Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday Research Roundup

It's a Friday, meaning it's time to take a quick look at the research out there on the media, political knowledge, or related topics.  Why? Because it's what I do.
  • A new Dutch study (abstract only) explores what factors predict political cynicism for youths.  Being generally cynical is the biggest predictor, rather obvious, but of importance here is that a lack of political knowledge also predicts cynicism.
  • I just came across this one, which finds attractive people are perceived as being more politically knowledgeable "even after accounting for their levels of factual knowledge."
  • In the knowledge gap tradition, this paper tests whether this mostly U.S. concept works in Norway.
  • Keeping to the international, this study finds that human interest and conflict are frames that are more accessible and thus lead to greater knowledge.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Recall vs. Recognition Knowledge

And so in a moment of PhDweebishness I turn to the a favorite question of mine -- is there a difference between recall and recognition when it comes to measuring political knowledge.

By recognition, I mean a multiple-choice test in which you're asked a question and given choices to pick from.  So if I asked you to name the Vice President of the U.S. you'd get four names, including Joe Biden.  By recall, I might ask you "Who is the Vice President of the U.S.?"  That second one is tougher.  You have to pull the answer out of your head, retrieve the information with no help, no cues.

Yes, I've written a lot on this topic (here, for example, and here). 

I'm polishing a study that looks (yet again) at this topic, basically the same as my first linked post in the sentence above.  Yes, TV news use predicts only recognition knowledge (beta = .27, p<.001), not recall knowledge (beta = .06, ns).  This controls for a bunch of other factors, the usual suspects of age and income and education and political interest and a bunch of others.  The point is simple, that watching TV news helps you to recognize through cued recall a correct answer, but it doesn't help if you have to retrieve the information without some cue.  So what does predict recall?  Among media, again controlling for all the various factors, only getting your news from Internet news sites (beta = .12, p<.01) but not reading paper newspapers (beta = -.07, ns).  Newspaper exposure has always been a modest predictor of political knowledge, but that seems to be changing.  The Internet is the new Newspaper, at least when it comes to predicting political knowledge.

And here's the interesting part -- TV really works best on recognition for less educated folks.  For those with greater education it also predicts recognition knowledge, but just not as strongly.  This fits nicely into the knowledge gap literature.

For those who care, a few other interesting findings from the multivariate models
  • Age predicts recall, but not recognition knowledge.
  • Income, education, and political interest predict both.
  • Being registered to vote predicts recognition, not recall.
With luck, all of this and more will eventually come to an academic journal near you.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

New Grady Dean

Grady College at UGA has a new dean starting this summer.  Allow me a few moments to comment.

First, let me cover my ass -- should he by some chance stumble across this blog -- and say I'm excited by Charles Davis as dean. Second, I think my good friend and colleague Jeff Springston would also have made an excellent choice.

Why Davis versus the other three finalists?  Two were non-starters, so let's set them aside and let me distill a couple of months of conversations and hallway chatter and white smoke into a single few sentences of explanation -- at least from my narrow perspective.  I believe Jere Morehead, the provost and soon-to-be-president, wanted to shake things up at Grady.  Springston also had plans to shake things up, but Davis came in with such enthusiasm, such a track record at Missouri, and the potential for fundraising that it was difficult for Morehead to pass up.  When asked in the hall, I predicted Davis over Springston.  That wasn't based on preference, but prediction; I'm able to separate the two.

There is an irony alert here.  Morehead is an internal move from provost to president, yet he chose an outside guy as dean.  I get that.  But Davis made a compelling case, and it allows Morehead to put his personal stamp on Grady.

Okay, so what's it mean beyond the horserace?

It means some big changes at Grady.  I've written about this before, most recently here (last graph).  Not immediate changes, mind you, but we'll now start the painful process of somehow melding the broadcast news and journalism folks into a single department.  Whether Tele remains its own department, perhaps with film studies added, remains to be seen.  It's the more likely scenario, but these are conversations held largely above my pay grade.  Transparency, ironically, is not a Grady virtue.  When I know, you'll know.

What else? I suspect we'll see attempts to break up the department silos in various ways, some of which will not be accepted in some cinder block corners of the building.  I expect my own department, once we settle the Tele/broadcast thing, to completely revisit our curriculum (my own comments on this are here). Our photojournalism sequence needs attention.  Our public affairs sequence is suffering.  We can only make so many sports journalists or people who write squishy features about farmers markets, yet that's where students are voting with their feet.  In the public affairs sequence, I'll have four or five students this Fall who have it as their fourth choice as a major.  We do a lousy job of selling the importance of hard news.

So a new dean, especially an outside one, gives us a reason to make dramatic changes to a curriculum stuck in the mud.  I'm not saying individual faculty aren't doing neat things in their classes with new and emerging media, I'm saying we need a broader change to make ourselves relevant in the coming years.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Motivating the News

How do we motivate people to attend to the news? The motivation research tells us we are goal-directed beings and real motivation requires people to:
  • need to,
  • want to,
  • or believe they should
That last one, we can try all the preaching in the world but it's hard to convince folks it's important to keep up with the news.  It is important in a democracy, but beating someone over the head won't help and there's something to be said for rational ignorance.  So that leaves out the "believe they should" side of the equation.  Schools teach that.  Civics classes teach that.  Jobs teach that.  News organizations, don't even try.  You look foolish.

That leaves us with "need to" and "want to."

The last one, "want to," comes damn close to pandering, at striving desperately for the lowest common denominator to drive online traffic and we all know which sites do this, some of them quite successfully.  It's hard to make people to want to know the basic ingredients of local journalism -- the city council, the zoning decision, etc. -- unless of course they're directly affected by someone wanting to plop a factory next to their neighborhood.  Then zoning becomes the most important thing in their lives.  Can we do a better job of covering what people want covered, of telling the stories they want to hear?  Yes.  Is that our main job?  Hell no.

Harder is convincing people need to know what we know, they need to hear this story, need to look at these data, need check out this video.  There are gimmicks, such as writing in the second person and using you a lot. Avoid it, please.  It works once, maybe twice, and then grates.

To me, we've got to come up with new and refreshing ways to convince people they need to know what we know.  We do a lousy job of making important stuff interesting, especially at the local level, in which any story that can be dull seems to be specifically tailored to be as dull as possible.  No sparkle, no wit, no clever turn of phrase.  Some stories, as they say, tell themselves.  Damn few do, though, but we write or tell them as if they do.  That's a mistake, something we've got to fix.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

SLOPpy Survey

A SLOP, in survey parlance, is a Self Selected Opinion Poll.  In other words, people choose to participate, so the "sample" is not random.  Confused?  I found today an example of one here.  The lede says:
MANILA, Philippines—Poverty is the number one concern that candidates should focus on,’s survey reveals on Thursday. 
Okay, it's hard to argue with doing something about poverty and, at my last glance, a sample size of 5,980.  Except, of course, there's nothing random about this sample, so we can't say with any certainty that it represents the population as a whole.

We are seeing a teeny tiny shift away from random surveys, mainly because they're expensive to do and the response rates to telephone surveys -- the gold standard of the industry -- are dipping into the single digits.  A lot of folks are turning to huge panels, with a large N (that's number of folks surveyed).  I'm not buying it, at least not yet.  If you read the story linked to above, you'll notice at no time, unless I missed it, does the writer tell us the survey has no scientific value whatsoever.  That's the main problem here.  It's okay to run these surveys, for serious and for fun topics, but it's not okay to paint them as being scientifically sound.  Instead, high up in the story, admit that it's mostly bullshit.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

My New Journalism Curriculum

I've taught journalism at Grady for 21 years (longer than most of my students have been alive) and the curriculum looks more or less the same as the day I walked into our lovely cinder-block building.  Yes, we've tacked on some neat new courses (multimedia journalism, sports journalism), but at times this looks more like we've stapled a spoiler to a Chevy Vega.

When I arrived in 1991, we taught basic reporting (341).  It's now new-and-improved because we added another digit (3410).  Doesn't that change everything?

I'm being a bit unfair.  Visual and new media have been integrated into a lot of our classes, and we've changed from different majors into a single major (Journalism) with four sequences (magazine, public affairs, pub management, and visual).  In other words, our sequences look exactly like our former majors except that we changed the name of one from newspapers to public affairs.  Doesn't that change everything?

Again, a bit about public affairs.  We did make improvements in the curriculum.  Students in this sequence have a dedicated 3410 lab, which flows into their own Public Affairs Reporting class, which flows into a specialized class (Investigative, Advanced PubAffairs, or Data Journalism).   It's a tougher sequence than the old newspaper major, and we've been rewarded by dropping numbers.  Only four or five incoming students have public affairs as their first choice.  About as many have it as their fourth choice.  Lemme say that again -- four or so students coming into the public affairs sequence listed it as their fourth choice of major in Grady, meaning they probably didn't reach the grade point requirements of Public Relations, Advertising, Magazines, and ended up in class.  They'll be either an opportunity at conversion or a pain in the ass to teach. 

Back to my new journalism curriculum.  I'd streamline things, reduce the core, allow faculty to experiment with specialized classes.  Of course a lot of this may change if my department merges with the broadcast news folks, but let's set that aside for the moment.

My Core (everyone takes)

Introduction to Journalism (giant lecture, how journalism fits in society, etc.)
Introduction to Newswriting (basics of ledes, etc.)
Law and Ethics (required alongside newswriting or right after)
Emerging Media

That's it, and you could to all of 'em in you first semester.  I'd get rid of the traditional mass comm law and merge it with ethics because I honestly believe the practice of journalism is a tension between the two (what we legally can do versus what we ethically choose to do) and it's best understood in that way.  Yes, that'll piss some people off who are comfortable with the way things are done, but I hate the idea of students learning law in their last semester.  The Emerging Media class is a 1-hour, maybe 2-hour class that teaches skills and concepts of multimedia, to be completed in their first semester so they can take them to later classes.

After this, it's a buffet and not unlike special topics grad classes, faculty engage in a Darwinian struggle to attract students to classes.  Yes, students often don't make the best choices, and we can finesse this in some ways, but it's time to free the faculty and the students from these tight curricula.

What would I teach?  Hell, I'll teach 3410 because that's what I've done for 21 years.  Such is life as hero support.  But when I get a chance, I'd focus completely on data journalism, doing mapping and stories using all the neat spreadsheet and analysis tools out there.  Can I attract students? I dunno.  If you're a student it's hard to pass up a sportwriting class, or a class where you write stories about art and movies and music, or essays about yourself.