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Lumen Scholar identifies historical media biases of minorities

In addition to writing a research paper, Caitlin O’Donnell ‘13 created a website to educate the public on the ways women and people of color have previously been marginalized by the press.

Elon University senior Caitlin O'Donnell with her Lumen Prize mentor, Professor David Copeland

“How did woman first become subject to man, as she now is all over the world?” James Gordon Bennett wrote in the New York Herald in 1852. “By her nature, her sex, just as the negro is and always will be, to the end of time, inferior to the white race and, therefore, doomed to subjection; but she is happier than she would be in any other condition, because it is the law of her nature.”

In 1942, Henry McLemore, a syndicated columnist for Hearst, stated his support for the “immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it. …I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them!”

And in 2001, just days after the fall of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon, The New York Times published an editorial skeptical of messages shared within the Muslim community. “Authentic Islam, the world has been told repeatedly in recent days, condemns terrorism, rejects violence against innocent civilians and advocates peace,” the newspaper said. “But without in any way questioning the value or sincerity of such statements, many people want to know whether these condemnations…are consistently and systematically communicated to primarily Muslim populations.”

Women. Native Americans. African Americans. Muslim Americans. Japanese Americans. Throughout history, each group has been viewed with skepticism and distrust by the media and American public as a result of a societal catalyst that propelled them into the national consciousness. For Elon University senior Caitlin O’Donnell, answering “how” was just as important as knowing “why.”

The journalism and history double major from Charleston, S.C., has used the university’s top prize for undergraduate research over the past two years to explore print media perceptions of minority groups. O’Donnell collected her findings, made presentations, published a thesis and created a special website to help researchers with similar interest in the media, and her work is the last to be featured this year in a series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2013.

Personal interest in the topic stems from a media history course O'Donnell took her sophomore year, combined with her own love of history that predates high school. She quickly connected the treatment of Japanese-Americans following Pearl Harbor to the treatment of American Muslims in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. In both instances, external events created fear within the public, an anxiety that required a common bond to overcome.

“The press wanted to unite the public around the idea of a national American identity,” she said. “They’re feeding the audience what they think they want to hear.”

Why the disparate views of women and African-Americans? O’Donnell said a corporate and government establishment comprised almost exclusively of white men perceived demands for equality as an affront to the fabric of society. Media treatment of Native Americans had a similar motivation - support for the government’s push to fulfill “Manifest Destiny” by uprooting inhabitants of the West to make room for white settlers.

Mainstream press was the vehicle by which most people found information and formed opinions. Stories and photos that painted ethnic groups or women in a negative light far outnumbered news outlets that offered contrarian or sympathetic views. “In almost every case, there was an alternative press,” O’Donnell said. “But the average American wasn’t reading those publications or seeking them out.”

O'Donnell shared her work this spring at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Wisconsin, at the North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium, and at Elon's own Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include coursework, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summer, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Funding from the Lumen Prize supported O’Donnell’s travels around North Carolina and to Washington, D.C., where she visited the Newseum for archival research. Her work included interviews with experts in the field of media history, and she purchased several books to assist in her studies.

“Caitlin's fascination and growth as a media history researcher has grown tremendously since she began her work as a Lumen Scholar,” said Professor David Copeland, O’Donnell’s research mentor. “She has taken her research skill to the next level as she has learned more and observed through primary sources the way media tend to frame people and issues and present them to society.

“Her research should reveal to us that groups of people considered outside of mainstream American society are rarely a threat to society even if society at a specific time in history perceives them that way. This is especially applicable today with the media's framing of Muslim Americans.”

Copeland said the website opens up the findings of her research to anyone looking for information on media and outsider groups. He noted how the website allowed O’Donnell to present information on multiple levels, from her research paper to simple quotes and comments for those who might not be interested in reading the entire thesis.

O’Donnell will spend the next two years working with Teach for America in her hometown with a focus on special education. The former editor of The Pendulum student newspaper discovered a passion for teaching over the past year and sees her journalistic training - from time management to balancing sources of information to condensing complex information for general audiences - as a perfect complement to leading a classroom.

She’ll use her knowledge to help students not fear those who are different.

“We’re at a point in our country where we have so many people who support the rights of others,” she said. “And we’ve come a long way in how we view people who are different than ourselves.”

Eric Townsend,
5/24/2013 8:00 AM