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July 6, 2023, 9:18 a.m.

Out of touch, but inspiring? Journalists share their thoughts about academic research

A survey finds there are key differences between what journalists think researchers can help with, and what the journalists are actually trying to address in their newsroom.

Journalists are frustrated with academic research on their profession and its practices, often finding it irrelevant, impractical, or inaccessible, according to a survey we conducted with Nieman Lab readers.

At the same time, many say they see value in academics doing what the journalists don’t have time or capacity to do themselves, and offering new perspectives on how to do journalism better.

In the survey conducted in summer 2022, the average participant indicated that research helps journalists to do their job, and makes journalism better for audiences and society. But on average respondents also thought research is hard to access and is too long.

A total of 166 people responded to the survey, which asked closed- and open-ended questions. We then filtered the results to just show responses from journalists, who were the focus of the study, and to exclude duplicate IP addresses and those who didn’t attest to being age 18 or above. This left us with 89 participants.

This survey doesn’t mark the first time that academics have wrestled with the impact of their work on the journalism profession. One of us (Valérie) co-edited a book about this. And recently Nieman Lab chatted with the professors behind RQ1, an effort to make journalism research more accessible and easier to understand.

But this survey is one of the only attempts to ask large numbers of journalists about what’s holding them back from using research, and to analyze how journalists describe this experience in their own words.

Some of the highlights of the study:

  • There are key differences between what journalists think journalism research can help with, and what the journalists are actually trying to address in their newsroom. Respondents were pessimistic about academia’s ability to help increase readership/viewership and to help readers find journalism (see chart).
  • In terms of what journalism research actually covers, participants said what they saw covered the most was improving audience trust (seen by 53.9% of participants) followed by diversity, equity and inclusion in the newsroom (48.3%), followed by a tie between fact-checking/misinformation and business/revenue models (47.2%).
  • People read about journalism research on average between “once a year or more” and “once a month or more,” but they use it to do their job on average less than once a year.

Irrelevant, out of touch, hard to access …

In highlighting the negatives, journalists talked about research being irrelevant or only “tangentially relevant” to their work, presenting a “disconnect between theory and day-to-day realities of understaffed outlets.”

Participants said researchers frequently “overlooked topics” or “missed what is important.” Researchers are asking the “wrong questions.” And they can be misguided, as one journalist responded: “There are shortcomings when research tries to use digital-only results, as many low-status audiences are missed or ignored that way.”

Journalists also said academics have a narrow focus in the business models they cover, with a respondent in a consumer-facing (B2B) publications saying they felt their work was invisible.

Respondents said that academics were “out of touch” with the changing realities of journalism. Concerns ranged from academic “not being practicing journalists anymore” to “researchers do not seem to know much about journalism” — as well as a suspicion that researchers with a journalism background may left that field because they weren’t good journalists in the first place.

Journalists also said academics were detached from “the reality of the daily grind.”

Another concern was the applicability of research. Journalists said that data was too narrow, not current, and didn’t fit their local audiences or niche area of reporting. Participants said academics’ data lagged behind journalists’ realities.

Accessibility to research was another impediment for the journalists we surveyed. They expressed not having the time or the capacity to take on more work, and said this posed a major impediment for their access to research.

Finding and searchability were another concern. Studies are “usually blocked behind paywalls,” journalists said. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that journalists felt that journal articles were “too long,” “overwritten,” highlighting the need for scholars to find ways to “translate their findings” to practice.

… but it can be useful

We also asked journalists to weigh the advantages of research in journalism, and many did – in fact, often the same person would tell us about both pros and cons.

Many participants mentioned how the capacities of researchers complement their own. They cited “academic rigor” and the “methodical means” of research. Journalism research can bolster arguments in important newsroom discussions, some said.

“There are many questions for which journalists are searching for answers, both in terms of business and news practices, and research provides insights that can be inspiring,” one participant said.

Another benefit that academics bring, according to our participants, is time. These journalists see academics as time-rich professionals whose work can sometimes benefit newsrooms.

“Having folks working off-deadline is always helpful,” said one journalist. Another explained, “It can be very helpful to take a step back from the daily grind of producing journalism to look at the big picture academic research provides.”

Some participants said they valued research’s ability to help them develop professionally. “​​There’s always something new to learn and historical practices to question,” one journalist said. Others said research can help them keep up with current trends and “be ahead of the game.”

Participants indicated that research helps them by thinking more critically, addressing biases, or thinking about the ethical implications of their work. One said research helps journalists compare “our assumptions about how the audience responds to certain types of messages [versus] what social science says about how they respond. E.g., how to cover suicide without increasing suicide risk.”

But participants’ reasons for using research went beyond their own individual journalism practice, to the larger needs of their news organization. In particular, participants indicated research can help with business models and making arguments to funders.

“I’m always trying to find the most effective ways of doing my job. Not just the practical day-to-day, but also the bigger picture strategies we should employ to build a strong, growing, sustainable local news business,” a journalist said.

Moving towards solutions

Overall, although we heard about many problems with research, our participants also spoke about potential solutions.

For academics, the advice we heard included:

  • Write a clear solutions section, keeping in mind who would implement the changes
  • Use a more audience-first structure for journal articles (e.g., the inverted pyramid)
  • Collaborate with media organizations to develop up-to-date and relevant research

Although many of these ideas could meet with resistance or face difficult hurdles, we think they serve as an important provocation to academics to consider the way they engage with practitioners.

Tamar Wilner is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin, examining issues of misinformation and news literacy. Her research also explores media trust and the journalism-research gap. She is a former magazine and online reporter and editor, and she has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Media from the University of Texas at Austin.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is associate professor and Cowles Fellow in Media Management at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is the author of The Paradox of Connection, Happiness in Journalism, Journalism Research that Matters, and Social Media at BBC News.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith near the campus of The University of Texas, Austin is used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 6, 2023, 9:18 a.m.
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