Category Archives: Research

Research on Civic Organizations and Youth Activism from Associate Chris Wells

Center for Communication and Democracy Associate Chris Wells, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison, has research on digital communication and youth activism in the leading communication journal New Media and Society.

Wells, C. (2014). Two eras of civic information and the evolving relationship between civil society organizations and young citizens. New Media and Society, 16(4), 615-636. doi: 10.1177/1461444813487962

ABSTRACT: This article explores the communicative relationship between civic organizations and young citizens as a clue to understanding the potential for youth re-engagement through digital communication. It develops a framework of two ‘civic information styles’ that contrasts the expectations of information in the mass media era with those emerging today, and proposes that one source of contemporary disconnect may be that many civic groups remain entrenched in a mass media information paradigm—and so fail to communicate in ways that resonate with young people. Existing literature suggests that recently created, online organizations will be most likely to embrace a newer, more youth-friendly communication style; those organizations working within the formal political realm may be most reticent. A study of 60 organizations’ communications through Facebook mainly confirms these expectations, but low levels of youth-friendly communications across the sample raise doubts about the likelihood of a civil society resurgence through social media.


New Research on Journalistic Authority and Freelance War Correspondents in the Digital Age from Associate Lindsay Palmer

Center Associate Lindsay Palmer, Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison, has new research out in Critical Studies in Media Communication on the role of freelance war correspondents in the digital age of covering the “war on terror.”

Palmer, L. (2015). Outsourcing authority in the digital age: Television news networks and freelance war correspondents. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 0(0). doi:10.1080/15295036.2015.1033437

ABSTRACT: This article examines the unique ways in which the figure of the freelance war correspondent is entangled within both the material and discursive logic of the digital in the age of the “war on terror.” Because freelancers increasingly work across media platforms and without large crews, these media producers are lucrative replacements for staff correspondents, especially since news organizations can opt out of paying for their insurance or safety training. Yet, freelancers can also be abused and discarded as soon as they begin to trouble accepted notions of journalistic authority—authority that is both a discursive and a political-economic construction. Following this, I offer two case studies in which a mainstream news network aligns a freelance journalist with the purportedly more interpretive and subjective space of the digital in order to regain control over the political narratives engendered by the freelancer’s experience in the war zone. Ultimately, I argue that these instances reveal the larger ethical poverty of mainstream news reporting in the digital age.


Senior Associate Dhavan Shah Co-edits ANNALS Special Issue on Big Data, Digital Media and Computational Social Science

Center for Communication and Democracy Senior Associate Dhavan V. Shah, Maier-Bascom Professor at the University of Wisconsin and Director of the Mass Communication Research Center, has co-edited the May 2015 special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Toward Computational Social Science: Big Data in Digital Environments.”

The special issue includes articles by leading scholars in the field of big data, including:

Hargittai, E. (2015). Is bigger always better? Potential biases of big data derived from social network sites. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 659(1), 63-76. doi: 10.1177/0002716215570866

ABSTRACT: This article discusses methodological challenges of using big data that rely on specific sites and services as their sampling frames, focusing on social network sites in particular. It draws on survey data to show that people do not select into the use of such sites randomly. Instead, use is biased in certain ways yielding samples that limit the generalizability of findings. Results show that age, gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, online experiences, and Internet skills all influence the social network sites people use and thus where traces of their behavior show up. This has implications for the types of conclusions one can draw from data derived from users of specific sites. The article ends by noting how big data studies can address the shortcomings that result from biased sampling frames.

Bode, L., Hanna, A., Yang, J., & Shah D. V. (2015). Candidate networks, citizen clusters, and political expression: Strategic hashtag use in the 2010 midterms. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 659(1), 149-165. doi: 10.1177/0002716214563923

ABSTRACT: Twitter provides a direct method for political actors to connect with citizens, and for those citizens to organize into online clusters through their use of hashtags (i.e., a word or phrase marked with # to identify an idea or topic and facilitate a search for it). We examine the political alignments and networking of Twitter users, analyzing 9 million tweets produced by more than 23,000 randomly selected followers of candidates for the U.S. House and Senate and governorships in 2010. We find that Twitter users in that election cycle did not align in a simple Right-Left division; rather, five unique clusters emerged within Twitter networks, three of them representing different conservative groupings. Going beyond discourses of fragmentation and polarization, certain clusters engaged in strategic expression such as “retweeting” (i.e., sharing someone else’s tweet with one’s followers) and “hashjacking” (i.e., co-opting the hashtags preferred by political adversaries). We find the Twitter alignments in the political Right were more nuanced than those on the political Left and discuss implications of this behavior in relation to the rise of the Tea Party during the 2010 elections.

Freelon, D., Lynch, M., & Aday, S. (2015). Online fragmentation in wartime: A longitudinal analysis of tweets about Syria, 2011–2013. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 659(1), 166-179. doi: 10.1177/0002716214563921

ABSTRACT: Theorists have long predicted that like-minded individuals will tend to use social media to self-segregate into enclaves and that this tendency toward homophily will increase over time. Many studies have found moment-in-time evidence of network homophily, but very few have been able to directly measure longitudinal changes in the diversity of social media users’ habits. This is due in part to a lack of appropriate tools and methods for such investigations. This study takes a step toward developing those methods. Drawing on the complete historical record of public retweets posted between January 2011 and August 2013, we propose and justify a partial method of measuring increases or decreases in network homophily. We demonstrate that Twitter network communities that focused on Syria are in general highly fragmented and homophilous; however, only one of the nine detected network communities that persisted over time exhibited a clear increase in homophily.


Center Associate Sue Robinson Edits Book on Community Journalism

Robinson, Sue (Ed.). Community Journalism Midst Media Revolution. (2015). Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Center for Communication and Democracy Associate Sue Robinson, Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, has a new edited volume out on the evolution of community journalism within digital media-induced restructuring of the news industry. The book’s invited contributions deal with the theme of change, as it affects communities, the press and audiences. The book is based on a 2014 edited volume of Journalism Practice on the same theme.

In the introduction to the Journalism Practice volume, Robinson writes:

“While the techniques and circumstances around traditionally local newspapers have morphed with globalization and digital technologies, community journalism’s fundamental emphasis on the citizen and on community remains intact.”

For more information on Community Journalism Midst Media Revolution see here.

Research on How People Make Decisions in Contentious Political Climates

Michael W. Wagner, Chris, Wells, Lewis A. Friedland, Katherine J. Cramer, and Dhavan V. Shah. (2014). “Cultural Worldviews and Contentious Politics: Evaluative Asymmetry in High-Information Environments,” The Good Society, 23(2), 126-144.

Abstract: Discussions about whether citizens can learn and use the information necessary to contribute to democratic governance often focus on debates about heuristics. We argue that the debate over whether heuristics should be used misframes a central issue-the consideration of what forms of decision-making are most likely to operate in different kinds of communication environments. This article examines how people make decisions in contentious political climates, which are characterized by high-information volume, relatively strong partisan commitment, and an affective divide between the opposing camps. Our contribution takes account of the possibility that in contentious environments, political communication offers neither reasoned deliberation nor cues, but rather solidarity signals that engage people’s cultural worldviews. We also posit that the use of cultural worldviews for liberals and conservatives is asymmetrical-raising important questions about democracy in a society in which a variety of worldviews have different weights for various individuals and publics. To test our perspective, we analyze public opinion data collected during the time surrounding the recall election of Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.


Research on “Annotative Journalism” and Changing Journalist Professional Practices

Center for Communication and Democracy Associate Lucas Graves has new research out in Journalism on the ways in which new media tools are changing investigative journalists’ professional practices of the Talking Points Memo, contextualized with a historical case study of I.F. Stone’s Weekly. In this article, Graves develops the concept of “annotative journalism.”

Lucas Graves. (2015). “Blogging Back then: Annotative journalism in I.F. Stone’s Weekly and Talking Points Memo.” Journalism, 16(1), 99-118. doi: 10.1177/1464884914545740

Abstract: This article develops the concept of ‘annotative journalism’ through a close review of two muckraking investigations, 50 years apart, by the newsletter I.F. Stone’s Weekly and the website Talking Points Memo. These cases stand out in hindsight as investigative coups, though neither relied on the tools we associate with that kind of journalism: anonymous sources, secret documents, and so on. Instead, both investigations proceeded mainly through the analysis of published texts, in particular news reports, in light of a wider media and political critique. Annotative journalism unsettles core practices and assumptions of objective reporting. It rejects narrative coherence in favor of a set of critical textual practices, revealing reporting routines to the reader and building explicit arguments from and about the work of other journalists. And it troubles the professional distinction between reporting and opinion; these ‘scoops’ came through, not in spite of, the politics of the journalists who worked on them.


Hostile Media Perceptions, Presumed Media Influence, and Political Talk: Expanding the Corrective Action Hypothesis

Hernando Rojas & Matthew Barnidge. (Summer 2014). “Hostile Media Perceptions, Presumed Media Influence, and Political Talk: Expanding the Corrective Action Hypothesis.” International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 26(2), 135-156. DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/edt032

Abstract: The corrective action hypothesis predicts that hostile media perceptions and presumed media influence will be positively related to expressive political behaviors. According to this hypothesis, the presumed influence of biased media makes people attempt to “correct” perceived “wrongs” by voicing their own opinions in the public sphere. This study predicts that people with higher levels of hostile media perceptions and presumed media influence will talk politics more often and will seek out a wider array of viewpoints in political conversation. Analysis of survey data from a national representative sample of adults in Colombia largely supports these hypotheses, and also shows that presumed media influence mediates the relationship between hostile media perceptions and political talk diversity.


Perceptions of the Media and the Public and Their Effects on Political Participation in Colombia

Hernando Rojas, Ben Sayre & Matthew Barnidge. (2014). “Perceptions of the Media and the Public and Their Effects on Political Participation in Colombia.” Mass Communication and Society, 17(5). DOI: 10.1080/15205436.2014.923463

Abstract: This study investigates whether perceptions of the media and the public are related to political participation in Colombia. Communication researchers have built a large body of literature on hostile media perceptions and the projection effect, respectively. This study links these perceptual effects with each other and with political participation. Analyzing survey data from a representative sample of Colombian adults in urban areas, we show a direct relationship between hostile media perceptions and participation, but no direct relationship between projection and participation. Hostile media perceptions and projection are negatively related. Results suggest that perceived media bias attenuates projection, but increases political engagement.


Communication, Consumers, and Citizens: Revisiting the Politics of Consumption

Communication, Consumers, and Citizens: Revisiting the Politics of Consumption, Dhavan V. Shah, Lewis Friedland, Chris Wells, Young Mie Kim, and Hernando Rojas, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, November 2012.

Abstract: The year 2011 was defined by the intersection of politics and economics: the Wisconsin protests, the Occupy Movement, anti-austerity demonstrations, the Buffett Rule, and so on. These events drew attention to the role of politics in the erosion of labor power, the rise of inequality, and the excesses of overconsumption. Moving beyond periodic and dutiful action directed at an increasingly unresponsive government, citizens tested the boundaries of what we consider civic engagement by embracing personalized forms of “lifestyle politics” enacted in everyday life and often directed at the market. These issues are the focus of this volume, which we divide into four sections. The first section attempts both to situate consumption in politics as a contemporary phenomenon and to view it through a wider historical lens. The second section advances the notion of sustainable citizenship at the individual/group level and the societal/institutional level, and understands consumption as socially situated and structured. Extending this thinking, the third section explores various forms of conscious consumption and relates them to emerging modes of activism and engagement. The fourth section questions assumptions about the effectiveness of the citizen consumer and the underlying value of political consumerism and conscious consumption. We conclude by distilling six core themes from this collection for future work.


Public Broadcasting, Media Engagement, and 2-1-1

“Public Broadcasting, Media Engagement, and 2-1-1: Using Mass Communication to Increase the Use of Social Services,” Dhavan V. Shah, Douglas M. McLeod, Hernando Rojas, Benjamin G. Sayre, Emily Vraga, Rosanne M. Scholl, Clive Jones, and Amy Shaw. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 43, S443–S449, December, 2012.


Background: The 2008–2009 subprime mortgage crisis was catastrophic, not only for the global economy but for families across the social spectrum. The resultant economic upheaval threatened the livelihoods, well-being, and health of many citizens, who were often unsure where to turn for help. At this critical juncture, public broadcasting stations worked to connect viewers to support resources through 2-1-1.

Purpose: This study was designed to evaluate the ability of public broadcasting to increase the use of information and referral services. Methods: Autoregressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) modeling and regression analysis document the relationship between public broadcasting initiatives and 2-1-1 call volume in 35 highly affected U.S. markets. Time-series data from St. Louis MO were collected and analyzed in 2008. Station-level data from across the nation were collected during 2009–2010 and analyzed in 2010.

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