Can Cultural Research Improve News?

    by Robert Gutsche
    September 21, 2015
    Maria, a Lego journalism researcher, peeks into the cultural meanings of news. FIU journalism students created Maria to draw attention to their summer research projects. Illustration by Alejandro Hernandez and Daniela Rios.

    This piece is written with students in the Senior Multimedia Capstone at Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

    Journalism students tend to go through college balancing the “thinking” of theory courses with the “doing” in their majors. News rules in J-Schools, and research papers are set aside as students swap style guides, tossing away APA style for the AP.

    "After examining my community in terms of its local media coverage, I've seen the great extent to which how and what is covered by media perpetuates what is already believed to be true by the majority." - Alexander Stella

    So how can theory help make journalism better? Is there a reason for academic research in reporting?


    This summer at Florida International University in Miami, some of our students traded notepads for endnotes to examine how media research steeped in critical and cultural theory can comment on and help improve local news.

    FIU journalism students created videos, like the one above that’s about water troubles in Los Angeles, to promote their research on local news. Credit: shatterbe.lt.

    Within local journalism from cities across the U.S., students examined:

    • The cultural role and function of animal news, from covering scary black cats in New York City to goat killing in Hawaii
    • Spanish-language coverage of water troubles in Los Angeles that presents the issue as one directly threatening local residents’ chances to achieve the American Dream
    • The reappropriation of cuisine in dining coverage of luxury magazines in Milwaukee, St. Louis, and New Orleans
    • Increasing concerns about vice and drugs in Kennebec, Maine, and gambling in Southern Texas

    After examining the cases through social and cultural theories and methodological rigor, students — in a period of six weeks — posted the best of their reports on a project called NewsGeo on shatterbe.lt, a website focused on research and storytelling related to news and geography named after a concept in human geography that describes areas of contested spatial meaning.

    Screen Shot 2015-07-24 at 8.41.39 PM

    Journalism students loaded their research to a website focused on geographic storytelling in the news. Credit: shatterbe.lt.

    Trying Something New

    Students also produced video trailers to attract attention to these research papers, which include suggestions for how their interpretations and findings related to cultural discussions of local issues and events can make “better journalism.”

    Another promotional trailer for student research using bookmark art to discuss news coverage of development in Loveland, Colorado. Credit: shatterbe.lt.

    Students said the experience of applying theory to understanding journalism outside of their own geographies was unusual for a capstone class that’s usually focused on producing journalism, but that trying something new might just help them make their own journalism better.

    “We were warned from the beginning that this wouldn’t be our typical senior multimedia project class,” said Camille Williams, a graduating senior. “It was a challenging experience — one that I think gave me a taste of what grad school will be like. I probably learned more in these last six weeks than I have in my entire college career.”

    A Reason For Research?

    FIU journalism students Melisa Borges and Alex Stella use Legos to promote their journalism research. Photo by Robert Gutsche, Jr.

    FIU journalism students Melisa Borges and Alexander Stella use Legos to promote their journalism research. Photo by Robert Gutsche, Jr.

    Increasingly, media spheres continue to develop, audiences become further fragmented, and “the news” becomes something harder to sell. Its cultural functions also become more mired in discussions of technology, innovation, and delivery. Scholarship helps us understand how and why audiences respond to news and, at the same time, can tell us something about our audiences.

    Intellectual outcomes, said student Cynthia Perez, will help her address, as a journalist, the meanings behind how she covers stories in the future. A main benefit of using cultural theory to explore the news, she said, is to help explain why some news resonates with fellow journalists and audiences and to what degree types of reporting on some stories can contribute both to community building and destruction.

    “I realized how some of these social norms in how journalists report the news may have negative impacts on society,” she said, noting that journalists across the U.S. tend to support local economic development, for example, while marginalizing voices of those who may be negatively influenced.

    Learning About Local News

    This summer’s project was an opportunity to blend theory and practice to supplement work being done at universities and in newsrooms across the country that use forms of scholarship, such as audience analysis and participatory methods of reporting to influence and improve journalism.

    Similar to organizations like Journalism That Matters and engagement positions within newsroom organizations such as those at Gannett, ours was an experiment (see syllabus) to see how the journalism classroom — often focused on reporting and writing — can also be home to academic research, particularly that based in critical and cultural theory.

    A satirical breaking news segment, using flipbook art, promotes research into local news in Hawaii and “features” President Barack Obama. Credit: shatterbe.lt.

    Critical/cultural theory provides a depth of understanding, sometimes through anthropological approaches and participatory methods. Students read dozens of pieces of scholarship related to cultural meanings of journalism, met with media researchers who were doing their own work, and viewed  journalism and popular films through which they could apply scholarly perspectives.

    Tani Kiah surveyed newspaper coverage of women near her hometown in upstate New York who were sentenced on drug-related charges. She found that the language journalists used there and the sources they quoted typified these women as anomalies compared to the dominant community ideology that women serve in feminine roles.

    “Being from the area, I grew up never really considering the way people spoke about women or how the media tended to portray female criminals as inherently different from the roles women are ‘supposed’ to serve in the community,” Kiah said. “It was eye-opening to see that the media can serve as a way to further social institutions like traditional gender roles.”

    FIU journalism students (from front) Cynthia Perez, Jessica Cohen and Shekinah Harper worked to pair their research with art. Photo by Robert Gutsche Jr.

    As part of their final project, students shared their work with panelists who Skyped in, including LaTasha DeLoach, a social worker and community leader who works frequently with media in Iowa City, Iowa, as well as Jennifer Hemmingsen, the opinion page editor at The Gazette, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

    Both panelists provided unique perspectives on the role of local journalism in creating and covering community.

    A third panelist, Matt Ehrlich, a professor at Illinois who studies cultural meanings of news, provided yet another perspective related to student research.

    “Having presented critical perspectives on the news to students over the years,” Ehrlich said, “I can say that they can be mind-opening in the best of ways, but they also can sometimes make some students feel as though the media are so messed up that there’s not much point in trying to change or improve things. Hopefully encouraging them to think in terms of practical suggestions/solutions helps mitigate against that.”

    Learning Lessons: Ideas For The Future

    From this experience, there are some major questions that we’re still asking about how to integrate this kind of research project into a more traditional journalism class.

    • How good does research need to be to be published? This question is especially important if students haven’t been exposed to doing academic research throughout their academic careers beyond the usual term paper or basic literature review.
    • What tools should we use to judge student research? In our project, students were not only expected to follow basic standards of research and style (which they did to varying degrees of success), but they were required to share their research projects with their community informants who they had turned do throughout the summer.
    • How should students and journalists apply research findings? Conceptual outcomes from student work should be applied to the field by sharing the reports publicly. But what about practical application? This isn’t a process we can say we’ve solidified in our experiment, we admit, but it is a goal for the future because comments from both students and journalists already have shown the promise for change.

    We’d love to hear your thoughts on what we’ve said here. Tweet to @RobertGutscheJr.

    Robert Gutsche, Jr. is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University who focuses on geographic place-making and the role of power in news coverage of everyday life. His new book, Media Control, is due out this fall.

    Tagged: audiences cultural approaches culture fiu local coverage

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