Theory v. application in media research

Of late, there has been renewed discussion of the seeming conflict between academic and practical research in the field of journalism.

This discussion is worthwhile, but it sounds a lot like one that the Newhouse School sponsored at Syracuse in 1985.  Have things really changed so little since then?

From my remote perch, it appears that the Web has created all sorts of new research questions that ought to interest practitioners and academics alike. A few right off the top of the head:

– Under what circumstances do bloggers become agenda setters?

– What happened to Mr. Gates? Can the concept of gatekeeper be refitted to apply in cyberspace?

– If, as Knight Ridder’s Hal Jurgensmeyer claimed, influence is a marketable commodity, how can digital news media package and sell it?

– How is the Web affecting the minimum efficient scale for a news business?

–Is the enabling of issue publics by the Web a cause of what social psychologists call “risky shift” in decision making? Is that the source of group polarization that we see today?

When newspapers thought they were in a steady state, the conflict between academics and practitioners was mostly one of time scale. The academy’s time horizon was long, practitioners wanted information they could use right now. That won’t change, nor will the fact that the best short-term results depend on some long-range theory to provide context and justification.

Nancy Weatherly Sharp edited a report of that Syracuse meeting into a nice book:  “Communications Research: The Challenge of the Information Age,” Syracuse University Press, 1988. If you can find it, check out my brief chapter, “On the impracticality of applied research.” I argue that the best research is cumulative, and it requires the long attention span of the academy as we strive to construct useful theories for which practical value might eventually be found.


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