A mediated dissertation on crisis coverage

Bob Conrad, PhD, APR

Traditional news vs. social media: what’s different?

Guest post by Bob Conrad, PhD, APR

Picking a dissertation topic is not for the faint of heart or the unprepared. Narrowing an issue into components and sub-components involves, first, picking a topic, then exploring what others have researched in that area and, finally, finding your own niche.

Crisis communications, social media and higher-education leadership were my interest areas, and it literally took years to find a topic that I could research in a way that would be relevant and would cover each of these topics.

My doctoral studies in educational leadership at the University of Nevada, Reno, covered organizational theory, leadership issues and administrative challenges, meaning research possibilities were endless. Most coursework took place in the mid-2000s, a time when social media was coming into fruition. Four events in higher-education news also dominated that time period, which provided an opportunity to build a dissertation.

Crisis communications research literature is robust. What’s lacking is research about crisis situations faced by higher-education institutions. Post-secondary institutions are fundamentally different than most other types of organizations. They are characterized as “loosely coupled systems,” wherein faculty members are assumed to hold a large degree of power in decision making.

In addition, drawing parallels between businesses, which have customers and rely on profits, and educational institutions, tends to be fantasy at best. Universities and colleges are not necessarily expected to generate profits, and graduating students is one of many institutional responsibilities.

So when a crisis hits a university or a college, my question was, “What is different for the institutions as opposed to a business or corporation?”

Specifically, my research sought to answer this question: How do news media cover these crises?

And even more to the point, do traditional news media and this then-new thing called social media—MySpace, arguably the first popular social network, and blogs became popular in the mid-2000s—cover and discuss higher-education crises differently?

Dissertation’s parameters

To answer that question, I looked at four crisis events:

  1. The controversy surrounding Ward Churchill and his academic freedom case (Churchill became a hot news item after it was revealed he referred to the victims of 9/11 as “little Eichmanns”).
  2. Lawrence Summers’ controversial tenure as president of Harvard University.
  3. The Cho shootings at Virginia Tech.
  4. Finally, the lacrosse-team scandal at Duke University, where members of the lacrosse team were (falsely) accused of raping a stripper.

(One issue in crisis research literature is that the definition of a crisis is subject to debate. For the purposes of my research, I used the terms “crisis” and “controversy” to characterize these four cases.)

Next, media was selected to research. I choose three media:

  1. Chronicle of Higher Education, which covers higher education news.
  2. The Associated Press, to represent traditional news coverage.
  3. Five news-oriented blogs.

For news blogs, I followed the example of Dr. Brooke Liu of the University of Maryland, who used Technorati’s ranking to find the most popular blogs in one of her studies. If a blog had content and commentary related to these four cases during a two-year period, it was selected for analysis.

The winners were:

Interestingly, these blogs represent a range of political leanings, so research results would not be focused on one side of the political spectrum or another.


Next was gathered what amounted to 56 years of data: two years for each media outlet for all four cases. Data was subjected to a content analysis using Leximancer software; I did both a qualitative and statistical analysis of the results.

What I found was both obvious and surprising. Leximancer generates concept maps from large amounts of text to highlight the themes and concepts in the text.

Blog coverage concept map of Duke University's lacrosse team scandal (case study four).

The results showed that the Associated Press covered these events as might be expected from a more traditional news outlet—its concepts and themes focused on these cases as news events, likely with a mass audience in mind. The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, generated themes in its news coverage as related to higher-education issues and audiences. The themes of “student,” “professors” and “higher” (education) were consistent in the Chronicle’s news coverage of these cases.

With the selected blogs, on the other hand, things got interesting. Blog coverage of these cases showed something else: political themes not related to the cases being researched.

For example, blog content about the Duke University case had themes, such as “Iraq” and “American,” that are largely unrelated to the Duke case. Moreover, in coverage of the Ward Churchill case, the theme of (George W.) “Bush” was dominant in blogs, but not in the Associated Press or the Chronicle.

Dissertation conclusions

A conclusion reached from these findings is that user-generated content—in this case, blogs—discusses current events in a way one will not find in traditional news media.

This is important because more and more people are getting their “news” from non-traditional media sources. Personal Facebook friends, for example, frequently post “news” from sources such as the Huffington Post and comment as if these news items have the same kind of validity as that of a traditional news story.

In other words, social media, with all of the benefits social networks offer, has muddied the definition of what is considered news. While this may not be necessarily a new finding, what is notable is that consumers do not appear to make a distinction between the news and blog content. (Tune in to your favorite social network for examples.)

My dissertation concluded with this statement: “What is uncertain is how, more broadly, social media have impacted consumer awareness of crisis events and news in general.”

It is clear that social media have helped in countries that have not had democratic presses, but what it means for Euro-American cultures remains to be seen.


Bob Conrad, PhD, APR, Reno, Nevada, USA, is an award-winning public relations practitioner. He blogs at The Good, the Bad and the Spin. This guest post on PR Conversations is part four in a series about Bob Conrad’s recent earning of his doctorate in educational leadership. Read part one, part two and part three. He runs a consulting company. Follow Bob on Twitter.

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10 Replies to “A mediated dissertation on crisis coverage

  1. Interesting.
    For some time I have been using latent semantic indexing as a major part of content analysis. It gave us the insights which come out in the Bruno Amaral paper to Bled a few years ago.

    Essentially, we find in social media that people seek values that have a resonance with their own and so you get a number of clusters round different (user) interpretations of issues.

    I could believe that this is what you are witnessing with the blogs in your analysis.

    Traditional media is different in that it has to reflect an ‘editorial line and language’ and so looks to conformity to represent content.

    There is much more work to do here I think.

  2. The problem as I see it is that traditional news outlets (that is, media that people have relied on their entire lives) is now in imitation of popular “news” stories online. They seek to sensationalize, to rant, and to lead their listeners to a chosen conclusion, as opposed to staying in the fact-realm. This has caused, not only misinformation as you pointed out, but a general lack of awareness of what is happening because they’re concerned with what their chosen pundit has said.

    There seems to always be a slant and that influences how less discerning listeners perceive (or not) the world. Or is that just me?

    1. Shad,

      I agree with your assessment of the state of news reporting — I have frequently found fault with many AP reports, for example — but my dissertation found that over time, what you will find in news reports, using the AP as a model, is lexical concepts consistent with what might be expect from a news item. The AP tends to stay on topic with regard to news; blogs, on the other hand, tend to introduce unrelated topics in blog posts, suggesting agenda-driving is more overt than what you might find in the news.


      1. I was more addressing your concluding statement.

        Your findings make sense. An AP report is expected to be focused and often edited (though I sometimes doubt this). A blog… instantaneously published, so you will get more emotional driving than an AP report. That and most bloggers have no idea how to edit.

        I’m not sure its any less agenda-driving that TV news outlets. I remember reading the University of Maryland’s study on this matter. It was depressing, to say the least.

        Thank you for your thoughts, Bob.

  3. Thanks, Heather.

    I purposefully used Leximancer because it is an automatic content analysis, as opposed to a more traditional approach which appears to be highly subjective yet still widely used.

    In regards to your second point, one advantage of social media is the affected organization (or individual) has the opportunity to also respond quickly, sometimes with less impact (e.g., Domino’s), and sometimes with poignancy (e.g., Sarah Palin or Lance Armstrong). The risk for those spreading misinformation is that they can quickly end up looking foolish for not verifying facts. In this way, the news media still in theory has an advantage even if this advantage does not always translate into financial benefit for the news outlet. (Sorry, I am unfamiliar with the VW or Greenpeace situation.)

    The consequence is a (potentially) grossly misinformed public. This too is a mixed blessing/curse, because it gives advantage to those who spend the time to be better informed, but it also makes for a great amount of useless chatter.

    I should add that separating oneself from that chatter requires a specialized kind of diligence I’m afraid I’ve only seen from those speaking with a credible, caring voice — a rare skill indeed, one, it should be noted, is frequently not correlated with popularity. More to the point about my study’s results: I don’t trust blogs to offer more than opinion or information about specific topics unless they are written by subject matter experts — actual experts, such as Freakonomics or Skeptic, which I find more credible than news reports. I see little difference between Michelle Malkin and authors on the Daily Kos. With that in mind, I trust the AP to provide a news story as news. It isn’t always correct, but it’s not going to be driving an agenda as overtly as Huff Po might.

    Thanks for your comments.


  4. Bob – thanks for the interesting post. Couple of thoughts…

    First, great to see content analysis which I was discussing as a methodology with Lynn Zoch at the International History of PR Conference today. She was recommending the approach (more traditional than software driven I think) and we discussed feasibility of getting practitioners and students to use robust content analysis, which I think is a really useful method.

    Second, I am wondering about the impact of the content of social media ‘news’ of crisis events. It strikes me that SM creates a lot of noise, and I’m not surprised you found editorialising not just reporting of events. But despite all the so called “gurus” advocating engagement in this form of communications in a crisis situation, I believe there is no universal principle. Indeed, arguably VW closed down last week’s Greenpeace issue – despite lots of tweets, VW did not rush around social media giving a counter viewpoint, and from what I understand in the UK at least, there’s been minimal awareness, let alone any customer or other public activity.

    Just wondered what you thought of the consequence of the nature of the coverage your noted.

  5. Judy, thanks much for posting this.

    To answer your questions: I think that, in the minds of consumers, news has knowingly or unknowingly been redefined. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but one that appears to have increased with social media as information becomes more accessible. Consumers — me included — can now be more selective in what type of ‘news’ they consume.

    I do think that this has influenced news reporting as well, which is noted by media turning to social networks to share news, in addition to reporters blogging more. It also appears that the credibility of source material has diminished, but I should note that these are not aspects of my study, just observations I have made.

    Yes, I cited at least one other dissertation that used Leximancer. The company maintains a list of studies that have used the software: https://www.leximancer.com/science/

    Thanks again,

  6. Do you think in addition to social media “mudd[ying] the definition of what is considered news,” Bob, that social media has (or will) impact in the long-term how traditional media also defines and (more importantly) reports on news?

    I’m also curious to know whether other PhD students have made use of the Leximancer software or whether you are a trailblazer there as well.

    Thanks, again, for agreeing to contribute part 4 of your series here on PR Conversations.

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