Research looks at broad range of diversity, media issues
How do media affect people with disabilities? Are people of different races drawn to specific types of film? How does media reflect gender or racial identity?
Researchers at The Media School are tackling these questions and more that focus on diversity and human social issues as they seek to determine media’s effects. As they gather information and publish their work, they also take their ideas to the classroom to generate discussion.
Assistant professor Elizabeth Ellcessor said “diversity” research, especially in her own field of disability studies, is important because diversity in the media has the power to both create divisions and bring people together.
“That kind of community building is really important,” she said. “[Media users] may not know anyone else with the same exact set of circumstances.”
Ellcessor is drawn to disability studies and the field’s ties to the media, because she says it’s an area that hasn’t received enough attention in the past. Despite this lack of focus in past research, ideas about disabilities in society shape our everyday lives, she said.
“Television presumes you can see and hear. There are still no video descriptions, so if you are blind you have very few options beyond listening to dialogue,” she said. “There are no audio descriptions for setting or visuals, which would be helpful.”
These are topics “normal” media users may not take into consideration in their day-to-day lives, even though virtually everyone gains disabilities as they age.
“I think there’s a real taken-for-granted-ness that disability is something that affects other people, people over there,” she said. ”Some disability scholars say it’s the one identity category that, if we live long enough, everyone will fall into.”
Ellcessor said working with people in digital media accessibility allows her to communicate with a range of audiences outside academia to make her work more widely available.
Her book Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation was published last. Newer research for Ellcessor’s third book focuses on internet usage and people’s understanding of what access means, as well as work on emergency media and how it is accessed by people with disabilities and other minority groups.
Associate professor Andrew Weaver’s research also connects to issues of representation in media, recently particularly through movies. Weaver conducted a study on movie viewings and reception based on race. Using an IMdb format, Weaver studied people’s interest in watching films depending on race.
“The synopsis was the same, the cast was the same, except the little thumbnail picture changed,” he said.
Potential viewers’ interest in the movie changed according to these thumbnail pictures. White audiences were more interested in seeing movies with white casts. A follow-up study indicated that this was because potential viewers believed that they weren’t the intended audience of the film.
“If it’s about intended audience, to me that sounds like a marketing issue,” he said.
Weaver’s last study on the subject, which is preparing for publication, was designed to see if this marketing issue’s effects could be reversed. Using the same IMdb-based format, Weaver included Twitter responses so that other “reviewers” would have different thumbnails.
As it turned out, when white people tweeted about the film, the race of the cast did not matter. If a black audience tweeted about a black cast, white audiences remained unenthusiastic about seeing the film.
Weaver said that it is financially risky for filmmakers to experiment with their target audiences.
“Most of the time when a movie is made with a minority cast, it is made with a smaller budget and with the expectation that they’re going to primarily reach that minority audience,” he said. “And if the majority audience comes, great, but they’re not expecting it. They don’t need it to make money off the film. So it’s a smaller production budget and a more targeted marketing budget.”
However, Weaver said, broadening an audience through marketing can lead to more profit for filmmakers. There is a call for further research in this area to help them realize this opportunity and to broaden the marketing accordingly. Through economic arguments, filmmakers may take this research to heart.
“You can make more money with these films by expanding your audience,” Weaver said. “The racial segmentation is actually dampening box office returns.”
The United States is not the only place affected by issues of race, representation and diversity. On both a domestic and international scale, at the intersection of race and gender lies professor Radhika Parameswaran’s research, focused on colorism, sexism and the media.
Recent research by Parameswaran has focused on skin color discrimination and skin lightening commercials in India.
“Who are the communities that are speaking up about it? Who’s expressing protest? All in the media,” she said. “How is the media registering new forms of protest against this phenomenon? Is it similar to civil rights articulations—‘black is beautiful’? Is it different? What does it mean when Indians living abroad critique their homeland for these sorts of disturbing norms?”
Parameswaran has published and presented on the intersection of these topics, most recently in a study about how young people use comedy to create new narratives about skin lightening treatments in India. She is conscientious, however, about tying this research back to the United States by examining parallels between these norms in India and here in America.
A second project involves understanding how U.S. media represents the “new” India, one that is known more as an emerging market and rising superpower than a developing nation. She said using her own experiences as a U.S. citizen who immigrated from India has helped her guide this research.
“Traveling between two different cultures, with two very different kinds of economies but somewhat similar political systems, provides very good intellectual fuel for my work,” she said. “A lot of my research draws on those experiences of being an immigrant who is somewhat bicultural.”
Parameswaran said while she uses that inspiration as a springboard for ideas, she always expands on them through a variety of other sources. She’s beginning new research on Indian-American journalists and has created a database of them, because they have traditionally not been a large enough community to have been researched.
Indian-American citizens have been positively stereotyped as engineers or doctors, she said, but members of the community can and do much more, and in roles that create and expose a culture more than those who work behind-the-scenes jobs.
“I’ve been getting tired of it because Indian-Americans here are doing comedy—Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling,” she said. “And they’re doing other things. They’re doing art. Preet Bharara is a New York prosecutor. Kamala Harris is a politician in New York.”
To stay equally connected between the U.S. and India, Parameswaran travels to India every year. By balancing the two places, she is better able to build on connections in the classroom, she said.
“I always bring it back to the U.S. I never try to present something in another country as unrelated to something that’s going on here,” she said. “It just requires an empathetic lens to view it. I think it’s a useful teaching tool because it teaches us not to compartmentalize—‘that happens over there, this doesn’t happen over here.’”