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The gap between journalism and research is too wide

“Journalists had piles of Chartbeat data, but few models for understanding the social psychology of media audiences. They were stuck musing about things like filter bubbles, bots, and young people paying for news, when there is growing research evidence available with answers to these questions.”

In 2018, I attended two conferences — one academic, one industry — that revealed something important about the state of engagement between journalists and the researchers who study news.

In short: The gap between our two worlds is still far too large, and we’re both losing out. This is especially troubling at a time when together we could make scientific, policy, and public debates about journalism far better informed, evidence-based, and mutually beneficial.

The first conference that I attended was the annual convention of the International Communication Association, which has a Journalism Studies Division that is both the largest of its kind in the world and a leading venue for presenting the latest research on journalism. In the journalism studies track of the conference, there were 130 peer-reviewed papers that addressed a wide range of important issues for journalism — from questions about how, why, and to what effect journalists use social media to emerging concerns about misinformation and “post-truth” politics as well as enduring issues surrounding how news is framed on controversial topics.

The research, while quite good in many respects, had key limitations in the aggregate, as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen has explained. There was virtually nothing about the business of journalism — a conspicuous absence at a time of ongoing policy debates about how to sustain quality news production. There was much research attention paid to the internal workings of newsrooms and journalists, but not enough to the external dynamics of technology platforms, political actors, and audience relationships that play a growing role in shaping the ultimate outcomes of journalism. What’s more, there was an accessibility bias toward studying data that could be more easily gathered — which explains why Twitter gets more attention in media research than more popular platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

The second conference that I attended was Newsgeist, an industry-focused, invitation-only gathering co-sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation that brings together “practitioners and thinkers from the worlds of journalism, technology, and public policy who are re-imagining the future of news.” Newsgeist follows the “unconference” format, with sessions organized and selected on-site by attendees. Many (seemingly most) of the attendees were journalists, with some representatives from Google, Facebook, and the like. Among the dozens of sessions proposed, Mathew Ingram noted, “there were a number of suggestions that boiled down to ‘What Should Facebook Do?’ In other words, what should Facebook do for journalism?”

In essence, if some journalism researchers were failing to address the power of Facebook and platforms more broadly, journalists themselves were keenly aware of the threat — and yet it also became obvious to me, in session after session, that journalists had too little research-based evidence on which to make key decisions about the future. Journalists had piles of Chartbeat data, but few models for understanding the social psychology of media audiences. They were stuck musing about things like filter bubbles, bots, and young people paying for news, when there is growing research evidence available with answers to these questions.

We could do better research and better journalism if we better engaged with one another. Some of that could happen through better representation at each other’s conferences, but much of it could occur in simpler and less expensive ways — like calling out the culture of indifference and defensiveness that too often gets between us, and simply reaching out to share ideas with one another.

A journalism studies field that is more attuned to the central political, technological, and economic questions that press upon journalism — and a news industry willing to partner with scholars and learn from their research — should be a long-range goal for us all. It won’t be resolved in a year, or even several, but in 2019 we can at least give it a shot.

Seth C. Lewis is the Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.

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