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ESPN, Race, and Presidents

Inspired by (and lifting large amounts of code from) Trey Causey's investigation of the language that ESPN uses to discuss white and non-white quarterbacks, I similarly wondered about the language ESPN uses to discuss white and non-white Presidents. For instance, a common stereotype is that non-white Presidents assassinate their citizens using unmanned drones, while white Presidents assassinate their citizens using polonium-210. Do such stereotypes creep into sportswriting?

Toward that end, I used Scrapy to scrape all the articles from the ESPN website that matched searches for (president obama), (president bush), (president clinton), and so on. This gave me a total of 543 articles. Then, using Wikipedia, Mechanical Turk, and a proprietary deep learning model, I categorized each of these Presidents as either "white" or "non-white".

Using NLTK, I tokenized each article into sentences and then identified each sentence as being about

  • one or more white Presidents
  • one or more non-white Presidents
  • both white and non-white Presidents
  • no presidents

Curiously, while there were very few "non-white" Presidents, there were nonetheless about four times as many "non-white" sentences as "white" sentences. (This is itself an interesting phenomenon that's probably worth investigating.)

I then split each sentence into words and counted how many times each word appeared in "white", "non-white", "both", and "none" sentences. Like Trey, I followed the analysis here, similarly excluding stopwords and proper nouns, which I inferred based on capitalization patterns.

Finally, for each word I computed a "white percentage" and "non-white percentage" by looking at how likely that word was to appear in a "white" sentence or a "non-white" sentence and adjusting for the different numbers of sentences.

After all that, here are the words that were most likely to appear in sentences about "white" Presidents:

plaque 5\ severed 4\ grab 4\ investigation 3\ worn 3\ unable 3\ child 3\ suppose 3\ block 3\ living 3\ holders 3\ pounds 3\ ticket 3\ blackout 3\ thrown 3\ exercise 3\ scene 3\ televised 3\ upon 3\ executives 3

Clearly this reads like something out of "CSI" or possibly "CSI: Miami". If I were to make these words into a story, it would probably be something macabre like

The President grabbed the plaque he'd secretly made from a living child's severed foot and worn sock. The investigation supposed a suspect weighing at least 200 pounds who could have thrown the victim down the block, not a feeble politician famous for his televised blackout when he tried to exercise but was unable to grab his toes.

In constrast, here are the words most likely to appear in sentences about "non-white" Presidents:

bracket 32\ interview 21\ trip 16\ champions 16\ fan 48 1\ asked 35 1\ carrier 11\ celebrate 11\ thinks 11\ early 11\ eight 11\ personal 10\ picks 10\ appearance 10\ far 9\ hear 9\ congratulating 9\ given 9\ troops 9\ safety 9\ fine 9\ person 9

This story would have to be something uplifting like

The President promised to raise taxes on every bracket before ending the interview. As a huge water polo fan, he needed to catch a ride on an aircraft carrier for his trip to celebrate with the champions. "Sometimes I get asked," he thinks, "whether it's too early to eat a personal pan pizza with eight toppings. So far I always say that I hear it's not." His safety is a given, since he's surrounded by troops who are always congratulating him for being a fine person with a fine appearance.

As you can see, it has a markedly different tone, but not in a way that obviously correlates with the stereotypes mentioned earlier. Whatever prejudices lurk at ESPN are exceedingly subtle.

Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg. The algorithm for identifying which sentences were about Presidents is pretty rudimentary, and the word-counting NLP techniques used here are pretty basic. Another obvious next step would be to pull in additional data sources like Yahoo! Sports or SI.com or FOX Sports.

If you're interested in following up, the code is all up on my github, so have at it! And I'd love to hear your feedback.

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