McCarthy, D., Jones, R., Potrac, P (2003) 'Constructing Images and Interpreting Realities', in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 38/2: 217 - 38
[Classic British Cultural Studies approach here, deploying the familiar terms of gramscian media analysis such as dominant or preferred readings, audience resistance, and the effect of social location and cultural resources upon oppositional decodings. There is some empirical work, but it is hardly analyzed as such, but merely used to 'illustrate' and 'support' the work of the giants, including Hall, and Jhally and Lewis on the black television viewer. A good illustration of lazy theorising, and the twists and turns required to make things a bit gramscian conceptions, including systematic ambiguity about whether media images actually do affect viewers or not. Nevertheless, a good summary of some recent views about the discourses of racism on TV (curiously silent about some of the foundational work, though, including Hall's piece in Brunt and Bridges, or Gilroy)].
The piece opens with the usual discussion of coding and encoding, the need for active interpretation by readers, the effect of contexts which viewers occupy, and so on. There does seem to be some preference for an interpellation model, however (218), for active shaping of interpretational structures, for seeing the media as having 'the capacity to mould and create the "pictures in our heads", with all the resultant implications' (219) . [I can see problems coming because black students must also have to have the capacity to see through these powerful racist discourses]. Sports are seen as a particularly powerful 'agency in the depiction of racial groups, and the consequent creation and reaffirmation of stereotypes' (219), and the key to these stereotyped lie in assumptions that black people are somehow naturally more physical, and thus biologically different from white people. Recent studies of race in Cultural Studies have also emphasise the role of language and representations of the 'non-European "other"' (220).
Thus race is a social construct [further tricky implications here, since this implies that race is unlikely to be a master identity, or that its impact can be diminished by reformist social change]. Further difficulties arise when the authors attempt to reassert the causal influence of 'crude materialities like class and race' (220), [since British Cultural Studies would want to distance themselves from such vulgar Marxism]. Finally, the authors insist on a need to study how viewers actually receive messages, as opposed to 'the message is which critics and scholars allege they are receiving' (220), [which looks like empiricism], and, curiously, commit themselves to the avant garde project of attempting to 'fissure the meaning system itself' (a quote from the 'new semiology' of Roland Barthes).
Empirical study itself involves recording and then analysing a large amount of televised football coverage, gathered from Sky, the BBC and ITV. Particular attention was given to the commentary [so why record in video?], and some content analysis, using categories based on earlier work, and with coder training to increase reliability, was designed to count the numbers of positive and negative commentator evaluations of players. These were further classified in terms of being supportive of performance, referring to physical characteristics, and making statements about the 'inner emotional state or personality characteristics of players' (222). The authors tried to see if these statements were allocated differently to players of different races [defined here rather cheerfully as either black or white -- an operationalization which is discussed and justified to their own satisfaction]. Then three black and three white focus groups were convened, each consisting of three members, made up of male students who were interested in soccer. The rather weak argument on page 224 suggests that it was not relevant to take account of other social variables in order to focus on racial location alone. All members self identified as either white or black, and the fact that they knew each other helped put them at their ease. The moderators of each group will from the same race as the participants, and followed a semi structured interview approach. Actual interactions were analysed, from the video tapes taken at each group discussion, and views were recorded and then content analyzed. [There are many problems with this kind of approach, of course, not least of which lies in trying to demonstrate that the views that emerged were actually affected by watching the TV programmes in question, and not offered as part of some more general task to develop a discourse about racism. Also, the authors seem to have gathered a huge amount of data and then not referred to it, at least not very much in this particular article, which contents itself with a few examples of speech alone].
The results of analysing commentary are rather mixed, but, overall, they 'provided no evidence that commentators negatively describe black players as opposed to white players in any of the three ascribed categories [the classifications mentioned above]' (235). Very few comments were negative in fact. However, black players did tend to attract positive references to their physical attributes, and these were praised more than was the case for white players. [This is really a curious interpretation of the results actually provided. In terms of overall volume of physical descriptions, the authors counted 328 attached to black players and 529 attached to white ones, which seems to imply that physicality is even more noted for white players. The same imbalance is found in comments about internal mental states -- 302 for black players, 1154 for white ones -- see table one on page 226. The authors seem to ignore these findings, and focus instead on the imbalance in positive references to physical attributes, which are disproportionately high for black players. But the rest of the article that follows depends almost entirely upon this one statistic].
For the authors, the imbalance of positive comments about physical descriptions for black players is indicative of 'the perpetuation of stereotypical images of the "naturally" physically gifted black athlete' (226). This strange conclusion is justified by saying that it supported by similar work -- Cashmore, for example, seems to agree that despite this positive portrayal, 'which could be intercepted is empowering, an emphasis on such attributes tends to imply a negative evaluation' (226); a focus on bodies is particularly important in establishing a racial hegemony in sport, according to Birrell, and so on. The authors note no differences in the actual nature of these psychological descriptions, which could be evidence for the reduction of racism. However, Sabo et al are cited as saying that it might suggest a 'heightened sensitivity, maybe even a guardedness among commentators, concerning negative representations of black athletes' (227). [It is noticeable that the authors challenge the sincerity only of TV commentators like this]. The emphasis on physicality takes the form of a covert racism, one which has been discovered by others, and which suggests that black people are unsuited for intellectual occupations. The authors do not wish to accuse commentators of open racism, though, since there are probably 'voicing subconscious assumptions and understandings of race and racial difference' (227) [again, this tendency merely to voice subconscious assumptions is found only among TV commentators: black students express accurate and authentic comments representing the black experience, while white students merely reproduce a widespread strategy of denial].
Turning to the analysis of the focus groups, the authors suggest that the black discussion groups did perceive considerable inequality expressed in the commentary. This fits with studies of beliefs among other black people that they are experiencing unfair treatment, or that they have to overachieve in competition with white players. It seems that other black viewers are also 'very sensitive to media definition' (citing Jhally and Lewis, page 228). Black viewers also tended to assume that racism arises from unconscious processes, from general discourses, but they found it unacceptable and racist nevertheless. As a result, 'a discourse of resistance was seen to emerge as a direct reaction', although again other authors are cited to illustrate this tendency. Some brief examples of actual comments finally appear on page 229 which seem to confirm this view, and this is held to support the 'well documented traditional stereotype... [that black athletes are]... quick, instinctive, physically strong, yet lacking in intelligence' (229), [although none of the respondents in the study seemed to have used these actual terms]. Respondents refused to accept the stereotyped views of the commentary, which apparently illustrates a view that black males feel empowered by such resistance. There are some interesting summaries of studies that show how black players can overachieve on the sports field in order to assert their identity against hostile and racist spectators, but no actual evidence of that on this occasion. Apparently, taking sports science courses enabled these particular students to resist dominant readings [although such courses do not seem to have challenged the views of white students, as we shall see].
The white focus groups read the commentaries differently, in a way which did not pick up on racial stereotypes. Some seem to have noticed the tendency for commentators to refer to physical characteristics of black people, but denied any lasting significance. The authors see this as 'white denial' (231). This leads to a discussion of whiteness being taken as normal and thus invisible or natural and inevitable in our society. There are also views that contemporary societies have overcome racism, and this led some white respondents to deny, or to excuse, the use of physical descriptions by commentators: it was not racism, but simply related to the position of the player. It follows that anyone seeing such remarks as racist were being over-sensitive. This is part of a more general tendency for white people to distance themselves from noticing the impact of such practices on their everyday lives, even though they recognise racism and theories about it at the intellectual level. Such selective attention has been called the 'vaccination effect' (232). Some more examples of the comments of white respondents indicate that whiteness is taken as normal, a classic 'unconscious defence against accusations of racism' (233). Racialised discourse can be invisible to a white audience, especially if they see racism in terms of individual acts of aggression, confined to an insignificant minority, and this helps denial.
It is also that definite cultural competences are needed to identify collective and unconscious racism. Black students had much more experience of stereotyping, while the white ones could only acknowledge the existence of stereotypes more abstractly. This is found with other authors too. Again it is the 'racist vernacular and discourse which permeates all levels and aspects of the game' which is really responsible for this. The mass-media bear a particular responsibility for popularising this discourse.
[The piece ends by displaying a noticeable uncertainty about its own findings, since the perceptions of the black focus group were different from what the content analysis actually showed. The overall implication is a relativist one, that different readings are bound to arise from different racial locations occupied by respondents -- which makes you wonder why they bother to do any kind of objective content analysis in the first place. However all ends well, because apparently Hall would agree with this analysis, and it shows that black people are still experience being identified as others, and as victims of 'an ideology of normalised "whiteness" as reflected through sports media discourse' (335). Somehow, we thought this would be the conclusion all along!].
back to list of notes