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Credit: Patrick Robert Doyle on Unsplash

There has never been a golden age of journalism, where every last paper made stellar profits and the audience trusted every word that was printed. In recent years though, the difficulty to monetise news, especially on the local level, has resulted in many newsroom closures and job losses. Tech giants like Google and Facebook scooped up most of the digital advertising revenue, depriving newspapers of an important way to finance journalism. Add to this a crisis of public trust in the media and the picture really does not look good.

Despite an acute need for solutions, the gap between academic research on the media industry and journalists’ willingness to take scholars seriously is making everyone miss out.

"The truth is that good research takes time and can be critical. Journalists need to be open to that possibility too," says Valérie Bélair-Gagnon, assistant professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and director of the Minnnesota Journalism Center. Together with her fellow researcher Nikki Usher, associate professor at the University of Illinois, she researched the relationship between journalists and academics and their findings were recently published in Journalism Research That Matters.

To illustrate the problem, Bélair-Gagnon talks about researchers of colour who faced barriers when studying newsrooms’ coverage of racial discrimination.

In one instance, Danielle Kilgo from the University of Minnesota showed how news organisations make negative portrayals of racial struggle more real, using violent images, especially about race and crime, to get public attention.

"After pointing out these racialised frames to journalists, they were not acknowledging her data and ended her research access in their newsroom," she says.

"While scholars have the power to prompt journalists to face uncomfortable professional realities, including bias, change is not al­ways welcome."

The main advantage of academics is that they can push the boundaries of assumptions the news industry is taking for granted and propose practical solutions. It is not only about diversity either; research also covers areas like revenue, ethics or rights at work.

As Bélair-Gagnon points out, some institutions are working on bridging the gap, like the Trusting the News project in the US or the Reuters Institute in Oxford. Others, like The Conversation, Nieman Lab or Journalism.co.uk are amplifying research and make it more accessible.

"Part of the problem with research-practice gap, as Benjamin Toff from the Reuters Institute puts it, is the attention economy and reach of research," she says, adding that by looking at Crowdtangle data, Toff found that academic research gets far less attention than industry-specific developments.

However, one of the major issues for academics is access to newsrooms or journalists’ work and even access to proprietary and commercial data. This has a big impact on whether the study is representative.

"One of the most important takeaways is to define the rules of engagement early on any forms of collaboration to make sure that everyone is on the same page."

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