November 2012

Sources of information, salience and novelty, and belief reversion

In this year’s MAPOR panel, Ken Blake’s presentation looked at belief that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and Doug Hindman talked a bit about right-wing denial of the September unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both issues are good example cases for a phenomenon that we might call belief reversion.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 19:51, November 23 || No Comments »

Belief gaps are knowledge gaps moderated by group norms

At MAPOR on Friday, we had another terrific session dealing with the belief gap and extremes in partisanship — a direct follow-up to the belief gap session we had in 2011.¬†We were fortunate enough to get the entire set of participants back together, and had a big audience and a good discussion at the end.

Closing out the panel, Doug Hindman presented a nice overview of how knowledge gaps and belief gaps differ, which is really a narrow set of fairly subtle characteristics. He began his presentation by noting that he’s come more and more to see belief gaps as a particular kind of knowledge gap. Specifically, these are instances where the “knowledge” deals with politically disputed information, and where partisan elites (Doug mentioned “elected officials,” but I think we need to be able to include people like, for example, Rush Limbaugh here) make claims both supporting or denying that knowledge. Consistent with Zaller’s work on elite cuing, we should (and do) see partisans — particularly stronger and more educated partisans — taking up the incorrect beliefs put forth by their partisan elites.

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Filed: Super Special Questions || 9:25, November 20 || 2 Comments »

Effetes don’t fail me now

It’s never the same thing, but it’s always something. American presidential elections are horrible things, though I can’t say whether they’re any more or less horrible than other countries’. Ours are sinkholes of mendacity and gamesmanship, in which winning is measured by the players in skim and by the public in the desperate hope that things don’t get any worse. At best, the campaign provides a distraction from the fact that our government is designed to fail, the institutional version of Monty Burns’s million diseases all getting in one another’s way. A public mismatched with its responsibility will again send a divided government to rule a structure that even one party could never reliably handle, expecting the president to “reach out” to the other side, and for the parties to “come together,” as if these magic words will erase the serious and deep divisions between them on fundamental issues of policy, values, and beliefs. If we’re lucky, only one incompetent or corrupt local election official will screw up thousands of ballots, and the winners will be known before the morning after Election Day; if so, we’ll be ready to leap right into Decision 2016. The lessons we will have learned this year are that truth, on every level, is valueless in the gate-kept circle of Hell inhabited by the Gang of 500; that because money couldn’t buy the presidency or the Senate, it’s OK if it buys mayors and judges; and that everyone who uses science to correctly predict things is just getting lucky or at least gay. We’ll play out this psychodrama again in four years, because most of us have no choice.

And now, on to the predictions!

I made a friendly wager that Barack Obama would defeat Mitt Romney well before the Republican primaries began, and I see no reason to deviate from that prediction now. His electoral vote margin will be smaller than it was in 2008, losing six votes to post-census shuffling, and then losing Indiana (11 votes), Florida (29 votes), North Carolina (15 votes) and the 2nd district of Nebraska (1 vote). All the other states will hold steady, for an Obama win with 303 votes to Romney’s 235. Obama will also become the first president to be elected a second time with a lower share of the popular vote than he got the first time since Grover Cleveland returned to the White House in 1892 with slightly less than he’d won in 1884. A final tally of 51% for Obama and 48% for Romney (rounded) will also indirectly point to the incredible disappearance of Gary Johnson, who had been seen as having the potential to swing New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and maybe even Colorado. Total votes cast for president will be around 135 million.

Democrats will retain control of the Senate, flipping seats in Massachusetts and Maine (via Dem-caucusing independent Angus King), while Republicans take Nebraska and Montana. The push on Election Day will leave the Senate split 53 to 47. Democrats will gain five seats overall in the House of Representatives, but will be well short of a majority, leaving John Boehner with the Speaker’s gavel by a count of 237 to 198. I’d like to be wrong about that one, but I have a hard time seeing where 20 more seats are going to come from.

Effete liberals, commies, moochers and anti-colonialists, let’s get out there and make it happen.

Filed: We R in Control || 15:08, November 5 || 1 Comment »

Is the informal teaching model the future of broad mass communication graduate programs?

[I am the teaching standards chair of the Communication Theory & Methodology division of AEJMC, and will be posting my newsletter columns here throughout the year.]

In the PhD program where I teach, we’re currently conducting a self-study as part of a broader program review. This program serves a broad array of scholarly interests, and includes faculty who teach and study journalism, advertising, broadcast media, film, photography, and myriad other areas relating to mass communication and media. Our students are similarly broad in their interests and backgrounds, some entering the program with clear research agendas in mind and others using their first year as a feeling-out period in which to learn what they most want to learn about.

During the course of our review, the entire faculty, as well as the committee that’s managing the review, has engaged in discussions that often invoke perceived needs, wants, or attitudes of our students. Much of this perception has developed through individual professors’ contact with individual students, and as researchers, we soon realized we were basing a large part of our effort on that most dreaded source of information: anecdata. As a result, we organized a focus group of PhD students, run by the student representative to our graduate committee. While some of the concerns raised pertain to specifics of our program, many of them relate to how graduate education in mass communication works generally.

One set of student concerns that likely applies to most doctoral programs is a desire among students for courses providing more depth in specific theoretical areas, and courses that ground methodological instruction in the context of mass communication. Coming out of the familiar, first-year, introductory theory classes — “Foundations of Theory,” “Theoretical Traditions,” “Issues in Theory” — the students’ consistent concern was in finding courses that brought them deep focus on the particular theories and topics that interested them, even beyond extant courses such as Political Communication or Social Media. This was true of senior students as well as first-year students who were still looking forward to where the rest of their program would take them. A related concern came up in terms of methods courses. Although both basic and advanced statistics are offered to the entire campus by our educational psychology department (as is the case at many universities), and other advanced methods courses can be found in sociology and psychology departments, a strong desire was expressed for advanced methods courses grounded in the communications context — communications ethnography, or experiments with media stimuli, for example.

As the committee reviewed the focus group notes, there was a quick consensus that the ability to offer these courses would be great. Who wouldn’t want to offer that kind of material, and from our perspective as educators, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to teach such focused courses with highly interested and motivated students? But the discussion took a dark turn when someone said the “f”-word: “fill,” as in, “Would these courses fill?” In most cases they probably wouldn’t, even if there were professors available to be pulled out of other courses to teach them. More specialized courses are, by definition, niche endeavors, and given university-mandated enrollment requirements, they’re much harder to fill on a regular basis. Occasional special topics courses were mooted as the best alternative to specialized courses in the catalog, but one other possibility squarely hit the other major concern raised in the focus group.

Students wanted more opportunities to work with faculty on research, across the breadth of our program. Some already work as RAs, or are part of informal research groups; others weren’t sure how to get involved with professors with whom they hadn’t taken courses. Could collaborative independent studies be an answer to both issues? This is one idea that is being considered. Another is a faculty research symposium at the beginning of fall semester, which would mirror the student symposium we hold near the end of spring semester. Taken together, these efforts would introduce faculty areas of research specialty and expertise, as well as present a structure in which to follow up with collaborative work. It also makes for a new twist on the classic model of mass communication PhD programs, allowing for a greater range of theoretical and methodological approaches to become part of a student’s education, but also requiring more flexibility and informal teaching on the part of faculty. The challenges of the informal model are clear, but the opportunities are clear as well. As our field continues to evolve — and in particular, as the ways our programs are funded continue to evolve — making those opportunities work should be a top priority for graduate faculty.

Filed: Leave Them Kids Alone || 9:50, November 3 || No Comments »

Books I will never write

I’m not going to write these books, but I offer them up as a public service to others in need of high-concept ideas to pitch to publishers.


OK, back to finishing ICA papers.

Filed: Science Is Real || 1:23, November 2 || 1 Comment »