Five Questions with Travis Dixon
Travis Dixon is a Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Dixon has received five top paper awards and a top article award from the Mass Communication Division of the National Communication Association. Dr. Dixon is the author of numerous publications on media effects and stereotyping, particularly in the news.
- What is your current research focus, and can you share something interesting or exciting you’ve come across recently?
My research has increasingly turned to the content and effects of digitally mediated stereotypes. For example, I recently conducted a study funded by Color of Change and Family Story that examined racialized stereotypes of families appearing on stand-alone news websites and in traditional news outlets. I found that Black people tended to be portrayed as poor, welfare dependent, criminal, and fatherless. Conversely, these digital sites portrayed White people as coming from stable families. In another study, we tested the effects of disinformation about racial stereotypes typically propagated on social media and far-right websites. The Research Board at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign funded this research. This experiment found that exposure to disinformation propagating African Americans or undocumented Latino immigrants as criminals increased stereotype endorsement and, in turn, increased support for punitive crime policy. I co-authored this study with Marisa Smith, an incredible graduate student, and we shared the results at the recent NCA Annual Convention.
- Much of your research focuses on racial stereotyping in television news. Can you describe how such stereotyping has changed, if at all, since you began researching in the late 1990s?
The main thing that has changed has been the extent to which various news topics have risen and fallen during the last two decades. Black people have been associated with crime in more uneven ways than I anticipated when I first started. At times their representation has improved; at other times it has gotten worse. While all of this is occurring, Latinos have moved from invisibility to being heavily stereotyped as immigrant criminals. Meanwhile, the Muslim terrorist stereotype has steadily risen in news since 9-11. These patterns remind me that content analyses are simply snapshots, and that no portrayal is frozen in time.
- Do you have any suggestions for how journalists or news networks can change their practices to reduce racial stereotyping?
The biggest thing is being cognizant of changing audiences that are becoming more diverse. The more journalists and news outlets realize it is in their financial best interest to cover people of color more favorably, the better their coverage will become.
- Can you tell us about some of your most inspiring mentors in the Communication discipline, and how they have influenced your journey thus far?
Obviously, I would not be here without the support of my doctoral advisor, Dr. Daniel Linz. Dan was willing to accept and support my interest in media stereotypes, when few other scholars were willing to do so. Dan continues to inspire me to do “good work.” In addition, while I was still in graduate school, I met Dr. Mary Beth Oliver at a conference – I think back in 1994. Mary Beth has been a constant source of inspiration and support. She is incredibly intelligent and empathetic. Few people are both supremely genuine and talented. Mary Beth is both of these things and more. I strive to be more like her even to this day.
- If you had to do it over again and were just starting out as a young Communication scholar, what advice would you give to your younger self?
My main advice would be to never count yourself out. In addition, always keep working hard toward improvement – no matter how high you may rise.