ICIR Scholar Spotlight: Dr. Scott Parrott

Jun 21, 2016

Dr. Scott Parrott studies media and social cognition, or how media shape the way one thinks about other people and the mental processes by which this occurs. He is also interested in how mass media portray social groups.

What made you interested in your field?

In my former life, I was a news reporter in North Carolina. I was actually an investigative reporter toward the end, so we did these big projects, and the last major project I worked on was about mental health care. North Carolina had fallen on hard times –they had restructured the old mental health system, but it was not doing well. We did 19 or 20 articles on this topic. While I was reporting, I met a lot of people with a range of mental illnesses like anxiety to schizophrenia. They kept saying one of the major problems that they face in terms of healthcare and living healthy lives is how people with mental illness are portrayed in the media. The media do not do a good job of telling the world what it’s like to live with a mental illness, and so the things that people think about mental illness are usually wrong. This can lead to stereotypes, stigma, and problems for society. I made the transition from reporting to academia, and now I have the opportunity to see if they were right- and guess what, they were right.

Why is research needed in your field?

I think we underestimate the influence of media in our lives. Think about your own day -from the time you get up to the time you go to bed- and how often you interact with the media, even if it’s watching a movie or using social media. I think it’s really important to understand what kind of effect that’s having on us and why: the why is a big question in research. You’re not really supposed to be an advocate when it comes to research; you’re supposed to be neutral. But if your research can do good and try to change stigma, like the ones attached to mental illness, then that is a good thing.

What are some of the steps to your research process?

A lot of white boards. I think my problem is I’m interested in too much, so I have to put the blinders on and focus on one thing at a time. I have a difficult time with that because there is just so much in the world that is interesting, especially when it comes to media and the way our minds work. I, typically, just start with an idea that gets the wheels spinning. Then the next thing is to read as much as you can on the topic and see what’s been done because usually there’s not an idea that is completely original. The design is really important especially when it comes to experiments because you have to be sure that what you’re measuring is what you’re measuring with the questions you ask people. With media content, you’re exposing them to types of media, so you have to be sure the stimulus material is getting at what you’re interested in. Usually that’s it. It sounds really short, but it’s actually a time-consuming process.

Do your findings alter preconceived notions that you’ve had on a subject?

Yes. For instance, I do gender research as well, and there was a study we did recently where we looked at crime-based television shows and how they portrayed gender. Essentially, we found that women were underrepresented, so it was a predominantly male television world. But then when women, white women in particular, appeared in these programs, they often became victims of violence by random strangers, which completely disregards statistics from the FBI. So there is some kind of gender message going on there. The question for me again is why, why is this happening? I came up with this experiment where participants came in and sat down at the computer and I announced that they would write a script for a TV show. I told them that I was randomly going to assign them a genre, it could be anything from an ER drama to a sitcom, but really everyone got crime dramas. Ninety percent of the scripts had a female victim because of gender stereotypes. We view males as protectors, while we consider females in need of protection. However, the surprising finding was as I was reading the scripts later on, a pattern emerged. A lot of the scripts began with ‘a women is walking home alone from work at night and she is attacked from behind.’ So I used software to check that I wasn’t reading too much into it, and it turns out that the same description kept turning up in the scripts. These results took the research in a whole new direction, and it’s starting to look at what’s happening mentally. We are basing our perceptions of crime, mental illness, and other things on what TV is telling us, and TV is telling us lies. It shapes how we interact with the world.

What do you need to conduct your research?

I do content analysis, so I don’t need much to do my research. I just need people who enjoy doing the same types of research. So every Thursday I get together with a couple of Emerging Scholars students and we sit in a computer lab and analyze content -right now we are looking at portrayals of schizophrenia in news organizations. They’re great help. The other thing I use is a software called inquisit, which is something they use in psychology to measure reaction times.

Why do you involve others in your research?

It’s a lot more fun. My mentors, at some point, introduced me to research. Then I went to graduate school here, and later at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and participating in research was one of the most rewarding things in my life. It did completely change my life. I remember sitting in classes and my mind would be blown. I really like working with undergraduates and master students because they haven’t been introduced to much of the research world. When you can just see that excitement and fascination kicking in, it’s really rewarding.

*This interview was originally published on the ICIR website as a “scholar spotlight.”