Identifying the next big investigation

Originally published as a blog post for the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

We all know of stories too big for one reporter to tackle; you need an entire team. Lately, we’re seeing stories even bigger, produced by two or more teams from different newsrooms. Now, imagine a story so big that virtually every newsroom in the country could play a part, and any audience member could contribute as a source.

Some journalists are still getting used to crowdsourcing or co-production as these collaborative techniques forge new ground in newsrooms. Others are dreaming up ways to push the envelope of collaboration itself. Such was the case at the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference, held this month in Boston.

Wendell Cochran, senior editor here at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, and Andrew Haeg, co-founder of the Public Insight Network, presented a hybrid panel/collective brainstorming session called “Identifying the next big investigation.”

Their pitch was this: Conceive a story that’s compelling on both a national and local scale, ripe with data that can be harnessed with modern technologies. Create a structure for harnessing and distributing the data to journalists. Deputize a leadership team capable of keeping the story moving forward and focused. Then have at it.

As Haeg wrote in a May blog post for MediaShift, local and regional newsrooms could filter the data for their geographies, telling the stories that speak to their audiences. Investigative newsrooms could crunch the data to find clues revealing any corruption or mismanagement at play. And, I would add, the major national newsrooms could decide among themselves how to divvy up coverage of the bird’s-eye view from various angles.

Meanwhile, a national database — a clearinghouse of sorts, which never would have existed before — would be created for scientists, activists and policy makers to put to use.

The notion is predicated on the spirit and utility of the Public Insight Network, a sort of Swiss Army knife of journalistic sourcing tools. Part database, part email server and part survey builder, it’s a method for crowdsourcing that taps into audience members’ expertise more so than their opinions.

What better way to fuel this most collaborative of ambitions than to harness an entire nation’s collective wisdom and experience?

Cochran pointed to ProPublica’s Free the Files project as an example of this strategy at work. The nonprofit investigative newsroom is recruiting citizens and local journalists alike to collect the public records of television ad purchases in their viewing areas by political campaigns. ProPublica then assembles all the records into an online database to give a big-picture view of how and where the campaigns and Super PACs are investing their resources.

Once Cochran and Haeg described the concept, it didn’t take long for the conference room — full even on a Saturday morning — to generate ideas. We could document the privatization of government functions like prisons, education, database administration, police surveillance footage. We could crowdsource instances of crimes committed by diplomats, or stories of Americans seeking medical care in other countries. We could track implementation of the new health-care reform laws, or instances of Medicare fraud, or the experiences of military veterans returning home from war. Time for the panel ran out well before ideas did.

Aside from my fascination with the logistical coordination of such a project, the really interesting question this idea sparks is that of the national news agenda. Who sets it?

Cochran and Haeg titled their panel well. This collaborative form of crowdsourcing could produce the next big investigation, and actually seems inevitable. How will it be identified?

Collaboratively, of course. If you’d like to be part of the answer, contact Andrew Haeg at the Public Insight Network or Wendell Cochran at the Investigative Reporting Workshop:

Andrew Haeg, Public Insight Network
612.501.0690
ahaeg [@] americanpublicmedia.org
@andrewhaeg on Twitter

Wendell Cochran, Investigative Reporting Workshop
202 885-2075
@wcochran on Twitter

You can also find the collaboratively generated brainstorm of ideas here: www.bit.ly/IREideas. Chime in!

Living on Liberty

view up the mast of a wooden-masted tall ship

I’ve just left the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference in Boston, and not only was the entire affair inspiring, informative, and fun. I got to stay on a tall ship in Boston Harbor, instead of a regular hotel.

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It might sound a tad sexier than it was, but I’d do it again in heartbeat.

“How did you swing that?” people kept asking. Really, all I did was google for hostels in Boston, and the Liberty Clipper came up because the company describes itself as offering “hostel-like” accommodations. They rent out cabins on the 125-foot, gaff-rigged topsail schooner (a replica of the Baltimore Clippers of the mid-1800s) while the boat is docked for the night. The crew, who also sleeps onboard, runs up to three pleasure cruises a day.

Renting out the cabins, for them, is a pretty clever way to monetize the downtime. For me, it sounded more interesting than staying in a cheap motel, and the price was just about equal.

Here’s the view in a small slideshow. I even had seals from the Boston aquarium’s outdoor tank as neighbors …

The conference kept me so busy, I didn’t get to take full advantage of my maritime motel. I was off the deck before coffee was served every morning and returned well past “quiet time” each night. Still, a slight scent of sea, waking to a gentle rock on the water, the tongue-and-groove ceiling mere inches from my pillow, and the greeting of blue sky as soon as I opened my cabin door every morning — living on the Liberty Clipper while immersing myself in the power of a free press made a meaningful conference all the more memorable.

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(all photos by Hilary Niles)

Don’t be boring! Crafting stories from data

The Pithy Award for this year’s Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference — wrapping up today in St. Louis — surely belongs to Tony DeBarros, Ron Nixon and Ben Welsh. Their presentations for Friday’s “Making Sure You Tell a Story” panel, in rapid succession, covered ground from story craft to news strategy to robotics, and still managed to present a cohesive message: elevate your reporting.

My favorite lines from each of them:

“I couldn’t have made that up if I was writing a screenplay.” — Tony DeBarros of USA TODAY

“If you kill the thing, eat every last piece.” — Ron Nixon of the New York Times

“There is an art to finding Mr. and Mrs. Central Tendency.” — Ben Welsh, Los Angeles Times

All of this really does relate to computer-assisted reporting. But let’s start at the story, which is where the panel started with Tony DeBarros.

His point is that journalists still should hold onto the tricks of the storytelling trade, even when — or especially when — we’re telling the stories of data.

“Snap out of the numbers coma,” he advised, because people can only comprehend and play along with your analysis of so many trends at a time. Find the people who represent the trends or outliers in the data, and tell their stories. Set scenes, use detail, develop characters.

Case in point: a census story about Loving County, Texas, where Judge Skeet Jones and Sheriff Billy Burt Hopper can sit down in the Boot Track Cafe and write down the names of nearly everyone in their county — and not because they command great memories.

“We can’t just put people to sleep with numbers. We have to dig and find the greater context and tell it with story,” he said.

Ron Nixon picked it up from here, pointing out places in our data reporting where we can sneak in the human voice.

“We waste a lot of our reporting,” he said, comparing a reporter’s cutting room floor to all that’s wasted when a hunter mounts the head of a [insert exotic wild game here] on her wall and throws away all the meat.

There are places for all the quotes and anecdotes you worked hard to collect, so find a place to put them in.

Take Obama’s Budget Focuses on Path to Rein in Deficit, born last year when a New York Times online producer thought of a new way to report the budget: by having reporters annotate the parts of it that pertained to the agencies they covered. Document Cloud, meet narration.

Truly effective reporting is “more than just putting something up online and letting people figure it out,” Nixon said. He compared habits of simply embedding documents to the idea of bringing a hungry person to a locked glass refrigerator full of food. Seeing does not equal transparency, he said. We have to help our audiences understand what documents mean.

And we can help computers do this in more ways than you might realize, said Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times. He calls it human-assisted reporting.

It boils down to this: If we can write programs to automatically scrape certain websites for specific data, we really should just go the extra mile and teach the computer how to write its own story from what it finds

Like earthquakes. Redefining the tagline “this just in,” Los Angeles Times developers came up with a way to report them within seconds. (Their newsroom protocol still requires “human review” before any news is published, hence the 15-20 minute delay between the time an earthquake strikes and the time stamp on the site’s initial report.)

With a fistful of code — and the developers who can write it — automated reporting like this helps your newsroom break news first, work around public information officers, analyze instantly, and generate copy quickly. Leaving you more time to get and tell the stories.

Dispatches from Boot Camp

Boot camp is not for sissies.

This I know, so I am cautioning myself to not get cocky or lulled into a false sense of confidence based on the slow starting pace of this week’s computer-assisted reporting (CAR) boot camp.

It’s run by Investigative Reporters & Editors, which is where I’m also working as a research assistant while in grad school. These folks are, by all accounts, the kings of CAR. They know their business and they know how to teach it, so I trust some mental acrobatics are in store the rest of this week.

But truth be told, I’m grateful for the simple start. It makes the skills accessible to virtually anyone — including me, who needed a refresher in class yesterday on what a “median” average is.

Hopefully, I will have a more sophisticated definition of computer-assisted reporting by the end of the week, but so far this is what I can tell: It’s about accessing, managing and tapping into data. Big Data. Such as FBI crime reports, local health code violations, pensions, figures from any number of industries, and on and on. We started with Excel, are moving into Access, and will end with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It certainly satisfies my geeky side, and offers inspiration. Along with the stories of reporting and innovations that have come out of boot camp alums, my fellow students remind me that the career I have chosen is very real and really significant. Here are three examples of work (that may or may not have been done by boot campers) that used CAR:

Seniors for Sale by Michael Berens, The Seattle Times

Murder Mysteries by Tom Hargrove, Scipps Howard News Service

The Hidden Life of Guns, Washington Post

The other cool part of CAR is the simple stuff: knowing your way around data well enough to get in and out quickly with a story, a lead, a better question to ask. It doesn’t all have to be about the heavy, long-term investigations, Mark Horvit reminded us in lab yesterday. And we’re doing exercises in lab to drive that point home. In this and many other ways, I am appreciating how pragmatic their approach is.

This is the second “boot camp” of sorts I have signed up for in my life, the first being a ten-day silent Vipassana meditation back in 1999. At the time, I not-so-fondly called it Boot Camp for Buddhists. (In retrospect, the term is endearing and, one way or another, I draw on what I learned there almost every day of my life. Well, on the better days, anyway.)

As much as I’m getting out of this boot camp — computer-assisted reporting is clearly useful and can be pretty hard-core — my guess is that even NICAR ain’t got a patch on Mr. Goenka.

After all, even database queries start with taking a deep breath.

Lit Review: media and elections

Literature Review: How local media coverage of elections can help turn out more and better informed voters

Introduction

Media effects research clearly shows some level of correlation between media consumption and voter turnout. The premise of this literature review is that such findings can be used by media outlets to help shape their own campaign coverage, with the goal of improving issues knowledge among the general public and inspiring audiences members to vote in greater numbers.

The following review of scholarly work will start with research into media effects on audience behavior, especially related to political election coverage and voting patterns. A brief survey of the evolution of media effects concurrent with the development of new media platforms will also be presented.

The special role of local media will also be considered. Following a thread from credibility to the business viability of high-quality, issues-based news coverage, this section is especially relevant to media outlets that otherwise might be under financial pressures to deliver horse-race campaigns.

A review of literature correlating content, audience perception of media, and civic engagement will follow. This includes consideration of the younger voting demographic, along with studies that challenge traditional notions of the civic impact of political cynicism, and research into the role of polling in election coverage.

As this literature review is based largely on the assumption that quality news coverage engenders deeper audience understanding of political issues, definitions of and research into issues knowledge will be offered. The review also suggests potential for strategically timing different types of campaign coverage for maximum impact according to audiences’ decision-making patterns.

The literature review closes with consideration of audiences themselves, since all the media research in the world is meaningless without understanding the people for whom news is ostensibly designed and how they use it. This begins with an analysis of the timing of voting decisions and goes on to analyze some reasons that people disengage with election coverage. The review closes after the elections, so to speak, with research into improved voter turnout data.

Specific recommendations are offered for consideration about how media outlets may shift their approaches to election coverage to both meet business imperatives and help fulfill journalism’s potential contribution to democracy. Notes are also made on areas for further research that will help media find financial viability by answering this call for accountability to the public interest.

Literature Review

Media Effects

There is much research documenting the agenda-setting effect of media. Studies indicate that simply covering topics as news can introduce those topics into audience discourse, essentially getting people to talk about or care about what they otherwise may not be likely to. This effect was documented by Iyengar and Kinder’s 1987 book News That Matters, in which the authors presented evidence “that the media actually precedes public agenda” (Sparks 156). The book details an experiment in which people were exposed “to one of three different presentations of the news over a 4-day period. … (T)he researchers found that the experimental groups expressed greater concern about the issue that had been featured in their respective newscast.”

Level of media exposure is sometimes considered as a factor in media effects research, as it was for Fridkin, et all in their multi-methodological approach to understanding the impact of media coverage following the final presidential campaign debate of 2004. The group conducted a content analysis of television, internet and newspaper coverage in the immediate 24-hours following the debate (Fridkin et al.). They paired this with data from a public opinion survey and conducted an experiment tracking the “stability” of attitudes about the candidates among individuals who either were or were not exposed to the debate. A notable observation in the context of this literature review is that the extreme level of media saturation following a presidential debate gives very few citizens a chance to escape the common news agenda. In the case of the post-debate coverage, which these researchers concluded to be one-sided, favoring George W. Bush over John Kerry, more potential exists for media effects to influence public opinion. “Thus, theoretically, the coupling of intense media coverage and a one-sided story should influence citizens’ attitudes of the competing candidates” (31).

A case study of a 2004 poll by the Los Angeles Times illustrates the potential for a single news report to achieve high levels of exposure and, consequently, potentially influence public opinion. Hardy and Jamieson found that the specific wording of the poll and the subsequent report about it not only influenced the newspaper audience’s perceptions of the two presidential candidates at the time, George W. Bush and John Kerry. Coverage of the poll also swayed the conversation of the nation after being picked up by the Associated Press and carried nationwide (Hardy and Jamieson 731). Looking back on 2004, the authors analyzed data from a rolling cross-sectional survey from the National Annenberg Election Survey to document what others before them had long posited, “that poll results may prime character traits through attribute agenda-setting” (739-740). In this case, a small but “detectable change in the public’s assessment of both Bush’s stubbornness and his steady leadership” was found.

Conversely, consider the “spiral of silence” theory, which describes public opinion as an essential human trait, spanning societies and millennia, and exerting its own influence on both governments and individuals. In related research that spanned decades, Noelle-Neumann determined that humans’ social nature leads people to fear isolation, which is threatened by society in reaction to unpopular “opinions and behaviors” (Noelle-Neumann; Sparks 157). In response to popular public opinion, Noelle-Neumann asserts, citizens learn silence to avoid isolation. In her discussion of numerous tests of the spiral of silence theory by other researchers, Noelle-Neumann claims any failure of the theory has been tested without taking the tenor of the media into account. “Rather than refuting the theory of the spiral of silence, the ‘silent majority’ shows how strongly the mass media must be seen to influence the process of public opinion. The tenor of the media generates a threat of isolation.” (Noelle-Neumann 276)

Media Evolution

It’s also important to remember that media effects are the product of a dynamic relationship with the media themselves. A review of related scholarly studies reveals a landscape of effects that is evolving as rapidly as new media platforms are being developed and appropriated for news.

Prior to the emergence of the Internet as a dominant media force, Simon suggested that newspapers, rather than television, radio or magazines, are related to the likelihood that a person will vote. Tapping data from the ongoing National Election Study survey during the 1992 presidential campaign, Simon created “an index that measured two dimensions: exposure to the medium (whether a person had received any campaign information from the medium) and intensity of use (how much attention the person paid to campaign stories in that medium)” (Simon 28). He then analyzed voter turnout patterns, taking into account demographics, political variables and the subject’s level of personal dialogue about the campaign. He found that “New News outlets,” an umbrella under which he included radio and television talk shows, exposed more people to campaign events than otherwise may have learned about them. However, this exposure did not result in increased rates of voter turnout among those citizens. “Only adults who said they followed the campaign through newspapers were found to be more likely to vote” (30).

Druckman developed his methodology in pursuit of evidence that newspaper audiences commanded more political knowledge than television viewers due to a fundamental difference in the depth of coverage that each medium offered (Druckman 464-465). He cites previous studies that alternatively support the correlation between newspaper readership and issues knowledge or else complicate the question with the introduction of prior political knowledge as a factor to weigh. Conducting content analysis and exit polling about a single campaign in a single market, Druckman concludes that newspapers more than television at the time did hold a more influential, although potentially limited, role in informing the electorate.

Now fast-forward to the age of the internet, when Drew and Weaver’s fifth in a series of presidential election-year telephone surveys indicated that attention not to newspapers, but to television news, televised debates, and online news were the “important predictors, or at least correlates, of voter learning of candidate issue positions and voter interest in the election campaigns.” Their study also related to perceptions of voter apathy, studies of which are discussed below. Regarding political involvement among audiences, the research indicated a slightly waning influence of newspapers compared to previous years. The authors also expressed their own surprise at “the consistency of attention to radio news as a predictor, or at least a correlate, of campaign interest in the last four U.S. presidential elections” (38).

Local Media

While many research studies examine the effects of mass media, some consideration of local news outlets can also be found. Responding to their own personal observations of the 2000 presidential primary race in South Carolina, Vinson and Moore set out to discover if local and national coverage of the subject was, indeed, as divergent as it had seemed to them — and if so, what implications that held for local and national audiences, respectively. The ensuing content analysis created a basis for comparison among local and national media coverage and campaign communications by and on behalf of the candidates themselves. The researchers found a stark disconnect between what the campaigns versus media emphasized in the race (Vinson and Moore 397), but also between what local and national media conveyed (401). They interpreted that local reporters, by incorporating local contacts and their own knowledge and understanding of the state into their stories, more accurately reflected the reality of the campaign for residents where the campaign was actually taking place. Local reporters correctly predicted the lack of impact the cancellation of the Democratic primary would have on crossover votes and “provided a somewhat more accurate account of the negative campaigning.” Vinson and Moore also found a “significant difference between the two levels of media in their coverage of character. Most of the character coverage … occurred in the local press. … It did not even make the top 10 issues for the national media.”

Extending their study to exit polls in both South Carolina and Michigan, where the Republican primary was conducted just three days later, Vinson and Moore found what they presented as evidence of this divergent coverage’s impact on voter behavior. Taking other factors into account, they conclude that Michigan voters, basing their ballot decisions largely on national media coverage, came away from the South Carolina primary with a very different perspective than their counterparts in South Carolina, who had more access to local coverage (406). The authors also opine that national coverage of locally conducted campaigns, built primarily on first impressions and borrowed press frames, results in reporting that is not completely inaccurate, but also certainly not complete.

Newhagen and Nass also touch on some differences between mass and local media in their scholarly review and exploration of credibility. The authors arrive at a negative relationship between distance and credibility, in which local news outlets, being closer to their readers, enjoy comparatively more credibility with local audiences than mass media, who have to overcome both perceived and physical distance between the institutions and their readers in any given locality (279).

Despite this perception of credibility among local news sources, some critics accuse local television news of being no more than a “vast wasteland” based on content analyses that reveal hyperfocus “on crime, murder, car chases, and mayhem, particularly in lead stories” (Belt and Just 194). After a five-year content analysis of local news in 50 markets, in which Belt and Just examine the relationship between content sophistication and business viability, the two suggest that true credibility actually can — and should — be earned. “We come to the surprising conclusion that quality is not merely good practice but good for the bottom line” (195). The authors do not suggest that stepping up the quality and relevance of local news is without its challenges; rather they maintain that such investment is worthwhile, for the sake of getting and keeping the public’s interest in the news, fulfilling the basic function of journalism in society, and at the same time achieving economic success (209).

Content and Perception

Essential to exploring the sophistication of election news is the ways different types of news influence audience decisions about how — and even if — to vote. Many studies, in fact, define civic engagement as a dependent variable influenced at least in part by news frames and news content. Following common concerns among scholars that negativism discourages political participation (Pinkleton and Austin 332), several studies in the 1990s and beyond have begun to challenge — or at least complicate — that notion.

The population segment long the subject of apathy discussions is young people. Since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1971, 18- to 24-year-olds have been the electoral cohort least likely to exercise that right (319). Administering a paper-and-pencil survey to 420 college students, Pinkleton and Austin attempted to dissect the age group’s media use in order to understand their low levels of public affairs involvement. The authors’ expectation that cynicism positively correlated with apathy was confirmed, but to a lesser extent than what had been suggested by researchers before them (331). Pinkleton and Austin concluded that cynicism may have a short-term negative impact on news media use and long-term damaging relationship with political efficacy, but that in itself cynicism does not diminish political participation in young people. The study also indicated that, contrary to popular opinion, apathy was not related to negative campaigns. “If cynicism affects negativism, but negativism does not affect apathy (and cynicism affects apathy only slightly), scholars will need to look beyond the convenient excuse of frustration with media, campaigns, and institutions to explain nonparticipation among young citizens” (332).

These findings are backed up somewhat by de Vreese, who details the mixed methodologies and results of cynicism studies in his detailed review of “strategy” and “game frame” or “horse-race” definitions and analyses (284-287). Attempting to refine these definitions, along with Capella and Jamieson’s entire “spiral of cynicism” theory, de Vreese determined based on his two-wave panel survey that the relationship of strategic news and audience cynicism is a matter of degrees. The study “only partially confirms that strategic news … does indeed fuel cynicism about politics.” (293) He found that relationship to be dependent on the level of strategy present in the news — implying that press frames are not always black and white, but can be hybrids of varying ratios. “In the context where strategy news was relatively less present, exposure to news in fact contributed to a decrease in the level of cynicism. This finding calls for a reconsideration of the spiral of cynicism hypothesis” (293).

de Vreese furthermore suggests that “the positive relationship between political sophistication and cynicism” reported in his and others’ findings could mean that cynicism is not a sentiment to be avoided, but instead is “perhaps little more than an indication of an ‘interested and critical citizenry’” (294).

Polls and Horse Races 

A topic that can scarcely be avoided when surveying the impacts of horse-race election coverage is political polling. “As early as 1984, Lang and Lang suggested that poll results can reinforce majority opinion, a process akin to Noelle-Neumann’s ‘spiral of silence’” (Hardy and Jamieson 725). What some scholars say has changed in recent years, however, is how polls are reported by the press.

Frankovic maintained that very little about poll methodology changed in 2004, although more individual state polling, particularly in “battleground” states, and more Internet polling through private organizations started taking place around 2000 and 2004 (Frankovic 682). Concerned that starting in 2004, however, the public was subjected to as many debates about the polls as they were poll results, Frankovic took a closer narrative look at polling coverage, including frequency of reports about polls, use of polls in political campaigns, an increased level of scrutiny into polling methods, and finally criticism of the polls. She concluded that, while polls still hold value as “a mirror to let the public understand itself…. polls also provide attention for the organization doing them” (694). This, along with Frankovic’s observation that pollsters themselves in 2004 were often attacked by partisans, might eventually undermine journalists’ tradition of relying on polls as the “expert” on public opinion, Frankovic predicts. But she ends with the salvo that, “at least for now, journalists (and politicians) still need to believe in the ‘precision’ of polls to keep doing their jobs” (695).

Patterson is less forgiving in his article, which sets out to “show that journalists continue to craft superficial images tied to the candidates’ support in the polls and … construct election narratives rooted in the candidates’ positions in the race” (716). He calls it “feeding the horses,” and claims that polls keep press frames centered on the game angle of election coverage, to the detriment of issues coverage and ultimately to the detriment of the American public. “The policy issue that Americans said they cared the most about in 2004 — the economy — received less than 5 percent of the total coverage” that year (Patterson 719).

Patterson also took aim at the concept of precision polling, which Frankovic merely hinted at as an elusive ideal. Patterson wrote that a combination of misunderstanding margin of error in poll reporting and misinterpreting small movements in polls as meaningful trends leads journalists to misrepresent what is otherwise a useful tool, ultimately serving to confuse the public it is trying to inform (719). “Paradoxically, surveys heighten journalists’ attention to the candidates, rather than to the voters themselves” (720). Patterson maintained that poll-driven stories are ultimately distortions of reality that promote negative public opinion at the expense of more valuable issues education.

Issues Knowledge

Related to the issue of content, credibility and audience perceptions of media discussed above, D’Angelo and Lombard studied the impact on issues knowledge of what they call “conduit, strategy and accountability” press frames (D’Angelo and Lombard). They borrowed from cognitive science (8-13) in constructing the theory behind their between-subjects experiment in which subjects were given pre-stimulus and post-stimulus questionnaires, concluding that only “participants exposed to the strategy frame” associated the press with negativity. They drew what they called “disturbing conclusions” from this: “In particular, it seems that individuals in our study have internalized the antagonistic relationship between candidates and the press corps” (25). This is a much more dramatic view than that taken by de Vreese and even Pinkleton and Austin. D’Angelo and Lombard cited other research to propose that these media perceptions matter not only for the sake of a media’s brand, but also because a media’s credibility, or lack thereof, in part determines the potential “knowledge gain” of its audience (2).

But knowledge, too, can be evaluated in different ways, according to Hollander in his study on recognition and recall from late-night entertainment programs (Hollander). “Whether viewers of entertainment-based programs learn about public affairs is reminiscent of earlier concerns about the informative power of television news as compared to print sources, most often newspapers” (403). Based on his study of data from the 2004 Political Communications Study by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, Hollander said that “what viewers glean from such programs may be a function of many factors: the cognitive effort expended, political interest and sophistication, and exactly what kind of knowledge is tapped in surveys or questionnaires” (403). He argued that late-night shows such as Jay Leno or The Daily Show promote political recognition more than recall, and that this is a valid but far from complete contribution to issues knowledge, especially for younger viewers. “(H)ow competent it leaves them to participate in a meaningful manner remains an open question,” he concluded (412).

Miller and Orr, on the other hand, argued for a new way to even measure political knowledge, much less evaluate it. They proposed eliminating the “Don’t Know” response option from political knowledge questionnaires in order to eliminate non-random psychological factors such as confidence from the survey pool. They found that self-reported political knowledge estimations were higher in the absence of the “DK” (stands for “Don’t Know”) response, the reason being that some people, despite less actual knowledge, are more inclined than others to either think they do know something, or guess (769). The researchers administered a set of three random sample web surveys to test their hypothesis, but without “fanfare” announcing the absence of the DK option. They found that eliminating the option did indeed yield higher knowledge estimates, “both on a per-item and aggregate basis for political and general knowledge” (775).

Whether higher knowledge estimations are a good thing depends on “whether one values validity over reliability … (and) whether one believes that DK responses actually conceal partial knowledge.” Miller and Orr point out that other researchers have argued not giving respondents an way to opt out of a question they do not know the answer to encourages blind guessing, which in turn reduces reliability (776). The authors argue, “This loss in reliability comes with an associated gain in validity, however, since unsystematic variance stemming from blind guessing replaces systematic variance based on the propensity to guess.” They also point out the option to encourage, rather than omit, the DK option in order to reduce the “trade-off” between reliability and validity.

Timing of Voting Decisions

Aside from the question of measuring political knowledge is the timing of when that knowledge gels into a political decision. Bowen turned the cloudy debate about the impact of political advertising on its head with his study of when voters choose whom to vote for. He approached his study into the time of voting decision from the perspective of advertising. Based on research before him, Bowen concluded that early deciders partake of political communications, but mostly to “reinforce existing preferences” (666). Late-deciders may be less invested in the campaigns, but also may be more persuadable and less savvy about political news. Voters who decided during the campaign, research showed, tended to make the most use of the greatest range of political communications (667).

Bowen’s post-election survey after a senate race in Washington state showed roughly 23 percent of voters decided early, 22 percent decided in the middle of the campaign, 25 percent decided late, and almost 31 percent made up their minds during the primary. “General news accounts” were cited as the overall most helpful information to voters, followed by political advertising (671).

In his study, “negative (advertising) spots were highly recalled but worked against their sponsors,” and media coverage of such spots were seen to be very effective in “deflecting their influence” (674). Bowen notes that media coverage is not as likely for down-ticket races such as auditors, commissioners, and the like. He extrapolates that last-minute negative ads, therefore, may be more effective in those cases where and when “there is no opportunity for rebuttal” (674).

Voter Turnout

A more extreme but hardly uncommon case of absent media coverage is presented by Lipsitz and Teigen, who studied “orphan counties.” The authors approximated that 33 million Americans live in counties that aren’t served by their local media, due to incongruities between media markets and state boundaries (178). Not only did these potential voters not receive election information to help them choose their own political representation in the midterm election studied; they actually were exposed to campaign coverage that was irrelevant to their districts. The latter, the authors found, was the most damaging to the audience’s likelihood to become civically engaged.

Lipsitz and Teigen drew considerable worry from this study on the part of candidates in states with orphan counties, given the hurdles identified in the study to both reach these voters and mobilize them to the polls. The authors also express concern for “those who believe that spending campaign dollars will spur citizens to vote” (195).

Some residents of orphan counties and the younger demographic discussed earlier are certainly not the only Americans who do not exercise their right to vote. Yet comparisons of self-reported voter turnout and actual ballot numbers have frequently shown that individuals report to the American National Election Study that they voted, when in fact they did not (Duff et al. 67-68). The NES began experimenting with survey questions, in addition to its introductory script that acknowledged socially acceptable reasons for not voting, in 2000 and 2002. Duff et al sought to learn more from the 2002 experiment, which “randomly assigned half its respondents to the new version of the turnout question and half to the traditional version” (68). The researchers concluded from their analysis of the survey data that the new question did reduce over-reporting by approximately 8 percent.

The authors went on to access what data they could from the NES survey to uncover potential biases in the traditional or new turnout questions. They were struck by the extent to which they found the traditional turnout question had masked the actually low voter turnout rates of the poorest, least knowledgeable and least politically effective individuals. They determined that the new turnout question revealed these social trends in voter turnout in a way the previous question never could have.

A further observation the authors draw from their analysis is that the “social desirability effect is very deep in some spots and very shallow in others” (88). They conclude that the new survey question did not do well in improving accuracy “where the sense of social desirability runs deep.”

Conclusion

The most important lesson to be learned from this review of election-related research spanning decades — especially with the goal of improving journalism’s impact going forward — is that things change. They always have, and they will continue to do so. New institutional systems and reporting practices developed today, therefore, will have to adapt tomorrow in order to stay current and stay ahead of the curve of media and political evolution. Journalists and media managers would do well to build models that are structurally nimble in order to respond most effectively to both business and editorial imperatives. Frequent and regular surveys of a media’s own efficacy and its relationship with its subjects, supporting businesses, and audiences would also be wise to help journalism anticipate and even direct some of this inevitable change, rather than remain stuck in the less effective emergency-mode of having to catch up.

The preponderance of research into presidential campaigns is also notable in this review — although not surprising and certainly not without explanation. The scope of many research studies is no doubt limited in terms of both finances and human resources. Nonetheless, more research into statewide, local and down-ticket elections would be helpful for media, advertisers and audiences alike. Although “local” media outlets by their nature only serve a relatively small number of individuals and businesses, collectively their numbers are great and offer data samples sizable enough to detect meaningful trends. Some of the literature reviewed here also points to local media as holding the best hope for improved service in the public interest. More navigational notes would be helpful in creating a new roadmap to success for smaller media ventures.

That said, the countless configurations of media effects by media type, size, region, audience demographic and infinite other factors can only take a media outlet so far. Outside studies are helpful, but should not be considered a replacement for a newsroom’s own understanding of its audience — in all the shades, shapes and sizes of their perceptions, needs, levels of political efficacy and reasons for engaging (or not) with their community. As the newer trend of community outreach by media continues to evolve, it would be interesting for future researchers to measure and describe the ways these new practices are helping to push newsrooms and journalists along their own evolutionary path.

This literature review assessed the field of election coverage with the express goal of improving editorial content as a way to increase public civic participation. Studies such as Bowen’s and even Lipsitz and Teigen’s, written more from the perspective of advertisers than editors, can nonetheless be useful for informing editorial decisions. Similarly, Noelle-Neumann “spiral of silence” theory of public opinion is equally applicable to newsrooms as it is to audiences. As Belt and Just intimate (206), even newsrooms are not immune from their own spirals of silence. Media managers would do well build checks against such social pressures into the systems they create in order to maintain an atmosphere open to the type of innovation that will be needed to keep journalism relevant in an ever-changing society.


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Audience Connections

The following blog post was written as an assignment from Reuben Stern: What could/should journalists be doing (that they aren’t already) to better connect their journalism with its potential audiences? In coming up with ideas, be sure to consider how people like yourself live their lives and get information every day.

My instinct to the question of audience connections is to go grassroots and get social. And by “social,” I don’t mean just posting a link to our latest articles on Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/etc. (although those platforms are certainly important). I mean to make social events out of our reporting. Multimedia work presents an opportunity for this unlike any other.

Picture movie night, but with multi-media, instead. Imagine renting out a theater at your local independent cinema to show off a series of multi-media projects the same way short documentaries get screened. Or reserving your local middle school auditorium for a different kind of performance. (Or fill in the blank with whichever building the people you are trying to reach have in common.) Find the right empty wall and a willing property owner, and you could even improvise a multi-media drive-in experience, a la Sub Rosa in Dover, N.H. Depending on where you are, hold a panel discussion or a potluck or a dance party when it’s over. That’s what I call “social.”

Another buzzword we hear a lot about is “collaboration,” and I think far more potential exists for this than we have yet imagined — especially when it comes to partnering across disciplines, businesses, and even groups of people. For example, poets and painters partner up to create multi-platform exhibits. Why not reporters and sculptors? So much of art is political, it seems a shame to keep such a great distance between it and political reporting as we do. If balance is a concern — as it should be — two artists with very different interpretations of a particular issue could both create art to accompany a multi-media exhibit (which, after all, doesn’t have to be contained within the confines of a website). Imagine walking through a gallery with framed photos, video stations and laptops for interactive journalism, surrounded by paintings and sculptures and perhaps even music. I can imagine it, and it lights my fire. Obviously not every story can be reported this way, but I maintain that annual festivals don’t have to be just for food, films and music anymore.

What this largely comes down to is just plain having fun. As serious of an enterprise as journalism is, and I do take it very seriously, I also think journalists could stand to loosen up a bit when it comes to presentation. If we want audiences to engage more with our reporting, we could start by giving them something other than paper and electronic devices to engage with.

New Sources of Journalism

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:

One might walk away from this week’s reading with the impression that journalism is not destined to fail, and that business savvy and editorial integrity are not mutually exclusive.

It’s about time.

In “Reinventing the newspaper” (July 7, 2011 print edition), The Economist compares today’s crisis in the journalism business to the upheaval caused by the penny press in the early-mid 1800s. “Constant upheaval is part and parcel of capitalism’s creative destruction,” the article states. Journalists and their allies may consider “the news” a special case, but wishing so doesn’t inoculate against market forces. Technology has simply brought in a new tide. And now a whole lot of boats are getting built.

The article skims the surface of several new business models being tried out in response to these new media waters. Some complications are pointed out, especially the rapidity with which traditional revenues are declining. Even the most promising new business models, the article points out, are not turning profits at a high enough rate to close that gap. An undercurrent of urgency therefore remains. But again, there is promise, evidenced even in the sheer range of experimentation.

There are paywalls, then there are metered paywalls, and “all-access” marketing approaches that indirectly prime audiences for the habit of paying to get past those walls. Add the mobile app market, jump to the national shared payment scheme from Slovakia, then scrap it all like The Guardian or Daily Mail, which “have made all their content available free online in an effort to transform themselves into global news brands.” And if all else fails, uncork a wine club and set off on a cruise: the journalism business apparently is not just for news anymore.

But, The Economist cautions through the voice of Innovation Media Consulting partner Juan Señor, “you won’t fix the business model without fixing the editorial model.” Señor’s approach is described as heavy on design with an emphasis on storytelling. I couldn’t agree more in concept, but little detail of what that means in practice is offered here.

“Philanthrojournalism,” or a new approach through internet-based, foundation-funded “accountability journalism,” is discussed in closing. This brings the article to a bright end, although one built on an assumption that only nonprofit start-ups have reason to be so optimistic. It concludes with the distinction that just because “traditional institutions” are struggling, that doesn’t mean the entire profession has to.

Michelle McLellan takes a similar analysis to a more granular level in “Emerging Economics of Community News,” from Pew’s 2011 State of the News Media. She presents her current findings from an ongoing study of community news outlets, and comes to the conclusion that they are getting (and should get) more sophisticated about business at the same time they maintain editorial focus.

From a Knight Foundation report she worked on, McLellan shares two priorities for online local news sites: Define target audiences through research, identify their needs, and measure the impact of the news; and diversify both expense and revenue models by giving equal weight to both the business and reporting sides of journalism.

Methods of audience research and measuring impact were not discussed. As for diversifying revenues, McLellan did find many of the same experiments detailed by The Economist, adding advertising networks and even networks of news sites to the roster. She also devotes a lot of ink to (or screen) to kicking the crutch of foundation support out from under the public journalism model. “We need to run our businesses like businesses, even if our goal is public service rather than profitability,” said John Thornton, venture capitalist and chairman of the ambitious Texas Tribune — a nonprofit that assumes no foundation support in its long-term revenue projections.

McLellan also noted, “if the real job of journalism schools is to help journalism survive, then entrepreneurship, business literacy and community engagement must be as much a part of the curriculum as multimedia and digital literacy.” (Those reasons, combined with honing my reporting chops, are certainly why I came to graduate school!)

McLellan closed with a more in-depth look at the St. Louis Beacon, which she suggested is pioneering a revenue source that does not currently exist — one based on community connections and what Beacon founder and editor Margaret Wolf Freivogel calls “high-touch communication.” McLellan describes it as the intersection of content, engagement and revenue, and points to it as the promise of journalism’s next business model.

I am encouraged to learn of more journalists and scholars applying themselves to what, for me, is a fundamental belief that technology and business can serve the public interest if harnessed well in application to journalism. It is also quite validating to recognize many concepts behind my own journalism start-up (now on hold for graduate school) in the examples found in these two articles.

If the Knight Foundation is moving in the direction indicated by McLellan — away from wide and rapid experimentation and toward refinement of what they have found is working — I think they would do well to next study audience metrics in this new arena of engagement. How does a media company or organization — especially a small one — measure the depth and closeness of audience relationships? And if the goal, as Freivogel puts it, is to “not just toss information at people but to figure out how we can serve them better,” how does one measure how well people are being served? This is especially important to answer when keeping a close eye on the fine line between public interest and advocacy journalism.

News and Democracy

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Gans, Herbert, “The News: What Might Be Done,” from “Democracy and the News,” Chap. 5.
  • Bennett, “News: the politics of illusion,” Chapter 1
  • Patterson and Seib, “Informing the public”

This week’s readings re-examine commonly held assumptions about the role of news in democracy — including the responsibilities of the press, factors that limit our efficacy, new ways it can be achieved, and how its successes (or failures) can be measured.

In Gans’s chapter “The News: What Might Be Done,” (2003) he opens with the optimistic view that today’s challenges for news media also represent opportunities to make news more relevant and accessible to the general public. His suggestions of how this might be done range from the practical to idealistic: a new agenda-setting frame of mind in editorial decision-making, experiments with audience participation, use of opinion and humor, rethinking journalism training and education, and new economic models for news production. He closes by admitting the limitations of journalism to catalyze a sea change in the public’s interest in civic life, then goes on to list several societal conditions that would likely produce such interest — factors that have, since his writing in 2003, become virtually ubiquitous, such as terrorism or economic collapse.

In Chapter 1 of his book “News: The Politics of Illusion,” (2003) Bennett traces the historical progression of news delivery systems and their role in democracy — namely the interaction of political figures, the press, and the public. He describes news as a very top-down flow of information, originating with public figures and being filtered through the press before being packaged for public consumption. Bennett links the historical progression of journalism’s institutional practices with alarming statistics that measure audience distrust in the press and catalogue media’s slide down the slope of soft news and “game” rather than policy-based news frames. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for one of the central tasks he tackles in his book: how to improve the press’s place in American democracy under changing political realities and quickly evolving technological media. His premise in answering this challenge is that we must understand where we are and how we got here in order to figure out the best way forward. One critical observation he makes is that most news currently is not ultimately written for the general public, but for policy-makers and political insiders.

In “Informing the Public,” (2005) Patterson and Seib assert that the true measure of an informed citizenry is not how much most people can spout facts and figures but how much they engage with — think critically about — public life. If it’s the responsibility of the press is to inform the citizenry, therefore, our real job is not just to convey information but to impart meaning to it for our audiences and to compel them to take advantage of it for the sake of their contribution to our democratic society. He acknowledges that a balance between hard and soft news, strategic and policy frames are necessary to maintain engagement while delivering substance. But, he points out, that balance has been steadily slipping since at least the 1980s. News is losing audiences and society is paying with a less informed, less engaged citizenry. As the Internet and technology present more ways to deliver information, the authors assert, it is incumbent upon journalists to translate that into “news” in order to keep the public not just informed, but engaged — and to keep our profession viable.

I tend to be a “radical” thinker in the mathematical sense of the word: it is the root where I believe change must take place in order to meaningfully achieve social improvements. Therefore I loved this week’s readings for their re-assessment of our very notions about what defines news, why the press is important and how we can do our jobs better. I maintain that technological innovations present a perfect opportunity for revolutionizing media business models. This week’s readings served up a feast for such thoughts.

Primarily, I am interested in exploring how “mass media,” which Bennett describes (perhaps prematurely) as being in its “late stages,” might be replaced by socially responsible media models. Socially responsible entrepreneurialism is a growing movement in small and independent business circles. Much of the focus of authors and leading thinkers in this area — such as Woody Tausch (“Slow Money”) — focus on local agriculture. I believe that a parallel grassroots movement to promote socially responsible, independent local media is also in order. Rethinking the very mission of news media as the premise for our profession is necessary to inform such radical change. It is also necessary in both the culture and business models of the successful media ventures of the future.

How scholars think and work

The following post is a reflection on reading assigned by Prof. Daryl Moen:
  • Bennett and Lyengar, “New Era of Minimal Effects?
  • Singer, Jane, “Stepping back from the gate: Online newspaper editors….”
  • McCombs, Max, “The Agenda-setting function of the press”
  • Capella and Jamieson, “Framing the news”

Journalism apparently is not the only field in which debates about objectivity and framing flourish. We also read about them (by different names) this week in discussions of scholarly research methods and approaches. It’s no surprise to find this overlap. After all, the fields of both reporting and researching place high value on the goals of explanation and prediction.

In Chapters 2 and 3 of “How to build social science theories,” Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa build an understanding of research by breaking theories down into their “building blocks.” It reminded me in a much more sophisticated way of learning how to diagram sentences as a child (which is great, because I loved that part of fifth grade). The authors clarify the differences and similarities among constructs, concepts and variables. We also get a lesson in the ways that pairing different types of variables — categorical/continual, dependent/independent — produce different results: namely, hypothesis or proposition.

A hypothesis, built from at least two continual variables, is preferable in research to a proposition, which “provide(s) information about only one variable at a time…” Assumptions are a third type of theoretical statement, and the authors acknowledge that they underlie all research. Their admonition is to define assumptions as clearly as possible, in order to keep them from undermining the work being done.

“What communication scientists do” by Chaffee and Berger also delineates many distinct phases of research. But the chapter may have been better titled “What communication scientists should do, and what you should look for when assessing their work.” In explaining the merits of good research and why they matter, the authors create a helpful rubric for assessing the quality of research we encounter. They also issue a call for studies that explore a “communication event” within and even between the four major “levels of analysis,” which they identify as intraindividual, interpersonal, organizational and societal.

I found this introduction to a new lexicon incredibly dense and equally helpful to orient me in this new world of scholarly research. The examples the authors providing were essential for following along, but it was especially illuminating to recognize some of this week’s research concepts in the work we have already discussed.

When I read Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa saying “…it is helpful for scholars to clarify their own deeply held beliefs and to acknowledge these when directly pertinent to the study,” I was reminded of Duffy, Thorsen and Vultee’s call for values transparency in “The Pursuit of Objectivity.”

Likewise, Shoemaker, Tankard and Lasorsa’s discussion of the “indicators” of a concept seemed on parallel with the concept of framing. After all, word choice and detail selection are just as much a part of formulating research questions and choosing variables to measure as they are in “framing the news,” as written about by Capella and Jamieson.

Chaffee and Berger asked “Who should be the judge of communication effectiveness,” the critics or the audience? I wondered if they shared an office with Herbert Gans, who wrote in “Democracy and the News” (Chapter 3) that the dysfunction of journalistic institutions is, to quote myself from an earlier paper, “exacerbated by a disconnect between what journalists think the public should do with their reporting and how most people actually interact with democracy.”

But the most striking — and promising — correlation to our ongoing discussions that I found in this week’s reading was Chafee and Berger’s comments about “designing communication systems.”

“There has been some interest in redesigning certain institutions to optimize their performance. … But threat of extinction may be necessary before some institutions will initiate internal modification.”

Written in 1987, I don’t imagine they could have guessed that it’s journalism, the ultimate (in my opinion) communication system that is in need of — and undergoing — such radical transformation.

The Journalist’s Lament

Friday night, while finishing up emails as my story on a possible recall of Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley was making its way through the copy desk, I asked the newsroom out loud, “Did my description of Dudley’s placid smile make it into the final draft?!”

“Nope,” responded Pavan, my ACE (Assistant City Editor) for the night.

Before my brain had fully formed the question of whether I’d be able to add that one little sentence through the copy desk, Pavan answered — possibly smiling.

“That’s what’s commonly referred to as the journalist’s lament,” he said.

Pavan had had his hands full getting that story out of me in two hours. I had actually wondered at what point he would need to lift the puddle of a story out of my sorry hands and just wrap it up as well as he could. I pictured a variation on an interrogation room, me under the spotlight being questioned by Pavan as he tried to make sense of my notes. This did not help my writing. I started plotting how I could avoid writing on deadline the entire remainder of the semester — again, not helpful.

Taking better notes and managing them better, on the other hand, would help. Here are three lessons I took away from Friday night that I know can help me avoid (although I’m certain it’s inevitable) the journalist’s lament:

  1. Get as many names and phone numbers as I possibly can from people at the event. Don’t just cherry-pick who you think had the most salient points, because you’ll limit the number of quotes you can use (or at least attribute) in your report. And if you can’t attribute them, why bother typing the whole time? Besides, the story will continue so you’ll want all the contacts you can get.
  2. When the meeting’s over, put the laptop away and get out the notebook. I was habituated to the keyboard while sitting down, but of course working the room the machine becomes a liability. Also, I felt like a dork who brought too much equipment and didn’t know how to handle it.
  3. Print my notes out when I get back to the newsroom. Paper is much easier for me to work with — especially when the notes are so scattered — than the screen.
  4. Bonus lesson: Keep putting myself into fast-paced environments so that I have a chance to learn tricks to take notes better.