Podcast: The state of political debates, with Dr. David Clementson

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David Clementson in the studio during the recording of the podcast.
David Clementson (left) and Jackson Schroeder (right) recording Grady Research Radio. (Photo: Dayne Young)

Leading up to the 2022 general elections in the state of Georgia, the Grady Research Radio podcast recently had the opportunity to feature Dr. David Clementson, an assistant professor in Public Relations at Grady College and a political communication researcher.  

In this interview, Dr. Clementson answers questions about the state of political debates, whether they have any real influence, why some politicians shy away from debates, the art of dodging questions and more.

Below is a transcription of the episode, edited lightly for clarity and brevity. 

Grady Research Radio: I’m interested in debates and their influence, or lack thereof. Debates have seemed to have lost a little bit of their weight in recent years. Until about mid-September, Herschel Walker and Sen. Rafael Warnock didn’t even have a debate scheduled. Some races throughout the country don’t have debates at all. So my question is, what power do debates currently hold? Can they change minds, particularly in a race like the Warnock and Walker race, with the candidates so different ideologically?

David Clementson: Yes, so, debates are typically the most watched, most attended of any campaign event during a political season. If people are going to pay attention to anything, other than say a TV ad or YouTube ad that they can’t avoid, if they’re going to be exposed to any campaign discourse at all, it’s probably going to be a debate. So, yeah, in the specific context of this U.S. Senate race here in Georgia, the only debate that they’re scheduled to have is likely to be the most watched event of the whole campaign season, the number one thing that voters will be exposed to and would be affected by.

quote graphic that reads "the conventional wisdom with debates is that if you're the incumbent, you're ahead in the polling, and you're out-fundraising your opponent, you want to avoid debates like the plague."Now, to the question of would voters really be affected by the debate, there are a few things. One, the first rule for the debaters tends to be to commit no errors, because we can see, anecdotally, times through history when a candidate might have had everything going for them and then they have some big flub and they’re essentially out of the race. So the first rule is don’t make any mistakes. Don’t make any unforced errors, because the media is going to jump all over it and mock you. And it can be fodder for your opponents’ attack ads. 

Now, secondly, for the candidates themselves, their main goal ought to be crystallizing, mobilizing and incentivizing their own supporters, because that’s really the biggest impact that a debate is going to have. It’s not going to change hearts and minds, most likely. It’s not going to really impact the ability to reach across the aisle and win over unaffiliated voters. Really, who they should be speaking to are their supporters, folks who are already inclined to be voting for them. 

Now that’s really tough advice for a politician because, of course, politicians want everyone to love them. They want everyone on both sides of the aisle to see that they’re the most perfect human being ever. But, really the biggest effect you’re going to have is motivating your own base, your own supporters. 

Now, granted, there could be Republicans and Independents inclined to support Warnock. There could be Democrats and Independents inclined to support Herschel Walker. But, really, their chief goal has to be focusing on people who are already inclined to support them. 

Who is your base of support already? What did they want to hear you say? Research shows that you’re really not going to change hearts and minds. You may not even move the needle whatsoever, barring some unforeseen gaff or scandalous outburst. Really you have to stay laser focused on just crystallizing your own support.

Grady Research Radio: That’s interesting. So it’s mobilizing support. Is there a formula for the types of answers that candidates can give that mobilize all of their supporters? Because, you know, in some instances, one group of people may support you for X and another group of people may support you for Y. So, is there a formula that candidates follow that helps to mobilize voters in debates? 

David Clementson: Yeah. It’s a great question. There’s this theory in our line of work called Equivocation Theory. It goes way back to 1988, and the first paper on it, in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, was all about using equivocation, equivocal communication, in politics. The penultimate example of it was if you’re asked this no-win question, such as, do you support or oppose gun control. Now, that was their example of a no-win question back in 1988, and we see history repeating, because that’s probably the sort of question that they will be asked — a divisive, no-win question. 

Now, according to Equivocation Theory, this kind of divisive question places the politician in what they call an avoidance-avoidance conflict situation, whereby any direct answer is going to turn off a sizable segment of your voting population. If you say, “Yes I support gun control,” you’ve just kissed away, you know, law-abiding, gun-owning citizens of Georgia who love their firearms. If you say, “I oppose gun control,” then you could be asked about, “What about the latest school shooting” and other sorts of limitations on gun control. So, you just can’t win if you answer a divisive question. 

The way that you maneuver this kind of rhetorical minefield where you’ve got to appeal to 50 percent plus one of the voting electorate and you will be asked divisive questions, which will instantly offend large segments if you answer, is you equivocate. That’s the word for it. Equivocating, as defined in our social scientific and social psychological research, is to give a non-straightforward answer. You’re not going to give a direct answer. You’re not going to lie. You’re going to give an honest answer. But it’s going to skirt specifics. 

So, you’re going to talk about what you support as far as gun control measures. If you’re speaking as a big fan of the Second Amendment and an NRA member, you might talk about what you would consider common sense gun control measures that keep automatic rifles out of the hands of felons or mentally ill people. 

If you’re trying to talk about your support for gun control, you’ll focus on law-abiding citizens, but you have to equivocate. You have to give non-straightforward answers. I’ve done so much research into this very kind of thing, whether it’s in debates or just general media interviews. Equivocation is a brilliant maneuver for a strategic politician. It’s also referred to as strategic ambiguity.

It’s a brilliant maneuver if you’re good at it, and we’ll see if Herschel Walker is any good at it. This will be his first debate. Although, he has some experience giving interviews in the media.

But, yeah, that’s how you ride that fine line, by equivocating. And then, you magically can persuade diverse, opinionated segments of the electorate to think that what you said really spoke to them. It’s pretty cool. If done right, you’ll have people on polar opposites of a particular issue who think that you said things that, when you look later on the transcript, you didn’t actually say. It’s the power of equivocal communication.

Grady Research Radio: If that is done poorly, though, I do know that journalists, and voters in general, get on candidates for what many people refer to as dodging questions. But is that a smart approach for candidates? Does dodging questions ultimately have any negative impact on them in their debates? 

David Clementson: So this raises a fascinating paradox of political communication, media relations and debates. On the one hand, there’s this overriding axiomatic assumption of political discourse in which we assume politicians dodge questions all the time. Most people think that you can’t get a straight answer out of a straight question with politicians. There’s the joke, you know, how do you tell if a politician is lying? His lips are moving.

A quote graphic that reads, "What this means is, in order to efficiently get through our daily lives, we have to just believe each other. We can’t function if every time we’re told anything by anyone, anytime we’re exposed to any message, we stay in there and fold our arms and scrutinize whether it’s really the truth or not. We would never be able to get by."And, similarly, as far as not just telling bold-faced lies, but being unable to answer direct questions, always deflecting, always dodging, there is that perception. So if you ask people in a survey, you know, “How often do you think politicians dodge questions?” The respondents are going to overwhelmingly say a lot. Meanwhile, this is a paradox because, in experiments I’ve run that take it to the next level of looking at people’s ability to actually detect real world dodging of politicians, voters are really bad at. Voters are really bad at detecting deception from politicians. 

So, on the one hand, if you ask them in a survey, “Are politicians deceptive? Do they dodge questions?” the electorate will say, “Oh, yeah. All the time.” But if you don’t ask them in that kind of way, you just show them a debate or you show them a media interview and then you have them tell you what they thought of it, they’re likely not going to volunteer the opinion that they detected deception. They’re certainly going to be really bad at accurately detecting whether, in fact, the politician was was deceitful in their answers in a debate or a media interview. 

Now, a lot of that goes to what’s called a truth bias or truth default, in which humans, we have this innate tendency in our interactions with each other to assume we’re being told the truth. That’s called Truth Default Theory by Tim Levine at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. 

What this means is, in order to efficiently get through our daily lives, we have to just believe each other. We can’t function if every time we’re told anything by anyone, anytime we’re exposed to any message, we stay in there and fold our arms and scrutinize whether it’s really the truth or not. We would never be able to get by. You couldn’t ever have a second date with someone if you were scrutinizing the veracity of everything. 

So, voters, as I found in my own research, while we might say, “Oh, they’re going to be deceiving constantly, dodging all the questions, and they won’t give any answers in this debate,” in actuality, based on experiments I’ve run, the truth default will be in full effect during this Georgia Senate debate. Voters will be inclined to be receiving incoming information as being truthful. And my research has shown it even goes for partisan scenarios. 

A Democrat watching Herschel Walker, unless they have had their suspicion triggered for some reason, they’re going to be receptive to what Herschel Walker is saying and have to then scrutinize it later for its it’s veracity. The same applies for a Republican watching whatever Warnock is saying in the debate.

The truth default is pervasive. It’s robust. People are going to be defaulting to the truth. And, of course, that’s a weapon that politicians can wield in the debate. The politician can actually exploit voters’ truth default, which enables them to either just make up falsehoods or, more likely, to be able to deflect questions with relative ease.

Grady Research Radio: Great. So the truth default is interesting. We assume that these politicians are telling the truth when we’re watching them in live action. But, a lot of news organizations airing these debates try to fact check in real time, and afterwards as well. A lot of journalists, or just general people, will go in and do their own fact-checking of answers to the questions. So, does inaccuracy in responses damage perception of politicians in voters’ eyes?

David Clementson: Yeah, so there’s a ton of research on the effectiveness of fact checks. There have even been meta-analyzes of whether fact checks work and, if so, how. One of the results in fact check meta-analysis has been that the more politically attuned someone is, the less efficacy fact checks have. So, conversely, if you’re less knowledgeable and involved in politics, a fact check will have more effect on you. 

However, there’s that kind of catch 22 — if you’re uninvolved in politics and you’re not paying attention to politics or keeping up with the news, then are you really going to be exposed to a typical fact check, outside of a contrived artifactual research experiment?

So, fact check research is all over the place. Different findings. Different kinds of variables involved. 

Partisanship is just so strong that a fact-check can even backfire, and a politician can use it to their benefit — that the, you know, “Liberal media has fact checked me, called me a liar pants on fire, and hasn’t even fact checked my opponent a single time.” That kind of thing can actually work to your benefit, as we saw with Donald Trump.

So, the effect of fact checks, yeah, if they’re live during the debate, and people are watching their Twitter feeds instead of watching the debate and seeing what various fact-checking organizations are saying, it can play a role in crystallizing preconceptions. If you entered the debate already supporting one candidate, you’re probably going to then, you know, retweet fact checks that are encouraging to your side and dismiss cognitive dissonance of fact checks that are skewering your side.

Grady Research Radio: Earlier, we were talking about dodging questions. Some candidates throughout the country, and here in Georgia, have attempted to or successfully dodged debates entirely. So, my question is, are debates typically a net positive for candidates in terms of gaining voters, or is there a good reason for candidates to avoid them?

David Clementson: So the conventional wisdom with debates is that if you’re the incumbent, you’re ahead in the polling, and you’re out-fundraising your opponent, you want to avoid debates like the plague.

So, interestingly, Raphael Warnock, at this moment, checks off all those three boxes, right? He’s the incumbent. He’s running for reelection. He’s way out-fundraising his opponent, and he has a slight lead in the polls. So, the conventional wisdom would be that, in this kind of scenario, Warnock would not want to have any debates and would be avoiding them like the plague. 

Meanwhile, the candidate who has phenomenal name recognition and heroic status in the state but isn’t leading in the latest polls, is being outmatched in fundraising, and is the challenger, you’d think that he’d be wanting a hundred debates. He’d be calling on the incumbent, you know, to debate him every day and twice on Sunday. However, that’s flipped in this scenario. 

It’s on a case-by-case kind of basis. In the Arizona governor’s race, you have one candidate not wanting to debate so much. In the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, you have one candidate not wanting to debate so much and Dr. Oz wanting to have more debates. Meanwhile, here in Georgia, we’ve got Warnock wanting a bunch of debates, and meanwhile, Herschel Walker showed up to zero debates. I don’t think he even showed up to any town halls or candidate forums with other opponents during the Republican primary. So, he hasn’t been vetted so much. He hasn’t gotten the reps.

And so the conventional wisdom is, you want to avoid being in the debate if you have a lot more to lose and very little to gain. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, that’s flipped in this situation.

Grady Research Radio: There are other instances throughout the country where politicians have outwardly stated that they don’t want to debate their opponents because they are too different ideologically, or they are conspiracy theorists. They just think it would be impossible to reason with their opponent. So, my question is, if we are separating ideologically and we’re getting further and further apart, do you think that will contribute to a potential downfall of debates in the future, or do you see us continuing to use debates as a tool? 

David Clementson: Interesting. I hope that our love for debates doesn’t dissipate. But, yeah, I can see that. In the last presidential election, Biden and Trump only had two debates. Typically, they have three debates, and the vice president typically has one debate.

Here, in this general election for a nationally watched U.S. Senate race, they are only going to be having one debate.

Although, debates, in the grand scheme of things, in the history of political campaigns, they are a relatively new phenomenon.

There were the big, you know, 1960 debates with Kennedy and Nixon, and then there weren’t debates again for another like 15 years or something. I don’t remember exactly.

But, in recent memory, of course, we expect there to be debates, and it says something about our desire for good representative democracy. We want to see politicians up there having to answer questions spontaneously, off the cuff, straight from the heart, without other filters and handlers around them. And there’s something undemocratic about only giving scripted talking points in other settings instead of putting yourself up there for 45 minutes or 90 minutes for a debate. 

So, it certainly is a winning issue, in terms of an informed electorate, for politicians to consent to debates and to participate in debates.

You know, but Herschel Walker managed to win the Republican nomination easily against, I don’t know, four or five Republican primary opponents without having any debate whatsoever. He was hammered for that by his opponents and by the media, and he still obviously won the nomination nonetheless. He and his handlers did a cost benefit analysis and decided, you know, it’s not worth the potential upside to put yourself up there for a risky primary debate.

But this is Herschel Walker. He’s quite possibly the most famous person in Georgia. Just because something works for Herschel Walker in Georgia, certainly we can’t extend that to apply to other politicians.

And, yeah, with the polarization, as you mentioned in your question, the electorate is so polarized. We’re exposed to totally different viewpoints, depending on what we’re reading and what we’re watching. Partisan divisions are just so strong, with the two sides just hating each other’s guts and practically living in different worlds.

Maybe a time in the not too distant future could come where it’s just a waste of time to even have a debate because they’re talking over each other and they’re quoting statistics that the other side didn’t even know about because they were never exposed to that form of political discourse. 

Grady Research Radio: I wanted to go back to something you mentioned earlier and tie it into a different portion of this conversation. I, personally, am way more interested and more likely to tune in to primary debates, because that’s how I can separate candidates and actually make an informed decision about who in my party I would like to vote for. So, do candidates take a different approach to the primary debates than they would to the general election debates?

David Clementson: Yeah, so primary debates are more influential than general election debates. A primary debate really can have an effect on the electability and viability of a candidate, more so than a general election debate.

In the primary, the segment of the electorate that you’ve got to appeal to is far slimmer than in the general election, so candidates will tend to be more, I don’t know, inflammatory in throwing their red meat rhetoric to the base, right? Because they’ve got to set themselves apart from a bunch of other politicians who hold similar, if not identical, stances. 

Like in the primary debates that just took place here in Georgia, you had several races in which the opponents had nearly identical voting records. If you went through their voting records and looked at, you know, what they’d supported and opposed in the Senate or the House here in Atlanta, they were identical. So, they have to set themselves apart on other stuff. 

So, strategically, they’re going to be trying to come off as more impassioned or even more inflammatory, more divisive, throwing more red meat rhetoric to their base to set themselves apart. 

Then let’s say they win the nomination. They immediately pivot to trying to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, right? They’re going to moderate their stances to appeal to a more centrist segment. So, yes, strategically, they’re going to pivot to the general to try to appeal to more people. 

Grady Research Radio: Great. Well, thank you for your time today. 

David Clementson: My pleasure. Thank you.

Podcast: Exploring Grady College’s Qualitative Research Lab

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Recently, the Grady Research Radio podcast had the pleasure of featuring Dr. Karin Assmann, an assistant professor in the Journalism Department at Grady College, a former U.S. correspondent for Spiegel TV, and the director of the Qualitative Research Lab. The lab is for both graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in qualitative research, which, in very simple terms, involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data.

In this interview, Dr. Assmann explains what goes on in her lab, speaks about recent studies conducted in the lab, and offers insight into how those interested can get involved. 

Below is a transcription of the episode, edited for clarity and brevity. 

A quote graphic that reads "I'm really excited about this lab. I hope to attract and support students who are also interested in doing qualitative research and provide them with resources through this space." Grady College: What is qualitative research?

Karin Assmann: So, qualitative research looks at performances and practices of human communication. The data that we work with is from interviews that we conduct, or focus groups, participant observations, ethnographies, documents and case studies.

For example, in a study I conducted with master’s student William Newlin, we looked at Fox News’s Sean Hannity’s media bashing during the weeks before and after presidential and midterm elections. So that means we obtain video and transcripts and searched for themes. The Qualitative Research Lab has a computer with really powerful qualitative data analysis software that we use to do that work.

The qualitative part, it doesn’t mean it’s higher quality. It just means the kind of data that we collect and the methods and the theoretical approaches we use are different than, for example, people using survey data.

Grady College: The Qualitative Research Lab is still very new, having started in Spring of 2022. At this point, most of the research coming out of the lab has been focused on news deserts in rural Georgia. Dr. Assmann goes on to explain.  

Karin Assmann: I’ve had Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) students — students who are undergraduates who want to pursue research — do interviews with people in rural communities here in Georgia, asking them about their news and information needs and habits.

They would conduct these interviews, either in person or via phone or Zoom, and then download the audio files, import them, transcribe them and then analyze them to determine how people talk about the way they consume information or pursue information. 

Grady College: Has the research conducted in this lab yet influenced anything outside the walls of Grady College? 

Karin Assmann: I certainly hope that we’ve influenced some of the people who have seen our presentations. The CURO students, they presented during the symposium. I’m still finishing one of those papers, and I hope to turn that project, which is about rural Georgia, specifically one county in Georgia, into a pilot project that would help rural communities figure out how to better fulfill those information needs, given the fact that they may not have a local newspaper at all.

Grady College: While news desert research has been the primary focus so far, Dr. Assmann makes it clear that the Qualitative Research Lab is open to any kind of research that uses interview data or other non-quantitative data. 

Karin Assmann teaches in front of her class.
Karin Assmann instructs her students on the first day of fall semester classes 2022. (Photo: Jackson Schroeder)

Karin Assmann: I’m hoping that this new cohort of master’s students will take the opportunity to come in here and do guided research with me. We’ll have the right kind of software that they need to answer some of the research questions that they might have.

We started this last semester, and I have to thank Dr. Janice Hume and Dr. Charles Davis, our dean, who gave the okay for this. I was asking for funding from our Department for every new student who wanted to do it and who needed a license for this software. It’s called MAXQDA, by the way. It was adding up. It was getting so expensive, I thought, why not create a lab where we have everything we need. Anybody can come in here with the data on their hard drive and use what we have. 

I also wanted to create a space where we can actually talk through some of these things. That’s one of the other things that qualitative research is. It’s really figuring out the meaning of human beings’ expressions. Often, you don’t really discover themes or the meaning of things when you’re sitting alone at home. So, it’s great to have a team that you can sit around with and brainstorm directions that you could go in. That’s the kind of space that I wanted to create here.

Grady College: Dr. Assmann’s path to academia started as a professional journalist. She was the correspondent for a German news station called Spiegel TV, based in Washington. 

Karin Assmann: I worked for print and radio, and I’ve been a producer, reporter and correspondent for television. As the industry evolved, I became more interested in finding answers to questions about the news media industry, like about journalists’ work conditions and practices and about how newsrooms worked. Of course, this was in part because I was working in a newsroom and wondering what was happening all around me. 

My dissertation looked at how the demands of audience engagement labor affected journalists. For that, I interviewed 150 journalists and audience engagement editors and strategies. I also spent about two months in various newsrooms documenting work routines. There I found that my methodology of choice, of course, has always been qualitative.

That’s why I’m really excited about this lab, because I hope to attract and support students who are also interested in doing this kind of research and provide them with resources through this space, hopefully resulting in some conference presentations and journal publications. 

I’m also the incoming head of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s (AEJMC) Culture and Critical Studies Division, which is traditionally a division that’s partial to qualitative research and one that’s really welcoming and supportive of grad students. 

Grady College: How can those who are interested in working in the Qualitative Research Lab get in touch with you? 

Karin Assmann: If you’re interested in working with me in this lab, just contact me. My email is KBA@uga.edu. Stop by my office. Just reach out to me and talk to me about what your research interest is and see if it aligns with the kind of work that we do here. And then we’ll take it from there. 

Podcast: Exploring Grady College’s Brain, Body and Media (BBAM) Lab

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Photo of participant having wires put on his head to detect his responses to media and messages in the BBAM Lab.
The BBAM Lab supports research investigating cognitive and emotional processing of audio and visual media. (Photo: Submitted)

Founded in 2020 and located on the fifth floor of Grady College, the Brain, Body and Media (BBAM) Lab supports research that examines psychophysiological responses to media and messages. In the lab, researchers can attach sensors to subjects to track how they respond to audio and visual stimuli. 

Many of the studies conducted in the lab monitor participants by using electrodes that measure activity in the heart, movement of facial muscles on the forehead or around the eyes, and electrodermal activity, or sweat glands, on the hands. The lab also uses electroencephalography (EEG) that measures brain wave activity. 

To further explore what happens in Grady’s BBAM Lab, check in on some of the recent projects, and inquire about how others can get involved, the Grady Research Radio podcast interviewed Dr. Glenna Read, an assistant professor in Advertising and the director of the BBAM Lab. 

Below is a transcription of the podcast, edited for clarity and brevity.

Grady College: What goes on in the BBAM Lab? 

A quote graphic that reads "We look at how the brain and body respond to mediated messages. That can be ads. That can be video games, news stories, etc." Glenna Read: A lot goes on in here. We conduct research, mainly using psychophysiological and neuroscientific measures. So, like the name of the lab implies, we look at how the brain and the body respond to mediated messages. That can be ads. That can be video games, news stories, etc.

Grady College: The lab has been used to answer a lot of questions — too many for Dr. Read to list off. Recently, the lab was used to evaluate how people respond to the correction of misinformation, corporate advocacy advertising, and different forms of COVID-19 vaccine appeals. 

Glenna Read: One of our most recent projects is looking at COVID-19 vaccine appeals and their impact on college students. This was a collaboration with Dr. Bartosz Wojdynski, Dr. Hye Jin Yoon and the graduate and undergraduate students working in the BBAM Lab. 

We were looking at three different types of message appeals, including appeals that describe societal benefits of vaccination, individual benefits of getting vaccinated, and humorous appeals, which are funny appeals about vaccinations. We found that societal benefits and humorous appeals were most successful with college students in terms of self report. So, they said, “We like these appeals. We find them more positive. We find them less negative.”

But, I think the really interesting finding was revealed by the psychophysiological measures. We looked at attention over time to each of these messages, and we found that, of the three appeal types, our participants paid the most attention to the humorous appeals. So, taken together, societal benefits and humorous appeals are both going to be effective in terms of how much people like them. But, our college students will pay more attention to the humorous appeals and then the other two. 

Grady College: What is all of this equipment? What exactly is it used for?

Glenna Read: So, it really varies. We have a bunch of different tools in the lab. But, the ones that we use the most are what we call our peripheral psychophysiological measures, and these are the measures that assess what’s happening in the body. 

There are three primary measures that we use. Our electrodermal activity measure is our sweat response, and it measures arousal. So, if somebody gets emotionally excited, they’ll start sweating, or the properties of their skin will change and that indicates to us arousal. 

We also look at electrocardiography, which we turn to heart rate. So, this is the activity of the heart. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but when you’re watching a mediated message, when you’re looking at a video or something like that, a lower heart rate is actually associated with more attention to that message because this is indicating to us that our participant can relax and take in external information.

Finally, we use facial electromyography. This is a measure of the activity of the muscles in the face that are associated with emotion. So, for example, if I furrow my brow in anger or frustration, I activate a muscle called the corrugator supercilii, and this muscle is indicative of negative affect. 

So, we can tap into these three emotional and cognitive processes: attention, or cognitive resource allocation, arousal, or emotional intensity, and emotional valence, which is positive or negative feelings.

Grady College: How did the BBAM Lab start? 

Glenna Read: I started this lab when I came to UGA. I was very lucky to have support from the College, from the AdPR Department and from UGA to be able to establish this lab. 

This, this is what I do. This is my passion. I’ve worked in a lot of different labs. I’ve set up labs. This is the first time that I’ve been able to build a lab from the ground up. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do and was really fortunate to be able to do at UGA.

Grady College: Who can get involved and how can they go about doing that?

Glenna Read: Well, we currently have both graduate students and undergraduate students working in the lab. I would encourage anybody who is interested in research or is interested in psychophysiology in particular to ask about getting involved with the lab. 

We welcome researchers with different experience levels. We welcome researchers with different interests. We have folks who are interested in going into research. We have folks who are interested in transitioning their skills to the industry. These skills that you pick up in the BBAM lab can be helpful in both ways, in terms of the networks that we’ve built within academia and beyond. 

We’re looking in particular for students who are conscientious, pay attention to detail and are good working with teams, because we’re a big team. We have 12 of us, including myself, in the BBAM Lab right now, and we all work and collaborate on each other’s projects.

If you are interested in joining the lab as an undergraduate or graduate research assistant, email Dr. Read to set up an appointment to discuss becoming involved in the BBAM Lab.

Podcast: How Grady College will approach being one of nation’s first solutions journalism hubs

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At the beginning of August, the Solutions Journalism Network named Grady College one of the nation’s first solutions journalism hubs, a designation given to only three other colleges in the United States. In this role, Grady College’s Department of Journalism will be tasked with continuing to serve as an incubator for creativity, innovation and research in solutions journalism and function as a resource for students and professionals in the region who are interested in the field.

To further unpack what this designation means, solutions journalism experts Dr. Amanda Bright, director of the Cox Institute Journalism Innovation Lab, Dr. Kyser Lough, an assistant professor in Journalism, and Ralitsa Vassileva, a lecturer in Journalism, were recently interviewed as a part of Grady College’s Grady Research Radio podcast

Below is a transcription of the podcast, edited for clarity and brevity. 

Grady College: What is solutions journalism, and why is there a need for it? A quote from Kyser Lough about the definition of solutions journalism.

Kyser Lough: Well, solutions journalism is a method of reporting where the reporter goes out and, instead of just reporting on the problems communities are facing, they also look for what people are doing about it. 

It’s not advocacy. It’s not opinion journalism. The journalist is not creating the solution. They are simply using their same set of journalistic skills and tools to go out and report on what’s being done in response to a problem. 

It was kind of born out of this idea that we sometimes focus too much on problems. I mean, it’s good. We have to uncover and thoroughly define the problems a community is facing. That’s a very important purpose of journalism. But if we only focus on that, then all we’re showing our readers is that, you know, it’s just doom and gloom all the time, and we know that’s not true. We know there are people out there trying to address these problems. So why aren’t we reporting on that, too?

A lot of people just call it just good journalism. I think putting a name on it was important to help really define what it is, but at the end of the day, it’s something a lot of journalists have been doing. It’s just that we feel a lot of folks haven’t been doing it enough.

Grady College: Amanda Bright explained that solutions journalism entered the curricula at the college roughly four years ago as a very small piece of the capstone undergraduate reporting classes in journalism. Since then, though, solutions journalism has become a part of every undergraduate capstone class. At this point, every journalism student at Grady College leaves with knowledge in some practical application of solutions journalism. 

Many student-made solutions journalism pieces are available online at Gradynewsource.uga.edu. While looking through some of those pieces, I noticed that they are far from your standard text-based news stories. The students who make the pieces often weave in both audio and visual components. So, I asked Ralitsa Vassileva about teaching multimedia solutions journalism storytelling in her classes. 

Four students and two faculty pose for a picture in Utah in front of a grove of trees with a mountain in the background.
Kyser Lough and Ralitsa Vassileva (second from right) took a small group of students to the Journalism Solutions Summit in Utah.

Ralitsa Vassileva: In my sustainability multiplatform class, I required students to use four different media platforms to tell (a solutions journalism story) besides text. It could be video. It could be audio. It could be graphics. Whatever the story requires. While for my broadcast students, I challenge them at the end of the semester to produce short videos of a solution story, again, sticking to those principles of solutions journalism for rigorous reporting, which is not easy in a minute and a half to two minutes. But with the growing importance of short videos, this is a very effective way to reach audiences.

Grady College: What does this designation, being named a solutions journalism hub, mean? 

Amanda Bright: You know, we’re still trying to figure some of that out. Our four hub schools, we’ve had lots of conversations already about what that’s going to look like on each of our university campuses and what it’s gonna look like in our regions, because we’re really representing the Southeast. 

I think a lot of that is coming to fruition as it develops, but our goal is to be a place of teaching, training, learning and resource for our geographic area. We have several faculty members who are passionate about this. We have been practicing it for a while now, so we’ve learned some things. 

We want to bring in students who want to do this kind of work, researchers who want to do this kind of work, and industry partners and news organizations that want to do this and try to marshal those resources to grow what solutions journalism is and what it means for communities.

Grady College: What does this designation mean in terms of advancing solutions journalism research? What opportunities are there for collaboration with students and professional journalists in the region who are interested in this research? 

Kyser Lough: For me, the designation means a lot when it comes to research, because it further legitimizes what we’re doing here.

It can be difficult, as a scholar, to reach out to journalists and ask them, “Hey, can I interview you and (confidentially) ask you, you know, some of these complicated questions about the work you do.” Even just getting a response can be difficult. 

Or, if we want to partner with a newsroom, sometimes it’s not enough just to be somebody at the University of Georgia. They’re skeptical about what participating in this research means. Being able to come at it from, you know, “We’re from the solutions journalism hub. This is what we study. This is what we do,” I think that’s going to add a lot of oomf in our research and any grant applications that we’re doing. It’s important just in getting the visibility out there that this is a legitimate site of study. We’re a place where people who have questions can come to. If they are an editor of a newsroom and they want to know if this is having any impact, they can come to us and we can look at surveys, focus groups and other ways to assess what’s going on in their newsroom when it comes to solutions journalism and the audience.

I have several studies that I’m currently working on that I’m always excited to have other people come on board with. I’m also excited to have people come pitch an idea, and we’ll talk about the potential. 

Students who are interested can come to our Master’s program or our PhD program, and they can incorporate that into their studies. We can talk about independent study. We could also work that into their actual program of work for their thesis or dissertation. 

There are so many different ways you can take this and apply it, especially to different reporting topics, which is another thing that we’ve been hoping to expand on in the research. How does this play out in health reporting? How does this play out in education reporting, where you’re constantly hearing that either a school has super high scores or super low scores. We never really hear about what schools are doing to try and address those issues.

There’s lots of different topics we can apply it to. Somebody doesn’t have to come here and be a solutions scholar. They can come here being very interested in political coverage. As part of that, we look at solutions journalism and how that can apply to that specific topic.

Grady College: The experts included in this interview want to hear from you, the current and future students, educators and industry professionals in the region. Their contact information is listed below.

Amanda Bright: Amanda.Bright@uga.edu

Kyser Lough: KyserL@uga.edu

Ralitsa Vassileva: Ralitsa.Vassileva@uga.edu