A mediated dissertation on crisis coverage
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?
To answer that question, I looked at four crisis events:
- 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”).
- Lawrence Summers’ controversial tenure as president of Harvard University.
- The Cho shootings at Virginia Tech.
- 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:
- Chronicle of Higher Education, which covers higher education news.
- The Associated Press, to represent traditional news coverage.
- 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.
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.
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.