Spotlight on Research: Communication Professor Keeps Journalists in Check

Posted: April 25, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

“It has been my experience that what most viewers and readers are most unhappy about is not that journalists slant the news, but that we don’t slant it their way,” said Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes, in 1996. Determining which way news is slanted has become a career for Robert Lichter, professor of communication and director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA).

Robert Lichter
Robert Lichter
Photo by David Smith

Since 1985, Lichter and his former wife, Linda Lichter, have conducted real-time, scientific studies of the news and entertainment media, U.S. elections, and information about health risks and scientific issues. They publish a concise bimonthly newsletter, Media Monitor, which presents the central findings of one or more research studies. “Our scientific approach sets us apart from self-appointed media ‘watchdog’ groups,” says Lichter, “while our timeliness and outreach distinguish us from traditional academic researchers.”

Many of the center’s projects are dictated by current events. Presidential elections are perhaps the biggest of all the projects—and the ones that attract the most attention. Since its founding, CMPA has provided media analysis of five presidential elections. In 2004, CMPA tracked the three major news networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) plus Fox and CNN, and reported on positive and negative coverage of candidates, campaign ad messages, and the political subjects of late-night talk show monologues, among other topics.

As CMPA has grown in recognition, several agencies and organizations have commissioned the center to complete studies for them. The topics have ranged from the way Germany is portrayed in America to how rural communities are shown in the media. The center also has analyzed violence and sex in movies and television, and has explored the ways minorities, certain occupations, or other groups are portrayed in popular culture.

Lichter, whose doctorate is in political science, is most interested in how politics plays a role in the media. He is working on a book that tracks the presidency and the media from Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the present. He also is interested in the media’s role in reporting science and health stories, and plans to teach courses related to these topics at Mason.

Lichter also heads the Statistical Assessment Service, which, according to its web site, “monitors the media to expose the abuse of science and statistics before people are misled and public policy is distorted.” The organization focuses on education and child rearing, drug use and abuse, public health and disease, polls and surveys, gender issues, crime, and defense. It also provides guides and resources for journalists.

Recently, Lichter was coauthor of a study on the political affiliations of professors in higher education. According to the study, which was directed by Smith College professor Stanley Rothman and funded by the Randolph Foundation, there are more self-identified liberals than conservatives teaching in higher education. The findings were picked up by many major news outlets and were also the brunt of some criticism. Such criticism is not new to Lichter. CMPA itself has also been accused of bias from parties across the political spectrum.

“People react to studies based on their views, and so there will always be a debate when new information comes out,” says Lichter. “However, over time, good studies prevail and might even change some people’s minds. The truth is powerful.”

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