New Center to Study Diversity in Media
Julius Riles, an assistant professor of communication, says one of the things that attracted him to the University of Missouri was a proposed media diversity center. Prior to his hiring last fall, Riles had been in contact with MU Associate Professor Lissa Behm-Morawitz, and the pair discovered their research interests aligned closely.
“Looking at ways we can enhance the diversity of portrayals in the media, and the way those portrayals can influence society to engage in more productive and diverse types of social exchanges—that’s right in my wheelhouse,” Riles said during an interview last May. The Department of Communication officially launched the Media & Diversity Center last week. Riles and Behm-Morawitz are the center’s co-directors.
“When we say diversity, we’re thinking about diversity in very broad ways, so of course things like gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, but also things such as mental health, disability, and religion,” Behm-Morawitz says. “We hope to build momentum behind gathering expert researchers and scholars who work in this area and drawing them together so we can share resources and have a larger impact with the research we are doing.”
She says the center also plans to train future social scientists to examine issues of diversity in media. To that end, the center has gathered a team of graduate and undergraduate research associates who will receive methodological and theoretical training for conducting research.
Behm-Morawitz says the center also would like to have a community impact by introducing a media literacy initiative locally.
“Media literacy is not a natural ability—we all have to work on and learn how to access, think about, reflect on, and create media,” she says. “This comes down to things like helping parents make media choices that are in line with their own values, navigating media use with their children, or talking about news with young adults.”
Behm-Morawitz says the center eventually hopes to partner with community organizations related to youth and parenting to introduce its media literacy initiative.
A casual tour through the media landscape reveals a diverse environment, especially compared to 10 or 20 years ago. Behm-Morawitz says that while African-American representations in the news and entertainment industries have improved markedly over the last few decades, other groups, such as Hispanics or Asian-Americans remain underrepresented when compared to U.S. Census Bureau population data. She also says too many representations in the media remain stereotypical, such as depictions of depression or mental illness.
“Stereotyped representations in entertainment media may have a negative effect on us seeking out our own mental health assistance,” she says. In fact, Riles’ dissertation at the University of Illinois focused on media influence by looking at the question from a health-care context, researching how depictions of mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disease influence social perceptions toward people with mental illnesses.
Behm-Morawitz says researchers also are interested in the ways people interact online, how people represent their social identities, and how they reinforce their beliefs by just attending to certain types of media.
“Media are fundamentally important to our culture,” she says. “The stories we tell matter in our understanding of the world and our understanding of who we are.”