Capstone Seminar group
examines media bias


By Jessica Kemp

This semester, 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.

"The specific 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."

The 15-member 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.

Most students 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 examine."

"I 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."

"When 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 actual content.

"The basic 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.

Several students 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.

Following 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 bias.

"We looked 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."

"I 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 were:

Admissions 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.

Media Watchdog 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.

"The 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.

Framing of the Feb. 15 Protests - Bird and Barrett analyzed television news framings of the protests against the preemptive war in Iraq.

Pundits on Television - Hepler analyzed five cable news programs with popular pundits, looking at interview styles and guest quality.

Presidential Pictures - Maningo and McMillan analyzed photos of President Bush and John Kerry in both Time and Newsweek prior to the 2004 Presidential election.

Another group 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.

"The problem 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."

Barnett and 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 classroom."

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 bias.

Another effort to get the word out is student-written newspaper editorials; Barrett and Hepler have written opinion pieces.



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Last Modified:  5/10/05
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