Saturday, April 19, 2014

The "Empty Calorie Hypothesis"

Drink too much Coke and you fill up on empty calories. Does the same apply to the news?

I've written about this before (see here, and here). The idea is simple -- if people fill up on "news-like" stuff (late-night comedy, talk radio, TV cable talking heads) do they feel so "full" that they are no longer motivated to seek out traditional (real) news? My "empty calorie hypothesis" predicts that yes, consuming such sugary content will make you less likely to eat your spinach (news).

Okay, fine Hollander, but how do you explain why people who watch Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or Bill O'Reilly tend to do better on tests of political knowledge than people who don't watch those programs? Explain that, Mr. Researcher?

Er, good point. And that's Dr. Researcher to you.

First off, we have to control for the fact that people who seek out such programming tend to be news junkies to some degree, so the causal direction gets mixed up. Also we need to control for education, the single most powerful predictor of what people know. Experimental research suggests you don't really learn all that much from humor faux news programming, or at least not as much as you think you learn. My idea is this -- the more you watch or listen to such programs, the more you feel as if you've met some subconscious goal of staying informed. Because of that, you're a little less likely to consume regular news. And because of that, you are less informed (all other things being held equal).

Some interesting studies have examined the kinds of news The Daily Show covers (the funny stuff) and the kinds of news it ignores (tragedy, death, etc.). In other words, relying on something like faux news programming is amusing as hell, but it provides a spotty view of the world. Stewart would say as much himself. He's there to entertain. Sure, inform to some degree -- especially those great interviews he does with folks -- but really he's there to make us laugh. News junkies, they'll watch him (or Sean Hannity, or whoever) but my argument is basically one of time. We only have so much of it. And goal-based motivation. We want to be informed, some of at higher levels than others, and if we "fill up" on some stuff, then we can't consumer the other stuff. And in this case, the "other stuff" is traditional, comprehensive, fact-based news.

I'm mulling over a grant proposal to study just this. I'm attending a grant-writing workshop in a week or so and this is me thinking out loud, in a less-than-theoretical way. I can baffle you with PhDweeb stuff, but there are sound theoretical reasons why my hypothesis should hold up, if tested in the right way. The consequences of this, of course, is all of us amusing ourselves to death. Democracy relies on an informed, not an entertained, public.

So exactly how will I research this? A few vague ideas:
  • First, demonstrate how people define what is news differs greatly from what scholars and journalists might define as news. In other words, entertainment is also seen, by many, as news.
  • Second, establish that people have some internal level of feeling informed that makes them comfortable. News junkies, high need. Most people, less so.
  • Third, establish that for some people entertainment-based programming indeed helps fill them up with, if not empty calories, a very selective set of less-than-nutritional calories. 
  • And of course prefacing this is why this matters, and what are the consequences if I'm right for the public, and for democracy.
Okay, that's my idea. So very easy to do, I'm sure. Nothing a big fat NSF grant couldn't fix.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Grady College Structure

Here's the lede: Grady College faculty voted 49-7 to move Digital and Broadcast Journalism, presently in the Department of Telecommunications, into the Department of Journalism.

In other words we'll still have three departments. They are:
  • Advertising and Public Relations
  • Journalism
  • Media Studies (Arts)
Lemme be clear, the names of those last two may change. We have a department focused thematically on persuasion (Ad/PR), one focused on news, and one focused on media studies and entertainment and critical cultural approaches. That latter department, Media Studies (or whatever it'll be named) will be where we expect growth in the coming years.

Also -- important. This will take a year or two to go into effect. Nothing happens fast in a university.

The meeting took 1 hour and 18 minutes from the initial motion to the final secret ballot vote. Why secret ballot? To protect junior faculty from some of our, ahem, less-than-sane senior faculty who might hold a grudge in how they vote. For those of you not in academe, just trust me that this is important. Some of our senior faculty are a taco short of a combination platter.

It was an interesting debate. For example, we had a what I can only describe as a poison pill amendment to stop the initial motion for the "three-department solution." We had a 10-minute lecture from behind a lectern (hint, it's never a good idea to lecture your peers, unless of course you don't see them as your peers). We had good, honest debate from both sides, some damn good points made for and against the proposal. Indeed, in a smaller department meeting earlier in the week the arguments against this change were far more persuasive, but somehow in a large room they were not persuasive in the least (hence the vote total). And we got lost in a maze of Roberts Rules of Order. In other words, this is what ya get when you pile a bunch of PhDs in a room.

I could write more. I could name names. Hell, I even have a legal pad full of quotes because, dammit, real journalism people never stop thinking like journalism people. But it's done. There's a lot of hard work that we face on curriculum, and my position is this is one of those rare opportunities when we can blow up the curriculum, the classes, and start from scratch to teach kids what they need to know for tomorrow's jobs, not last year's jobs.

And now, back to my bottle of celebratory bourbon.

A Vote Today (maybe)

The Grady College faculty meet today and we expect to vote on whether to change our departmental structure. The most likely options are:
  • Keep Ad/PR as is, combine Journalism and Telecommunication. In other words, two honking big departments.
  • Keep Ad/PR as is, combine Journalism with the Digital and Broadcast Journalism portion of Tele and create a Media Studies department with the remainder that's focused more on entertainment and critical/cultural stuff. In other words, three departments.
There are good arguments for both. There are good arguments against both. There are some terrible arguments also being made, some conspiracy theories being woven, and the kooks are having their say, nitpicking at process. In full disclosure, I favor three departments. I want a department focused on news.

So ... in other words, welcome to academe -- where people you never see all week suddenly show up and have their say.

And then we'll never see 'em again.

Okay, what's my Nate Silver-esque prediction? The model is ever-changing, of course. A week or so ago I put it at 2/3 likelihood of the "three-department solution." After some meetings this week, I've lowered that to a toss-up with the slightest of edges to the "three-department solution," but I don't feel confident about even that.

I think the dean breaks all ties. He may have to.

I've also added to the model a third option -- that we postpone the thing. I'd give that a 15 percent likelihood because, as you may or may not know, in academe there's never anything we won't spend more time studying to death.

I may live tweet the event. Check @barryhollander on Twitter to see if I am because, frankly, I doubt I'll actually speak.

Update (11:20 a.m.): because it's important we live up to the academic stereotype, there's talk we may have issues with the bylaws and will have to vote to vote, or some such nonsense, and the vote to vote may take a 2/3 vote. Got that? Good. I am updating the percentages. See below:
  • Three departments -- 40 percent
  • Two departments -- 42 percent
  • No vote at all -- 17 percent
  • Me killing several faculty -- 1 percent

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Polling Time in the GOP

Another poll, another group of "leaders" in the race to represent the GOP in the 2016 presidential election.

A Fox News poll puts it at:
  1. Chris Christie at 15 percent
  2. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul at 14 percent
  3. and leading the also rans, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and several others and 6 percent who preferred "none of the above."
What's this mean?

As the story notes, hardly anything at all. It's just fun. But it's also more than that as we move through the "invisible campaign" period in which seeming electable attracts more money, which makes you seem more electable, which attracts more money, which ... well, you get the idea. You can see the raw results here, if you're dweeby enough to care.

The Fox folks do something nice in the poll details, on page 12 providing the margins of error for various subgroups. Funny, as I was just talking about this in my basic reporting class. Following this, they provide a long list of crosstabs that break out responses by gender and party ID and all the rest, EXCEPT they do it for every question OTHER than the candidate preference questions. No idea why. Weird.

About the only other takeaway from this poll is Ted Cruz has dropped some in support, but even then it doesn't mean a lot because he's a favorite of those who actually vote in the GOP primary. It's early, remember, and such polls are really designed to appeal and inform the political chattering class.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Grady College, Conspiracies, and the Tinfoil Hat Crowd

A week from today the faculty of Grady College will meet to decide between essentially two structural changes:
  • Option 1: Merge the Department of Journalism and the Department of Telecommunications into one department.
  • Option 2: Merge the Digital and Broadcast Journalism portion of Tele (five, maybe six faculty) with Journalism to create a news-oriented department, and create a Media Arts (placeholder name) department focused on entertainment and related critical/cultural interests.

Ad/PR, being practically perfect in every way, would remain the same. Any tinkering there will probably come later as we deep dive into curriculum issues.

Seems a straightforward choice, right? Option 1 gives us two honking big departments of equal weight, at least in terms of number of faculty. Option 2 gives us Ad/PR as it is, focused on persuasion, and a news-oriented department focused on non-fiction storytelling, and a media arts department that will do all kinds of interesting things, from documentaries to screenwriting to, oh hell, all kinds of stuff. And it's the department with the most room to grow, with the right leadership, especially if we pursue a media studies major that is non-skill related, as well as media literacy courses.

In full disclosure, I favor Option 2. Because I'm rational.

Now let's talk about the irrational, the tinfoil hat conspiracists out there asking for membership lists of the committee that hammered out these details or the vitae of all the journalism faculty. You know who the hell you are. Please, on Friday, wear the tinfoil hats so everyone else knows. This has been the most transparent process at Grady I've seen in ages, and I've been here 23 years. The TV station? Not a damn thing transparent about that, and yet some who favor Option 1 or see boogie men and a lack of transparency -- ironically they were involved in the TV disaster. Funny, little ironies like that. Or how they complain about the non-transparent makeup of one committee -- with three Tele faculty -- but think the other committee -- with three Tele faculty -- is just fine.

Am I being hard on a few well-meaning faculty who prefer Option 1? A little. There are good, though not persuasive, reasons to favor two big departments. I've discussed them earlier and I see no reason to go over them again.Needless to say, the committee hashing this out -- running focus groups and holding a college-wide discussion -- voted unanimously for the three-department solution.

Lemme say that again. Unanimously.

Friday is going to be great fun. Maybe I'll live tweet it.

Even better, Thursday at 5 p.m., before the full college meeting, we'll meet as a department to hash out any concerns because, ya know, nothing transparent about that.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Latest Poynter Survey

Like making soup, making a good survey often depends on the ingredients.

The latest Poynter survey that compares the attitudes of educators, professionals (managers), and j-students has some interesting findings. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is in how important educators and students see multimedia skills compared to the pros. Below is the key graph:

What explains this gap? Pros not getting it? Educators getting it too much?

Hint: it's what you put in the soup. Or in this case, the survey.

The Poynter survey, useful as it is, rests not on a random sample but instead on those who chose to participate. I know. I participated. I may have participated twice. Regardless, you're talking about a biased sample. And while it's true you can get decent results from biased surveys, that requires sophisticated weighting and statistical correcting to make it work well. That's not the case here.

So, are the results real or a function of the sample? It's hard to say. Do the results in the graphic above make sense on their face? Not really. What kind of pros answer a Poynter survey, and are they representative of all pros? And educators, how about them? Representative? I'm guessing not so much in either case, but in general the results tend to track one another. Managers and educators often agreed in their priorities of key journalistic skills, such as the importance of accuracy curiosity. That's comforting.

The takeaway from all this? I don't have one yet. I want to read carefully the full report.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Grady Changes

As you know from my earlier posts, Grady College is about to undergo some changes. These involve (possibly) the space presently occupied by WUGA-TV and, perhaps more visibly, the merging of the newsgathering function of the Department of Telecommunications with the Department of Journalism.

The most likely scenario, then, is three departments:
  1. Advertising/Public Relations (persuasion stuff)
  2. Journalism (combines Journalism with Digital and Broadcast Journalism) (news stuff)
  3. Media Arts (entertainment-oriented stuff)

A college-wide faculty meeting is set for April 18 (Good Friday, appropriately enough) to hash this out and take a vote. The dean just sent an email saying as much (see below).The names I used above are merely placeholders. Media Arts could be called something else. So could Journalism.

There is a small but vocal argument for two whopping big departments, essentially merging Tele and Journalism as a counter to Ad/PR. The arguments are sound, but not compelling.  Still, let's air them out.
  • Research faculty will be marginalized in the new "news" department. This is a concern, but I don't see it being likely, especially not given how voting is done on tenure and promotion.
  • Ad/PR is too big and needs a counterbalance. I find this one smacking of a conspiracy theory, tinfoil hat theme.
  • The Media Arts department will be small and not stable. Again, a good question, a substantial concern. As the dean said, it's my business to make sure that isn't the case. I believe him.
There's even a push to keep Ad/PR folks from voting on the restructuring of the College because they're not directly involved. Except, of course, they are. And it's a sad way to try and shave off votes for the three-department solution in hopes of a two-department solution. Kinda obvious. Kinda ham-handed. Or at least not particularly subtle or demonstrating of any political skill.

This is a College decision. Everyone will vote.

FYI, Dean Davis' Email:

The Programs Visioning Committee has given me its first formal motion, and I would like to add it to next Friday’s agenda. The motion, of course, stems from the group’s hard work and our college-wide visioning session last month, in which we all saw consensus form around two competing models for college reorganization. I would like us to discuss and then vote on one of two models that clearly garnered the most support:

Model 1 (three departments, one merging the news gathering functions of Journalism and Telecommunication, one tentatively titled Media Arts, comprised of our current media studies and research faculty and production faculty and AdPr)

Model 2: two large departments, one combining Journalism and Telecommunications and the other AdPr.

It will be a signal day for Grady College.