is doing. And they run on fear. They try to copy ideas they've seen before because they're afraid of losing their job. You need more people in charge who have courage."

Some within the television industry do see progress. One successful program on HBO, "Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child," retells classic tales using characters of other races. "We felt it was time to give children of color fairy tales that included them," says Ms. Guillaume, the producer. "We want to show that a black man could be king, and a Hispanic woman could be queen."

To educate media executives, Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, suggests showing them a short video of children's opinions. "It could be a powerful vehicle for change, to hear the voices of children speak so powerfully and eloquently for the need to be different," she says. "Ten minutes could make a real difference."

Another proposal involves using e-mail and the Internet so children can be part of what Ms. Salisbury calls "a feedback group to the industry." Students, she explains, could "weigh in with media leaders when they think things have gone well or think they have been disappointing."

Children, Salisbury adds, "have told us clearly that they want the media to embrace them all, to love them all, to leave no one out."

Judith Winston, who heads the President's Initiative on Race, urges those within the television industry, regardless of their role, to ask what they can do personally "to help ensure that race images our children see in the media keep pace with realities in our society."

Industry leaders are promising change. "To keep the medium alive, both economically and creatively, we will be searching for new images and new stories," says Meryl Marshall, president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. "We have a new obligation, which is to reflect a more accurate world when we think about the images we create."

Underscoring the importance of change, Gordon Berry, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, says, "Children are out there looking at everything that is being aired. The more they live in the world of TV, the more they believe that TV is the way the world is. TV teaches every time it's on."

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