The double-edge sword of mass communications: Is stereotyping inevitable?

This is a guest post by Sheridan McCrae, the first in a series of seven blog posts from my International Development Communications students at Georgetown University’s Public Relations and Corporate Communications Masters Program.


I recently had an ‘aha’ moment about some of my word choices. I may misrepresent my intended sentiment due to the derogative connotations associated with them.

It got me thinking about how we, as professional communicators, need to constantly be vigilant in assessing the way our own messages are received by all kinds of audiences.

I read several articles that suggested that using the term ‘Africans’ is inappropriate, as it disregards the diversity of citizens in uniquely different countries on the African continent. Patrick Gathara believes media references to ‘Africa’ help to perpetuate the single story (highlighted in a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche) by reducing “the tale of a continent of over a billion people and 54 countries, their existence, history and stories compressed into one simple, superficial, easily regurgitated cliché. The hopeless continent. Africa rising. Magical Africa.”

So should official national borderlines be our minimal benchmark when referring to societies? I would certainly distinguish Ethiopian culture when compared to Ghanaian culture, for example. But even this narrowed terminology does not recognize the nuances of specific regions and tribes that each identifies differently – there are over 80 ethnic groups with their own variations of language, music, customs, and foods in Ethiopia alone.

How deep down into nuance do we need to go to avoid stereotyping or generalizing that misrepresents and offends people? Are there situations when could it be offensive to ignore the differences within those borders? I found myself wondering: where do professional communicators (journalists, educators, public relations specialists) draw the line in recognizing an individual’s uniqueness?


Stepping back for a moment, I recognize that human beings inherently use some degree of narrative shortcutting when interacting with others. If we were to use every qualifier that distinguishes one unique person from another, our listener may have turned off before we reached the intended point of the conversation. Instead, we group things of similar characteristics and use symbolic labels that act as proxies to get our meaning across; runners, animal-lovers, Christians, mothers.

This act of generalizing details and stereotyping has been studied for decades in the field of social psychology and anthropology. There also are the related concepts of identity, representation, voice, and the somewhat more sinister cousin – othering. By using othering phrases, people seek to distinguish themselves from another group of people (them, those people, the impoverished, the illiterate) whose differences they usually perceive as inferior.

This is where I find my profession of strategic communications can get murky. Public relations specialists are trained to craft and tailor messages to resonate with specific groups of people. We segment populations based on characteristics they tend to have (e.g. similar self-interests, motivations, ways of receiving information, socioeconomic and education levels). Then we frame and package information by highlighting the aspects that will resonate. Sometimes the approach is identifying universal needs to connect disparate populations, but more often than not, it is encouraging identification within a certain group.

This strategic rationale is based on it being both more effective and more efficient. To break through the clutter of messages that audiences receive daily, we reason that it is necessary to create content that stands out to specific groups of individuals and directly appeals to them by having personal resonance. Plus it would be unfeasible to construct unique personalized messages for every individual.

Whilst we profess to represent the issue or character in an accurate way, in reality the practice of framing and tailoring tends to strip back the nuances. Specific characteristics are highlighted, which consequently minimizes others, often intentionally.  This can be a slippery slope. Taking a complex issue and simplifying it for lay-audiences can miss essential context as evidenced by some Ugandans’ reaction to viewing Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video.

Social impact-oriented communicators within international development face an additional conundrum because the stakeholders are typically at significantly different ends of the power/wealth spectrum. Highlighting the desperation of a poor woman may raise funds, but can have a dehumanizing affect if we focus on only one dimension of her circumstances.

I gained valuable insights on these matters during our International Development Communications class, where with fellow public relations colleagues, we created a list of principles or guidelines (forthcoming!) to consider when communicating about international development.

But I am still grappling with the question of what level of nuance do we need to cover to accurately represent a unique individual when reaching large audiences? Is there a tipping point for acceptability or offense when grouping people as similar? And is it actually the level of generalization or is it the derogative association that is offensive?

What are your thoughts?


Sheridan McCraeSheridan McCrae is a communications strategist focused on social impact issues. Originally from Australia, Sheridan has spent 15 years living in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and is currently based in the Baltimore/Washington DC area of the US. She has worked with communities and NGOs in Ethiopia, India, Malawi, Tanzania, the US, and Zambia – focused on and fascinated by the interactions between human health, livelihoods, and the environment.

These days she shares stories about inspiring individuals and innovative community development projects through the strategic use of photography, video, writing and digital platforms that portray context, culture, and universal human experience. Sheridan is currently a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communications, working on storytelling research that involves developing training resources tailored for smaller non-profit organizations.

Sheridan holds a Master of International and Community Development degree from Deakin University and will complete a master’s degree in public relations and corporate communications from Georgetown University this summer.

Connect with her on Twitter.


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One Comment

  1. Joe Shaffner

    Finding that tipping point is extremely challenging. You will never be able to represent everyone.

    I believe the key is to take time to talk with a variety of people you are intending to represent through your communication. By doing so, many of your questions may be answered for you.

    The formation of African countries by European colonialists (e.g. as occurred during the Berlin Conference of 1884-85) was pretty arbitrary, with no regard for the ethnic and cultural differences you mention. It was more like a board game than anything else – only the cost to human life was egregious.

    The best way to approach Africa may well be to look beyond the rigidity of colonial borders, to be open to finding new connections among and distinctions between the people, and to spend a lot more time listening than talking.

    Your post, which asks a lot of questions, is an important step towards changing the approach. Rather than assuming you have all of the answers, you challenge preformed notions and get a little closer to that tipping point.

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