McGuire on Media

Impact in academic research: Journalism needs the academy's help

Two weeks ago The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication had an all-day faculty meeting on the subject of academic research. The most intriguing discussion was on whether academic research should have “impact.”

The discussion revealed a fascinating chasm between academics and recent professionals.

I want to be very careful not to simplify or sensationalize an incredibly important issue and i don’t want to over -generalize about academics and professionals. Views on the subject varied among professionals and academics. Yet, the gap in understanding and appreciation needs to be explored.

When I share this discussion with professionals they find the answer so obvious they actually guffaw. And yet, when a good academic friend, Joe Russomanno, shared it with a small number of academics they responded they never think about impact. Wow, there’s a gap and it is obvious incredulousness is never going to close it. Rational discussion and exploration might.

Russomanno is as earnest and talented an academic as you’re going to find. He has a solid decade of professional experience and he sees the world as a whole, not through academic-tinted glasses. He has made himself a prominent expert on media law and he is big-league thinker. He does have great experience as a researcher. Before and after Wednesday’s session we have exchanged emails on the subject. I think they set the stage for the debate that I think ought to occur everywhere between academics and professionals even though there probably isn’t anyone who neatly fits into those descriptions.

I start with the premise that in this time of incredible industry crisis academics could play a vital role in finding answers to the challenges facing the industry. In my view that will not happen if academics believe impact is not important.

Russomanno is not naïve and in some ways we both were operating in a devil’s advocate posture. At one point during our faculty discussion I said having impact is part of being human. I contended it is a basic drive we all have as human beings. Joe paraphrased me and responded with this: “That is (Joe’s translation), to publish is to have impact.  Agreed.  My question is not to suggest that research can’t or shouldn’t have impact.  Not at all.  Impact away!  (And I think that’s what a lot of people read into the question.)  Rather, it’s to ask whether (and to what extent) a research product having impact should be on the mind of researchers, particularly in the early stages of a project.  Because if impact is a priority, especially if it is THE priority, that can and likely will affect how the research is conducted.  Some would say that biases the process from the beginning.  And some would say that’s improper, that it compromises the integrity of the process. The project is market driven.  And yet those same people would say that if their research ultimately does have impact, that’s fine, but it’s not their role to seek it.  That’s for others to judge.”

It is obvious that Russomanno and I are struggling with the definition of impact. This was an attempt at definition by Russomanno early in our discussion. “In my mind, I’m equating that with marketability–getting the mainstream media interested in the research.  Is it sell-able?  And to me, that potentially smacks of whoring out the enterprise, or at least aspects of it.  It potentially is a sell out IF impact is the top criterion.  It negatively affects the integrity of the entire process.  It compromises, possibly even to the extent of making the researcher less than independent. Of course, this is not to say that research that happens to have an impact is bad. Nothing of the sort. But should wanting the research to have an impact be a priority? And more importantly, should that desire be allowed to impact the kind of projects that are undertaken? That’s where I’m conflicted.” Joe added later that he is particularly concerned with “researchers who double as their own publicity agents. I believe any judgment about impact should be out of the researcher’s hands.”

My response probably wasn’t as eloquent. I wrote, “I can’t figure out what other measurement other than impact a piece of research might have. If it moves no one, if it advances nothing, and nobody gives a damn why do it? Academics need to talk more and explain better what the measurements are.”

I then moved onto examples. “Let’s look at the hard sciences.  Those researchers are not satisfied if their research sits on shelves. They want to make balls bouncier or cancer treatments less stressful or the orange juice more fortified with vitamins. The hard sciences want to make science and industry better.” I then argued this : “In the same way journalism research should be addressing the very real problems facing industry and craft. Our research should highlight and resolve the problems plaguing the media. Let’s take your field of law. One of the biggest problems facing access and scores of other legal issues is the inability of my industry successors to take on legal cases. There just isn’t money. Research on that phenomenon, studies of the impact of less aggressiveness and exploration of solutions could have incredible impact on society, the industry and freedom of information. That’s the real impact we should explore.” (Russomanno and I are now discussing said research idea and that idea has entered the mainstream media.) 

In my simple journalistic mind I think getting our work noticed by mainstream media IS impact. But to some, being mentioned on Romenesko is a curse. For me, being famous and talked about helps the institution, the school and individual reputations. Publicity beats the hell out of anonymity. More fame, more respect and more buzz intrigues and attracts students, funders and other faculty.  That strikes me as the core of impact. 

I respect Joe Russomanno’s fear that if the researcher focuses on impact it will somehow jaundice the work. I am also impressed with his contention that “I think subconsciously I’ve always taken the view that if someone other than me judges my work and decides that it has an impact, fine.  More than fine.  Great!  But that’s not for me to decide before, during or after conducting the research.”

This articulation by Joe may get to the fundamental problem that gets between professionals and academics: “The small part of me that recoils is the same part of me doesn’t like the pursuit of ratings or circulation numbers driving news content.  The news is the news, right?  Same thinking here:  If some topic or issue is “worth” researching, regardless of its marketability (i.e., “impact”), then it should be pursued.”

After several back and forth emails Joe and I ended up at the word “usefulness.’  He prefers that to impact and I certainly buy that.  

One thing that has struck me over the years about this research conversation Wednesday was a sense of inconsistency on the part of some academics. Some academics say they can’t be bothered by impact and yet I often hear them bellyache that they and their research are not taken seriously. That dog simply does not hunt for me. I think if impact, or at least usefulness is not sought, then people need to be comfortable with being ignored.

I think there is an incredible opportunity for academics “to get noticed’ by the news media industry. Professionals have arguably messed things up quite badly. Academics would seem to have the wherewithal and insight to help find solutions. Those solutions will not come if academics think they are above the fray and that their work does not have to have impact.

As Joe Russomanno said so eloquently, “Impact away!”