April 5, 2017

It’s become a tired and frustrating refrain from the Twitterati engaged in news innovation: Academic journalism research can’t be shown to have any kind of impact on the professional field, few journalists can even name a journalism researcher and the lack of motivation to do applied work limits our ability to contribute to the field.

These sorts of complaints usually look like this:

I want to address the disregard for academic research 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 the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism: 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.

This is a bit of an unfair standard. If you think about the logic, it reflects a fundamentally anti-intellectual stance — the same 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? Research is often academic because it makes us more knowledgeable about underlying processes. It makes us more aware. It provides the backbone for more applied policy research. Or, it gives us insight about fundamental ways people come to know and understand the world around them.

Sociologists who study 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. Their work is engaged with and matters to newsrooms, though whether it changes anything is “academic.”

We wouldn’t be regularly quoted in the press, have sitdowns with news execs, serve on industry panels, be invited to contribute on industry blogs nor invited to gatherings that bring academics, policymakers, journalists and news executives together if our work didn’t matter.

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

Again, this is an unfair standard. Please, please find me the average journalist who can rattle off the names of a political scientist, law professor, economist, art historian or anthropologist who doesn’t write for their outlet or serve as their source.

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 scientific discoveries or wealth inequality or (my favorite) an interdisciplinary study of plate sizes from “The Last Supper” by 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 writeup of two Rutgers’ sociologists look gender and occupations is a good example.

All too often, that research is not 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  (a shoutout to Politico’s Jack Shafer for having a “brain trust” of smart professors and quoting academic research as it comes out).

As a result, we’re the ones translating our own work 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, but communication and journalism research is almost never featured or solicited on public-facing academic blogs like Monkey Cage or Mischiefs of Faction.

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 less practical journalism and communication research for practicing journalists .

But this might be 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 phenomena or actually know something about Lasik coverage.

The idea 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 U.K. 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, collaborating with journalists and experts in the industry and then repurposing it all 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: public, industry and academic. It’s really really hard and tiresome, and it 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 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 us nothing for expensive work they profit from.

However, pretty much every abstract is free, and most of us publish our work on free sites like academia.edu or Researchgate. You can also just email us.

In sum: The blame for the lack of integration with the industry 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 worthy of adaptation as any other field. Moreover, effort is required on both sides to make sure that valuable research is both conducted and implemented.

Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on Medium and is being reposted here with the author’s permission.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News