THE INSPIRATION AND THE QUESTION
Basing his research on the documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Waddell wanted to examine if viewers’ attitudes toward white-collar crime were substantially changed after viewing portions of this documentary, which details the unethical and illegal actions of the company’s executives that lead to its dramatic collapse in 2001 and presaged the recent spate of corporate collapses on Wall Street.
In pursuit of a minor in sociology, ommunication student Frank Waddell took a course titled “Social Organization and Social Problems” with Dr. Dale Wimberley. Of the many issues touched on during the course, the topic of white-collar crime made a particularly strong impression on Waddell – he came to realize that he, along with most Americans, possess a set of beliefs and attitudes toward criminal behavior that in many ways reflect a much distorted image of reality. He learned that so-called “white collar” crime costs U.S. citizens and consumers nearly $360 billion annually, eclipsing the economic losses from robbery and burglary combined. Further research into the issue revealed that deaths attributable to corporate misdeeds “such as serious industrial air and water pollution, defective products, and unsafe food and drug products far exceed the number of homicides each year” (Feagin, 1982). Most Americans hold erroneous beliefs that white-collar crime is much less prevalent and is more benign in its impacts than common street crime. In his research, Waddell also learned that white-collar criminals consistently receive much lighter sentences than those who commit common street crimes with comparable levels of harm or economic damage (Holtfreter, 2008; Ruggiero & Welch, 2009).
As a communication major interested in pursuing graduate work in filmmaking, Waddell increasingly found that his sociology studies were shaping his ideas for using film as a medium for social change. The process of applying to graduate programs gave him an opportunity to reflect on his personal goals for his academic and professional future, and one idea began to crystallize for him: he wanted to be able to use film to “make a difference” on the social issues that mattered to him. Once that idea formed in his mind, a question popped up: was there any evidence out there to support the idea that film is a measurably effective means of changing the public’s attitudes? It was this question that gave Waddell the push he needed to embark on his own independent undergraduate research project.
LEARNING BY DOING: THE “PILOT EPISODE”
For many undergraduates, the research process seems overwhelming. It has its own particular vocabulary and seemingly mysterious processes, which can intimidate even the brightest of students. Most benefit greatly from step-by-step instruction and mentoring as they embark into this new academic arena. An invitation to take Dr. Diana Ridgwell’s Research Methods class gave Waddell the structure and guidance he needed to take his idea and shape it into a workable research project. Emily Cheshire, the graduate assistant for the Undergraduate Research Institute also served as an invaluable resource for Waddell as he learned important skills such as writing his research proposal, gaining approval from the Institutional Review Board to do research on human subjects, selecting an appropriate research methodology, employing an appropriate sampling technique, and creating a well-designed survey. In addition, Waddell was also able to take advantage of the university’s technological support services through the Innovation Space to create an online interface for his research participants.
Once engaged in his project, Waddell soon found that the research process was more iterative than linear, with new information sending him back to re-think his original assumptions. A review of the literature on the topic, the ability of film to generate changes in people’s beliefs and attitudes, revealed a consistent finding: previously held beliefs could be strengthened through watching films whose message the viewer is already sympathetic to, referred to by media scholars as a “reinforcement effect.” However, little evidence existed that film (documentary or otherwise) had much power to change people’s thinking in substantial ways, which is known as a “conversion effect.” To Waddell, it was unclear whether the relative scarcity of “conversion effect” findings was the result of selective exposure bias: the tendency for individuals to seek out media messages that are already consistent with their beliefs and attitudes. This new awareness caused Waddell to consider whether he could design his own research project to try to control for selective exposure bias, thus gaining fresh insight into whether a measurable “conversion effect” could be observed. With the guidance of his research mentor, Cheshire, he was able to design his study and employ a sampling technique that would allow him to avert the selective exposure bias that makes it difficult to discern reinforcement from conversion effect.
Basing his research on the documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” Waddell wanted to examine if viewers’ attitudes toward white-collar crime were substantially changed after viewing portions of this documentary, which details the unethical and illegal actions of the company’s executives that lead to its dramatic collapse in 2001 and presaged the recent spate of corporate collapses on Wall Street. With technical support from the Innovation Space, Waddell created a Scholar site as a platform for his research. On the site, participants could log on and take a survey about their understanding and attitudes related to white-collar crime and then watch a series of short clips from the movie. After watching these clips, the participants completed a follow-up survey. With data from these pre- and post-surveys, Waddell hopes to measure the degree to which viewers experienced a change in their beliefs about corporate crime in relation to common street crime – in relative terms of prevalence and societal impacts.
Dr. Wimberley, the instructor whose class had inspired Waddell to pursue this research, commented on the potential role of documentary film as a vehicle for social change:
“In my Social Problems course I try to cultivate students’ abilities to recognize problems’ roots in such power inequalities . . . when people in powerful positions profit by creating social problems for others, they’re often quite good at deterring government officials from ‘interfering.’ So, ordinary citizens - people like the students themselves - need to get involved … Often a key part of grassroots solutions is simply to publicize the problem. Documentary films, now potentially easier to produce than ever before, can be great publicizers.”
Waddell’s research is still in process, and as his data collection portion is only just completed, there are no findings yet to report. The process itself however, has been highly instructive for this promising new researcher. He described his feelings about completing this project as launching his “pilot episode” as a researcher: where the characters are revealed and the plot is just beginning to unfold. We expectantly look forward to his next episode in the series.
ABOUT THE RESEARCHER
Frank Waddell is a senior communication major from the hometown of Mount Jackson, Virginia. He will be graduating in the spring, and plans to expand his academic studies at the graduate level. While Waddell is thankful for the contributions of many professors during his study at Virginia Tech, he would specifically like to highlight the assistance of Dr. Anthony Kwame Harrison, Dale Jenkins, and Dr. James Ivory for their continued guidance and support. Additionally, the project would not have been possible without the invaluable extended supervision provided by Dr. Diana Ridgwell and Emily Cheshire who navigated Waddell through the entire research process.