Faculty, Students Study Muslim Portrayals in Media Middlebury

“I had just written a piece on what is Islamophobia and how do we measure it, and was also finishing my book The Freedom to Be Racist? The thing I noticed . . . is that there were a lot of discussions on things like hate speech and Islamophobia but not much in the way of concrete measures,” said Bleich. “So how do we see it actually in front of us as opposed to us talking about it in theory?”

As Bleich has continued his investigations, techniques in the Media Portrayals of Minorities Project lab have become more sophisticated. In 2012, the lab used solely what Bleich calls “human coding”: each researcher read headlines, one at a time, and analyzed them for tone. In recent years, the lab has embraced computer-assisted methods of “lexical sentiment analysis” (analyzing texts for tone) and “collocation analysis” (searching for words found in close proximity) to parse the complete text of hundreds of thousands of articles, often stretching over decades.

Bleich has partnered in this work with Maurits van der Veen, a professor of government with a background in computer science at the College of William and Mary.

Students interested in joining the lab typically enroll in what Bleich calls his winter term “boot camp” to learn the methodologies. They then apply these skills to their own research projects, which have ranged from media portrayals of Latinos to how race plays into media portrayals of mass shooters to comparisons of media portrayals of sexual misconduct in the Clinton and Trump eras.

“This spring we did a lot of number crunching,” said Souffrant. “It involved having the code to be able to run the program, and then looking at the raw numbers, looking at the different regressions, different valence scores of different subsets. . . . There was a lot of going through Strata [statistics software] and trying to find interesting things, seeing the things that did or didn’t match, and then looking into that.”

“We expected, despite the apparent neutrality indicated in our quantitative analysis, to find a bulk of articles discussing and critiquing the cultural ‘otherness’ of Islamic faith practices, the intense religiosity of Muslims (according to scholars, perceived to be in conflict with the secularism of Western societies), disproportionate coverage of scandalous/violent events involving Muslims, and generally, just an underlying negativity that we suspected the computer may have failed to detect,” said Stabler.

“Partly,” he said, “it’s about just the time we live in where everybody is just saying the first thing that comes to the tip of their brain; whether it’s true or not doesn’t seem to matter anymore. For me, that’s a very dangerous world to live in. Partly I’m trying to communicate to my students to delve more deeply into the facts in order to get this better understanding of the world that we live in. And part is that you’re never at the point where you should be willing to say, ‘I now have the final answer. I can stop thinking about it for all time. I’m done.’”