In a world where mass media is consumed in large amounts everyday, the impact of representation is often overlooked. Representation is the portrayal of someone or something in a particular way. In this case, it is how the media projects various identities, social issues, and events to an audience. Representation in the media is important because the media shapes our view of the world and how we see ourselves in society. False or nonexistent representation has the power to harm misrepresented groups of people and other people’s view of them. The media should work to increase the visibility of underrepresented groups and use the media to remove bias and stereotyping in order to empower underrepresented groups and prevent discrimination of all individuals, regardless of their identity.

What does misrepresentation look like?

The misrepresentation, or inaccurate portrayal of identities and issues can lead to harmful stereotypes, violence, discrimination, and exclusion of certain groups. Identities are the qualities or characteristics someone has based on the groups they identify with such as race, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Stereotypes form when a specific group is shown in a generalizing manner where all members are seen as acting in one way, and the differences between individuals of that group are erased. These stereotypes then create an “us vs. them” mentality where these stereotyped qualities are seen as inferior and unwanted. This process of “othering” highlights the differences between groups to increase suspicion of a group, violence inflicted against them, and exclusion of the group. 

For example, in many European development organisations and charities, African people are shown as poor, hungry, diseased and in need of donations. This stereotype has continued throughout the media and leads to an “otherness” [the quality of being different compared to the dominant social group and what is familiar] where all African people are in poverty and require monetary support from a wealthier social group outside of Africa. This otherness deepens the divide between African and non-African people and can lead to the “us vs. them” mentality described earlier. When taken to a far extreme, othering may result in a group of people denying that another group is even human and using this to justify bias, discrimination, violence, apartheid [a system of enforced discrimination and segregation], and genocide [deliberate killing of a particular group of people]. 

What does equal representation look like? 

All individuals are unique and have personalities and traits specific to them. To prevent mistreatment and false judgements of a broad group of individuals, it is important to remove stereotypical portrayals. Instead, there should be a balance of diverse, complex characters in the media that highlights the uniqueness that every person has, distinct from their ‘on-paper’ identity. This brings up the concept of “intersectionality” which is the view that the many identities a person has all contributes to how they uniquely experience life and discrimination. 

The uniqueness of every person should be celebrated and not washed over. It is a mistake to paint an entire group of people in the same light and can have damaging results.