President's Report

Caitlin O’Donnell ’13 identifies historical media biases toward minorities

Throughout history, minority groups have been viewed with skepticism and distrust by the media as a result of a societal catalyst.

Caitlin O’Donnell ’13 wanted to know how this happened and thought that answer was as important as knowing why.

O’Donnell, a journalism and history double major from Charleston, S.C., used the university’s top prize for undergraduate research to explore print media perceptions of minority groups. Throughout two years of extensive research, O’Donnell collected findings, made presentations, published a thesis and created a special website to help researchers with similar interest in the media.

Personal interest in the topic stems from a media history course O'Donnell took her sophomore year. 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.

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

O’Donnell found that 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 says. “But the average American wasn’t reading those publications or seeking them out.”

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. With the help of research mentor Professor David Copeland, she interviewed experts in the field of media history in addition to doing extensive literary research.

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