Does Anyone Care About Journalism Research? (No, Really)

It’s become a tired and a frustrating refrain I get from the Twitterati engaged in news innovation — that academic journalism research can’t be shown to have any kind of impact on the professional field, that few journalists can even name a journalism researcher, and that the lack of motivation to do applied work limit our ability to make quality contributions to the field.

These sorts of complaints usually look like this:

And I’m just going to say, I’ve had this conversation over, and over, and over — (and have asked Derek Willis, a fellow this semester at GW, to give a talk to my department about this particular concern, who will be preceded by Brian Creech of Temple, who has just written about how academic work is incorporated into industry innovation).

I want to address the disregard for academic research from journalism among journalists and offer a few counterpoints. This has been bothering me for a very long time, but this piece comes directly out of my decidedly knee-jerk responses to a Twitter “conversation” about what is actually a fantastic grant opportunity for CUNY: leading a $14 million grant operation to do journalism research on trust.

CLAIM 1: Academic work doesn’t result in changes in the news industry.

Well, this is a bit of an unfair standard. And actually, if you think about the logic, reflects a fundamentally anti-intellectual stance that journalists often accuse readers who don’t “trust” them of having. I’d like to someone to draw consistent, parallel connections between academic research and direct policy or social outcomes in any field. The reality is that the research is often academic because it makes us more knowledgable about underlying processes or alarms us to be more aware or provides the backbone for more applied policy research or gives us insight about fundamental ways people come to know and to understand the world around them. Sociologists studying housing issues in low income areas cannot be directly credited (or accused) of impeding access to more affordable housing.

BUT, there are researchers who are deeply engaged with changing journalism culture and structure and learning from disruptors such as news startups and platforms. And their work is engaged with and does matter to newsrooms, though whether it changes anything is “academic.” We wouldn’t be regularly quoted in the press, or be able to have sit-downs with news execs, sit on industry panels, be invited to contribute on industry blogs, nor invited to gatherings that bring academics, policymakers, journalists, news executives together if there wasn’t something about what we were doing that was valuable.

CLAIM 2. Journalists can’t engage with academics because academics don’t make their research understandable enough for journalists to use.

Again, this is a bit of an unfair standard. Please, please find me the average journalist who can rattle of the names of a political scientist, law professor, economist, art historian, or anthropologist who they haven’t a) used as a source or b) doesn’t produce content for their own outlet.

Moreover, in every other field, academic research gets covered and translated by journalists. Not true for communication/journalism research, except with rare exceptions.

Academics are lucky when their work gets translated from academic paper to news article — it’s a big deal — and it can even make their careers. Look at any “study” story about a scientific discovery or about inequality or my favorite, an interdisciplinary study of plate sizes from the last supper between medical researchers and art historians. But in some fields, it happens all the time, even for not-yet published research — Claire Cain Miller’s recent write up of two Rutgers’ sociologists look gender and occupations is a good example.

All too often, that research is not research that’s in communication or the subfield of journalism, though The Journal of Communication under my colleague Silvio Waisbord’s leadership, has managed to generate solid pickup among a variety of publications from The Washington Post to The New York Times. It’s rare that there is any translation of our work at all — ashout out to Jack Shafer for having a “brain trust” of smart professors and quoting/reading academic research as it comes out (including my own, thanks Jack!)

As a result, we’re the ones doing the work translating our own research because journalists don’t seriously cover communication research. My colleagues Kim Gross and Ethan Porter wrote an op-ed in The Times before they published their research — in fact as quickly as possible — to understand whether post-debate spin actually works. I can think of a dozen friends and colleagues who regularly write op-eds and posts for industry and popular press (and note, Communication and journalism research is almost never featured or solicited on public-facing academic blogs like MonkeyCage or Mischiefs of Faction, which are devoted to political science — but that’s another matter…)

CLAIM 3: ACADEMICS AREN’T INCENTIVIZED TO DO PUBLIC-FACING USEFUL RESEARCH, PLUS A LOT OF IT IS BAD

Again, this seems a little unrealistic and anti-intellectual. I will acknowledge that there is a lot of less “useful” journalism and communication research to practicing journalists — perhaps because it is highly theoretical (e.g. check out the table of contents of Communication Theory) or seems less than insightful (my favorite example is on the number of Lasik stories in mass media coverage — but I’m glad as academics we can think broadly and systematically about communication phenomenon, or actually know something about Lasik coverage…

But the fact that we aren’t incentivized to do public-facing research is bullshit. While it may not “count” toward our tenure and promotion packages as it does in places like the UK and Australia, it certainly means a lot to our deans, our funders, and our students. Many institutions ask scholars to list media hits on their annual report. Actually, the best version of a successful academic in any field today will do everything — public facing engaged work, engage with journalists and experts in the industry, and then turn that round and repurpose for academic research. I’d point to any of the research being conducted at API or the Tow Center (where I was a fellow) as good examples of scholars that are talking to multiple audiences across these vectors of public, industry, and academic. It’s really really hard, tiresome, and demands actually knowing how to write for a public audience.

CLAIM 4: Paywalls make academic research more difficult to access

Seriously, a bunch of journalists are really complaining about paywalls? Isn’t this a little ironic? BUT, we as academics also hate the paywalls (they are egregious) and the journals that pay nothing to us for work that requires us to raise significant amounts of money and then they get to profit off our work. However, pretty much every abstract is free, most of us publish our work on free sites like academia.edu or Researchgate, or seriously, just email us.

IN SUM: The blame for the lack of conversations is more complicated than our research being out of touch with industry needs. It also has to do with a recognition that journalism and communication research is as much worthy of translation efforts as any other field. Moreover, effort is required on both sides to make sure that valuable research is both conducted and implemented.

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