Brooke Barnett, assistant professor of communications, developed
a new approach to the traditional senior seminar class required
for all communications majors. The course focused on the topic of
media bias and students worked to gain some insight and understanding
of this complex issue.
topic of this course," explained Barnett, "came from my
own personal frustration in reading all these tomes about the liberal
media, conservative media and media bias in general, and trying
to make some sense of it myself."
class worked together for three months to help Barnett address this
issue. Class members included Dominic Barrett, Matt Belanger, Lindsay
Bird, Candace Buckman, Ashley Corum, Matt Crews, Sarah DeBock, Jason
Hepler, Amy Jo Jenkins, Barclay Keir, Jessica Kemp, Jocelyn Maningo,
Ryann McMillan, Scott McPhate, and Adam Smith.
With so much
media coverage devoted to this issue, it was not difficult for the
class to jump right into the mess. Students began by identifying
their own personal biases and trying to set them aside in order
to take an objective look at the media.
explained they were uncertain in the beginning if the media really
is biased. "Whether it's left or right I'm not sure,"
admitted senior Barrett. "I think hopefully that's what we'll
think they [the media] throw out the point that they try to include
both sides," said senior McMillan, "but I think there
is often a huge shadow one way or the other."
you have somebody saying this and somebody saying that, in the end
somebody is lying," said Barnett. "Who is it?"
In an effort to address this question, students next conducted individual
research on several media pundits, including Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly,
Al Franken and Eric Alterman, and tried to separate the truth from
the lies. Often, the problem is in the method of delivery, not the
thing I found was they were all technically right. It's just the
way they did it," said senior DeBock. "It's okay to present
a different view, but you have to do it properly." DeBock explained
that most pundits only use the information that helps their argument,
or use sources in ways that are unethical.
commented that the use of uncredited sources by some of these professionals
would constitute an honor code violation at Elon. "The fact
is, we would consider this to be shoddy research in an academic
setting. But the public does not have the time to try to sort through
all this, looking at the actual documents these people (media pundits)
are citing and make sense of it all, " Barnett said.
the pundit research, students developed individual projects on different
aspects of bias in the media. They found there are surprisingly
few academic studies that have tried to systematically measure media
at media watchdog groups," said senior Smith. "We were
so surprised that more research had not been done in this area.
Because so many people use these groups to monitor what is happening
in the press, you'd think more work would have been done to investigate
them. But that was what made our research important. These watchdog
groups had just not gotten enough attention."
think universities should be doing the work of this," said
Barnett. "Right now it's been journalists, pundits, and watchdogs,
but I haven't seen a real university effort to say what's really
going on here?"
The class completed
six separate research projects, each dealing with different topics
that related back to the central topic of media bias. The projects
of Media Bias - Keir studied admissions of bias by the media
and the public. Keir looked at 6 media outlets to determine if they
admit a bias in their outlet or the media in general.
Groups and Audience Perception of Bias - Debock, Corum and Smith
looked at the effect media watchdog groups have on audience perception
of bias and accuracy in news articles.
Daily Show" and Agenda Setting - Buckman and Kemp studied
"The Daily Show" as an agenda-setting tool for college
students through the use of both surveys and a content analysis
of one week of tapings.
of the Feb. 15 Protests - Bird and Barrett analyzed television
news framings of the protests against the preemptive war in Iraq.
on Television - Hepler analyzed five cable news programs with
popular pundits, looking at interview styles and guest quality.
Pictures - Maningo and McMillan analyzed photos of President
Bush and John Kerry in both Time and Newsweek prior to the 2004
of students created a video documentary following the process the
class went through as they struggled to understand such a broad
topic. After such extensive research, the students concluded that
media bias may not be in the media, but in the audience.
may be media literacy," said Barnett, "and I know people
don't like that phrase because media has to do with reading, but
I think it fits with what we're talking about, which is a wherewithal
to be able to make sense of the news."
the students took their work a step further, working to get the
word out on what the class had found in its studies throughout the
semester. "We spent a lot of intellectual energy working towards
some sort of higher meaning," said Barnett, "and I was
trying to find some ways to do something that would get beyond the
The group created
press kits detailing its work, and Barnett and her students have
been actively contacting different local and national media outlets
in an effort share the work they have been doing.
They will discuss
their work on the WUNC Radio program "The State of Things" in June.
They also appeared on a Burlington-area radio talk show - students
DeBock, Crews and Bird were guests on WBAG Radio, where they talked
about media bias with host Bill Huff on "Talk Line." They shared
their research projects on the program, and talked about the focus
of the class, answering general questions about media ethics and
to get the word out is student-written newspaper editorials; Barrett
and Hepler have written opinion pieces.