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Home » Searching for gold: Making sense of academic research about journalism

Searching for gold: Making sense of academic research about journalism

Do academics know secrets about journalism that working reporters and editors don’t know?

For curious journalists like me, spending time reading academic research about journalism and democracy reveals a mixed picture.

There’s plenty of research to show that journalism is still a critical part of an engaged society. Decades of evidencebased studies show a correlation between news consumption and political engagement. People who read more news tend to vote more regularly and engage more in their own community.

Newer academic studies tend to look at very specific practices around types of journalism and find insights particular to certain beats or coverage areas — and there’s quite a lot of it. Just a few examples include how journalists use empathy in covering homelessness, whether fact-checking changes false beliefs, and how audiences react to watching coverage of terrorism.

But keeping track of all that academic research across subject areas is no easy task. Here’s where professors Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis have stepped up an email newsletter (hosted on Substack) that aims to showcase the most compelling research published each month. The newsletter is called RQ1, and Nieman Lab republishes it each month.

Coddington and Lewis are both former journalists who became academics. (For several years, Coddington wrote the “Week in Review” column for Nieman Lab.) They now study their former colleagues amid a changing digital news environment, tackling issues of data journalism, social media, news engagement and news aggregation. (Coddington is at Washington and Lee University, while Lewis is at University of Oregon.)

“We’ve had trouble ourselves keeping up with the constant flow of new research on news and journalism, and we want to help you keep up with it as we try to wade through it as well,” they write in the newsletter.

As editor-in-chief of PolitiFact, I have a high interest in keeping up with academic research on fact-checking, and as a Nieman Fellow I’ve been studying research about the connection between journalism and democracy, so I reached out to Coddington and Lewis with a few questions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Angie Drobnic Holan: When you’re putting together the newsletter each month, is there just a gusher of research to go through? And have you noticed changes in the research over the years?

Mark Coddington: I feel at times overwhelmed by the gusher of research that is out there. Almost every major journal that regularly publishes sends out email alerts when they publish a study, so I subscribe to all of those. And then there are others that I check regularly as well. Any new research goes into a spreadsheet, and that spreadsheet runs to about 75 to 80 articles a month. And that’s a lot of research — a lot. For the newsletter, we select the ones that we think would be of most interest to journalists or researchers.

Seth Lewis: The study of communication has been around for about 100 years, but the focused study of journalism in this field that we now call journalism studies is really only about two decades old. And in fact, that began with the founding of the journals Journalism and Journalism Studies, which both appeared in 2000. The journal Journalism Practice came out in 2007, and then Digital Journalism was launched in 2013…So there has been a real flourishing of research about news in the last two decades, which, of course, kind of ironically tracks the period in which newspapers have contracted. The news industry has seen its fortunes crumble in the last couple of decades, while space and attention given to research about journalism has grown dramatically.

Holan: What are the areas currently in journalism research that are really robust and productive?

Coddington: One of those areas is sociology of journalism, especially the practice of journalism during this time of immense change. Since the late 2000s or so, a lot of strong research looks at how journalists do their jobs, and how it has changed in so many different areas. Researchers have studied the values journalists bring to their work, and how the values changed. A lot of these are practice-oriented sociological questions.

Holan: Do you think it’s helpful for working journalists to read this research?

Lewis: When I worked at the Miami Herald, I remember that sometimes I would wander over to different parts of the newsroom, and near the executive editor’s office there was a coffee table with various reading materials, probably for people who were waiting to meet with the editor. And on that coffee table was a copy of Newspaper Research Journal, which is another journal that covers research about news. And I remember, as a journalist, picking this up and flipping through it and thinking, “What is the purpose of this research? None of this seems very relevant to what we do.” It was a flippant response, and now it’s sort of ironic that I do research about news. But there is research about journalism that, depending on how it’s framed and conducted, can feel pretty detached from the actual working realities of journalism. As journalism research has become more established academically, it’s tended toward specialization and some degree of jargon and terminology that’s opaque.

But strong research does exist, and it has a lot of relevance for journalists. And nowadays, given all of the kinds of networks and social media and email alerts that exist, the opportunities for journalists to come into contact with that good research and find value from it are much greater than ever before.

Coddington: I think it’s partly a question of the level of engagement. As far as deep engagement with journalism research, I’m not sure that’s the best investment of time for an incredibly busy journalist. Because it’s hard for me, on top of my job that actually includes this, to deeply engage with and read and fully understand multiple news studies a month — and to actually understand what they’re saying and how they’re engaging with other areas of research. That’s beyond what a journalist should reasonably be expected to do, and I’m not sure it’s the best investment of their time, because it takes a long time to really thoroughly read and understand an academic study.

But I think some familiarity with research in the field is helpful for journalists to just understand and think a little bit more deeply about what they’re doing.

If you can get an introduction to at least some of the ideas of how people have thought about how journalists do their jobs, it can really help you think from a different angle of what is actually going on in your job, and potentially how to do it better.

Holan: When you write the RQ1 newsletter, what audience do you have in mind? Is it just journalists, or nonjournalists as well?

Coddington: When we started, my intended audience was journalists, but it was also busy academics who want to keep up with research but simply don’t have time. I also thought of it as written for first-year graduate students. That is still, in my head, sort of my happy medium, because somebody in their first month of a master’s program is still learning about this stuff.

Lewis: I also imagine that we might be able to reach people who are interested in news and journalism, even if they’re not actually working journalists. There are people who find news fascinating and interesting, or people who just like to be informed about what’s happening in the world of journalism, because they find it an intriguing space. We want to make sure that the really good stuff rises to the top and gets the notice that it deserves.

Social media has changed the game, and academics have used Twitter as a key medium to talk about their work — to get it noticed, not only by fellow researchers, but also by journalists. But we’ve also seen ways in which these social networks are kind of uneven and problematic. Many academics have pulled back on their use of Twitter. And so there’s a sense that email is the ultimate common denominator. An email newsletter is something that everybody can easily tap into.

Holan: I see a lot of research about journalism coming from a lot of different academic fields, from computer scientists or librarians or philosophers. It can be research that crosses a lot of academic borders. Do you see that?

Lewis: I would say that journalism has become more interesting precisely because its fortunes have become more uncertain. It’s the inherent instability in the space that makes it so fascinating to many researchers. Whether they’re coming from sociology, political science, economics, or computer science, each of them can find in this a highly dynamic space where there’s a lot of uncertainty as to what it’s going to look like in five years or 10 years, and what will happen to legacy players compared to emerging upstarts, and what will be the knock on-effects of losing newspapers in communities, and what the loss of news media means for declines in civic participation, and so on. I think there’s a growing interest in fields to look at the changing dynamics of journalism as a way to examine larger patterns in society.

Coddington: Fundamentally, it can be easy for academics in journalism studies to forget that journalism is actually an object of study rather than a field academically in itself. There is a field of journalism studies, but fundamentally, that’s not an academic discipline, like sociology or anthropology, or philosophy, or something like that. Journalism is an object of study. And I think the more disciplinary lenses through which we can look at it the better. And yes, most often it’s been looked at through a social scientific lens that is housed within communication as a field. But it’s equally legitimate to study it through an economic lens, or a political science lens, or an historical lens.

Holan: Some journalists are starting to do more research on themselves. I work in fact-checking journalism, and many fact-checking newsrooms have put out their own studies on how they see their field developing and what effects fact-checking produces. It might not be considered scholarly, but it is serious research.

Coddington: You asked earlier whether journalists should know about academic research, and I would say that if somebody is going into fact-checking, do they need to read all the research on fact-checking? No, that would take too long to read. You should just focus on being a better fact-checker. But, should you read Lucas Graves’ book, Deciding What’s True? Yes, you absolutely should read that book, if you are going to go into fact-checking in any form. It will help you think so much better about what you’re doing.
Holan: I keep running into sociologist Michael Schudson’s work every time I work on any project about journalism and democracy. His book The Sociology of News influenced me a lot. What books have shaped you?

Coddington: I think every journalism scholar has a book that they either read as a journalist, if they were a journalist, or early on in graduate school — there was a book that kicked open the door to a new way of thinking, and that they would probably recommend to every  journalist. For me, it’s Gaye Tuchman’s Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality, from 1978. Almost every paper I write her work has influenced in some form that I have to cite. She’s a sociologist, and the way that she thought about how journalists know what they know, and how they put that all together within the thought-professional environment that they live in, on a day-to-day basis…It just felt like a new way of thinking about it, that honestly colors and informs so much of the way we talk about the way journalists do their jobs, whether people have read the book or not.
Lewis: For me, it wasn’t so much a book as it was blogging. In particular, it was Jay Rosen’s PressThink blog. I was working as a journalist, but when I had various breaks and downtime, I found that I was gravitating more and more to PressThink, around 2004 to 2005. He was in a sense kind of doing public scholarship through that blog. He was writing about news, although not in a research-driven way, but he was bringing a critical evaluative lens to it that I found really fascinating. It was prompting me to ask questions about the work I was doing, and about how those questions could be explored more fully. When Jay Rosen talked about people formerly known as the audience, as he famously did in 2006, that concept really resonated with me, in a way that ended up informing some of my early research into participatory journalism.

But I also remember when I decided to go back and do a Ph.D., I asked someone what I should read in preparation, and they recommended Herbert Gans’s book, Deciding What’s News, from 1979. That and Tuchman’s book stand as these two pillars of journalism research from the 20th century that still have such a shaping influence on the way we study the sociology of news today.

I do think there is real value in finding those important books that bring together the research on a given topic, either as one of the first key things written about the topic, or because it summarizes a lot of existing research. As an example, my friend and collaborator, Sue Robinson, has a book coming this year called How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care. It will be a book that tells the story of engagement and journalism, which has been one of the really robust areas of research over the past five to 10 years. And so she’ll both synthesize what has been done, but also bring her own new original research to it. That’s the kind of book that a journalist would benefit from reading at least a couple of chapters. They would get a lot out of that, as opposed to trying to summarize and skim 40 or 50 articles.

Holan: Final question: Why do you call the newsletter RQ1?

Coddington: When writing research papers, RQ1 is the shorthand for the first research question. So when you have multiple research questions you will shorten it to say, RQ1, RQ2, RQ3, and then hypotheses are H1, H2, H3. So it is a bit of academic shorthand that almost any academic in our field would get. And for anybody else, at least it wouldn’t turn them off.

Lewis: I think it’s appropriate we call it RQ1 and not H1, because in the field of journalism research, we tend to ask research questions rather than pose hypotheses. Hypotheses work well for studies of things that are well-established, where things feel stable and you’re looking for incremental forms of change. But the study of journalism tends to involve more exploratory, inductive forms of qualitative analysis. That generally begins with research questions as opposed to hypotheses. And that really speaks to the nature of this work right now, that the future of journalism is very much in flux. It’s very much this open-ended question. Our purpose is to point to the research questions that are being asked and answered, and to gesture to more questions yet to be explored.

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