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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.

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