5 ways SOJC faculty research has changed journalism

Todd Milbourn and Lisa Heyamoto

Years of change have upended traditional newsgathering, but the UO School of Journalism and Communication has placed itself at the forefront of industry efforts to tell better stories, adapt to changing expectations and keep the public informed.

Faculty members in the school’s Agora Journalism Center have conducted innovative research projects on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to coverage of mass shootings. Their research has led UO faculty members and students, as well as professionals in the field, to better understand how journalists can best serve a changing world. 

Here are five groundbreaking Agora-funded research projects that have made a mark on the evolving field of journalism:

Better journalism in times of crisis

Journalism instructor Lori Shontz used an Agora fellowship to find better ways for media to cover mass shootings.

Shontz had the opportunity to study the phenomenon in her own backyard when she conducted interviews in Roseburg in the aftermath of the 2015 Umpqua Community College shooting.

Funded by a $20,000 Agora fellowship she received in 2016, Shontz and a student research assistant interviewed journalists who reported on the shooting as well as community members who experienced the event and the media storm that followed. The two collaborated with associate professor Nicole Dahmen to produce the Reporting Roseburg project.

Shontz said her research revealed important takeaways, including the fact that journalists don’t receive enough training on how trauma works or how to cover it. They need debriefings after covering mass shootings, not just for newsroom learning but also for their own mental health.

Moreover, survivors and community members have complicated relationships with news coverage in the aftermath of tragedy.

“On one hand, they want the news media to go away and stop bothering them,” Shontz said. “But on the other hand, they don’t want to be forgotten.”

Shontz found that traumatized communities don’t understand why journalists show intense interest when news breaks but then often fail to follow up. Misunderstandings of media processes and needs can lead to resentment and anger in the affected community, what Shontz’s interviewees described as a secondary trauma.

Shontz, who plans to publish her work this year, has already developed lessons from her research for undergraduate reporting classes and organized a panel on covering mass shootings for the International Journalism Festival. Since she has built working relationships with trauma psychologists and suicide prevention coordinators, she’s also thinking more broadly about how to develop the field of “trauma-informed journalism.”

Restoring trust in the media

Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn received Agora grants of $25,000 in 2017-18 and $22,000 in 2019-20.

Milbourn, co-director of the UO journalism master’s program, and journalism instructor Heyamoto used the funds to launch “The 32 Percent Project,” a national initiative that explored the dynamics of trust in journalism. 

Milbourn and Heyamoto visited diverse communities and organized conversations with “a cross-section of citizens about what drives and disrupts trust” in the news media. They are now transforming those insights into the basis for a new trust-centered journalism curriculum for School of Journalism and Communication undergrads.

Milbourn said their research has proven timely.

“With trust in journalism hovering around historic lows, journalism needs to explore fresh ways to connect with audiences and empower communities,” he said.

Their project was highlighted in Editor & Publisher magazine, and Heyamoto and Milbourn discussed their findings on an Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud.”

Heyamoto and Milbourn also co-wrote “Folk Theories of Trust: A Bottom-Up Approach for Exploring Trust in Journalism,” winner of the best paper award at the 2019 International Association for Media and Communications Research conference. A new version of the paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Journalism and Media Studies. 

Photo iconography and trauma

Associate professor Nicole Dahmen, co-director of the Catalyst Journalism Project and the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism, received her first Agora grant in 2015.

Dahmen used her fellowship to kick off research into the iconography of the internet: how viral and newsworthy images are made, how they spread and how traditional media participates in the process.

A generation ago, iconic images included U.S. Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima and a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in pain following a napalm attack. Both were released through traditional media avenues to widespread audiences and caused visceral reactions that changed the course of history.

Dahmen found that online iconography has the same power to change the world, but its provenance and audience are much different than previous generations of media images.

Her work culminated with the 2018 peer-reviewed publication of “The Influence-Network Model of the Photojournalistic Icon” in Journalism and Communication Monographs, and she will present two additional papers at the 2020 International Communication Association conference. 

Dahmen received a second Agora grant in 2018 to fund research, published in 2019, on how media can move toward “restorative narratives” when reporting on communities and individuals that have survived traumatic events or systemic dysfunction.

How the news feels

Seth Lewis, associate professor and the school’s Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media, has received two awards from the Agora Journalism Center.

In 2017-18, he used a $10,000 award to study automated journalism created by artificial intelligence and its effects on public life. 

Lewis said the fellowship helped him focus his research around the “emerging roles, relationships and rationales associated with AI for journalism and communication.” The research resulted in publications in several top academic journals.

In 2019, Lewis was awarded $18,000 to study the “lived experience” of news: “how news is qualitatively experienced by consumers and, in turn, how journalists experience (sometimes hostile) interactions with news audiences.”

His goal is to conduct a “bottom-up investigation through qualitative interviews of what the experience of news feels like for people in their everyday lives.” 

Lewis noted that his research is attempting to understand how journalism can better adapt to the public’s needs and interests, and become more appealing, valuable and meaningful in the process. 

The latest trends in Northwest journalism

In February and March 2019, in partnership with the Agora Center, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism Damian Radcliffe hosted a roundtable event on journalism in the Pacific Northwest. 

More than 50 people, including journalists and editors from 28 media organizations from around the region, met with journalism faculty members and students at the School of Journalism and Communication’s Portland campus to talk about life in the trenches of Pacific Northwest newsrooms. In small groups, attendees discussed business and revenue models, community engagement and changing professional practices.

Based on that feedback, and with the help of journalism students Alex Powers, Destiny Alvarez and Jaycie Schenonen, Radcliffe published a report in December titled “Shifting Practices for a Stronger Tomorrow: Local Journalism in the Pacific Northwest.” The report, which is a follow-up to his 2017 study on the same topic, shows how local media organizations are changing their traditional work practices as audiences expand but resources dwindle.

“Participants in each conversation discussed challenges and potential solutions,” Radcliffe said. “These are applicable to newsrooms and journalists far beyond the region.”

In addition to those highlighted above, other UO faculty members who have received Agora fellowships include Donna Davis, Torsten Kjellstrand, Ed Madison, Deborah Morrison, Wes Pope and Kim Sheehan. 

—By Tim Trainor, School of Journalism and Communication