Creating the news

Phi Beta Kappa lecturer studies effect of media

April 22, 2010

How does the media impact decisions made by their readership? This was one of the research questions purposed by Doug McAdam, professor of sociology at Stanford University and this year’s Phi Beta Kappa lecturer.

The research McAdam presented focused on the 1996 spike in church burnings, specifically black church burnings, which corresponded with a rise in media coverage on the topic. An initial article was published in USA Today about black church burnings in the South. The story gained momentum until June, at which point three different journalists debunked the original story and the media dropped coverage.

At the same time, McAdam found that the number of church burnings steadily rose until it reached a zenith during the third quarter of 1996 with 109 burnings. A disproportionate number of those churches were black churches. Then-President Bill Clinton promised to create a National Church Arson Task Force. He did so and McAdam was asked to be part of the team. From his involvement, he received updates and statistics about church burnings.

“I didn’t intend to do anything with the data,” said McAdam. “It suddenly occurred to me that I could research this.”

An acclaimed author of social movements, McAdam began analyzing his data, wondering what circumstances correspond with church burnings and whether the media sensation around the issue caused subsequent church burnings.

McAdam said it seemed as though the media was promoting the attacks even though they were responding to attacks that already occurred.

McAdam’s research showed that region and history predicted church burnings. Arson against churches was more common in the Southern urban areas with higher populations of black citizens. The arsons are also more likely to be influenced by the media in areas that have a history of racism, though not necessarily where there is a concentration of hate groups.

“The hate groups are going about their business regardless of the media,” said McAdam. “Not so for lynching.”

In areas with a high history of lynching, the increased media attention seemed to predict where the burnings would increase after the media reported on a story. McAdam concluded that the media was not necessarily a factor in further burnings. However, the increased stories may have been responsible for some burnings.

McAdam felt the way racism is shown in the country has changed over the past century, arguing that racial dynamics are changing from a community to a personal belief. He expects further research to take changing dynamics into account.

During the question and answer section, McAdam spoke briefly about how the media can responsibly interact with potentially dangerous situations such as the barn burnings. A current example of media frenzy surrounds the Tea Party rallies.

“There [is] a lot of fanning on a lot of flames,” said McAdam. “I’m very concerned on how extreme the media has become on both sides.”

McAdam said that social scientists, such as himself, often look to the media as an official source in recording a specific culture or event. These researchers, however, must be aware of the media’s role in the controversy in order to fully understand the situation.

When a potentially dangerous story arises, McAdam said reporters should run with the story but be careful not to sensationalize and then self-correct in the case of making an error.

“The logic of competitive journalism is going to create errors,” said McAdam.

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