Top tips for launching a college media research project

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Balancing Act: Launching a research program requires give-and-take

By Carol Terracina Hartman

The description in the NYC09 program for a faculty adviser session appeared pretty straightforward: “Academic Research: Launching a Program.” It drew a packed room.

Research Director Vince Filak, UW-Oshkosh Professor and then-adviser of The Advance-Titan, led the session, and he opened by suggesting looking at one’s own campus media newsroom to start.

The choice begins with deciding whether to pursue inductive vs. deductive research:

Start with a problem in the newsroom and translate to a trend and find appropriate theory, such as social learning theory. Or, start with a theory, such as framing, and develop a measure, “How do we cover X?” with women in sports, climate change, crime, mental health, or other news topics as possible substitutes for ‘X.’

“Pick your passion,” he said, suggesting future researchers track ideas on a daily basis. “Look for low-hanging fruit!”

The Nordin Paper Award competition deadline approached – July 1 – with top papers selected for presentation at AEJMC’s Council of Advocates session, the fall national CMA conference, and submitted for publication in College Media Review.

The reaction was unexpected, to say the least.

The room divided nearly into two, much like Moses’ parting of the Red Sea: those who were interested in research and those who found it impossible.

“How can I do research when I have to teach, grade, advise the paper and then take a fellowship or internship during the summer to keep my skills up?” one adviser said. “When exactly am I supposed to do all this?”

Another adviser agreed, offering a different reason.

“What good does this do my students? I have to freelance all summer to keep contacts and make sure I know what’s happening in newsrooms?” she said.

Others said launching a research program would require a give-and-take.

“To even start research, you have to do research – a proposal, lit review, IRB. And then it might not be approved. You might not get release [time] or funding,” he said. “And then there’s no credit for that on your vitae.”

To respond to these and a variety of other concerns, the following tips might prove useful for launching a program of research on campus media:

  • Look for that fruit! What do you see: any trends in coverage or usage? Are events being covered similarly in your region or are you finding coverage quite divergent, making you question how audience demographics could be so different? Is your program convergent but others in your system or state more so or less so? Be observant and question everything.
  • Research before you go. Conduct a literature review to see who has done what and when; this step helps refine the topic and choose definitions. Google Scholar can help refine key words and search terms, likely authors who might come before you, and possible incidents driving research; then head to EBSCO Host to search documents. If your institution doesn’t have the subscriptions needed, then searching by author on ResearchGate or might help.
  • While reviewing the literature, assess these prior works for their methods. Do you have a case study? Is qualitative the best option? Or do you want to count occurrences through a quantitative analysis of frequency.
  • Do not reinvent tools: check scales or measures you might be able to adapt – whether an interview protocol, a content analysis protocol, a survey instrument, or more.
  • Find a partner. View it as strengths of weak ties: Your strengths should shore up each other’s weaknesses.
  • Collect lots of data. Ideally, a dataset should yield several papers.
  • Target conferences and journals, such as CMA’s Council of Advocates session at AEJMC in August or AEJMC’s Journalism and Mass Communication Educator; check submission deadlines and set group deadlines. Read prior conference proceedings and publications. Ask an editor if s/he would preview an abstract.
  • Read good writers. Reading CMA’s peer-reviewed journal, College Media Review, is a solid strategy to reviewing style and topics of recent campus media research.
  • Keep the pipeline flowing: while one partner is designing, one should write literature review; one collects data, another prepares data analysis; one is revising, one is sending abstracts.
  • Hit your deadline! Submit, revise, and celebrate. Set a new plan.

Maintaining a profile on clearinghouses such as ResearchGate and and setting alerts on keywords also helps you stay current on your research topics and current on who is doing what and publishing where. Announcements for special collections or sections also would appear in these alerts.

For specific information on opportunities to submit research within CMA, attend the Research Sessions at CMA’s regional and national conferences or contact CMA Research Director Elizabeth Smith, Pepperdine University.