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Nicky Lewis

Assistant Professor in Communication

Media messages can have consequential effects on the populace, especially when the people being depicted differ ethnically from the media’s audience. Nicky Lewis’ research is uncovering just how influential individual portrayals in media can be.

Department of Communication Associate Professor Nicky Lewis specializes in mass communication, media psychology, sports entertainment and quantitative methods. Through her research, she examines the social-psychological processes and effects of the mass media.

“I spend most of my time trying to understand how we process media content and how it affects us,” Lewis said. “The media we are exposed to and the content we choose to make up our media diets can influence how we perceive the world.”

In line with CI’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, Lewis’ research explores how audiences respond to different portrayals of minority and majority characters. She specifically examines how variants of race, gender and social classes affect audience perceptions, emotions and behavioral intentions.

Published in Mass Communication & Society, “Latina teens’ identification with and social comparison to mothers on Teen Mom” was a project that aimed at seeing if young Latina women identify with the majority of white mothers featured in the reality show “Teen Mom” the same way white audiences do. Through her colleague’s outreach program for middle and high school Latina’s in south Florida, Lewis was able to assess how portrayals of teen pregnancy on TV influenced young Latina’s attitudes toward teen pregnancy.

Lewis and her co-authors found that despite the ethnic disparities between the “Teen Mom” mothers and the show’s Latina audience members, young Latina’s still identified with and looked up to the teen mothers. They were also more likely to think negatively about teen pregnancy.

Also using ethnic comparison, two of Lewis’ articles examine how race affects audience perception in the sports world. “Media portrayals of athlete-perpetrated intimate partner violence: An examination of the social ecological model, race, and communication perceptions” was published in the International Journal of Sport Communication and “Audience responses to media portrayals of professional athletes and intimate partner violence” was published in Communication & Sport. The coinciding projects sought to find if the race of an athlete who perpetrated intimate partner violence would influence audience beliefs.

Lewis and her co-authors created video packages of news coverage reporting on athletes charged with domestic violence. They manipulated the races of the athletes as they knew the media often, subconsciously or consciously, cover these stories differently depending on race. They found that Black athlete perpetrators were perceived as less violent than white perpetrators, but their victims were perceived as less credible. This suggests that audience perceptions of athlete celebrity, race and gender influence how they evaluate both the perpetrators and victims of intimate partner violence.

Lewis hopes her research can one day be implemented in media literacy programs, both in schools and across the media industry. Her work is just one way that the College and its researchers hope to positively impact the world and further the College’s goal of promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in the College and beyond.

“If we can better understand how audiences are influenced by media content, we could develop interventions, especially for younger audiences, to mitigate some of the negative effects,” Lewis said. “The more we study the actual content that audiences are consuming and the contexts in which they are consuming it, the more relevance our research can have.”

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