Communication Research

Researchers at COM are uncovering trends in communication, and highlighting new ways of doing business.

By Andrew Thurston; Illustrations by Leah Davis

This is where your art becomes a science. In a custom-built lab in the basement of a Comm. Ave. brownstone, researchers are tracking communication trends and advancing theories that could change how we all work.

In the past year, the dozen faculty members associated with COM’s Communication Research Center have studied the science behind Twitter’s credibility (or lack thereof), moral disengagement among TV viewers and even the media’s role in supporting wildlife management.

“There is no one theme for the research that is being done here,” says Michael Elasmar, the center’s director. “If there is a broad category, it would be the process and effect of communication.”

With banks of computers for quantitative number crunching and smaller rooms—one complete with a two-way mirror—for qualitative, focus group-style studies, COM’s home for research isn’t a bubbling-test-tubes kind of lab. But there’s a real science to what it does. Here, we sample some of the latest work and look at its implications for communications professionals.

Selling Disease Prevention
Does Bono hold too much power over the media? A recent study has found that although diarrhea, pneumonia and measles kill more children than diseases célèbres—AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis—they’re consistently underrepresented in the press. A team of health policy experts and Professor of Communication James Shanahan analyzed why certain diseases enjoy more column inches and funding than others, and what those fighting lower-profile (but statistically deadlier) conditions can do to bring their own causes to the fore.

There were 1.3 million print articles worldwide mentioning AIDS, malaria and TB between 1981 and 2008, but the three diseases that kill more children every year garnered just one-fifth of the coverage in the same period. What makes the diseases—or from a media perspective, the stories about them—so different?

Some of it is the Bono factor. For those campaigns with big money backing, a celebrity is often on hand and journalists aren’t shy in taking advantage: two-thirds of articles about well-funded disease prevention efforts are shaped around one person, often a famous activist (the figure is more than 20 percent lower for less well-funded conditions). Stories are approached from a different angle, too, with articles about the higher-funded diseases more likely to take a human rights or social justice perspective. The study also found, at least for lower-funded diseases that also affected adults, the media tended to underplay the effect on children. With malaria, where 95 percent of those hit by the disease are children, only 16 percent of media coverage focused on kids. Could this be, the researchers speculate, because children “are a relatively voiceless population?” Or might it be that pneumonia and measles are no longer stories: a simple injection or pill could often fix them, so why cover or fund them?

The researchers from BU’s School of Public Health, the World Health Organization, Switzerland, and Shanahan admit another study would be needed to answer the “question of whether the media merely reflect or affect global policy,” but do offer some suggestions for “those seeking funding and media attention for neglected pediatric populations.” The first is changing their pitch to news organizations. The moral, “right thing to do” angle hasn’t worked, but a “legal, human rights approach” might. They could also consider closer ties with those in better-funded campaigns, perhaps pushing for an expansion of the Global Fund, an international fundraising organization for AIDS, TB and malaria programs. Alternatively, the researchers fail to mention, campaigners could track down the number for Bono’s agent.

Want to know more? Read the full research report.

Why Negative Politics Work
Buckle up, Mr. President. Negative political web ads work. And those behind them probably don’t have to worry about a backlash. In a study of positive and negative campaign websites, COM Associate Professor of Communication H. Denis Wu and a colleague from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, found that going negative didn’t damage a candidate or foster political apathy among potential voters. The researchers also discovered that poor web literacy frequently meant viewers didn’t always spot whether a political site was run by a candidate or an independent organization.

The study used six websites: three “official” sites of a fictional senatorial candidate and three sites by an independent group backing his run; two of the six sites were about the candidate, two contained only attacks on his opponent, and two were supportive but included links to the negative sites. In every test, the fictional candidate won out over his opponent (who didn’t have a website), whether subjects opened a positive site or not. Overall, those who saw both constructive and destructive sites were “slightly more likely to vote for the featured candidate than those who only saw the positive site.” Although the researchers observed that potential voters sometimes failed to notice whether a site was official or sponsored, the negative independent sites tended to be listed among the most credible.

It’s a common charge that negative politics has turned people away from polling stations. But while fewer Americans than ever may show up to vote in 2012—37.8 percent of those of voting age made the effort in 2010 compared to 63.1 percent in 1960—the Web isn’t necessarily to blame. Wu found that “exposure to negative political messages on the Web does not lead to lower interest in the political process.” In fact, those identifying as unenthused about politics were more likely to remember a negative campaign than a positive one, even if they questioned its validity.

The study’s authors conclude their findings should “be instrumental for political communication researchers as well as political marketing practitioners.” Those, like President Barack Obama, who have their names on the ballot, might also take some lessons from the study: Hope sounds great, but hate can win elections, too.

Want to know more? Read the full research report.

How the Networks Treat Twitter

Who’s your most trusted news source? Fox, CNN, MSNBC? How about someone with more viewers than those big three can muster combined? Try Lady Gaga.

Don’t laugh. With 20 million followers on Twitter (compare to a combined average of 3.3 million primetime viewers for the three major news networks in 2010), Gaga is an influential voice on an increasingly trusted medium. Twitter—according to COM Assistant Professor of Communication Mina Tsay and researchers at the University of Kentucky, Lexington—might be a more credible source than some might think.

Tsay and her team collected 24-hour news network coverage of Twitter between 2007 and 2010 and scrutinized it for a positive or hostile spin. After watching hours of footage, they noticed most stories “used a benefit frame.” The news networks, it seemed, weren’t scared of Twitter: “It’s not seen necessarily as a threat to traditional journalism,” notes Tsay. In fact, she adds, “those who discussed Twitter in terms of its beneficial use or utility also associated it with journalism.” Such a view was most apparent—or “intense,” according to Tsay—during times of crisis, moments when on-the-ground microbloggers likely had a head start on spread-thin network journalists. (What the tendency to repeat Twitter reports may say about fact verification is a subject for another day.) Throw in pleas to “Follow us on Twitter” or “Tweet your response,” and we might be nearing a “symbiotic relationship between social media and traditional news media,” adds Tsay.

The next stage of the National Science Foundation–funded project is a study of audience perceptions of the micro­blogging website’s trustworthiness. The research team will show audiences news stories presented by both Twitter and traditional media to track any “difference in perceived credibility.”

Tsay is an expert on media influence and says her overall goal is to update mass communication theories first developed back in the ’60s. Her other recent studies have covered perceptions of online privacy and TV viewers’ moral disengagement.

“So much of the landscape of media has changed,” she says of her work. “Many of the past theories focused on an effects model; that the media injects these powerful messages in our systems . . . [but] when you look at new media technologies, there’s the idea of having greater user control over the kind of content you select; how you’re being influenced is very self-driven.”

For more about Professor Tsay’s research on social media, visit Boston University’s Research magazine.

Countering the Mad Men
Sleazy public relations executives might be a fun silver screen staple, but they could be damaging the profession. After conducting a series of studies on the portrayal of the industry in film, Assistant Professor Cheryl Ann Lambert is conducting a little PR for PR. She’s developed a classroom exercise, “Cinema Spin,” to teach her PR students “how and why their internal and external clients may have preconceived ideas about the field” and, she says, prevent them from “emulating the behaviors that media perpetuate and possibly changing the profession for the worse.”

In two separate studies of films screened between 1995 and 2010, Lambert discovered a bleak picture of the PR industry. Men were portrayed as manipulative and profit-driven, women as underrepresented “PR bunnies,” and almost everyone worked in publicity. In one of the studies, Lambert focused on how graduate students interpreted the films; she found the results worrisome: “A level of disdain was evident in the terminology used to describe characters’ negative traits,” she wrote. “‘Power-thirsty,’ ‘unconscionable’ and ‘sleazy’ were especially troubling descriptors, particularly considering the participants—all public relations graduate students—would be expected to view the characters through a more objective lens.”

In Cinema Spin, since published in the journal Communication Teacher, Lambert sets out her plan to counter movie stereotypes. She recommends students watch a film featuring a PR professional and then describe the character, compare his or her traits to textbook definitions of the vocation, and apply social expectations theory to the movie. As well as producing more effective public relations professionals, Lambert hopes the exercise will prevent worried students from fleeing the field.

And there is some hope in the research underpinning Cinema Spin—public relations is beginning to get a fairer deal on the screen. Lambert points to a “subtle shift” in the portrayal of PR professionals. Although the sleazeball still dominates, more positive characters are emerging, such as Ray Embrey, Jason Bateman’s PR good guy in Hancock. What such characters still often lack, however, is depth, and Lambert concludes one study with the wish “that future character development leads to ever more comprehensive depictions.” In the meantime, she’ll continue her classroom PR campaign.■

Want to know more? Download the Cinema Spin course.

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The CRC research team in 1965. Students: Front row, Robert Holz (’65, GRS’68); second row, John Walkley (’68); third row, Jack Levin (’65, GRS’68) and John Corrozi (’66); fourth row, Jeffrey Goldstein (’66); fifth row, Robert Ernest (’65,’66). Sixth row (from left): Professor Earl Barcus, secretary Linda Goldberg and chairman Edward J. Robinson (GRS’50, ’53). Back row: Professors Ralph Rosnow and Fred Powell.

The CRC research team in 1965. Students: Front row, Robert Holz (’65, GRS’68); second row, John Walkley (’68); third row, Jack Levin (’65, GRS’68) and John Corrozi (’66); fourth row, Jeffrey Goldstein (’66); fifth row, Robert Ernest (’65,’66). Sixth row (from left): Professor Earl Barcus, secretary Linda Goldberg and chairman Edward J. Robinson (GRS’50, ’53). Back row: Professors Ralph Rosnow and Fred Powell. Photo courtesy of Ralph Rosnow.

Duck and Cover

The origins of communication research at COM

For a story about getting people to run for fallout shelters, the spring 1965 edition of Public Opinion Quarterly could have picked a jazzier lead.

“The Communication Research Center of the School of Public Communication at Boston University,” it drily proclaimed, “has recently announced the completion of a laboratory study on ‘the effects of directing anxiety-arousing message cues at personal and impersonal referents.’”

Sadly the anxiety-arousing messages don’t survive—maybe “Quick, get in, before you melt!”—but the findings do. The BU researchers concluded that “high-anxiety appeals were found less effective than low-anxiety appeals when these were directed at the subject himself, but high-anxiety appeals were found more effective when directed at the subject’s family.”

Such research made the Communication Research Center (CRC) a well-regarded early pioneer in its field, a reputation sustained until the 1980s, primarily through work on the influence of television and studies of voting intentions. Then, as key faculty members retired or moved, the center faded away. It reopened its doors in 1994 and, though many things have changed in the interim—think Facebook rather than fallout—others haven’t. The center is again a national leader and some of the research is, albeit with a modern feel, familiar: a recent presentation by a visiting CRC faculty member was titled, “Intelligence Services and the Media.”

“There is a distinguished past on which we’re building,” says the center’s current director, Associate Professor Michael Elasmar. “We’re not inventing anything new with respect to creating something called communication research—it’s been around since the late 1950s. ‘What happens if we get nuked? How do we get the word out?’ That was done here; it’s fascinating.”

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Dr. Melvin L. DeFleur Photo courtesy of Melvin DeFleur

Dr. Melvin L. DeFleur Photo courtesy of Melvin DeFleur

Distinguished Praise

Dr. Melvin L. DeFleur conducted some of the first studies on the influence of television on children and developed the theory of cultural norms. So when DeFleur pays your research a compliment, it counts for something. “In my opinion,” says the COM professor emeritus, “the Communication Research Center at COM is one of the most important and respected organizations of its kind in the U.S.”

Even after nearly six decades of teaching, DeFleur remains enthusiastic about communication research, recently completing a study on global youth views of Americans and publishing his first novel.

The Communication Research Center has recognized DeFleur’s historic, and continuing, contribution to the field with the launch of a distinguished lecture series in his name.

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