The media project analyzes the nationally leading major print news publications in the United States to examine their representation of Arabs, Muslims, Islam, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. Most of the research has focused on the New York Times, though comparisons have also been made with the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times was chosen as the leading national paper with liberal leanings and the Wall Street Journal as the leading national paper with conservative leanings.
The project began as a classroom assignment in 2003. Students in a Women’s Studies Gender in the Arab World class were asked to read any major US print newspaper for a two year period and identify patterns they found in the representation of Muslim or Arab women. The goal was to have students figure out for themselves, rather than my telling them, how the American media depicted Islam and Muslim women.
The assignment was a success. I began working with Interns to download articles 2000-2004 from a number of major newspapers. The plan was to find the kinds of words which were used in articles about Arabs and Muslim American citizens and Islam in America. With as many as 5-10 Interns joining the project at various points, and undergraduate and graduate student assistants, the project grew. Initially we developed a system of counting words by hand which was combined with a content analysis. The large cache of articles led us to limit the project to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Eventually projects diversified to include a project on representation of Lebanon in the New York Times, a project tracing the genealogy of key terms, a project on the veil. Each project covered different periods of time, with one starting in 1851, the earliest NYT available online. Several students wrote papers for conferences from work they did as Interns.
In 2007, a UC Davis graduate student working with me on the project introduced me to UC Berkeley Engineers, Laurent El Ghaoui and Babak Ayazifar who were interested in similar questions and were developing software to do the word analysis. Their software, producing “lexical images” of words, was far more sophisticated and reliable than our hand counts or our clumsy software. The two labs teamed up, relying on the Berkeley team to develop the software for statistical analysis and the Davis team to develop the social theory. By 2010, we had won two seed grants to test the software and our theories. The project is moving towards doing comparative analysis of representation of other ethnic/racial groupings.