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Tuning in to the World: Communication Researchers Search for Clear Messages
When word came down earlier this year that the Department of Communication at The University of Texas at Arlington had been designated a Top 10 research department out of more than 700 universities across the United States and Canada, few of the Communication professors were surprised.
After all, they have been presenting award-winning research in professional journals and at industry conferences for years. Only now, colleagues outside the Fine Arts building where the department resides were finally taking notice.
“This is a celebration of the research being done by multiple people within our department,” said Dr. Charla Markham Shaw, department chair and associate professor. “It’s an indicator that we have many people who do interesting and important work, not just one or two. Everyone is contributing.”
The Top 10 designation was made by the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, a not-for-profit organization that supports the use of computer technology in the service of communication scholarship and education. The group monitors more than 700 programs in the U.S. and Canada and ranks them based on research articles produced for the field’s journals.
The department offers degrees in a variety of communication issues and styles: from advertising and public relations to journalism and broadcast, from communication studies to communication technology. The research from its professors is equally as diverse: scholars are looking at public opinion in the Middle East; how public relation officials react in a crisis situation here at home; and how interpersonal communication is affected in virtual and online communities.
“Our strength is being a blended program,” said Dr. Tom Christie, associate professor and graduate advisor. “We have the traditional fields of mass communication and the traditional fields of communication studies. They share some common theoretical approaches and research traditions. By bringing it together … you get such robust discussion, and you start to understand communication at more critical levels.”
A Different Kind of Scientist
Dr. Karishma Chatterjee considers herself a “social scientist.” Instead of Bunsen burners and metric scales, the assistant professor uses the Internet and first-person surveys to capture data for her research on communication in relationships, identity management and social interactions. With strong ties to India, Chatterjee has long been curious about women’s issues on an international stage. She has looked at how adoption is covered in broadcast news reports, reviewed HIV/AIDS testing in southern Africa, and examined safe-sex talk among young adults.
A conversation with Markham Shaw about health communication issues among women led to the two joining forces on a new research project. The two are studying initial communication about a female contraceptive product that debuted worldwide more than two decades ago.
“The product was touted in the early 1990s as a good feminist tool, but it never took off,” said Chatterjee. “It has been popular in Africa and southeast Asia as a tool for STI and HIV prevention. It’s a great product for women, but it hasn’t been adopted. So we’re looking at why, and why so many women don’t know about the product.”
Markham Shaw, whose previous research covered teen pregnancy and teen mothers, said the project will survey college-age women and identify perceptions of sex, prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and use of male and female condoms. She said their initial plan is to use their research to develop better communicative scripts for health educators. It’s an aspect of taking research and shaping it into a direct application, Chatterjee said.
“One [research] goal is to add to the already existing literature,” she said. “You have to look at what has been done and what needs to be done. Ultimately, we would like to try and make suggestions as to how we can have this conversation about female contraceptive with younger adults. It’s a combination of both the theoretical and practical.”
In another part of the building, Christie and his research partner Associate Professor Dr. Andrew Clark are debating the impact of the words “illegal” and “undocumented” as they relate to media stories on illegal immigrants and new laws in Arizona. The Associated Press Stylebook – an authoritative dictionary and reference book for journalists, writers and editors for more than 30 years – directs media members to use “illegal” when referring to those immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally. But earlier this year, new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor used the phrase “undocumented immigrants” when addressing the national issue. Clark said groups may “frame” an issue by their choice of words.
“Terminology is very important,” he said. “Frequently, the way the [immigration] debate is framed in mass media is how people in America and other countries evaluate their decisions, and evaluate the whole issue.”
Clark and Christie have spent several years looking at government-sponsored radio in overseas markets. They have won awards and received grants for their work on foreign audience response to U.S. media and messaging in the Middle East. Christie said much of their research has revolved around how the U.S. is influencing foreign audiences and how these (sometimes hostile) audiences are responding.
“One thing that’s interesting is very few Americans even know about these things,” he said. “Radio Free Europe, Voice of America – these are some of the largest, most expensive radio networks in the world. But yet they’re vastly understudied. They’re designed to reach hostile audiences. By looking at the credibility and use of these services, it should lead to understanding what messages are effective in stopping [terrorism].”
Where once geography and travel hindered researchers, today’s technology allows many to reach out to the world from their office or classroom. Previously, Clark and Christie dialed in short-wave radios to pick up radio signals from overseas; now, they listen live via online streams or save recorded broadcasts for research samples. Collaborating with colleagues in other countries also affords the duo access to data they may have otherwise never been able to use.
More than awards and peer recognition, all of the Communication department’s professors agree the big payoff for their research is the impact it has in the classroom. Undergraduate students benefit from listening to current examples of the study material and seeing how theory becomes practical; graduate students benefit from sharing in the research process, supporting a professor or finding their own way, and establishing their own voice in the academic conversation.
“One thing we try to impart to our students is that you are in the process of creating knowledge,” Christie said. “We can see a real impact among our grad students. It generates great ideas and great discussions.”
Chatterjee said those discussions not only improve the level of study and learning, but make a direct impact outside the classroom to the corporate world.
“Over the past four years, I’ve seen a change in my students, the conversations we have and how we study human behavior [as a direct result of participating in research],” she said. “We’ve seen how you can apply knowledge outside the academic setting. That’s extremely gratifying. We can teach skills that work outside the classroom.”
Quality research can create quality teaching that, in turn, creates quality students – students who may one day go on to expand on their professor’s research and discover something entirely new. And as the trends of service learning and making one’s work wholly relevant to a larger audience continues at UT Arlington, the question of “How can I make a difference with this?” is asked more frequently.
“We feel strongly that our research should have an applied outcome, that people can use it,” said Markham Shaw. “Whether it is used to further research so we can gain more knowledge or to offer recommendations, it’s something we see as making a difference. And that’s key for us.”
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