53% of journalists surveyed weren’t sure they could spot flawed research

 
journalists research statistics coverage annual survey results Journalist's Resource
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis talks to reporters, 2018. (U.S. Department of Defense)
By

July 29, 2019

Each year, we survey journalists, journalism faculty and others in our audience for feedback on how they use our free materials and how we can better help them improve the quality of journalism. Our core aim is to bridge the gap between newsrooms and academia by helping reporters find and use peer-reviewed academic research and other forms of high-quality evidence in their coverage of public policy topics.

Almost 64% of journalists who responded to Journalist’s Resource’s 2019 user survey said they mention academic research in their work on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. More than 40% said their stories focus largely on the findings of new studies with the same regularity. However, 23% of journalists said they mention academic research in their coverage only once or twice a year, and 13% said they never or almost never do.

That means Journalist’s Resource still has a lot of work to do. And the 1,656 people who answered the survey gave us some good insights for how to move forward. Of the respondents, 690 were journalists and 256 were faculty who teach journalism or communications.

Many journalists told us they have little or no training in statistics, which is helpful for assessing the quality of a research study. Reporters with stronger backgrounds in statistical analysis will be more likely to understand a study’s findings and shortcomings and explain them to a lay audience. Almost one-third of journalists said they have no statistical training. Meanwhile, another roughly one-third reported getting “some” training as an undergraduate in college. About 8% received advanced training.

We asked journalists how confident they are in their ability to distinguish between high-quality research studies and questionable ones. About 53% said they were “not very” or “somewhat” confident.

Based on this feedback, we plan to create more tip sheets and explainers aimed at helping journalists and journalism students understand key statistical terms, spot red flags in research and accurately convey what a study does and does not say.

To get more ideas for tip sheets we could produce and trainings we could offer, we also asked journalists about their biggest barriers to using academic research in their work. Here are some of their responses, written in their own words:

  • “Academic papers are too long and it’s difficult to digest them on deadline.”
  • “Not enough communications [public relations office] people familiar with the research to be helpful in clarifying, steering one to researchers and experts … It’s not necessary but helpful to have intermediaries that understand the challenge of producing good journalism; also often academics are dismissive and derogatory toward journalists, whom they often see as shallow or lacking in depth and knowledge, patience and understanding.”
  • “Research in general is irrelevant.”
  • “Editor skepticism that research from 2015 or earlier is relevant to news coverage today.”

We used the survey to also get a better understanding of our audience’s other needs — and which new vehicles we could use to provide that assistance. Respondents told us:

  • Almost 58% of respondents said they would be “very” interested in receiving visualizations of data relevant to news topics.
  • A little more than two-thirds would be “very” or “somewhat” interested in webinars on reporting and understanding research and podcasts about new research.
  • More than 55% said they would be “very” or “somewhat” interested in video chats with researchers.
  • Nearly three-quarters of journalists said it’s important that we point out the strengths and weaknesses of the studies we highlight.
  • Journalists would like more tip sheets on covering certain topics. Among the topics they’d like help with are gerrymandering, criminal recidivism, voter suppression, foster children and banking oversight.
  • Media educators said they’d like us to offer a broader range of sample syllabi to help them prepare lessons. They’d like us to create syllabi for course topics such as verifying facts, using social media to report the news and covering labor, health, higher education and the environment.

Here are examples of the specific feedback we received from individual respondents:

  • “More research and news summaries on religion news. With most mainstream media laying off their specialists, the remaining reporters need more support on how to cover and interpret this vital topic.”
  • “Focus may be given on covering issues from agricultural extension and rural development.”
  • “Preparing for interviews with potentially hostile sources.”
  • “How to determine if funding may have influenced research findings.”
  • “You’ve been a lifesaver — your coverage topics are diverse enough to hit on national policy issues while still relevant to small-town community journalists like me.”
  • “Develops tip sheets, etc. about how to report on different beats, e.g. police, courts, affordable housing, city infrastructure, e.g. sewage, drainage, water, city financing alternatives for capital investments, best practices for homelessness. More on public works.”

We were glad to hear from this year’s respondents that Journalist’s Resource continues to be a key tool. More than 44% reported using Journalist’s Resource on a “nearly daily” or “weekly” basis. About three-quarters of journalists said our materials have helped them improve the accuracy of their work and grapple with misinformation. About 4 in 10 said our materials “often” help them background stories while about 85% of journalists said we help them background stories at least sometimes.

Media educators told us they rely on us for help preparing the next generation of journalists and communication professionals. More than 8 in 10 educators said they “often” or “sometimes” use our resources to educate themselves on a subject they teach. And 70% of journalism educators said they use our materials “often” or “sometimes” to prepare lessons. Meanwhile, about half of respondents who teach journalism or communication reported sending their students to the Journalist’s Resource website at least once in a while. A greater percentage — about 75% — said they forward our weekly newsletter email to their students at least occasionally.

On the survey, we included questions to gauge which of our existing materials are most useful. Respondents told us that:

  • They prefer collections or “roundups” of related research studies over articles that highlight a single study.
  • Most journalists find it “very useful” or “somewhat useful” when we provide tip sheets offering advice on how to better cover specific topics.
  • More than half of respondents said they “frequently” use our weekly newsletter email to learn about our resources.

We are always eager to learn more about who’s in our audience. It’s particularly helpful for us to know who the journalists we’re serving are — for example, where they’re located, how long they’ve worked in the industry, what beats they cover and whether their news outlet focuses on local or national news. Of the people who took our survey:

  • 32% work in journalism full-time or nearly full-time.
  • 10% engage in journalism part-time.
  • 15% teach journalism or communication as their primary job.
  • 27% are students or work outside the journalism and public policy sphere.
  • 74% of all respondents work in the U.S. Most others are in Europe, Asia and Africa.
  • 35% of journalists work at nonprofit news outlets.
  • 53% of journalists have worked in the field 20 years or longer.
  • 13% of journalists have been in the industry fewer than five years.
  • 33% of journalists work for national news outlets.
  • 21% of journalists’ audiences are composed of a local community or multiple local communities.
  • The three topics covered most frequently by journalists are politics, state/local government and education.

 

The graphics on this page were created by Clark Merrefield, Journalist’s Resource’s economic research reporter.

 

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