From rural news audiences to Russian tweets, this new research has some useful takeaways for reporters

August 28, 2018

When The Ohio County Monitor in rural Kentucky launched a new subscription program last fall, the brothers who run the hyperlocal news site sought to more deeply connect with their readers. So Dustin and Lee Bratcher decided to take a listening tour across the 600-square-mile county, often rising before dawn to attend “liars tables” — breakfast gatherings at general stores.

A pair of university researchers, Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford, came along for the ride. Their their resulting study, “Engaged Journalism in Rural Communities,” won a new research prize aimed at fostering stronger ties between media professionals and scholars.

Wenzel presented the paper earlier this month in Washington, D.C., at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. She also accepted the inaugural AEJMC Research Prize for Professional Relevance, which carries a $1,000 award for the authors.

Bridging the gap

Media scholars and professionals have been seeking ways to address some of the institutional factors — lengthy peer review processes, paywalled journal articles — that can limit the impact of academic research on the wider industry. (There’s encouraging momentum in this area: in mid-August, more than two dozen participants tuned in to a virtual “lightning chat” about learning from journalism research.)

Toward this goal, the new AEJMC prize seeks to encourage and reward rigorous research that also brings fresh “clarity and insight” to emerging industry practices. Criteria included the innovation of the approach, the accessibility of the writing, and the professional applicability of the findings.

I coordinated the judging. A committee of academic and professional judges blind reviewed nearly 30 accepted AEJMC conference papers that were either nominated by topical divisions or identified by peer reviewers as contenders for the prize. While conference papers are often a first draft and later undergo more extensive peer review at academic journals, the award aims to broaden the reach of timely, professionally relevant research.

The judging panel brought together scholars and professionals representing the Asian American Journalists Association, the Journalism and Women Symposium, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Online News Association, the Public Relations Society of America, and the Radio Television Digital News Association.

The prize was the product of a two-year task force on professional relevance convened by former AEJMC president Paul Voakes, who called the Wenzel-Ford paper “a great exemplar” for the new research competition.

“We want to recognize and encourage research that is not only accessible to media professionals but whose findings are applicable in their work,” Voakes said. “This paper does exactly that.”

Engaging rural audiences

The winning paper, rooted in communication infrastructure theory, examines the Monitor’s efforts to engage readers and build goodwill by tapping into longstanding community traditions. (The authors’ work is funded by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, which published a preliminary version of their findings earlier this year.)

A major part of the Monitor’s strategy was paying visits to liars tables, the exclusively male breakfast gatherings where farmers, coal miners and retirees meet up at general stores to talk about local happenings. While liars table regulars expressed feelings of general distrust about media coverage, they gave the Monitor credit for showing up and “were willing to wait and see what might happen,” Wenzel said.

The Monitor also launched a network of community contributors, building upon the small-town newspaper tradition of running society columns. In exchange for a free subscription, contributors submitted articles on topics ranging from healthy living to a particularly popular story about a retired band teacher. The Monitor saw a small bump in subscriptions after launching the contributor network, which Wenzel said editors are now trying to expand by recruiting more young people, as well as immigrants from a nearby refugee resettlement area.

The authors caution that it’s too early to draw conclusive findings. But from a scholar’s perspective, the paper shows how theoretically driven research can bring timely insight to professional strategy. And for professionals, it shows the promise of initiatives to meet audiences where they already are, and invite them to contribute on their own terms: “Every community has a storytelling network,” Wenzel said.

An alarming analysis of local news

Those looking for a broader analysis of the state of local news can dig into the second-place paper, “Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News” by scholars Philip Napoli, Matthew Weber, Katie McCollough and Qun Wang.

The paper, funded by The Democracy Fund and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, analyzed more than 16,000 news stories across 100 U.S. communities with populations between 20,000 and 300,000 residents. The researchers partnered with the Internet Archive to capture seven days’ worth of content across a constructed week.

Their findings were alarming: Only about 17 percent of news stories analyzed were truly local, and 20 of the 100 communities received no local news stories — again, zero local news — during the seven days analyzed. The term “news deserts” refers to communities where coverage of local news is drying up as newspapers shut down.

The authors noted that their results are a snapshot that would benefit from more data over a longer period. But as Napoli wrote in a CJR post, “it does seem reasonable to say that, at minimum, there is a real shortage of reporting about local communities.”

For a closer look, scholars and professionals can explore the paper’s sweeping data set, which is publicly available via this searchable archive.

How Russian tweets infiltrated U.S. media

An eight-author team led by Josephine Lukito examined how U.S. media handled recent Russian misinformation efforts in the third-place winning paper, “Zero Day Twitter: How Russian Propaganda Infiltrated the U.S. Hybrid Media System.”

It’s a cautionary tale: As the paper’s abstract describes, U.S. media outlets — both partisan and mainstream — were frequently susceptible to misinformation aimed at disrupting America’s political system. The paper found that 50 of the 55 outlets examined produced at least one story containing a dubious tweet from Russia’s Internet Research Agency. In some cases, news outlets unwittingly embedded misleading tweets from fake accounts in digital stories that they later had to correct.

The authors conclude with several tips for journalists to avoid amplifying propaganda: think twice about embedding tweets in stories, contact users prior to embedding their tweets, and quote tweets in text instead of embedding them directly.