Cracking the Code: A Science Media — Research Collaboration

A collaboration within a collaboration: Science identity

This article is one of a multipart series exploring the unique media practitioner-academic research collaboration of Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement (CTC) a three year Advancing Informal STEM Learning Innovations (AISL) research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) between KQED, a public media company serving the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas Tech and Yale universities. KQED has the largest science reporting unit in the West focusing on science news and features including their YouTube series Deep Look.

The author, Scott Burg, is a Senior Research Principal with Rockman et al.

In addition to the core collaboration between KQED and the research team from Texas Tech University, academic collaborators from institutions outside of Texas Tech University were periodically recruited by CTC’s co-PI Dr. Asheley Landrum. They were hired to assist with research design and data collection activities for CTC, and a related NSF-funded research project (RAPID) to investigate how best to communicate COVID-related health and science information to the public. These interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborations provided opportunities for the stimulation of new ideas, applications of diverse and innovative types of research methodologies, increased productivity, and exposure to interdisciplinary fields to deepen understanding and contextualization of the science communication research.

As part of the RAPID project, Landrum contacted two colleagues, one an assistant professor of environmental studies from Eckerd College in Florida, and the other a professor of philosophy from Bucknell University, to participate in a study on messaging to promote the use of masks. The three had previously collaborated on studies examining messaging related to climate change, GMOs and vaccine safety. This collaboration provided a number of very tangible benefits, including the sharing and balancing of workload, and the introduction of some interesting new perspectives to the project’s research design and analysis.

Our team included an environmental social scientist, a philosopher and Asheley (Dr. Landrum) who has a psychology and science communication background. We all weave it together. The addition of a philosopher is a little unique. I think it gives us a really important edge because he can bring in perspectives and theories that we wouldn’t have naturally come across. In this context we talk about what constitutes knowledge and what constitutes understanding. Those tie really well into some of the psychological theories around why it is that people can, for instance, score high on a measure of scientific knowledge and still deny climate change or still not think that they should have to wear a mask. — Researcher

The collaboration also provided valuable professional benefits for the two research consultants. It was the first time either had a chance to work on research in collaboration with anyone outside of academia, in particular with science media practitioners. The research collaboration also provided opportunities for publication and conference presentations of research findings, key requirements for granting of tenure in academic institutions.

The collaboration worked well in large part because of their past experience of collaboration on other studies.

Our working together in the past made a huge difference. We had already thought about the theoretical models for what would happen long before we started this study in particular. We had spent countless hours on Zoom calls discussing those models and various iterations of them before we started this study. We’re all forgiving of one another’s time constraints, but we generally are able to keep one another on track. — Researcher

Collaboration: Identity study

As part of CTC, Landrum facilitated another academic collaboration with the inclusion of Dr. Jocelyn Steinke, an associate professor of communication at the University of Connecticut. Steinke’s previous research focused on portrayals of scientists in popular media, specifically of women scientists and the ways in which those portrayals influence adolescent girls’ attitudes toward scientists and the STEM fields.

Unlike other researchers on the CTC project, Steinke had direct experience working with science media producers, in particular with the science team at Twin Cities Public Television in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Steinke is interested in applied research, particularly in the translation of findings from the fields of communication and other social science disciplines into practice. Steinke was interested to learn more about the impact of social media on women’s awareness and interest in science, and the impact on the field of science communication as a whole. For these reasons, the CTC collaboration was of interest to her and she was anxious to participate.

It was really interesting for me to broaden my research and focus on women, and then focus on, specifically social media, and how women might be looking at social media differently than men might be looking at social media. And then also considering how as producers there’s an opportunity to reach out and think in different ways about audiences, especially in the field of science communication. — Jocelyn Steinke

The strong and scalable research and management process fostered by co-PI Dr. Asheley Landrum (Assistant Professor, Advertising and Brand Strategy) and her team from Texas Tech University enabled the relatively seamless inclusion of an additional researcher and her team from another academic institution, facilitating their ability to fit smoothly into the project’s collaborative structure. Through observation of the maturing collaboration between KQED and Texas Tech, Steinke came to understand and appreciate KQED’s interest in the research, and their desire to apply study findings to their day-to-day work.

It’s been very interesting to watch that interaction (between KQED and Texas Tech researchers). I think that’s also been a very useful learning experience for me to understand how practitioners might respond to the research that’s being done. Every now and then myself and the Texas Tech team talked to KQED about the research protocol, how certain things cannot be changed or maybe need to proceed a certain way. I think that’s also useful for the KQED team in terms of understanding what the role of researchers are and some of the constraints under which we work sometimes. — Research team

Having worked with Landrum and her team for over two years on CTC, the KQED’s Deep Look production team trusted the research process, and had become much better versed in science communication research methodology than during the project’s earlier testing cycles. As such, Steinke was particularly impressed by KQED team’s degree of engagement, down to the wording of a survey item, or the identification of a specific thumbnail image to test.

The level of give-and-take from KQED and Steinke’s team resulted in greater consensus building on research approach and desired outcomes. For instance, when the Deep Look team suggested the addition of more videos to the research study, Steinke countered that having too many videos might confuse viewers. The Deep Look team recommended that a best practice for measuring reaction to thumbnail images would be to ensure that the image itself was as vibrant as possible.

Mixed methods

In designing the study, Steinke suggested a mixed method approach that would include, in addition to surveys, a number of more qualitative research methodologies, such as semi-structured interviews and natural language processing (NLP). Previous to this study, the bulk of CTC research methodology had consisted of more quantitative methods, specifically surveys that included some open-ended questions. For Steinke and other members of the research team, the study focus on identity lent itself to the use of methods that could elicit a more nuanced and richer analysis of audiences of interest to KQED. This decision on methodological approach was done in consultation with Landrum and her team.

I originally went into the project thinking we would just do the semi-structured interviews. I decided in consultation with the Texas Tech team that it would be nice if we would or thought it would be helpful if we would have the survey data. In this manner, we would actually have some quantitative data about preferences and then dig deeper into the why questions, like why are people preferring a particular video, or why are they not preferring a particular title, really exploring that as related to their identities. — Researcher

Members of the Deep Look team embraced Steinke’s mixed method approach. They felt that the introduction of qualitative tools helped to deepen their understanding of female audiences. One Deep Look producer commented that the use of more qualitative methods would have been helpful earlier on in the project, especially the use of focus groups and interviews.

Support and consultation

Steinke consulted with Landrum and her team throughout every stage of the study (study design, instrument development, analysis, reporting). Landrum’s experience in building the collaboration with KQED over two years served as a blueprint for bridging any conceptual and operational gaps tied to this new study. Both sides understood that differences between KQED and the research team would continue, but better communication and the breaking down of barriers that plagued CTC in the first two years contributed to building a more streamlined process.

The strength and shared purpose of the CTC collaboration was one reason that Steinke and her team were able to complete this large multifaceted study in less than four months. This kind of study could normally take a year or more to complete.

The study was definitely accelerated. Typically, if I were to propose this type of a study and seek funding I probably would have allowed two years to complete the research. There would have been a little bit more planning that would have been involved at the initial phases. Part of the reason we were able to complete this study in such a short period of time was because of the phenomenal support on everyone’s part. The Texas Tech team was a great resource at the early stages in terms of the survey development and then the grad student I’ve been working with just took over the interviews at a time when I was working on writing a report. We succeeded because we had more resources and more interest. I think our team was so strong that we were able to offer more. — Researcher

Steinke believes that these kinds of research collaborations (studies) can be scaled with the right level of team cohesiveness and resource support, especially the involvement of graduate students. Steinke was pleased that she was able to reallocate some of her funding to hire a grad student to assist her with the work. Her hiring was informed in part by Landrum’s hiring of a postdoctoral student to assist with overall CTC project management during the second year of the grant (in addition to the other Texas Tech graduate students assisting with the project).

The postdoc and the graduate students are very well qualified and have been really stepping up to the plate. In some of my prior grant works the graduate students have had more of a support role. This project is different. They’re really very involved, very committed, very dedicated, hardworking. I don’t know if that’s unique to these types of collaborations, but hopefully KQED saw that it may recognize the importance of grad students to this project, and how they carried so much weight. And what a great experience for the grad students or postdocs as well. — Researcher

Future opportunties

Based on her work, and other study results from CTC, Steinke sees the potential for further research opportunities. She believes some of her study findings should enable Deep Look producers and other science content creators to think differently about their work. She thinks that KQED should consider audience studies of both genders. She also believes that due to KQED’s CTC-related experience with science communication research, they are more than capable of either leading or partnering on future audience research studies.

I would recommend that maybe they (KQED) consider studying a larger group in order to achieve their overall aim and goal, which is increasing viewership itself. I also think there are lots of opportunities for reaching out with the other NSF partners and promoting one another’s work. — Researcher

Steinke would like to see more of these types of researcher-practitioner collaborations. While specifically sharing her research with practitioners was not a professional focus early on in her career, she would certainly welcome opportunities to share her studies with someone, for instance, “who is creating science content for middle school girls.” She believes that for research to have a broader and more practical impact for the public, science communication researchers need to broaden dissemination of their studies beyond professional journals and conferences. She envisions social media as being a space where this type of collaboration could flourish.

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