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Nicky Lewis

Assistant Professor in Communication

Nicky Lewis often jokes that her grandmother believes she has a degree in television. But the Department of Communication assistant professor's studies go deeper than that. As an award-winning mass media scholar, Lewis not only enjoys, but analyzes, a wide range of media for its content and impact on consumers -- and in turn, the world.

Lewis approaches her work through a social-psychological lens; she views people not only as individual actors in the world but as elements of complex social systems. She connects these processes to the media environment, focusing mostly on how people identify with, relate to and learn from media characters.

“[Your] consumption of content is going to influence the way [you] perceive people in the real world,” said Lewis. “I want to track the beliefs, attitudes, perceptions and eventually the behavior, of people to study what kind of effects media can have.”

The media effects discipline emerged from a rather “serious” place, focusing on news and political content, Lewis said. But, as a former sports producer, Lewis considered how the decisions she was making behind the camera influenced the viewer’s understanding of reality. This naturally translated into her graduate and Ph.D. research, she said.

“People don’t always choose to watch a lot of news or political content,” said Lewis. “I was interested in studying what people want to watch when they have their own choices, like sports and entertainment.”

Sport communication is one of Lewis’ primary fields of study. It is a somewhat new discipline, only garnering traction among researchers in the past 30 years. Lewis has contributed significantly to the field, with published works in journals like Mass Communication and Society, Communication and Sport and the International Journal of Sport Communication.

Research shows that sports audiences are unique. Unlike other consumers, sports fans are highly engaged in the personal lives of athletes. The more the consumer is invested, the fonder the player is perceived.

In one of her most recent studies, Lewis partnered with CI faculty members Jennifer Scarduzio, Anthony Limperos and graduate student Christina Walker. Their study, “Audience responses
to media portrayals of professional athletes and intimate partner violence,” analyzed audience perceptions of intimate partner violence conducted by professional athletes.

With the rise of reports focusing on intimate partner violence (IPV) in sports, Lewis was compelled to see how the perceptions of a highly engaged audience can be challenged. The team hired a sports videographer to create 10 different versions of the same news story, changing only three variables: the race of the athlete, the nature of the sport (NBA or MMA) and the severity of the violence.

569 participants were asked to watch various news clips and complete an assessment, noting the severity of the story, the degree to which the athlete is responsible and the credibility of the victim. In the end, the team found that the nature of the sport did not have any audience effect. And, unsurprisingly, the highly violent stories were rated as more severe.

What surprised Lewis, however, was the audiences’ understanding of race regarding IPV. She noted a “racial contradiction” for the athlete, as white athletes were generally perceived as more guilty than their Black counterparts. This contradicts traditional news coverage that typically overrepresents Black crime.

The opposite was true for victims, however; although the race and identity of victims were anonymous in the news story, audience bias associated Black perpetrators with Black victims. In moderately violent stories, victims who were perceived as Black were shown to be significantly less credible among audiences than white victims.

“This showed us that it is the victims in sports stories that are actually more at risk for negative perceptions and assumptions,” Lewis said. “This relates to the whole ‘gold digger narrative’ of athletes’ intimate partners, where people believe that victims must have done something to instigate the act of violence.”

“We can say out of one side of our mouth – ‘I accept all kinds of people and I support whatever athletes want to engage in as far as their political beliefs,' but when it comes to a situation of IPV, it's 'Well, she's just out for money,'" said Lewis.

Lewis hypothesizes that although people are grasping racial disparities in sports more, they may not be as willing to understand the relationship between race and gender. This, she says, leaves the door open for more research.

To her, it’s not only up to journalists to report on a subject wholly, but for the consumer to go the extra mile by understanding their biases and reading up on important stories. And it’s the responsibility of researchers like herself to track trends and offer practical perspectives.

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