Student Research Lab Examines Media’s Portrayal of Minorities


Courtesy photo

Students and faculty of the Media Portrayals of Minorities pose for a photo.


The Media Portrayals of Minorities Project is a research lab working to uncover the ways that media outlets cover minority groups around the world. Erik Bleich, professor of Political Science, has been researching this topic since 2012, using tone analysis and computer programs to study the different ways that minorities are represented in the print media. 

Along with Bleich, Professor A. Maurits van der Veen at the College of William & Mary is a co-director of the project. The project also includes undergraduate student researchers, who can take a Winter Term course to study the methods and technologies necessary to conduct this work. Many students choose to continue their work in Bleich’s research lab during the academic year.  

On the project’s website, staff write that the goal of their work is to “track and explain how and why media representations of groups shift over time, vary across place, or compare to one another.” 

Previous topics that the project has studied include an analysis of the differences in the reports on sexual violence and misconduct during the so-called Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the varying words that media outlets use to describe Jews and Catholics. 

At the moment, Bleich and members of the lab are writing a book about the way that Muslims are portrayed in the United States and across the world. They use newspaper databases like Lexis-Nexis, Factiva and ProQuest to gather articles, which they then run through a computer program to identify articles containing keywords associated with Islam. 

Then, they study the tone of articles and determine whether they are positive or negative. This allows them to identify trends related to the overall portrayal of Muslims, or any minority group, in the media. 

Bleich was inspired to start this project when researching Islamophobia and was curious if there was a way it could be quantified in media outlets. After he began working with students on this assignment, they were motivated to use their techniques to study other groups on a broader scale.

Asked about the media’s impact on people’s perceptions of minority groups, Bleich said that “most citizens do not have frequent or meaningful encounters with people that are very different from themselves, so their impressions are often formed primarily through the media.” He further explained that often these impressions “shape the interactions we have in society as a whole.” 

Julien Souffrant ’19 said that his work at the project “was rewarding in the fact that it allowed me to do work that I believe could serve as a significant contribution to the field of politics and towards the conversation of media’s representation of minorities.”

While the Project has been working on some of these topics for many years, their evidence suggests that the media’s depiction of some minority groups has not changed much since the program began. Bleich said that articles about groups such as Muslims and Latinx people have not altered drastically over time, while articles about sexual assault have seen great changes in wording and tone since the time of Monica Lewinsky. 

According to the piece on sexual violence and misconduct posted this month on the Project’s website by Mira Chugh ’20, news outlets are now more frequently using language that “frames [sexual violence] as a more systemic issue,” rather than an incidental one.

 Bleich said that often their end results are often different than they originally anticipated.  Given that members of the lab are constantly surprised by the outcomes, Bleich hopes that students can learn from their work that “all of our assumptions need to be tested before we can be sure they are right.” 

More info on the lab can be found at