No journalism student had ever represented EIU at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR), but Dave Balson helped change that in March when he traveled to Ithaca, N.Y., to present The Voices That Heat the Kettle: Racist Views Promoted by the Tea Party Movement's Favorite Media Figures, a study of racism within the increasingly popular Tea Party movement.
"I didn't see a whole lot of coherent, well-stated, unified policy that (the Tea Party) wanted," remembers Balson, who did his research in Fall 2010. "The other things that did emerge were a lot of signs and language that reflected some pretty racist sentiment. That troubled me. I wanted to see where the tea party went in the media for information and how (those media) dealt with race. I wanted to see if that was a reflection of those signs and sentiments."
Balson's research led him to study the work of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. Over a 20-day period, he watched or listened to at least an hour of their programming on each day their shows aired. In all, it ended up being 11 to 12 hours of each figure's programming.
"Then I looked at how they dealt with race and how it was brought up," says Balson. "I looked at why they talked about race and when they talked about race. Overall, I think it painted a very divisive media landscape for a Tea Party member who happens to tune into these programs every day. Not only was it very divisive, but also one in which race is a constant issue and other races are always the enemy. Enemies are always of a different race than the good, white Christian Americans.
"I think we have a responsibility to point to the promotion of racism wherever we see it, especially in the media. I think there are a lot of people who want to believe we live in this post-racial world and that all the divisions in the media are partisan. It's just not the case, though. There is active racism being promoted; these shows are incredibly popular — the most popular of their kind. If racist views are being promoted in them, I think that has a big effect on all the people who tune in."
The spark that lit Balson's fire for this subject came from his Department of Journalism coursework; he was enrolled in Race, Gender and the Media with Dr. Eunseong Kim — a first-year course and a combination of Minorities in the Media and Women in the Media — and broached the topic in a research paper.
"Students came up with a topic relevant to this course, and they were expected to do full-fledged research along with collecting and analyzing data," says Kim, who was impressed with Balson's extensive work and submitted it for presentation at NCUR. "In my research-based courses, I expect my role to be that of a coach or advisor. It's up to each individual to take it from there and expand the study."
Kim also made the trip to NCUR for the Department of Journalism's maiden voyage to the prestigious event. She served as faculty mentor for three other students representing the College of Arts and Humanities, including another journalism major, a communication studies major and a sociology major.
"I like that the students got a taste of this and saw what others are doing," says Kim. "I think they realized there's a lot more they can do."
Balson also recognized just what an honor it was to represent EIU at NCUR.
"I was really proud of EIU," says Balson. "There were a lot of us there. I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of amazing work that goes on at this school. We came in with research as good as anybody else's in the country."
When one thinks of journalism, that person probably doesn't automatically think of research projects in the same way such work is identified with the sciences. Despite that, Balson, who currently serves as the opinions editor for The Daily Eastern News, feels this work helped him grown as a journalist.
"It was not the kind of work I'm used to, and it was difficult to try to do the kind of slower, scientific work involved," admits Balson. "It was good for me, though, and it definitely improved my skills as a journalist. A journalist has to make sure everything he says is backed up by evidence, and this was good experience for that."