Date October 12, 2016
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Economist Jesse M. Shapiro to deliver Presidential Faculty Award lecture

Shapiro, known for finding answers to economic questions by looking in unexpected places, will discuss his work using text as data.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —Jesse M. Shapiro, the George S. and Nancy B. Parker Professor of Economics at Brown, will deliver a Presidential Faculty Award lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 25, titled “How to Talk Like a Republican, and Other Lessons from Using Text as Data.”

Shapiro, who joined the Brown faculty in 2015, seeks to use rigorous statistical methods and novel data to answer economic questions that are important for public policy and society. His presentation will focus on how to use text as a source of data to understand economic and political behavior.

“What we’ve found is that the words people use in the political domain reveal a lot about their motivations and the economic environment they are in,” Shapiro said. “Words and other features of language are likely to be an increasingly important source of data for social scientists in the years to come.”

Shapiro has measured the political slant of American news coverage and gauged how partisan speech contributes to political polarization. In these studies, Shapiro and his collaborators employed computer programs to analyze Congressional debates and speeches for partisan, politically charged phrases.

To measure political slant in news coverage, the researchers looked at more than 400 newspapers and their use of those party-specific phrases, in tandem with data on circulation and political views among readers, to learn the economic basis for newspapers’ political slants. Shapiro and his co-author, Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford University, found that slant correlated most strongly to readers’ political views rather than to factors such as newspaper ownership.

In his study on polarization, Shapiro and coauthors Gentzkow and Matt Taddy of the University of Chicago found that the language used in one minute of political speech in 2007 can correctly identify the speaker’s party affiliation 83 percent of the time, up 28 percent from 1990 — an effect the researchers attribute to the increased role of talking points and media consultants after the Republican Party’s 1994 Contract with America.

Currently, with Justine Hastings and other colleagues at Brown, Shapiro is studying the effect of the food stamp program (SNAP) on household food spending, nutrition and well-being.

The Presidential Faculty Award lecture takes place on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 4:30 p.m. in the John Carter Brown Library. The event is free and open to the public.

About the series

The Presidential Faculty Award was established in 2013 by Brown University President Christina Paxson to recognize members of the faculty who are conducting especially important and innovative scholarship and to create an opportunity for recipients to present their work to colleagues in other disciplines. Two recipients are selected for the academic year, one for each semester. Previous presenters include Jill Pipher, David Berson, Nitsan Chorev, David Kertzer and Charles Larmore.