Tamar Wilner

599. How can journalists and academic researchers find common ground?

People who work as reporters have a very clear idea of what their job entails, the various responsibilities they have and how to complete their research and conduct interviews before preparing their finished product. 

Those who study journalism as a practice seem to have a different idea of how reporters go about their jobs. The two interpretations don’t always line up. 

“I think a lot of people on both sides started noticing a gap between those who do research on journalism and journalists themselves,” says Tamar Wilner, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Austin’s School of Information. She, along with Valérie Belair-Gagnon, recently published a report for Nieman Lab on journalists’ thoughts on academic research about the news. 

“It seems what we write as academics doesn’t get read by journalists, or doesn’t affect how they do their work. We hear from journalists we’re not doing things that are supporting them in their work,” she says. “Valérie and her co-author wrote a book about this gap, how to address it and how to do journalism research that matters. Despite this, we felt few people had documented what the gap looks like from the journalist point of view.” 

They conducted a study of 100 journalists who are also readers of Nieman Lab work and asked them questions about academic research pertaining to journalism and why those working reporters may or may not use that same academic research in their jobs. ‘

“I can feel for journalists who might say this research is not trying to solve my problems,” Wilner says. “In any academic field, you might have research that’s trying to understand the problem or document or explore the factors behind the problem. At the same time, there’s plenty of journalism research that does look at solutions. I think a lot of the time that doesn’t get picked up by those who might implement it, whether they are journalists or newsroom executives who might be making more strategic decisions.” 

Sign Up: Journalists’ Views on Research

One of the biggest reasons causing the gap could be the way academic research is presented and how it is in direct contrast with the way stories are typically reported: The inverted pyramid goes right out the proverbial window in academic pieces. 

“When we read a white paper or report, there’s often an executive summary and it leads with the most salient points. It tells you, if there are recommendations for changing practices, it would be highlighted in an executive summary. Papers are very much not written that way. If there are solutions, they are buried in the discussions section,” Wilner says. “In academia, we bury the lead. You have to dig to find it.” 

Another possible solution to implementing academic research into journalism is creating more opportunities for collaboration.

“Within the short span of time people had to do the survey, we didn’t get very into the weeds about how that might happen. I would note that there are organizations that are doing this linkage already: The American Press Institute, Center for Media Engagement, Poynter, Diversity Pledge Institute, where they try and bridge that gap and connect research and newsrooms,” she says. “I think people are yearning to see it happen on a more systematic level. The Center for Media Engagement has been around since 2011 and has collaborated with more than 100 newsrooms. … What we’re talking about is systemizing it, creating a matchmaking service between researchers and newsrooms so the collaboration can happen.” 

Join Journalism Gap Group on Slack

In addition to the report, Wilner and Belair-Gagnon are continuing to ask journalists for their insight and feedback into academic research, how it applies to them (or doesn’t) and what changes would make them more inclined to consult this work in the future.

“This would be an opportunity for any journalists who are listening to this podcast or if they were working as journalists and moved into a different role in the last year or two, we are happy to include those people too. We are actively collecting data and happy to hear from any journalists,” Wilner says.

Tamar Wilner is a postdoctorate fellow at UT Austin’s School of information, where she works on Co-Designing for Trust National Science Foundation-funded project aimed at tackling the misinformation crisis. She and Valérie Belair-Gagnon recently wrote a report for Nieman Lab on the disconnect between what journalists experience in the newsroom and what academic researchers understand about the news industry.

Allison Taylor-Levine

625. Community collaboration key to evolving local journalism

Allison Taylor Levine, CEO of Local Journalism Initiative, discusses how LJI’s Delaware Journalism Collaborative, which has brought more than 25 partners throughout the state together to report on polarization and possible solutions, strengthens local journalism in Delaware and our democracy.

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