For many, watching television is a part of daily life, and those clips that show up on screens can begin to leave a lasting impression. Television shows’ portrayals of different people and groups, even in subtle ways, can influence the way individuals and cultures are perceived.
Understanding this, Dr. Laurena Bernabo, an assistant professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies, uses television as a lens to look into issues surrounding race, gender and sexuality. She studies how these issues are being communicated to the public and used as entertainment to make sense of changing social relations. She also studies public responses to these portrayals.
In this episode, Dr. Bernabo dives into some of her research, including a past project, for which she spent time in Mexico City observing how those working on the Spanish language broadcast of “Glee” dubbed over the voices, and her more recent work, which focuses on public response to depictions of single fathers on television.
Listen to the podcast on Anchor, or your preferred audio streaming platform, by clicking here or following the links above.
The early stages of the pandemic created a breeding ground for COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which, on Twitter, spread almost as fast as the virus itself. But out of the pandemic’s most prominent early conspiracies, which were shared the most and why?
To find out, a team of researchers, led by Itai Himelboim, the Thomas C. Dowden Professor of Media Analytics at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, collected nearly 400,000 tweets sent between Jan. 19, 2020, to June 30, 2020, about COVID-19 conspiracy theories surrounding Bill Gates, QAnon, the vaccine, 5G networks and Agenda 21. They then analyzed the content of the webpages shared in the tweets.
The most tweeted about COVID-19 conspiracy theories
The overwhelming majority, roughly 87 percent, of webpages linked in tweets and retweets centered on the conspiracy theory surrounding Bill Gates, a villain-based conspiracy theory blaming Gates for creating the virus and financially benefiting from the pandemic. Following Gates, in order of most to least tweeted about, were QAnon, 5G networks, the vaccine and Agenda 21.
“Looking for who to blame for the pandemic was a major motivator in the early stages of the pandemic-related conspiracy theories, illustrated by the Bill Gates-related theory being the most popular,” Himelboim explained.
Not only were the Bill Gates-related conspiracy theory webpages the most popular in terms of being shared on Twitter, but there were also the most of them. Tweets related to the Bill Gates conspiracy linked back to 144 different webpages, while there were only 67 unique webpages associated with the conspiracy claiming 5G networks contributed to the pandemic and 79 unique webpages associated with conspiracies surrounding the vaccine, for example.
“I was surprised by the prevalence of COVID-19 vaccination in conspiracy theories,” Himelboim explained. “In the first six months of the pandemic in the United States, which is what the study focused on, not only were vaccines not available, but they were also only in the very early stages of development.”
Persuasion strategies used to support the conspiracies
The researchers also sought to understand the different types of content, or persuasion strategies, being used to support each conspiracy theory. Overall, the majority of sources were sharing information that simply implied the theories were true. Although, more established conspiracy theories, such as those involving Agenda 21 and QAnon, focused less on supporting “belief” than some of the newer or lesser-known conspiracies.
For example, just above 22 percent of the sources related to the Agenda 21 conspiracy, which claims that the United Nations and governments around the world are colluding to wipe out 90 percent of the global population, feature content highlighting the malicious purposes of those claimed to be behind the COVID-19 virus. Likewise, the majority, roughly 30 percent, of COVID-19 conspiracy theory webpages related to QAnon featured content that zeroed in on who the specific conspirators are.
Understanding the makeup of different conspiracy theories and what type of content is more likely to resonate can be very helpful when addressing such theories, explained Himelboim. However, the researchers found few examples of specific types of content predicting higher engagement, such as retweets.
Only content explaining the “malicious purposes” behind a specific conspiracy, such as suggesting conspirators are making money off of the virus, and content highlighting the “secretive actions” the conspirators take were directly correlated with predicting higher engagement.
Brands and organizations want to attract consumers and gain their trust. Accomplishing both of these tasks, though, is no easy feat. Two factors that greatly impact the attractiveness of advertisements and consumer trust are the personalization of advertisements — adding names and images to ads, for example — and disclosing if and how an advertisement, whether its an image, video or user review, may be manipulated or influenced by a brand.
In this episode, Dr. Alexander Pfeuffer, an assistant professor of advertising in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College, speaks about his research addressing those very topics.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for clarity and brevity.
Grady Research Radio: To start, I want to ask you a little bit about your recent research work. I know you recently worked on a study for the Journal of Interactive Advertising that evaluated the effectiveness of personalized recruitment ads. Can you walk me through that study — what you were seeking to learn and what you found?
Alexander Pfeuffer: Yes. So this is a study that was led by Jean Pfiffelmann at EM Strasbourg Business School. The study aimed to address the challenge of organizations recruiting new talent to replace retiring workers.
We have globalization, technological change and all of that shaping the job market. So organizations sometimes find themselves in the position of, you know, having skill shortages. The study wanted to see whether advertising could help organizations meet that challenge.
We looked at personalization as one potential strategy, and that means including personal identifiable information in the ads. We looked at literature on personalization that was out there. We saw that recruitment advertising had rarely been examined and that the insights there are on personalized product, service or commercial advertising in general may not easily translate into the recruitment advertising context.
What we found was actually pretty cool. In the recruitment ad context, we found that personalization could be beneficial to organizations. When an organization addresses potential employees on social media by using both their image and name, they feel treated more considerately. They perceive that organization as more attractive, and they were much more likely to subsequently want to pursue that job or to click on the ad and learn more about the organization. That strategy worked specifically for individuals who perceived the message as less relevant to them on the outset.
Grady Research Radio: Great. So were those the results that you expected to find in your hypothesis for this study, or were you surprised by those results in any way?
Alexander Pfeuffer: I think from the existing literature, we thought that maybe using a name of a person was enough personalization. We thought that using images might be perceived as being too intrusive.
But we saw that using just the name actually was not effective. I don’t know if that has to do with the context of it being recruitment ads or if it has to do with, you know — personalized names have been used a lot in email marketing and in commercial ads. Maybe the effects of that, which have previously shown to be effective, may no longer be novel and may no longer exert that effect.
So we saw that it really took the name and the image of that person to have that effect. And it needs to be someone who wasn’t really that involved with a message to begin with.
Grady Research Radio: Backing up a little bit, can you give a more holistic introduction to your research — what the majority of it focuses on?
Alexander Pfeuffer: My research focuses on digital advertising effects, broadly. I look at that through a lens of consumer protection and empowerment, and I explore effects that focus on theories of persuasion and the construct of trust.
So the majority of my research has focused on approaches of ensuring that consumers are informed about the persuasive nature of their content and how that empowerment influences advertising effects.
Grady Research Radio: Great. So, reading through a little bit of your research, I noticed there seems to be this overlying trend that transparency is often a good idea for marketers in terms of boosting consumer trust. So, is this true? Can you explain where it is true and why that might be?
Alexander Pfeuffer: I’ve looked at a variety of disclosure messages that aim at making sure that consumers are informed. Originally, I started looking at that in the sponsorship disclosure context, and I found that consumer responses to those disclosures were nuanced.
So, in terms of the effects that we see, it matters what type of sponsorship was entered — what sort of deal was entered and was disclosed. We saw that, for sponsorship, consumers were much more likely to accept a message that was sponsored by the reviewer receiving a free product, as opposed to receiving payments or a commission.
I think the interesting bit was that we saw that the free product sponsorship was statistically equivalent to a review that ostensibly was not sponsored and didn’t have a disclosure at all.
Grady Research Radio: Okay, great. So this might be asking you to speculate slightly, but are there any instances where a marketer or brand can be too transparent — where transparency can hurt them or their brand?
Alexander Pfeuffer: In the context of my research, we’ve seen that being more forthcoming was of benefit to brands. So, giving that additional information instead of just a general disclosure was more accepted by consumers.
(Consumers) are actually somewhat cynical or suspicious of more general disclosures that simply thank the brand for making something possible, versus saying specifically what they received in return.
Grady Research Radio: In that regard, do you believe that this is a trend that will continue? Will consumers continue or increasingly want to see specifics in disclosure messages, rather than the general disclosure messages such as, as you mentioned, thanking a brand for making something possible.
Alexander Pfeuffer: I think it’s a trend that we’ll see in different contexts as well. I’ve expanded my research to looking into disclosures in the context of image manipulation. So we’re seeing that there are certain countries that are already putting requirements in place that photoshopping would need to be disclosed.
We actually just presented a study at an international advertising conference in Europe, in Prague, that focused specifically on that. In that case, we were less concerned with, you know, how that would affect the effectiveness of the ad and more interested in, can we mitigate potentially harmful effects of image manipulation, which has been linked to issues of mental health and negatively affecting beauty standards.
We saw that those disclosures, and specifically if they are more detailed, through different mechanisms, have the potential to reduce some of those negative effects, particularly in terms of the extent to which we compare our own bodies to maybe unrealistic depictions of human proportions that are often depicted in those social media posts.
Grady Research Radio: Following up on that — if governments start to mandate that you have to disclose the information that this image has been manipulated, do you think that image manipulation will continue at the same rate that it might be at right now?
Alexander Pfeuffer: I will have to speculate. I don’t have the data on that. But those limitations apply to sponsored content specifically. We also saw that those disclosures had some negative effects on how consumers perceived brands and also content creators.
So, I would think that it could be beneficial to brands to have less retouched images. We’ve seen brands already trying to show more realistic depictions in their ads, even outside of the social media space.
Grady Research Radio: Now moving forward — what’s next for your research? Is there anything that you’re working on right now or in the near future that you’re particularly excited about?
Alexander Pfeuffer: Yeah, so as an extension of the research that I just talked about with image retouching, we’re also looking at CGI influencers and how disclosing to consumers that an influencer that they’re seeing is actually computer-generated might affect how they perceive the brand, how they perceive that content creator, and how much they would be willing to rely on that information.
So that’s research that’s going on right now. I’m working on that together with Haley Hatfield and Jooyoung Kim, and Nate Evans was also part of the image retouching project. We’re going to be presenting that at the American Academy of Advertising conference in Denver next March.
And then another thing going on is — so one of my research lines has been striving to apply marketing principles and my interest in trust in the context of health and sustainability. So, an ongoing project right now, which was actually funded by the American Academy of Advertising and also by the Coleman Group, which is a consulting firm in Atlanta, looks at the role of trust in social media content about the Covid-19 vaccine.
Essentially, we’ve seen a lot of content come out, be it from institutions and organizations, but also from fellow social media users about their personal accounts and personal experiences with (the Covid-19 vaccine).
We’re interested in seeing, what are the content attributes? So — what are specific aspects of the content that would let audiences generate an initial level of trust so that in a polarizing context we can get to a point where we have a base level of trust so we can engage with the information rather than outright rejecting it before evaluating it in the first place.
Grady Research Radio: Great. Well, thank you for joining today.
Alexander Pfeuffer: Thank you so much for having me.
With the Dec. 6 Senate runoff election in Georgia soon approaching, the Grady Research Radio podcast brought back Dr. David Clementson, an assistant professor in Public Relations at Grady College and a political communication researcher, to discuss the communication strategies of Sen. Raphael Warnock and his Republican challenger Herschel Walker heading into the election.
Below is a transcription of the episode, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
Grady Research Radio: So what does a runoff mean for both of these candidates, Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock? Are either of them feeling particularly happy about it?
David Clementson: I bet neither of them is feeling particularly happy about having to do it all for another month, with the more fundraising and the more attack ads, interviews and invitations to debate. Either one of them would have rather won on Election Day.
You could go any number of ways speculating about Herschel. On the one hand, the libertarian was also on the ballot for the general election, and he probably siphoned off some of Herschel’s support that could have potentially put him over the majority margin.
And there’s all kinds of speculation, as now we see that, regardless of who wins this Georgia seat, the Democrats will retain the majority in the U.S. Senate. That could depress turnout among Republicans who would have been motivated to get Herschel that majority for the Republicans in the Senate.
Or it could benefit Herschel if, let’s say, people had some trepidation about his lack of political experience and were hesitant about wanting him to be a U.S. Senator. Maybe now it’s not as big a deal, if he’s going to be in the minority in the U.S. Senate anyway.
So, yeah, it’s another another month of election torture for everybody.
Grady Research Radio: In just about every one of Warnock’s comms efforts, from his ads to his public addresses and speeches, he continues to question Herschel Walker’s credibility. I know that you’ve done a lot of studies about factors that impede or bolster a politician’s credibility. So where does Walker currently stand in terms of his perceived credibility, and does that even really matter?
David Clementson: Yeah, Warnock has been hammering away, laser-focused on lack of credibility of his opponent, which is pretty typical for politicians to try to pull on each other in campaigns. But Warnock has been really good about staying disciplined and on message, chipping away at the perceived trustworthiness of Herschel Walker.
He’s run ads specifically attacking Herschel for not answering reporters’ questions, running away from reporters, which is, as you said, my key focus in my research. I find this just brilliant strategically to hammer away at the credibility of your opponent, especially in terms of trying to deflect questions from the media and not wanting to be questioned about stuff in debates, press conferences and media interviews.
Herschel seems kind of scattershot with his messaging. A lot of elements are to his benefit as the challenger. He hasn’t been part of the system in which you’ve got inflation, crime, recession and an unpopular Democratic president in the White House. All these factors are just huge to be benefiting the challenger Republican. Yet, we don’t see as much discipline from Herschel in determining the exact issues to hone in on.
Now, in their debate, as in a lot of debates, you go back and forth with politicians calling each other liars. Really, any given day in the news as they’re attacking each other, they’re accusing each other of being liars, and that is the kind of research that I do — looking at the effects of politicians having their veracity impugned.
I know, from experiments that I’ve run, that if a journalist accuses a politician of being deceptively evasive, voters believe the journalist, and it doesn’t matter if the journalist’s allegation is accurate or not. People will still believe the journalist. And this is surprising, of course, when you’ve got surveys, polls out there saying that the public doesn’t trust the media.
But when we move away from self-reported polls and surveys to experiments, where people aren’t being prompted to be suspicious of the media, we see that people tend to believe the media.
So, if Herschel is being accused of being evasive and deceptive, even if he’s not, people will still tend to believe the charge, especially if it’s coming from a reporter. They might be slightly more skeptical of obviously the Democratic opponent who’s motivated in the zero-sum game to tear down Herschel.
It’s a smart strategy of Warnock to present these ads showing, “It’s not just me saying it. Look at what other media are saying.”
Grady Research Radio: I follow the logic that if you say someone is dodging a question people are inclined to believe that. But is that really a big deal? Does it really affect people?
David Clementson: Right. I’ve run some experiments showing just what happens in someone’s cognitive processing when there is an allegation of evasion.
I’ve run experiments that show that if people think a politician is trying to keep them from thinking about something, that triggers rumination. All this research in cognitive and social psychology describes the detriments of obsessing over something.
So, if Herschel was asked about his stance on X issue, and he didn’t want you to think about it, he tried to deflect that question, that can very well cause rumination in voters’ minds. It causes them to obsess over it and to want an answer even more.
So, when Warnock is out there telling people, “Look, a reporter asked Herschel about this ex-girlfriend or this child or abortion and he wouldn’t answer the question,” that triggers rumination, which then plays this key role in depressing the trustworthiness in the candidate.
Grady Research Radio: Speaking a little bit more about how Warnock is accusing Walker of dodging questions, do you believe that has the power to flip any votes or motivate a higher voter turnout?
David Clementson: I think it can definitely depress turnout, and it can proverbially splash on other things. By accusing Herschel Walker of being deceptive and dishonest, not answering questions, running away from reporters and not wanting to debate, you are not just imputing his integrity, his character, but questioning his trustworthiness entirely, which can then splash on everything else. If you can’t be trusted, then what else matters? Why would you vote for somebody if you can’t trust them, if you can’t take their word for it?
So, yeah, I can see it having a depressing effect on turnout, demoralizing the base, which is why Herschel would need to be getting out in front of that more, being more forceful in defending against it.
Grady Research Radio: This is semi-speculative, as is a lot of this, but the libertarian candidate received roughly 2 percent of the vote. Do you foresee those 2 percent of voters being motivated to come out to vote in the runoff?
David Clementson: Given that they were inclined to not vote for either Herschel or Warnock, you would think, well if they weren’t motivated in the general election when they were already going to be turning out, why would they turn out a month later in a runoff when Herschel and Warnock are the only ones on that ballot?
But, at the same time, they’re libertarians, who are conservatives — even more extreme than conservative Republicans. You have Herschel wanting limited government and libertarians wanting no government. So they’re going to be siding ideologically with Herschel Walker.
Whether they’re going to be motivated to turn out, I mean, that’s a crucial 2 percent. Even the libertarian said during the campaign that he knew he was being a spoiler. He knew he wasn’t going to win, but he at least wanted to be on the ballot and motivate a runoff.
So Herschel could be focusing on those kinds of folks, hammering his own conservative ideology to keep them motivated. And we see a lot of ads from Warnock reminding his supporters that the race was really close, no one got 50 percent, we’ve got to bring this over the finish line. I haven’t seen those kinds of ads from Herschel.
Grady Research Radio: What do you believe is Walker’s best approach going into the runoff?
David Clementson: Going back to what we were talking about — his veracity, his trustworthiness being impugned — I think he needs to fight fire with fire and refute these allegations that he’s being deceptive. I think he should also be honing in more on a message.
Now, you could say Warnock doesn’t really have a message either. He’s just attacking the opponent. But, if Herschel wants to do the same thing and fight fire with fire, he should be more laser focused on that. He could be turning around the same kind of accusations against Warnock, because there are certainly clips out there of instances where Warnock would dodge questions in press gaggles and debates also.
Grady Research Radio: Based on your studies, why do you believe that refuting is a good tactic for candidates?
David Clementson: I’ve run experiments on this very thing. This series of experiments that I’ve run have shown that a politician absolutely has to refute an allegation of deception lodged against him.
But my experiments show that it’s not just about the verbal communication of refuting, like saying, “No, I did answer that question. You’re falsely accusing me.” You’ve also got to have a believable demeanor at the same time, which really gets us into some deep behavioral scientific research.
And Warnock, we see, is good about modifying his nonverbal behavioral impressions in the face of charges that are lodged against him. I think Herschel is pretty good too. We saw instances in the debate where Herschel was really good at keeping his demeanor together.
The words really don’t matter as much as having a believable demeanor. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it will carry more weight in regards to voters believing what you’re saying.
Grady Research Radio: We spoke about this a little bit at the beginning, but what do you anticipate voter turnout looking like for this runoff election? And do you believe the runoff will benefit one candidate over the other?
David Clementson: Well there are a few factors here. One is that if the majority in the U.S. Senate hinged on this election, then people all over the country — practically all over the world — would be parachuting in. It’d be even more of a circus than it is right now if all of Congress rested on who wins this race. Turnout would have been just off the charts.
Fortunately for those of us who want some veritable peace in our lives, it’s not that way. So, ironically, the candidates are really having to bolster turnout themselves with the kinds of messaging and events that they’re doing and media outreach.
Now to your second part of the question — simply because the general election midterm had the libertarian spoiler on the ballot, siphoning off conservative voters, you’ve got to think it would benefit Herschel to get another shot at it without the libertarian on the ballot mudding things. But, yeah, we’ll see.
Grady Research Radio: Thank you for joining us today.
The current media landscape is full of unreliable and deceptive information, through deep fakes, click bait, conspiracies and more. With advancements in technology and the sheer amount of information out there, discerning between what is real and fake has perhaps never been more challenging.
To learn more about the program, including what courses are offered, what students gain, and how to get started, the Grady Research Radio podcast sat down with Dr. Keith Herndon, the executive director of the Cox Institute, the William S. Morris Chair in News Strategy and Management and director of the Cox Institute’s Certificate in News Literacy, and Charlotte Norsworthy, a part-time instructor at Grady College, the editorial director of The Red & Black, and the program coordinator for the Certificate in News Literacy.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
Grady Research Radio: Can you tell me what your roles are with the certificate program?
Keith Herndon: I am the executive director of the Cox Institute, and the certificate is an initiative of the Cox Institute. Specifically, as it relates to the certificate, I’m the director of the certificate.
Charlotte Norsworthy: And I’m the program coordinator. I help on the logistical side of things, making sure that students are enrolling properly, making it through the certificate, and being granted that certification at the end of the program. I’m also a part-time instructor at the university.
Grady Research Radio: Okay, great. Can you give me background on the certificate — its origins and why you determined there was a need to establish this certificate?
Keith Herndon: Well, I think that I started to sense a need for the certificate through some of the interactions I was having with students in the intro class, which we call JOUR 3030. The full title is Media News and Consumers. That course is open to any major on campus. We have a wide range of students in that class, ranging from finance majors to sport management to a wide range of Grady majors, including advertising, public relations, EMST and journalism.
When I started seeing the wide range of understanding of how the media actually operates and what we meant by this idea of misinformation and disinformation, it became pretty clear that there needed to be this broader approach to talking about news literacy with our broader student body.
Charlotte was my original TA when I took over teaching that class, and she also witnessed that firsthand. You can add something to that observation, right?
Charlotte Norsworthy: Absolutely. Students are coming at media from all different backgrounds, perspectives and contexts. How they were raised and socialized — all of that plays into how they engage with the media.
We realized, through doing that class, that they are also actively participating in the spread of information. And so, what is the quality of that information that they are engaging with and sharing by being active users in the digital space and on social media? It has a pretty hefty impact, and we were seeing that firsthand.
Keith Herndon: It was natural to use that course (JOUR 3030) as the intro for the certificate. That course explains what the First Amendment is, why it’s important and what it does and doesn’t do. That’s a really good, you know, foundational course to build a certificate around.
The certificate is based on four courses overall. There are two intermediate courses, which are our ethics and diversity class and our news credibility class. We end it with a capstone course that was developed by Dr. Amanda Bright called Digital Savvy.
Grady Research Radio: Can you kind of do a quick overview of some of the things one would learn in those courses?
Keith Herndon: The ethics and diversity class looks at how the news media operates internally. What are the things that the news media would consider conflicts of interest? How does the news media think about sourcing? We also want to think in terms of inclusivity. Are we covering our communities holistically? That’s where the diversity part comes in.
We also look at how our newsrooms operate in terms of making sure that we represent the communities that we cover. Do we have the right voices in our newsrooms? All those are part of the equation. So that’s what we mean by ethics and diversity. It’s more of an internal look at those kinds of issues.
The news credibility course is much more of an external look. That’s where we talk about this issue of trusting in news. How does the consumer interact with the news media? What are some of the key things that have affected trust in the media? What are some of the things that we have to address from political leanings? How do political leanings affect a person’s relationship with the news media? The news credibility course is looking at it more from an external perspective.
I already mentioned JOUR 3030. That’s the foundational class. It’s where we explain to people what misinformation and disinformation is — how we think of that as almost like pollution in our ecosystem, the same way we think of plastic as polluting the ocean. We really get into some of those fundamentals in that class.
And then it ends with the capstone course called Digital Savvy. That’s more of a practicum class, where the idea is, okay, how do we then spot false information? What are some tools that we can use to understand that this is not accurate information? This is not a photograph that depicts what it says it depicts. This is a video that’s not real. It’s been altered in some way.
Grady Research Radio: I know this is open to any student at the University of Georgia. So, can you talk a little bit about the train of thought, the reasons for opening it up to the entire campus? What would a student who isn’t directly involved in journalism on a day-to-day basis gain from this?
Charlotte Norsworthy: Yeah, so I think our thought process on establishing the Certificate of News Literacy in a way that all majors and all students could access was from the perspective that news literacy is something that everyone participates in. Everyone should be aware because they are all active participants and sharing media and engaging with news.
So, if you are, you know, any sort of informed citizen of society, being media literate is a crucial skill. It’s also a skill that is applicable across careers, right? So, in journalism, we are news gathering. We are creating news. We are producing and disseminating. So, it’s highly specialized and important to us in this field, as well as other Grady majors.
But majors across the university could also find themselves benefiting from it, because companies across the globe and across factions and fields and industries are also online. They’re also digital. They’re also engaging with information and producing the spread of information. So are they doing so in a way that’s accurate, that’s fair and balanced, that’s not polluting the ecosystem even more?
Grady Research Radio: Great. Are there any prerequisites for this certificate, or can a student start this freshman year?
Keith Herndon: The JOUR 3030 class has been designed from the very beginning to be open to any student at any point of their University of Georgia journey. We consider that to be an entry-level course. We have students in that class who take it in their freshman year, sometimes even their very first semester of their freshman year. We also have a group of sophomores who take it. Obviously that’s a required class if you’re a journalism major. It’s an elective for any other major.
That would be the way this would work. If it’s a journalism major that’s doing this certificate, all of the courses and the certificate would count for their major. If it’s a student outside of the journalism major and they do this certificate, it would count as a part of their electives.
Grady Research Radio: Okay, great. So, a journalism student, they could easily embed this into their schedule while not adding any time to their graduation schedule?
Keith Herndon: Yeah. That’s the way it works.
Grady Research Radio: For a student who’s in Grady, maybe in Advertising or Public Relations or Entertainment and Media Studies, how much time could this potentially add to their schedule?
Keith Herndon: I don’t think it would actually add anything if they’re building it in as part of their degree program. Most of the students in our College have plenty of room in their schedule for electives.
Now, they have to make some decisions. They wouldn’t be able to do a double major and a minor and another certificate and still do this as part of their normal course. I mean, it would be one of the things that they would have to choose as part of their degree program.
The journalism students, because this is part of their curriculum, can select these and it would just be embedded into their degree program. Others would have to figure out how to make it work within their body of electives that are available.
Grady Research Radio: Great. So you said there’s also a research component connected to this. Could you elaborate on that?
Keith Herndon: Charlotte and I are working with one of my teaching assistants, Kate Hester, who is one of my graduate assistants in the Cox Institute. And we’re looking at this idea that news literacy is essentially a critical thinking skill. It’s essentially something, as Charlotte alluded to, that all these different industries are looking at as almost a leadership attribute.
And so, we are doing some systematic review of literature, looking at the pedagogy that underlies the classes that we’re teaching, and then looking at how that pedagogy aligns with leadership education and other types of critical thinking training. We will document all of that. It’s called an innovative practice paper that we would then submit as a conference paper with the Association for Leadership Educators. Charlotte and I have collaborated on several of these types of pedagogy leadership framework papers in the past.
Anything you want to add to that process?
Charlotte Norsworthy: I think that the actual practice of going through and constructing these innovative practice papers is incredibly valuable to the research field.
Research typically deals with qualitative and quantitative research methods, and I think that these types of papers bridge the gap from the traditional academic methods into the practicum side of journalism, which is unique to our specific industry. You have to actually do the thing and then you can study the thing. So, this Certificate of News Literacy is sort of us doing the thing. But then we’re also reviewing how it’s impacting those themes that Keith mentioned.
Keith Herndon: And so I think that a lot of what we do in the Cox Institute, you know, our full name is the Cox Institute for Journalism, Innovation, Management and Leadership. So we think that the certificate is innovative, but we also think it has a component of leadership embedded in it. A key attribute of being a leader, in my estimation, is to be truthful and to be trustworthy.
The idea that we have to think of it in terms of the things that we share on social media, the things that we produce out there in the world — it goes beyond just journalism production. It’s anything we do on social media. Are we sharing a post? Are we liking something that may not even be remotely accurate? But the very act of liking it has put it out in your information dissemination.
We want students to think, “Well, is that putting me in the best light?” That’s learning to be discerning about how you live your life. And that’s a critical thinking skill. That critical thinking skill of how we look at all of this information, that is definitely a leadership attribute.
Through this research, we’re trying to look at leadership theories, some critical thinking frameworks, and how other industries might approach similar types of training. We want to document all that and see how it comes together.
We’re at the very beginning of putting together this research material. So check back in with us this time next year and we’ll have a little bit better of an understanding of how it all came together. But we’re really excited about that aspect of it. We’re also excited about bringing in one of our top graduate students to help us with that project as well.
Grady Research Radio: Great, so to wrap up here, what if a student wants to embed this certificate program in their schedules? How can they go about doing that?
Charlotte Norsworthy: The best thing to do is to first talk with your advisor and make sure the 12-hour program that it takes to complete the certificate is manageable and doable with the goals that you have based on your majors, minors and certificates that you may be balancing on top of this program. I would definitely advise you to talk with your academic advisor and make sure that that’s going to work
I would then say, when you’re on Athena, whenever you’re establishing your majors and your minors, you can also click the drop down and add the Certificate of News Literacy as your certificate to formally establish that.
After you do that, we’re notified of that formal enrollment and you can start taking your courses starting with JOUR 3030 and work your way through the program from there.
Keith Herndon: Right. I do want to emphasize one thing that this is different from some certificate programs at the university. It is open enrollment. There’s no application process for our certificate. It’s four courses and all of the courses are always available. There are plenty of seats. There’s no need to have an application process.
We want to make this simple and easy for any student that has an interest in learning about the news media, news literacy, understanding the leadership attributes around that, and understanding its importance.
All they have to do is go to Athena and enroll. So as long as you’re a student in good standing at the university, then you can do the certificate. We’re really excited about that.
We’re in the process now of meeting with advisors at the various colleges and talking about it in classes. We’ve built out a website as part of the Cox Institute so that there’s more information out there. Charlotte has put together a really robust frequently asked questions page. So, you know, anybody can find the information they’re looking for. But it’s an enrollment, as opposed to an application, certificate.
Charlotte Norsworthy: And it’s a do-it-at-your-own-pace kind of program, which I think is also unique to other certificates. You don’t have to complete it within a semester or a series of semesters.
There’s a specific order that you take the courses in. But if you start with JOUR 3030 your first semester freshman year, you can wait until your senior year to finish up the three courses if that’s the only space in time that you’ll have.
We’ve set it up so that it does have an intro course. There are two intermediate courses. Those can be taken in any order. We do prefer that you take the JOUR 3030 Media News and Consumers first. But then you can take News Credibility or Journalism Ethics and Diversity in either order. Once you’ve completed those, you finish it up with the capstone, the Digital Savvy course.
Grady Research Radio: Great. Well, thank you both for your time here today.
As podcasts continue to grow as a popular form of media, it is only fitting that the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication would turn to audio storytelling to help highlight its research and expertise.
The new Grady Research Radio podcast, which debuted on Sept. 7, 2022, and is recorded in the podcast studio Studio Not Found, features concise conversations with faculty members at Grady College and shines a light on their research and proficiencies, as well as the College’s labs.
The podcast’s debut episode covered the news of Grady being named one of the nation’s inaugural solutions journalism hubs by the Solutions Journalism Network. It features interviews with Grady faculty and solutions journalism experts Dr. Amanda Bright, Dr. Kyser Lough and Ralitsa Vassileva, who explained what Grady College is currently doing in research, instruction and outreach to advance solutions journalism, what the new designation means, and how students, educators and professionals in the region can get involved.
“There’s so much happening on campus that we never hear about,” said Vassileva. “A podcast that spreads the word across silos could advance solutions journalism beyond what we can achieve on our own. It could spark new ideas for collaboration.”
The solutions journalism episode was soon followed by one on Grady’s Brain, Body and Media (BBAM) Lab, a lab directed by assistant professor of advertising Dr. Glenna Read used to research psychophysiological reactions to different forms of 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.
Similarly, the podcast’s third episode sheds light on the new Qualitative Research Lab at Grady College, where graduate and undergraduate students can pursue research focusing on qualitative, non-numerical data. It features a conversation with Dr. Karin Assmann, an assistant professor in the Journalism Department at Grady College and the director of the Qualitative Research Lab. In the episode, 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.
The fourth and fifth episodes zero in on the 2022 general elections in the state of Georgia. The fourth episode features a conversation with Dr. David Clementson, an assistant professor in Public Relations at Grady College and a political communication researcher, about the state of political debates. The fifth includes a discussion with Joseph Watson, Jr., the Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Grady College, about political advertisements.
“Grady College has many tremendous researchers who work really hard to run studies and collect data answering tough questions and addressing huge phenomena that affect our lives,” said Clementson. “The Grady Research Radio podcast is a great way for professors’ studies to translate to the general public in a fun, conversational and approachable way. I love listening to the podcast and learning more about my own colleagues who are working hard on impactful research.”
The sixth and most recent episode focuses on the field of game studies and features an interview with Dr. Shira Chess, an associate professor in the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies (EMST), a game studies researcher, and the author of books including “Play Like a Feminist” and “Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity.” Dr. Chess discusses her research, why video games may not get the attention they deserve, and what the future may hold for the field.
Grady Research Radio is hosted and produced by Jackson Schroeder, the public relations specialist at Grady College. It is generally released biweekly, and a complete list of episodes can be found here.
Over the summer, Dr. Chess published an introduction for an article in the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication titled “The future of media studies is game studies,” which shines a light on the significance of video games in the broader field of communication studies.
In the episode, Dr. Chess discusses her writing, why video games may not get the attention they deserve, and what the future may hold.
Below is a transcription of the episode, edited for clarity and brevity.
Grady Research Radio: What is game studies?
Shira Chess: A lot of scholars out there are studying video games and have been for a while now. It’s been an emerging field since around the late 1990s, when games stopped being considered toys and started really increasingly being considered media objects.
Grady Research Radio: You recently published an article titled “The future of media is game studies.” Can you explain what that article is, just a brief overview?
Shira Chess: It was an introduction to a special issue. So, to back up a little bit, one of my academic heroes, Mia Consalvo, and I were talking about something we could work on together during the pandemic. And, you know, things were pretty glum during the pandemic, in general, for a lot of people. We were trying to think of a project that would really get us excited about what it was that we did again.
The idea of the special issue wasn’t just about one specific topic in game studies, but was highlighting the potential in the future and looking to younger scholars and junior scholars to see where they see the field emerging. So, the article that I wrote was largely an introduction to that special issue.
We did sort of have this provocation as the premise, you know, that the future of media studies is game studies. A big reason for that is, what happens in academic conferences a lot of times is that everybody kind of stays in their silos. You go to an academic conference or you read journal articles and you tend to stay in your little silos of what you’ve been studying and what everybody around you has been studying. And you sort of continually look at the same things over and over again.
I’m making some broad generalizations. There are certainly academics who do not do that. But, at conferences, for instance, a lot of times what happens is you don’t end up seeing the scholarship and the changes in a specific subfield because you just haven’t been paying attention.
So, we sort of started teasing out this idea — media studies folks could really learn a lot by stopping and looking at game studies, even if they’re not somebody who studies video games specifically or plays video games. And that is sort of a reflection of a larger problem, something that I’ve studied a lot, which is how people tend to be very dismissive of video games, you know, treat them like they’re a toy and like there’s no content there to study. Really, they are rich with content. They are overflowing with content.
Part of my career has been trying to talk to people about video games, why they should reconsider them, and why we need to expand the market of video games. This article was very much trying to do the same thing within media studies, trying to convince people who are media studies scholars and maybe study television or film or other areas and say, “But wait, maybe you should look at some game study scholarship, some emerging scholars, and take a look at some things they’re doing, because you might be surprised.”
Grady Research Radio: So, why do you think there is this resistance to accepting game studies, or even video games in general, as a viable source of media and not just a game?
Shira Chess: I mean, I think it’s changing. I think, in terms of resisting game studies, it’s just as I said. I don’t know that a lot of scholars are like, “ugh, game studies.” It’s more like, “That’s not for me.”
But the problem is, with the way corporate conglomeration works and with the way that transmedia storytelling works, we all are studying digital games to some extent. Everything has gotten a little bit more fuzzy. That does matter, in the same way that television matters in a different way than it did a decade ago, with the advent of streaming services, right? Television is different than what it was. Video games are different from what they were.
In terms of why people are dismissive of video games — I started off by saying scholarship on games and violence, or scholarship on games and addiction, looking at those sort of salacious things creates a low-level moral panic sometimes. But the reality is that video games are a medium still figuring themselves out, and we’re only really just now starting to see what they are and what they can become.
Grady Research Radio: Absolutely. I don’t want to ask you to speculate too much, but what do video games have to offer that the general public may not necessarily see?
Shira Chess: So, a couple of things that I have written about in the past.
This is not my specific area, but I know a lot of good scholars, such as Aubrey Anable and Katherine Isbister, have written about games and affect. Video games are particularly well situated to get us thinking about the emotions of others and put our subject in somebody else’s body. That’s pretty cool, right? It is in a way that films and television sometimes can do, but that reliance on action puts us in a place where we might empathize differently with different subject positions.
One thing that I’ve written about a bit is video games and agency, or will to act. Video games are training machines. They teach us how and when to act on things and get us to think about our actions.
And then, in general, there are some video games out there that are just aesthetically beautiful. In the same way that books and film and television are beautiful, there are beautiful video games out there.
I am certainly not saying that somebody should dump all of the other media in their lives and replace it all out with video games. That would be ridiculous. But I do think that there are opportunities to play games in ways that will give us moving experiences similar to other forms of media.
Grady Research Radio: Great. So back to the article. You did touch on a lot of this already, but can you go back and explain your argument, the purpose of this article and where it’s all going?
Shira Chess: The argument was basically, “Hey, look over here.” It’s not deep. It wasn’t meant to be deep. It was more like, you know, we’ve gathered together some young junior scholars that do have some interesting arguments, and we think that you should read them.
We specifically asked the scholars to write things that were on the shorter side, to make it a little bit more accessible, to make it a smattering of a lot of ideas, rather than a couple of big thoughts.
Basically, when we approached people, we were like, “What do you think is the future of game studies?” And everybody kind of took that assignment a little bit differently and responded to it in different ways. So, all of these people, collectively, created this tapestry of different ideas and thoughts, which was really what we were looking to do in the first place.
Grady Research Radio: This might be kind of a two-part question. Game studies is a relatively new thing. Video games are relatively new. But, do you believe that it has been on an upward trajectory in terms of people accepting it as a valid form of media? Do you foresee this article, this whole idea, having a positive impact on game studies?
Shira Chess: I think that, in general, people are taking video games more seriously than they have. But I think that’s with a caveat, right?
I think that there are more people playing video games than ever before, because mobile devices make games more accessible. You are hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t play any kind of digital game, whether that is a console-based game, whether that is Candy Crush Saga, or whether that’s Wordle, right? Once you start expanding your definition of what a digital game is, you realize we should all be in on this conversation about what they can look like and what they can be.
I think, though, that at the same time, it’s brought in new layers of anxieties. For a long time, people would come to me, you know, both inside and outside of academia, and they would say, “Oh you study video games. They’re so violent.” Or somebody would write a journal article talking about violent video games. And my first answer would always be, “Which video games?” Because, you know, I spent a large portion of my career studying Diner Dash and Kim Kardashian Hollywood. Other than some aesthetic violence in Kim Kardashian Hollywood, I would say that that’s not a very violent game, right?
But the problem is, the industry and audiences often centralize the games that are violent, or the games that are big console games. We’re starting to see that breakdown a little bit. And with that comes a lot of anxieties within the industry, because the industry itself goes through phases of free fall, and there have been problems over the last couple of decades. But, at the same time, I would say that some of the anxieties about video games and violence have been replaced with anxieties by video games and addiction.
And that’s not to say that those things aren’t real or not worth talking about. But this medium is still figuring itself out. And by ignoring the product, we don’t get to shape the medium.
Grady Research Radio: Thank you for joining us today.
Shira Chess: Thank you very much for having me here.
Leading up to the 2022 general elections in the state of Georgia, the Grady Research Radio podcast recently had the opportunity to feature Joseph Watson, Jr., the Carolyn Caudell Tieger Professor of Public Affairs Communications in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. Watson has over 20 years of experience working in public affairs, campaigns and communications.
In this interview, Watson answers questions about the state of political advertisements, the different advertisements out there, and the effectiveness of different approaches.
Below is a transcript of the podcast episode, edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
Grady Research Radio: Has anything surprised you so far in terms of the advertisements that we’ve seen leading up to the midterms in Georgia this year?
Joseph Watson: The thing that has surprised me about the advertisements I’ve seen coming in the election so far has really been their consistency. So, we all knew it was going to be a tough campaign season. We all knew that there were going to be a lot of negative ads. And so none of that has really surprised me. The volume is not surprising.
But, what is surprising is that they have been very consistent. All of the major campaigns have — maybe with one exception — kind of settled into what their campaign message is and have really diligently stuck to that. And that’s surprising, because usually campaigns struggle to identify what they think is their best message, and candidates often struggle to stay on the right path with that messaging.
But, for the most part, the candidates have done that, and that’s surprising to me because I’d actually expect some to oscillate more than they have.
Grady Research Radio: To me, it has felt like a pretty intense race in terms of the advertisements. There’s the television ad accusing Herschel Walker of abusing his ex-wife, which features an interview with the words coming directly out of her mouth. And then there’s another one that has him saying he wanted to kill a man. So, my question is, are these ads — these attack ads — do they surprise you? And are they effective?
Joseph Watson: I think they are absolutely effective. I should take a step back and say that I still regard Georgia as a red state. It’s a red state that’s trending purple. It’s not a red state trending blue. I think the fact that we have two Democratic senators is more of a reflection on some of the inadequacies of the Republican campaigns in the last election cycle than it is on the shifting politics in Georgia. There are demographic changes, though, that are driving the state purple, but nothing that I’ve seen yet suggests the state is really on the brink of becoming blue, as other states have.
No, I’m not really surprised at all by the aggressiveness of the ads. I think you have to understand that, you know, most campaigns just don’t have that much good material. So, I could not imagine, as someone who has been involved in campaigns, that if I had that kind of opposition research, I had those audio tapes where — Herschel Walker prior to contemplating a political career was very candid and participated in these interviews and conversations that were video recorded — I could not imagine a campaign that had that information not using it. In fact, I would have to say that if a campaign had that information and didn’t use it, it would be a malfeasance.
I think the thing that is unusual is that most individuals that are in or pursuing state-wide offices have really expected to be pursuing those offices for a long time, and they’re very diligent about what they say, how they’re recorded and how they’re framed. And so you’d be very hard-pressed to find information or content like that on most candidates.
But, this is kind of the situation with having more of a celebrity candidate. I mean, there were similar things that happened when Trump ran in 2016. That is part of having someone that has been in the public eye without any, you know, realization they were going to pursue politics. They have all this content out there.
A campaign will do opposition research to find out all the dirty secrets that are out there and figure out which of those things resonate with voters. I think the fact that you’re seeing the Warnock campaign drive that message over and over again, I think they have research that indicates that it is effective.
Grady Research Radio: How does the Herschel campaign, in this instance, respond to an ad like that? Is there a formula for responding to those kinds of attack ads?
Joseph Watson: Well, you know, I think when you’re faced with opposition like that, you want to assess, gather intelligence and then modulate a response to whatever is going on. Not everything that’s negative requires a response.
Here, obviously, the seriousness of what’s out there and the plainness of the content necessitate some kind of response. The Walker campaign did, when these allegations first came about and were being spread, release an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal which details Walker’s mental health issues over the years and kind of chide those who are using this as a source of negative campaign attacks. That’s one way to do it.
You could do a rebuttal ad to push back. The challenge here is that, factually, there’s no question about what was said. Factually, those are things that Walker did do, and he never questioned that it was there. For some of the interviews, he was recorded with his, you know, wife, or ex-wife, in his presence. So, there’s no denial of the truth. That makes it very difficult. It’s not like someone is alleging that you did something and you can put out a rebuttal saying, “That’s wrong. That never happened.”
The only pushback is that, you know, it was the product of a mental health issue. I think the Walker campaign has been wise to focus instead on driving their own attacks on Warnock. And I think both lines of attack are working well, because both of the candidates are a good number of points under 50 percent, so I think, in that sense, it has been effective for both campaigns, the negative approach.
I’ve probably seen more positive Warnock pieces recently than I’ve seen positive Walker pieces, but I think that could just be a factor of the cash advantage that Warnock has over Walker.
Grady Research Radio: You mentioned some of Walker’s ads. I know one of them that is relatively accusatory is when Walker’s campaign is accusing Warnock’s campaign of overstating racism as a problem. Is that kind of the type of ad that you’re pointing towards in this instance?
Joseph Watson: No. I don’t think that’s really the best line of attack for the Walker campaign on Warnock. I think the best line of attack is the one that I’ve probably seen the most, which is to tie Warnock to inflation and to the Biden Administration’s spending as a source of causation of the inflation that Georgians are experiencing right now.
I think that for Republicans, inflation is the top issue and the top message. I mean, that’s what you’ve consistently seen Governor Kemp focus on. He’s done a mixture of his accomplishments as governor and the economic performance of the state along with criticisms of inflationary policies. But, certainly, for federal candidates for Senate and congressional candidates on the Republican side, inflation is the best issue for them to focus on.
I think the line of attack on Warnock as being someone who voted for measures that gave checks — there is one ad that, you know, Warnock supported something that gave checks to the Boston Marathon bomb, or a stuff like that — that’s effective, because you’re painting him as somewhat extreme. And you’re also tying it to spending and inflation. So, you’re getting a lot packed into an ad like that, and I think those ads are best. The research I’ve seen suggests that those attacks on Warnock have resonated and done some damage.
Grady Research Radio: Overall, have negative ads been proven to be more effective than positive advertisements?
Joseph Watson: So, that’s a good question. This is one of the issues that I find fascinating, because there’s a distinction between how academics, political scientists and advertising and PR scholars all view this, versus what practitioners do. I mean, if you look at the academic literature, it almost always suggests that negative ads are not good, that they create issues, and you should focus on positive ads.
But the reality is, there are tons of negative ads. So you’re like, why is there a disconnect between this and what the research shows?
I always try to explain it this way. The negative ad is not free. For federal ads, you have to have a disclosure to say, you know, “I’m Raphael Warnock, and I paid for this ad.” You have to identify the source. So, if you’re writing a negative ad directly from your campaign that is aimed at your opponent, you have to put your name on at the end of it. And so that’s the double-edged sword there.
So, yes, you lob an attack. But anyone who’s lobbing an attack also is viewed negatively, because they’re doing something that’s negative. So, ultimately, you have to decide. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. Is the damage that you’re going to inflict on your opponent enough that it justifies or makes up for any damage you get for being on the attack? I think, for most campaigns, they judge it to be a net positive phenomenon to do the negative ads.
Grady Research Radio: Great. This next question is two-pronged. Misinformation in political advertisements is a topic of discussion that’s always coming up around this time. Has there been an overwhelming amount of misinformation presented in these ads? That’s the first part of the question. Secondly, does misinformation in ads even matter? Do people care?
Joseph Watson: Well, I think it is an important issue. It is generational. What we’ve found is, younger Americans are more dubious of the information they receive and less trusting of the validity of it than older Americans, in terms of making broad generalizations in terms of political content. As a result of that, you know, certainly when you’re thinking about older Americans that tend to kind of accept or trust what they see on an ad, it can be very problematic for there to be content there, because the perspective is that it is assumed to be true or valid.
I saw a lot of these kinds of ads featuring misinformation mostly centering around January 6th and centering around the validity of the 2020 election. Most of them were Republican primary ads that contain misinformation saying that the election was stolen or things like that.
In general, I’m not seeing quite that volume of misinformation. I think all the things that we’re seeing for the most part in this cycle are things that are pretty close. I mean, obviously, they’re being framed in a fashion that’s favorable to whoever is paying for the ad. But nothing gets to the level of the misinformation we saw in the Republican primaries, in which people were saying things that were just factually untrue.
You always have to keep in mind that with ads that are run on broadcast network television, the networks have to take those ads whether they contain true information or not. They don’t have the ability to turn them away. Now, in the social media space, they do. Social media platforms can turn down as they feature misinformation, but television broadcasters can’t. So, there’s a dynamic there that makes it particularly challenging in terms of, you know, when you think about older Americans sitting in their homes watching local television and seeing ads and assuming that what’s being shown to them is true when it may not be.
Grady Research Radio: Before this interview, you sent over an article that pointed out that, so far, Democratic candidates — both in the governor’s race and this senatorial race between Warnock and Walker — have spent significantly more money on advertisements than the GOP candidates. So my question is, is there a correlation between the money spent on advertisements and the success of candidates?
Joseph Watson: Well, you certainly have to have a lot of money to be competitive in a race. It’s possible that you can have a cash advantage and still lose. Having more cash is not a guarantee of victory, but having not enough cash is a problem in terms of how competitive or viable you are in a general election.
It is better to have the money. I mean, it is a good problem to have. But, again, one of the things I keep coming back to is, fundamentally, campaigns do well when they have sound strategies and effective tactics. All the money in the world is not going to help you if your fundamental strategy, your core theory of that campaign, is not a good one.
We see that every cycle. Think about going back a couple years to Mike Bloomberg, who spent an inordinate amount of money and basically got nothing to show for it.
I will say, though, that where money comes in handy and where it’s effective is in the ability to get your message out. There is the ability to be on the air and be on the air as much as you need to be.
For Democrats, that’s really important. I mean, It was big news a number of weeks ago when Republicans had to push the pause button on ads in a number of different states in Senate races just because they were light on cash. They had to conserve money for the final stretch. So they went dark on ads, and that allowed Democrats to basically own the airwaves for a number of weeks until Republicans said, “Okay, now we have enough money to finish this.”
Having enough money would mean that you would never have to go off the air. In a race like this, you never want to go off. You want to be able to be on the air for the duration, and the money that the Democratic candidates have had so far is giving them the ability to stay the whole time.
Grady Research Radio: I watch a lot of Jeopardy. So, the majority of the political ads that I see are during that half hour. Are television ads still king? Or, have candidates resorted to other mediums, perhaps social media, and have those ads been proven to be maybe more effective than the classic television ad?
Joseph Watson: The television ad remains king. In particular, the television ad that is shown on cable television is king. That’s where you have the highest penetration of likely voters. One thing that we’ve seen consistently in studies is that the older Americans are, the more likely they are to vote, you know, the more regularly they vote. Cable television is the preferred medium for political and public affairs information for older Americans, and that’s why cable television is king.
If you were exclusively trying to reach Generation Z, you could have a social media framework. They’re not watching cable news, so you wouldn’t have to spend that money. But with the current electorate as it is, if you’re trying to reach Baby Boomers and Gen X, you’re going to need to spend money on cable television.
There is one exception for cash-strapped campaigns, which is the notion of developing a viral ad. If you develop an ad and, you know, you place it on YouTube, which doesn’t cost you anything, you can kind of flag it for media outlets. If it’s something that is attention-getting, you can get a lot of earned media coverage from it and get greater penetration of that ad without actually doing an ad buy on television.
There was an ad for a candidate in Missouri in which he said he’s going “RINO hunting.” It shows him kicking down doors, they’ve got camo on, and they’re going to places with guns. It was like, are they advocating violence? What’s going on here? And that was so shocking that it garnered a lot of media coverage. That’s something that they didn’t necessarily have to do an ad buy for. But because it was so, you know, titillating, it basically got them earned media coverage.
The dilemma for candidates — for the campaign that did that — all the coverage they got was predominantly negative. And so, you can do something like that, but to do something that’s so shocking, you get media coverage covered with a jaundiced dye that’s not very favorable to your campaign.
But, nevertheless, it allows you to get it out there and get it disseminated widely. And so campaigns will do that. And that’s one way in which you could still reach those demographics that are watching cable television or broadcast television without spending the money that you ordinarily would have to spend to be on cable or broadcast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.