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Two in three Black Americans don't feel properly represented in media, study finds

“The high level of consumer interest in diverse stories and voices surfaced very strongly in this research," says Cindi Smith, vice president, diversity, equity and inclusion practice, National Research Group.

Two in three Black Americans don’t feel they see their stories represented on-screen, according to a new study from National Research Group (NRG).

The study, entitled “#RepresentationMatters,” also found that 67% of Americans across political ideologies and ethnicities feel there is a greater need on-screen representation of all of the following: mixed race individuals, Black men, Black women, Black children, Black teenagers, Black gay men, Black gay women, Black transgender men, Black transgender women, Black non-binary or genderqueer, Black men with disabilities and Black women with disabilities.

Additionally, 74% of those polled reported that content being inclusive (representing different cultures or people) is a key factor when they are choosing what they will watch.

“The high level of consumer interest in diverse stories and voices surfaced very strongly in this research. We believe our insights can inspire creators and marketers to get behind stories that offer a fresh point of view and bring to light more multi-faceted identities,” says Cindi Smith, vice president, diversity, equity and inclusion practice, National Research Group.

For this study, NRG polled almost 1400 Americans between the ages of 18 and 54 who are heavily engaged with pop culture. The study shows that 91% of them overall believe media has the power and ability to influence society, and 77% of them reported that they believed the way Black Americans, specifically, are portrayed in the media will influence people’s perceptions of real-life Black Americans. (When looking at the Black Americans polled, 87% believe portrayal influences real-world perception.) Digging further, 66% of everyone polled believes the media currently perpetuates negative stereotypes of Black people, while 83% of Black Americans polled believe that.

Although the study also shows that significant progress has been made since the 1960s, there are systemic problems that are still far from being resolved. For example, 62% of everyone polled feels Black writers and directors are still underrepresented in Hollywood, which can lead to less representation on-screen, as well. (Out of the Black Americans polled, 77% felt this way.) Seventy-nine percent of Black Americans also note it is “obvious” when Black characters or characters of color are not written by people of color.

Projects that did get points for strong representation and inclusion in this study include 2018’s “Black Panther,” and ongoing television series “Black-ish” (which first premiered in 2014 on ABC), “Empire” (which wrapped up its six-season run on Fox this fall but has a spinoff in the works) and “Black Lightning” (which premiered in 2018 on the CW).

But those who participated in this study overwhelmingly feel like the supply for inclusive content is not meeting their demand. From all participants there is interest in content that features mixed-race characters or families (86%), content that has Black characters from all types of economic backgrounds (85%), content with Black directors or writers (85%), content with diverse casts (85%), content that depicts Black people in “everyday life” (83%), content with characters that break racial stereotypes (82%), content with unknown Black figures in history (80%), content with all Black casts (77%) and content with characters that breaks gender stereotypes (74%).

Moving forward, the study suggests for anyone creating content about Black characters and characters of color, some of the most important things are to tell untold stories and create multi-dimensional and complex characters in any genre that are not limited to Black stories, as well as to not allow Black characters to be reduced to stereotypes or to let the dominant narrative be about Black struggle.

In order to do this, better distribution opportunities for Black creators are needed, according to 82% of participants (91% of Black participants), and there also should be specific hiring efforts among Black creatives, according to 78% of participants (90% of Black participants).

The study also broke out a subset on what changes the youngest generation (Gen Z) wants to see: 90% of them reported that they think better distribution opportunities for Black creators is key to better representation, and 84% currently agree that there isn’t enough funding for content created by Black people.

This study was conducted from September 5-8 of this year, with consumer interviews conducted in partnership with Dynata, Prodege, Marketcube, and DISQO. NRG additionally conducted eight in-depth expert interviews with media/cultural theorists, NGOs and NPOs, and industry leaders to inform the research.

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