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Nov. 21, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

From white paper to newspaper: Making academia more accessible to journalists

Journalist’s Resource attempts to bridge a gap between academia and journalism, making original research easy to find and easy to understand.

Library books

As an idea, “knowledge-based reporting” sounds pretty hard to disagree with. No-brainer, right? But Harvard Prof. Tom Patterson has argued that knowledge is woefully absent from most journalism today:

Journalists are not trained to think first about how systematic knowledge might inform a news story. They look first to the scene of action and then to the statements of involved or interested parties. Typically, the question of whether a particular episode might have a fuller explanation is never asked. Stanford’s Shanto Iyengar has concluded in his studies that news is overwhelmingly “episodic.” Events are usually reported in isolation.

Of course, scholars aren’t producing daily stories on tight deadlines. Real knowledge-based reporting is hard. On some stories, the people most qualified to write them are probably your sources. So we journalists rely on interviews, past articles, and seemingly trustworthy material on the web and elsewhere.

About 18 months ago, Patterson and others at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center set out to make knowledge more accessible. They created a website called Journalist’s Resource, a curated, searchable index of high-quality research papers on topics of interest to reporters. The site’s editors write up studies in a journalistic way, plucking out facts and narratives that can be woven into stories. Unlike most academic products, Journalist’s Resource is openly accessible, well-designed, and licensed under Creative Commons. And now, as the pace of 2012 election coverage quickens, Journalist’s Resource is preparing to debut a special political section.

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, said Journalist’s Resource is an endorsement of a different kind of journalism.

“We don’t claim to have a corner on truth, but what we are trying to do is make the case that the best, most reliable insights…on any given subject is probably some kind of serious scholarly work,” Jones said. “Not just anecdotal, you know, ‘When I was here 20 years ago, my God…’ That’s the journalist’s way of doing things, usually, is just calling a couple of people up and getting a few quotes.”

“The academic research world can be really intimidating and really arcane, and yet, if you really drill down in a lot of studies, there’s a lot of great, usable material.”

With grants from Knight and Carnegie, the site originally was designed for journalism teachers and students, featuring teaching notes and exercises (read this related article, write a nut graph). But the target audience now is working journalists.

“The academic research world, as you know, can be really intimidating and really arcane, and yet, if you really drill down in a lot of studies, there’s a lot of great, usable material for journalists,” said John Wihbey, an editor and policy journalist at Shorenstein who co-manages the site.

For example, search for “campaign finance” at Google Scholar and you’ll get about 567,000 results. It’s dizzying. And the abstracts can be so…abstract. Enter the same query at Journalist’s Resource and you’ll get three. Those three studies pass the Shorenstein Center’s muster for high-quality, peer-reviewed research, and each features a hand-written summary and a link to the original work. (There are even share buttons. How often do you see those on academic sites?)

Imagine a presidential election in which the political scientists speed up and the bloggers and political journos…slow down.

“What we’re doing is, by hand, going through the political science journals and reaching out to people and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think we should include?’ And then try to boil it down to some core studies on topics of interest,” Wihbey said. “Maybe it’s the case that some of the more sophisticated reporters already know this stuff. But we think it could be useful, and we certainly welcome the whole blogging community that’s not necessarily institutionally affiliated to take a look at all this.”

There are more than 420 studies in the site’s database, and the goal is to get to 1,000 by the end of next year. Wihbey gets email alerts from major publishers and constantly monitors Twitter to figure out what studies are being discussed in the press. He said he hopes to get more involved with Mendeley, which is part social network, part information-management tool for academics. He actively encourages scholars and journalists to recommend new studies.

Much of the academic world has been slow to embrace the web. Original research is confined to the printed page and PDF, protected by paywalls or private university networks. Academic discourse happens at a glacial pace compared to the speed of the blogosphere.

“Some academic disciplines have really embraced the blogosphere pretty well. The economics discipline, for example, there are a lot of very successful economics bloggers who have come out of the academy or sit in think tanks and really get their ideas out there pretty effectively,” Wihbey said. But in the social sciences, “there’s a lot of stuff that’s great but doesn’t necessarily get out there in the way that it should. Part of what we’re doing is trying to create an infrastructure where some of these findings can get greater publicity.”

Wihbey says Journalist’s Resource attracts about 11,000 unique visitors per month. One surprisingly strong referrer is Wikipedia, which generates about 15 percent of that traffic, he said. Wihbey occasionally links to stories on his site from Wikipedia pages — not so much for the pageviews, he says, but because it fits in with the mission of the organization. “The phrase Tom Patterson uses,” he says, “is to unlock the scholarship.”

Photo by timetrax23 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 21, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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