Describe your research and how it impacts society?
I teach and conduct research on the effects of mass media and political communication on stereotyping and prejudice, especially with regard to public opinion about race and sexual orientation. For example, my recent book, The Obama Effect: How the 2008 Campaign Changed White Racial Attitudes, co-authored with Diana Mutz, reveals that mass media exposure to the innumerable images of Obama and his family countering negative stereotypes helped to reduce white racial prejudice during the 2008 presidential campaign.
I am working on many projects. One examines how racial fears — specifically, the view that black elected officials unfairly favor blacks over whites — have influenced support for President Obama. This is relevant to understanding the role of race in support for Obama, but more broadly it takes up the long-standing idea that majority group members often withhold support for minority political candidates because of fears of group favoritism. If true, as my evidence suggests it is, then this idea is potentially applicable to a wide variety of contexts, both nationally and internationally.
My research and teaching are directly about practical, real-life situations. For example, my research on victim narratives in the media examines how portraying minorities as helpless victims of societal discrimination may paradoxically be both beneficial and worrisome — on one hand, promoting sympathy and government action, but on the other hand harming minority group members’ pride and confidence in themselves. The context for the study is anti-gay bullying, a topic with continuing relevance to peoples’ lives. The results of the study will be relevant to both lobbying efforts to change ongoing media portrayals of LGBT community members and other social groups, as well as public information campaigns designed to reduce prejudice among majority group members and produce more positive self-images among minority group members.
How did you get started on your career?
As an undergraduate in an introductory course on media and public affairs, my inspiration came from the realization, after reading Marshall McLuhan’s classic book, Understanding Media, that nothing exists independent of the process of communication. To that point I had been interested in sociology, psychology, and politics, but unable to decide which to study; communication proved to be the common denominator among them.
I had also long been passionate about doing work that could improve people’s lives. I tried various angles for effecting change – grassroots activism, nonprofit lobbying, journalism, government, and, of course, academic research. It surely seems crazy to most people to think that research is the stronger path to change, but in my experience it has been the only place where I, as an individual, can decide what is important rather than being tasked by an employer with what they consider to be important. What motivates me is figuring out how ongoing media portrayals influence prejudicial attitudes and, even more importantly, how to employ media interventions to help reduce intergroup conflict.
What have been your major contributions to the field so far?
I am most proud of my contributions to research and teaching as represented in The Obama Effect and my related undergraduate courses. The book suggests a fundamental re-ording of how most political communication scholars study prejudice – that is, as a stable predisposition exerting influence on other beliefs and behaviors, especially voting. This narrow approach has contributed to an incredibly pessimistic perspective because of the assumption that prejudice is intractable. The Obama Effect contradicts this conventional wisdom by demonstrating that mass public exposure to positive images of minorities – in this case, counter-stereotypical images of Obama and his family – can help to chip away at prejudiced beliefs.
What are some interesting classes that you teach?
Sprouting from my research, my new course on Mass Media and Prejudice (Comm 497AP) focuses on understanding not only how current media portrayals influence levels of prejudice, but also what sorts of media portrayals could help to reduce prejudice. Last year I also introduced a more specialized course that gives students an opportunity to study Media and Public Opinion about LGBT Rights (Comm 290AH), a topic with obvious resonance in both contemporary politics and students’ lives. And this coming semester I am offering another new course, Race, Media, and Politics (Comm 390AH). In light of the election of America’s first black president, the course takes on the important task of trying to understand just how much change in racial politics has occurred in America and the role mass media has played in producing these changes.
Students should take my classes if they are interested in understanding the role of mass media in questions of prejudice, politics, and social identity. Broadly speaking, these courses examine how social groups are portrayed in the media and the impact those portrayals have on popular perceptions of these groups.
What is the best thing about teaching at UMass?
I came to UMass Amherst in fall 2013 for a variety of reasons, foremost among them that I was given the opportunity—and the freedom—to teach and do research on social questions that I believe are important. In particular, the Department of Communication is not only a widely renowned center of excellence in the field but also values diversity in broad terms. Especially as someone who takes an interdisciplinary approach, I find the Department of Communication to be an extremely welcoming environment. My joint appointment with the Honors College underscores both tenets – excellence and diversity – and drew me here with the very attractive benefit of teaching small, interdisciplinary courses to bright and highly motivated students. I have been very impressed by the level of interest and thoughtfulness of UMass students. They care a great deal about the world around them, and I connect with them on that level 100%.
Story and video by Jamie Robinson.