Lowe Presents Research on Sundance Film Festival Panel

left to right: Erick Castrillon (Blast Beat), Ekwa Msangi (Farewell Amor), Jose Antonio Vargas (Define American), Sarah E. Lowe (Define American), and Stacey Walker King (MACRO)
Left to right: Erick Castrillon (Blast Beat), Ekwa Msangi (Farewell Amor), Jose Antonio Vargas (Define American), Sarah E. Lowe (Define American), and Stacey Walker King (MACRO)

Doctoral candidate Sarah Lowe appeared on a Sundance Film Festival panel titled “Moving the Needle: How Immigrant Stories Are Shifting American Culture.” Lowe, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in health promotion and policy under the mentorship of Aline Gubrium, serves as the head of research and impact at Define American, the nonprofit founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented American, Jose Antonio Vargas.

Define American worked with the University of Southern California's Norman Lear Center to analyze the demographics, socio-economic and social representations of immigrant characters depicted in mainstream television in both the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons. The researchers examined immigrant representation in 97 episodes of 57 popular scripted TV shows. Additionally, the team surveyed 940 viewers of three shows that featured accurate and authentic immigrant storylines in the 2018-2019 viewing season to examine any shifts in attitudes or behaviors associated with viewing the storyline or not. The audiences surveyed were viewers of the shows “Orange Is the New Black,” “Superstore” and “Madam Secretary.”

Lowe joined Define American founder Vargas and Erick Castrillon from Blast Beat and Ekwa Msangi from Farewell Amor on the panel. The group presented a sneak peek of their research findings to writers, directors, producers, funders and other content creators seeking to use their platforms to lift up accurate and diverse immigrant portrayals via their platforms.

“Early findings show a positive shift – fewer immigrants were associated with a crime on TV in 2019 than in 2018, a drop from 34% to 22%.,” notes Lowe. “However, in reality, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans so much work is still left to be done on television in order to more accurately reflect the lives of immigrants in the U.S.”

“It felt amazing to be talking about research in a space like Sundance,” adds Lowe. “To have writers, directors, producers and other creatives in the room, hungry to hear how their work is impacting audiences and how to use the power of storytelling for community education and social good – that's a narrative researcher's dream.”

Lowe joined the community health education program following a career path centered on storytelling at companies like Disney and PBS. “I had started to see how stories could move people and I wanted to know how narrative and participatory methods could be used to improve the lives of the communities I was volunteering in, new immigrant communities,” says Lowe. “I am so very grateful to my mentor, Aline Gubrium, and the community health education faculty for taking a chance on me – betting that someone with eclectic experience like mine could be shaped into a scholar and researcher. My UMass studies and my work with Define American have led me to the intersection of a fresh, exciting field of research today, one in which I wake up every day feeling excited by the work and hopeful about its impact.”

The full report will be released in mid-March. To sign-up to receive the report when it is released, go to Define American's website