Cracking the Code: A Science Media-Research Collaboration:

This article is one of a multipart series exploring the unique media practitioner-academic research collaboration of Cracking the Code: Influencing Millennial Science Engagement (CTC) a three year Advancing Informal STEM Learning Innovations (AISL) research project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) between KQED, a public media company serving the San Francisco Bay Area, Texas Tech and Yale universities. KQED has the largest science reporting unit in the West focusing on science news and features including their YouTube series Deep Look.

Learning on the job

While resulting in a trove of impactful science communication research, the Cracking the Code (CTC) collaboration also served as a rich educational and learning environment for participating researchers and practitioners. Project staff from KQED and Texas Tech University acknowledged the important personal and professional experience, knowledge and growth gained from working on CTC. The collaboration provided a foundation for experiential learning, not only through the application of diverse research methodologies, but also through the practice of skills and knowledge contributing to the development of professionalism, confidence, self-awareness and accountability.

Members from both project teams credited the collaboration for helping them work more efficiently with large groups, apply principles of equity and access to practice and research, and adopt new and more efficient management skills.

CTC was the first experience for many of the participants in working with a large and diverse group of both practitioners and research professionals. The scale of the project presented both benefits and challenges. The collective breadth of knowledge and experience was a catalyst for exploring new lines of inquiry and employing innovative research and analytic frameworks.

I’ve never worked with a group that size on any project. Everyone on both teams were so passionate about what they do, it was sometimes difficult adding all these very strong personalities and strong opinions into one meeting and discussion. It was quite a learning experience. — Research team

Equity

Diversity and equity issues, which became more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic and surrounding the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter movement, were an integral part of many project discussions involving research methodology and journalistic practice. Staff from both project teams stressed the importance of assuring that their work impacted, informed and involved underserved populations too often ignored in these kinds of studies.

Global events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have clearly shown that social inequalities also manifest within communication structures, including those of science communication. Both CTC practitioners and the research team agreed that science communication must evolve further in order to develop a robust evidence base for understanding what constitutes inclusive science communication in both theory and practice. In development of CTC research instruments for science production and news studies, special attention was paid to the wording of survey items to assure applicability to diverse populations, in addition to cultural sensitivity and appropriateness. The definition of “missing audiences” was broadened to include marginalized groups generally not served by science media, or studied by science communications researchers. Staff from KQED and Texas Tech University remarked that the project could have been better served through the inclusion of more diverse members on the teams themselves.

The context for diversity and inclusion from both media and academic research perspective, engendered valuable insights into how studies could be more equitably designed, and how study results can inform a more inclusive media practice for diverse public audiences. Project team members also discussed dissemination strategies for assuring that research reports are more widely distributed, rather than be limited to professional audiences through journals or conference presentations. Suggested dissemination methods included blog and social media postings as well as publicly accessible online webinars.

Practitioner Gains

CTC provided KQED participants with a much greater understanding and appreciation of why the audience matters. The project had a particularly deep impact on science news staff with respect to their writing, in particular an awareness of the power of writing to communicate and connect with communities in a more solutions-oriented fashion. Science news staff also came to appreciate the power of graphics and visuals as a way to increase audience engagement and comprehension.

Before CTC, KQED science staff had limited exposure to more scientific-oriented research methodology. While some production staff had participated in user/audience testing, collaborating with science communication experts on the development of research instruments was extremely beneficial. KQED staff developed a greater understanding and appreciation of science communication research methodology. A producer of KQED’s Deep Look commented that participating in survey development and title testing were the most valuable experiences for him.

It’s been really valuable to learn different ways to understand our audiences specifically by applying research tools. Although the results were not 100% conclusive, I think that there seems to be a correlation between certain themes and how we title our episodes that either mitigate or exacerbate the gender gap problem that we’ve seen. We’ve been thinking a lot about that as we develop our titles for episodes which are incredibly important. The research reinforced this, and alerted us. — KQED staff

By working with the research team, KQED science staff became more adept at developing research questions that were clearer and more concise, anchoring a more practical and workable project scope. Research team members noted that by working with KQED they became more deliberate in developing research questions that met both academic and practitioner interests.

Through project studies, CTC also provided KQED science staff an opportunity to become more proficient in the use of advanced social media tools to conduct detailed analytics on program impact and audience viewing tendencies. Findings from these studies informed the application of diverse audience engagement methods for science production content and news reporting

Participating in the research also had the benefit of validating KQED’s science production and news staff’s professional knowledge and experience (sometimes referred to as “professional hunches”) with respect to science communication research.

Researcher Gains

CTC was the first opportunity many on the research team had to work directly with science media practitioners on a formal study. Previous to CTC, most of the research team had never participated in the development of an NSF proposal or even worked on an NSF-funded study. The project co-PI, Dr. Asheley Landrum, had never managed a multiyear NSF grant. Not only did Landrum have to lead research activities and oversee a group of five research assistants, but she was also responsible for fulfilling her academic teaching and publishing responsibilities during the grant period. In lieu of this dilemma, Landrum lobbied successfully for the hiring of a postdoctoral student to assist with project management.

During Landrum’s maternity leave in the summer of 2020, the postdoctoral associate stepped in to handle the bulk of Landrum’s research and administrative responsibilities, including management of the project’s two doctoral research assistants. Her ability to keep the project on track during Landrum’s absence was a credit not only to her own personal growth on the project, but to Landrum’s skill and growth as a co-PI. The postdoctoral associate was impressed by how much Landrum had accomplished in such a short period of time.

I certainly didn’t expect to end up being the project manager of myself and the doctoral and undergraduate students who work under Dr. Landrum. he management role evolved organically. Dr. Landrum did a really good job preparing for this to happen. Once she knew that she would be out on maternity leave, she included me more frequently in the smaller RA meetings. She helped me feel like a leader of the group. — Research team

As their work continued with KQED, individual members of the research team acquired more skills and knowledge and became increasingly more confident in their abilities.

In large part because of this project, I’m being respected more as a researcher and a project leader. I have experienced seeing how a grant works, like being part of budget development meetings. Being able to work with media professionals too, just seeing how researchers can work with people in the field, whether that is media or another nonprofit agency has been great. — Researcher

By understanding the more actionable oriented research needs of KQED’s science media producers and journalists, the research team modified some of their methodological approaches. KQED’s inquiries regarding appropriateness of survey items in terms of wording or inclusivity also had an impact on the research team.

I think I am more intentional in the language that I’m using and the scales that I’m using. Just because you can throw together a survey doesn’t mean you should. This project (CTC) has helped me appreciate that sometimes a little more conversation is really important about whether a particular item is right or not. Is this the right question? It is really important that we see the relevance of being intentional. I think that’s something I’ve tried to incorporate into my own work as well. — Researcher

Both teams recognized the prestige factor that came from working with the other. Affiliating with a well-regarded research team from Texas Tech offered the KQED science team a heightened level of gravitas and understanding of their work. Through CTC, Texas Tech University researchers saw the practical and beneficial applications of their research to the field of science communications, especially with regards to more effectively educating the public on important health issues during the pandemic.

CTC demonstrates the value of collaborations bringing together individuals with a variety of talents and resources that any one person cannot possibly have on their own. The interaction of individuals in this manner, facilitates learning of new skills and opportunities to explore new professional roles and functions.

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