Of the more than 7,000 refereed academic journals published in the United States each year, a good-sized bookcase of those deal with journalism — newspaper research, media ethics, journalism education, mass media, you name it. Make room on the bookshelf for one more, as The Journal of Sports Media will debut in the spring.
Academics acknowledge that aside from sharing knowledge among scholars, these journals are the bedrock of higher education’s tenure and promotion system. So is The Journal of Sports Media something that a sportswriter at a daily newspaper ought to bother reading? Is anyone aside from academics reading scholarly studies on journalism? Should working journalists bother with these articles? Do these studies have anything applicable to pass on to practitioners? What’s with the canyonwide disconnect between practitioners and the professorate when it comes to journalism research findings? Do journalists even know these publications exist? And if they did, would they care?
I called the editor of the fledgling journal to see why he’d want to start another journal that no journalist I knew would ever read. I found Brad Schultz, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, who, after 15 years in television news and sports, went and got his Ph.D. Schultz and other researchers are launching the journal for several reasons.
Academia is increasingly being splintered into niches of study, and sports media is one of them. Schultz wants to launch a journal that takes his niche — sports media — seriously.
“There’s a lot of people out there who look at sports media the same way that news directors look at sports in the newscast, or sports editors look at in the newspaper — which is like the toy department,” said Schultz. “But it is important. It’s important economically, it’s important culturally.”
Think Super Bowl and Janet Jackson = federal regulation, economics, culture, public relations.
His other reason for the journal is to offer practical advice to people in the industry.
“There needs to be a reconnection somewhere between what’s going on with academics and what’s going on in the industry,” said Schultz. “We have all these universities doing research and all this data and all these results, and it would seem like that would be a wonderful opportunity for people in the industry to take advantage of it, and it’s not happening.”
But does the industry want to listen? We’ll get to that later.
The 43-year-old Schultz is an admitted neophyte to academia, having joined a faculty just three years ago. So it was worth checking in with the editor of a long-established and upper-tier journal, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, which has been around for 80 years. Its editor for the past four years is Daniel Riffe, professor and presidential research scholar at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
Journalists who work with daily deadlines are focused on getting out a product — a newspaper or newscast, said Riffe, who believes in that focus and teaches his students the importance of it.
“But in addition to journalism as a craft, there is also a conceptual or more abstract view of journalism, what some would criticize as the ‘high wind in the trees stuff,’ “ said Riffe. To wit: “There is also journalism, the social and cultural and economic phenomenon. It’s almost at an institutional level beyond the individual.
“But it’s problematic for academics to just publish exclusively for other academics,” said Riffe.
Such exclusivity isn’t healthy for researchers, who can lose touch with the craft and who lose out on seeing their work put to use. In addition, it shortchanges working journalists, who sometimes need a nudge outside their inner circle to take a critical look at the industry swirling around them.
The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which publishes Riffe’s journal, is trying to bridge the gap by distilling journalism research into usable, practical tidbits for practitioners — editors, publishers, reporters — and sending out press releases to news organizations. A link to this “research you can use” on AEJMC’s Web site is getting a good number of hits.
A publication called Journalism, which is designed to be a bridge between the academic and the practical, is enjoying real success, said Barbie Zelizer, a full professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania, who co-founded the journal in 1998.
“There was an important niche to be filled, to cater to scholarship on journalism as well as to talk to journalism professionals,” said Zelizer. “It’s a hard row to hoe. There is absolutely an interest out there in how the academy and public can better connect with each other.”
So who is contributing to this success? Is there a single journalist picking up a copy of Journalism or any other scholarly journal while noshing on leftovers for lunch at their desk?
Rebecca Pierce, editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette in Kalamazoo, Mich., is as likely a suspect to be open to such a notion. In a midsize town with a newspaper circulation of 68,000 on weekdays, Pierce makes it a point to go cruising for information. She has Google alerts on practical news advice. She regularly reads the Poynter Institute Web site. She tries to read offbeat things, not just Editor & Publisher. She loves the Harvard Business Review.
“I’m hungry for that kind of information,” said Pierce. But as for scholarly publications on journalism, “I’m not picking that up through my normal travels of grabbing things.”
What’s more, Pierce and her paper were the focus of a scholarly article published in a refereed journal not long ago. She had no idea she’d been studied.
The 2004 article examined story focus at newspapers with a relatively high percentage of women in editorial positions versus those with lower percentages of female editors. The study analyzed the content of stories on newspaper Web sites for about three weeks and found that newspapers with more female editors didn’t seem to differentiate between male and female reporters when assigning beats, as was apparently the case in male-dominated newsrooms. Also, papers with predominately male editors contained news with a more negative focus.
Had the researchers crossed the academic-practitioner divide to contact the newspapers they were researching, they would have learned they made some faulty assumptions. The Gazette newsroom is not a top-down hierarchy, but a far more organic, interdependent system of decision–making when it comes to news play.
“For all they knew, I was gone for two weeks,” said Pierce. “For all they knew, my managing editor, who is a male, was the one calling the shots that week.”
So, academics have built the journal system, and it’s continuing to grow, for better or worse. So how to get journalists to come read?
First, find a way to let them know such journals exist. They might just put the research to use.
Steve Chapman, an editorial writer since 1981 at the Chicago Tribune, reads academic journals, but not those on journalism. He reads International Security.
Chapman was interested in a journal article that I sent to him that examined how editorial writers at 20 newspapers, from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Washington Post, picked up President Bush’s polarizing rhetoric (e.g.: good and evil) and used it in their editorials.
Chapman, a 29-year veteran of the profession, was intrigued with the article’s findings.
He’d never heard of an academic journal on journalism.
“I’ve never read any. Are there any?” said Chapman. “I would read them, sure … if I knew they existed, but I don’t.”
That’s too bad. There’s good work being done by academics outside newsrooms about life inside newsrooms. All of us in the communication business really ought to communicate more often. We might all benefit.
Sue Ellen Christian is an assistant professor of journalism in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University.