Using artificial intelligence and archival news articles, a teenager in Northern Virginia created a program to measure media biases – and in researching older news articles, she found that Black homicide victims were less likely to be humanized in news coverage.
Emily Ocasio, an 18-year-old from Falls Church, Virginia, created an AI program that analyzed FBI homicide records between 1976 and 1984 and their corresponding coverage published in The Boston Globe to determine whether victims were presented in a humanizing or impersonal way.
After analyzing 5,042 entries, the results showed that Black men under the age of 18 were 30% less likely to receive humanizing coverage than their White counterparts, Ocasio told CNN. Black women were 23% less likely to be humanized in news stories, Ocasio added.
A news article was considered humanizing when it mentioned additional information about the victim and presented them “as a person, not just a statistic,” Ocasio said in her project presentation.
Her findings have not been reviewed by the larger scientific community, but she told CNN she hopes to expand her research and get it published in a scientific journal.
Ocasio’s project earned her second place in the prestigious Regeneron Science Talent Search on March 14 as well as a $175,000 scholarship.
Every year about 1,900 high school students from across the country participate in the competition, which started in 1942 and seeks to serve as a platform for young scientists to share original research.
Ocasio was among 40 finalists from more than 2,000 applications, according to Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science and executive publisher of Science News, who runs the competition sponsored by Regeneron.
“By using AI to document these biases, Emily shows that it can be safely used to help society answer complex social science questions,” her biography on the Society for Science website says.
Ocasio said she has always been interested in social justice and science and saw this project as an opportunity to combine them. “Without the research, and without the statistics, you have no ability of understanding that entire communities are being left behind,” she said.
Ocasio analyzed The Boston Globe’s news coverage because the newspaper had digital copies of its articles for the ’70s to ‘80s time period she focused on for her project, she said. CNN has reached out to the Boston Globe for comment.
Despite her findings, Ocasio believes science can’t explain everything: “You can never run an experiment in a lab that tells you about how racism works in society.”
Ocasio, who has Puerto Rican heritage, said her own experiences helped shape her perspective of different races and cultures, and drew her to researching racism and inequalities. She wants to replicate her research to analyze other news outlets as well, she said.
The talent search’s first-place winner, Neel Moudgal, told CNN the research done by the teenagers across the US is essential to helping solve some of society’s greatest challenges.
“I firmly believe that science is going to be the solution to a lot of our problems,” Moudgal said. His prize-winning project was a computer model that predicts the structure of RNA molecules to help develop tests and drugs for diseases such as cancer, autoimmune diseases, and viral infections.
Ajmera said seeing such projects from high school students gives her “an enormous hope for the future.”
“We’re looking for the future scientific leaders of this country,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the sponsor of the science talent search. It is Regeneron.