Race and ethnicity in the media: why representation matters

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Kelly Corcoran - Digital Communications Officer
Friday 09 February 2024
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Positive media representation around race and ethnicity is important for all children and young people. But why does it matter so much, and has it improved in the UK in recent years?

What is ‘representation’?

Media representation describes how different people and communities are portrayed in TV, film, news, and social media.

Good representation offers a diversity of stories featuring people of all backgrounds.

In the past and to this day, portrayals of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people have often created or reinforced harmful stereotypes. Such stereotypes promote a narrow understanding of those communities. This has the knock-on effect of contributing to real-life racism and discrimination.

Why representation matters

Representation matters because what we see in the media doesn’t just reflect reality – it also shapes it. On the other hand, positive representation can shift public opinion for the better and create greater understanding and appreciation between cultures and communities.

Inclusive storytelling ensures people feel seen and heard

Read about the representation of LGBTQ+ people in the media here

Read more

Representation and race today

UK media is not fully representative of the cultures and ethnicities that make up our population, especially at senior levels.

A survey of 100 major news outlets in the UK found that only 15% of the 80 top editors are non-white.

Reuters, 'Race and leadership in the news media 2021: evidence from five markets'

Meanwhile, research into structural racism in the UK journalism industry showed Black journalists and stakeholders feel "alone and unsupported" in the newsroom, frequently have their ideas rejected, are made to feel like they don't belong, and have no one in a senior position that they can talk or relate to.

What about awards shows?

Entertainment awards shows are another good measure of whether a diverse range of entertainers are being given opportunities in film and TV. The lack of minority ethnic performers receiving nominations and awards at the Oscars inspired the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and campaign. Even though the campaign is several years old now, not enough has changed.

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Has media representation improved in recent years?

Representation of minority ethnic people has risen over the past three years, both in front of the camera or microphone and behind the scenes.

However, in 2021 research found less than a quarter of four to 18-year olds in the UK believed they saw children that looked like them on television.

BFI, 'BFI research finds less than a quarter of 4- to 18-year-olds believe UK television represents them'

The result was children and young people turning towards social media channels like YouTube and Tiktok where they can find content and stories that better reflect their own lives. But racism still exists in these spaces, whether it’s in the comments section or the fact that Black content creators are still paid less than white ones for similar opportunities.

In addition, coverage of events like recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations or the treatment of Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, has prompted questions about whether the UK news media itself still has a racism problem.

Girl looking at the camera with a blank expression

Media representation that’s more than skin-deep

While advertising media has become more inclusive in recent years, marketing campaigns targeted at women and girls still tend to feature lighter-skinned Black, biracial, or 'racially ambiguous' women rather than dark-skinned women.

This is colourism - bias against people of darker skin tones - and young people with darker skin are still growing up with this harmful prejudice.

The lack of representation of dark-skinned people in the media is reinforcing it.

The Netflix campaign #FirstTimeISawMe asked people from minority groups when they first saw themselves reflected by a character on-screen. What this revealed is that it isn’t just about seeing a person of the same ethnicity as you on-screen.

Other factors like upbringing, ability, or hair type make a character feel like a real person that a viewer can relate to.

This is why fleshed-out characters, not stereotypes or two-dimensional characters, are so important.

Youth Voice

Children and young people have a right to be involved in the decisions that affect them. We want to amplify their voices in our work

Find out how

Children can’t be what they can’t see

Children and young people are still developing their sense of who they are. The media they consume plays a role in how they view themselves. A lack of representation can lead to children from minority ethnic backgrounds feeling invisible or unimportant.

This is wrong – no child should grow up feeling less valuable than others because of who they are or where they come from.

The more positive and varied representation of people from all races and ethnicities there is on-screen, the more that media can help children to grow up embracing themselves and others for who they are.

How Action for Children ensure youth voices are represented

Through our Young Ambassador's board, we are able to hear directly from young people about the issues that matter to them most.

We give the young people we work for a chance to represent themselves which helps to inform, shape, and influence our work.

Meet our Young Ambassadors

We're so excited to introduce the 2023 – 2025 board of Young Ambassadors!

Meet our Young Ambassadors

Good resources on race and representation for children and young people

Here’s a small selection of books for children and young people to help them discover new things about their own culture, or someone else’s.

  • 'Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Little Leaders: Bold Men in Black History, and Dream Big Little Leader' by Vashti Harrison

New York times best-selling series offering inspiring stories about Black men and women who changed the world.

  • 'All Are Welcome' by Alexandra Penfold

A lyrical story for young children where children from different races, circumstances, and religions get to know one another.

  • 'Where Are You From?' by Yamile Saied Méndez

An award-winning book for younger readers about heritage and how we are all born different.

  • 'The Story of Windrush' by K.N Chimbiri

An engaging account of the Windrush generation, who came from the Caribbean to Britain throughout the late 1940s and 1950s using factual accounts. Suitable for younger children as well as older readers.

  • 'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas

A hugely popular novel for young people 14 years and above about the shooting of a Black schoolboy by police in the US. It’s also been made into a movie.

  • 'Cuts Both Ways' by Candice Brathwaite

A sharp and funny love story for young adults that explores themes of race, class, and the complexities of growing up as a Black British teen.

  • 'You're Not Proper' by Tariq Mehmood

A novel about a young British girl whose journey to discover her father’s Pakistani Muslim heritage raises a lot of questions about diversity and acceptance.

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