A family is watching television

Julie Dobrow

Julie Dobrow

Good news on diversity, equity and inclusion from children’s media

The murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 set off a long overdue racial reckoning in this country. Black Lives Matter marches and protests were organized; schools, businesses and local governments set up DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives; difficult but necessary discussions abounded. More recently, spates of anti-Asian violence, as well as other racially-charged incidents, have furthered the importance and need for these conversations. The world of children’s media, too, has dived into thoughtful, deep and sometimes painful explorations of their practices and its products. Coincidentally, this was the same time that my research team at Tufts University launched an in-depth analysis of children’s media content creators to explore their thoughts and initiatives on gender, race and ethnic portrayal.

There’s a lot of evidence about why diverse images in children’s media matter. We know, for instance, that kids begin to notice racial differences very early. Katz and Kofkin (1997) found that infants are able to categorize people by race by six months of age. Numerous studies have found that three to five year old children not only categorize people by race, but also begin to demonstrate preferences according to race (see, for example, Patterson and Bigler, 2006; Hirschfeld, 2008; Aboud, 2008). In addition, there’s empirical data suggesting that children who themselves come from marginalized racial/ethnic groups have an awareness of race at earlier ages than children who come from non-marginalized groups (Dulin-Keita et al., 2012; Fishbein,2002; Hughes, 2003).

We also know that the portrayal of diversity in media is important because at least until recently, and arguably even still, mainstream media hasn’t been very diverse.

Consistently, studies have shown an over-representation of white/Euro-American characters and an under-representation of characters of color (Barcus, 1983; Greenberg and Brand, 1993; Hammamoto, 1993; Calvert et al,. 1997; Signorielli, 2004, 2005; Mastro and Behm-Morawitz, 2005; Greenberg and Mastro, 2008; Klein and Shiffman, 2008, 2009; Hunt, 2019; Neilsen, 2020), Latinx characters (Bramlett-Solomon & Roader, 2008; Smith, 2019) Indigenous characters (Bramlett-Solomon & Roader, 2008; First Nations Development Institute, 2018; Paul, 2018); and non-American characters (Dobrow and Gidney, 1998; Dobrow, Gidney and Burton, 2018).

Gender has also been shown in very disproportionate ways. Barcus (1983) was one of the first to reveal a television world in which male characters outnumbered female characters about 6:1. Female characters were also portrayed very differently: and more likely to be victims than heroes, more likely to have a discernible marital status than males, more likely to be shown as weak and dependent.

Things have gotten better, but not much. Signorelli (2004) found about a 4:1 ratio of male to female characters; our own research has found about a 3:1 ratio. In an analysis of television shows for preschool-aged children, Hamlen and Imbesi (2020) found that there continued to be more male than female lead characters, and a greater number of white, non-Hispanic characters than characters from underrepresented races/ethnicities. More recent analyses have shown that that those both in front and behind the camera continue disproportionately to come from white Euro-American backgrounds more than from BIPOC ones (Hunt, 2019; Smith, 2019; Nielsen, 2020).

And apart from issues of equity, there are some indications that these unequal representations in media can have a negative impact on children’ mental and social-emotional health.

For example, in an early study Sheryl Browne-Graves (1993) found that stereotypical representation of African Americans on television significantly correlated with measures of negative self-esteem young Black teenagers.  In a longitudinal panel, Martins and Harrison (2012) suggested that television exposure was negatively related to self-esteem among their Black preadolescent sample. Leavitt et al. (2015) found the stereotypical representation of Native Americans had a negative effect on their self-esteem and self-understanding; Tukachinsky, Mastro and Yarchi (2017) found that for both Latino and Black members of their sample, negative representations of their own group on prime time television reduced “warm feelings” towards their own group; Fryberg et al. (2008) found that the stereotypical portrayal of American Indian mascots lowered Native American respondents’ sense of personal and community worth. Among the most important findings of Dulin-Keita et al.’s research (2012) was that perceived racial discrimination, which came in part from children’s assessment of racial identity, was a salient stressor contributing to a sense of low self-esteem.

In addition, some researchers have postulated that it’s not only stereotypical representation of race or ethnicity that can affect children – it is also lack of representation. According to the theory of invisibility (Fryberg & Townsend, 2008), when a group is underrepresented in the media, members of that group are deprived of messages about nuanced and full representation.  A narrowly stereotypical portrayal in media and erasure of a fuller and more nuanced depiction can have negative effects on how people perceive that group, as was demonstrated in an experimental study by Orr, Sharratt and Iqbal (2019) on news depictions of Native Americans. Fryberg and Townsend (2008) posit that lack of representation in popular media and invisibility might lead members of under-represented groups to narrow their own self-definition, limit their potential occupational opportunities because they do not see themselves portrayed as members of certain professions in media, and have an overall negative effect on self-esteem.

Conversely, some studies have found that when children and adolescents have been exposed to positive images of racial and ethnic groups other than their own, it can lead to prejudice reduction (Graves, 1999; Cole et al., 2003) an increase in the use of prosocial explanations for conflict resolutions in cross-ethnic situations (Graves, 2008) and an increase in perceived willingness among children to consider children from different groups as potential friends (Mays et al., 1975). Ward (2004) found that identification with Black male television characters was positively associated with measures of higher self-esteem for Black youth. Similarly, Tukachinsky, Mastro and Yarchi (2017) found that favorable representations of Latinos and Blacks on television were highly associated with positive feelings towards their in-group. And importantly, Scharrer and Ramascubramanian (2015) found some evidence that media literacy education can decrease the impact of media stereotypes about race and ethnicity on adolescents.

So we know diversity matters, and we know why. But what are contemporary content creators doing about this?

There’s actually a lot of good news.

In the summer of 2020, we conducted lengthy interviews with more than twenty content creators. They were executives, producers, writers, directors and researchers. They worked at ten different major media organizations across the United States. What we found was, in a word, encouraging.

Diversity is very much on content creators’ minds

“Laying those foundational skills for us to help kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder is our mission” said Rosmarie Truglio, senior vice president for curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop, adding that diversity has always been a critical part of Sesame Street, baked into the long-running preschool show’s DNA. “With what’s going on in our country, we’ve recommitted to raising once again the significance of this very important topic.”

Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame’s senior vice president for U.S. social impact, added that media is a way that children can see themselves, and if they don’t, it’s problematic. She suggested that at Sesame Street, writers, directors and producers try to make shows that “build and affirm self-identity,” trying to show a diverse group of children, adults and Muppets. Said Truglio, “We try to give kids a better understanding of how we are the same, how we’re different, and it’s all about appreciating differences and celebrating similarities.”

At GBH, Boston’s public television station and a major creator of children’s media content, Dorothea Gillim, an executive producer, agreed. “The stories that are really sort of specific that fill an underrepresented need” are important, she said, “but we also, in all our content, try to get at the universal so that all kids can identify and see themselves positively reflected in media.”

Linda Simensky, the head of children’s content at PBS, stated, “our job is to make sure that every kid sees themselves somewhere on the air. The best kinds of shows are the ones where there is diversity in all kinds of ways – race, gender, where you see people of different abilities, where characters have various kinds of skills and challenges.”

There are many ways to demonstrate diversity and inclusion

Sesame Workshop’s Truglio pointed out that “when you think about diversity, it’s not just checking of boxes, having a representative for each of these boxes. That’s not enough; what has to be shown is how people are interacting and how they’ve developed a friendship.” She suggested that “we are very experimental; our philosophy is always, let’s try it and let’s try to see if we can get to a new audience of families and parents and kids.

Sesame’s Betancourt added “For us, it is how to represent diversity and inclusion in those everyday moments. And for us, diversity and inclusion is obviously about race, ethnicity and culture, but it’s also about abilities, gender, the living situation of kids, what their family configuration is.”

Angela Santomero, chief creative officer at 9 Story Media and the creative force behind Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and many other successful children’s shows, stated that she and her team work with “a group of researchers, talking about belonging and inclusion and racial issues…we’re constantly talking to different consultants and always looking for ways to infuse our storylines and characters with the best practices of showing difference.”

“Authenticity” in children’s media means different things

Santomero said that at 9 Story “we always make sure we have as much authenticity and genuineness with regard to the writers that we’re hiring, as well as the animators and directors. We’re really trying to make sure that shows are created with that internal voice.”

Olubunmi Mia Olufemi, a supervising producer at Fred Rogers Productions, added that “It’s not only really, really important to make sure that we’re not only showing kids themselves, but that those representations are authentic, that they are created by people of those races and cultures.” To this, Olufemi has begun to employ a strategy of reaching out to colleagues who might not be in children’s media, but in other fields of entertainment, and recruiting them to ensure that there are more diverse and authentic voices in the conversation as she creates new content.

Tone Thyne, director of creative for FableVision, suggested that in creating children’s media content, his main job is to “create characters and environments and worlds where you can that you can transport your viewers to, places that are aspirational, that they want to engage with. And so for me, it’s a great responsibility to create these kinds of places that represent a little piece of everybody who might be watching.”

Since writing for television or film is often a collaborative process, writers today are increasingly recognizing the need for more diverse collaborators. “As a creative person,” said Samantha Bissonnette, a former staff writer for DreamWorks Animation Studios, “it’s important to recognize the power that you have in shaping a story, but also redistributing that power and making sure that you’re opening things up to not just your own perspective.”

Children’s media content creators are trying to diversify themselves

PBS’ Simensky suggested that while many children’s media content creators have long had the goal of creating more content about diverse groups written and produced by members of diverse groups, that “the truth is, just about everything in the animation industry has taken a long time.” Noting that it took years for more women to infiltrate the world of animation, she added, “it’s been a real challenge, making the whole industry across the board more diverse, but we really are committed to this goal at PBS Kids, including getting more women and more people of color in leadership and creative positions, not just bringing them in as production assistants but mentoring them and bringing them in at all levels. We have to try harder. We still have a long way to go.”

Many media organizations are making increased efforts to hire and retain a diverse workforce. Sesame Workshop’s Writers’ Room fellowship invites creatives from diverse backgrounds to break into the industry with the help of seasoned writers and producers over the course of 8 weeks. DreamWorks Studies has started a casting fellowship for BIPOC applicants.

Walt Disney Television has launched an Executive Incubator program “intended to create a pipeline of next-generation network executives,” as well as a special internship program designated to offer opportunities and a career path for “diverse talent behind the camera.” Disney has also started the “Launchpad Shorts Incubator,” an opportunity for directors who come from underrepresented background to create shorts that will be aired on Disney+.

GBH’s Gillim described a unique effort they began with the new show, Molly of Denali, the first children’s television program to feature a Native Alaskan character. “We knew that it would be entirely wrong for us to presume that we could do a show about a culture and a place that we had now experience with,” she said, “so we had the idea of forming what we’ve called a working group of people and have them embedded in the day- to -day work of the project” They recruited Native Alaskan writers, had an intensive workshop with Boston-based and Alaska-based writers, and trained them to develop PBS-style children’s scripts. Priya Desai, who was a development producer on the show, added that these new writers “took a premise of a story idea that they had and turned it into a script…they went through the PBS process, which is a rigorous one because there are a lot of people who comment and whose notes you have to synthesize.”

In the end, said Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’ali Gwich’in), the Alaska-based creative producer for Molly of Denali and the person many of her colleagues described as “the heart of the show,” all six scripts got developed and all six writers were hired on for the second season of the show. “It’s wonderful to have all of our writers really be seeped into our perspectives.” Many of those interviewed involved with this show agreed that the “Molly model” could be a very successful one to bring new voices into the children’s media conversation.

Based on our research, it’s clear that children’s media content creators at many organizations are not only extremely aware of the limitations in the ways many groups have been portrayed, they’re doing something about it.