Television characters are often shown discussing civic and social issues like racism, mental health, and the environment, yet they are rarely shown taking leadership and action to solve civic problems in their communities, according to a new study by a team of American University School of Communication (AU SOC) scholars and led by principal investigator and SOC assistant professor, Caty Borum and lead researcher and SOC professor Paula Weissman.
“We have known for many decades that what we see on entertainment TV matters a great deal in shaping the world we want to live in,” said professor Borum, executive director of the Center for Media & Social Impact. “Entertainment media has incredible cultural power to show us participating positively in making our democracy work, through our own actions and our demands of public officials who work for us, and this study is one piece of helping us understand what we see and learn from pop culture.”
The study, “Watching Out for Democracy: How Entertainment TV Portrays Civic Leadership and Civic Engagement in the U.S.” was released by AU’s Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) in partnership with MTV Entertainment Studios and Michelle Obama’s organization, When We All Vote. It is the first study to examine how voting, civic engagement, and leadership are portrayed in leading scripted and unscripted entertainment programming in the United States during a time of increased political polarization. The study included the highest rated TV shows for 18-34-year-old viewers in 2020 across cable, broadcast, and streaming networks, according to Nielson and NPower data.
“This work truly reflects the combined talents and collaborative spirit of the CMSI research team. AU prides itself in experiential learning therefore leading this team was particularly rewarding as a faculty member because four of the researchers are current or recent SOC graduate students,” said professor Weissman. “Collaborating with Professor Borum was inspiring and in the future, we hope to bring more SOC students into the Center’s timely and important work.”
The findings present opportunities for entertainment TV to show models of authentic and effective civic leadership and civic participation in storylines that portray characters grappling with—and solving—contemporary dilemmas and problems in fresh, compelling storylines.
Key study findings
- Civic themes appear in nearly one-third of episodes, but authentic portrayals of civic leadership are lacking: Civic themes—appearance of civic conversations, ideas and actions—appear in about one-third (29%) of top-rated entertainment TV program episodes, across both scripted and unscripted genres. Scripted drama and sit-coms portray civic themes more than all other entertainment TV genres (47% of civic themes occur in scripted drama, versus 1-18% in all other genres, with scripted comedy in the number-two spot, portraying 18% of the civic themes in this listing of TV programs).
- Civic conversation is portrayed nearly three times more than civic action: On-screen characters in top-rated entertainment TV programs are much more likely to be seen talking about civic and social issues than taking action—in fact, they are nearly three times more likely to be in conversation about contemporary social and civic issues than engaging in behaviors about them. Politicians, candidates for elected office, and civil servants tend to give public talks or attend public events and are the least likely to be shown engaging in the legislative and public policymaking process itself.
- Law enforcement dominates portrayals of civic leadership: Elected officials, political candidates for elected office, and non-elected government officials/civil servants are portrayed far less than other civic professionals. Elected officials show up in 11% of episodes, civil servants/non-elected government officials show up in 8%, and political candidates show up in 2% of episodes. By contrast, law enforcement and criminal justice system professionals appear in four in ten (41%) episodes, while teachers appear in 13% of episodes. Law enforcement portrayals appear nearly four times more than elected public leaders, and five times more than civil servants.
- Official corruption is twice as common as policymaking: Elected officials, political candidates for elected office, and non-elected government officials and civil servants are twice as likely to be shown engaging in illegal activities than working in policymaking.
- White men dominate civic leadership portrayals: When elected officials, political candidates for elected office, and non-elected government officials and civil servants are portrayed in entertainment TV, they are much more likely to be White (78% White, 23% Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and male-identifying (68% men, 32% women).
- Voting behaviors are rarely portrayed: Entertainment TV characters engage in voting behaviors (both registration and voting) in less than 1% of top-rated entertainment TV programming; only five total characters (across 658 TV episodes) are shown registering to vote or voting.
The research was conducted under the direction of Professor Borum and Professor Paula Weissman. The CMSI research team for this study included David Conrad-Pérez, Aras Coskuntuncel, Kimberly Reason, Allegra Udell (SOC ’21), and current SOC student, L Miller.
Researcher and AU alumna, Allegra Udell (SOC ’21) who graduated with her M.A. in Strategic Communication with a focus on advocacy felt that working on this report was the perfect opportunity to connect her studies to the research and connect with her professors, while taking advantage of all the opportunities AU has provided her.
“Being able to be a part of this research that demonstrates how media can influence and shape democracy is important,” said Udell. “It also shows that there are various sides to civic engagement, beyond politicians.”
The study consisted of 1,219 episodes from the 141 top-rated shows that were partially or entirely set in the United States or in a fictional world that reflected or parodied some aspects of “real life” in the U.S. (Fantasy programs, and those set in countries outside the United States, were not included.) A representative random sample of five episodes was selected from each show, resulting in a final sample size of 658 episodes after removing those no longer available for viewing. This final sample reflects more than half (54%) of the initial number of episodes.
L Miller, researcher and MFA student in the School of Communication enjoyed working on their second project with CMSI. They said, “I really value the work CMSI does to promote social justice and equity in media. CMSI is an excellent resource for students to get hands-on experience in media research, and to learn how organizations like CMSI put their values into action.”
Professor Borum is presenting the findings of the report at When We All Vote’s Culture of Democracy Summit in Los Angeles. You can watch her presentation live on June 13 at 1:55 PM PT/4:55 PM ET here: https://whenweallvote.org/democracy-summit-live/
To view the full study, visit https://cmsimpact.org/report/watching-out-for-democracy/.