Matthew Nisbet on the Strategies of Superstar Journalists

Becoming a successful journalist is no longer about simply having good writing and reporting skills. As the industry changes, print newspapers die out, and the world goes digital, aspiring journalists need to become experts in their fields, with a strong presence and “shareable” content, in order to become successful. Dr. Matthew Nisbet, Associate Professor at American University’s School of Communication and former advisee of Associate Dean Shanahan at Cornell University, dove into this issue in relation to climate change at the March COM Research Colloquium on Thursday.

Nisbet has been busy in the last five years, honing in on the debate over climate change and how the media covers the controversy. He has performed large-scale public opinion research and analysis, and has run experiments on the framing of stories and content analysis. Since 2005, he has joined the blog scene and expanded his reach via the world of social media.

Nisbet claims that social media presence has a huge impact of the success of journalists these days.   |   Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Sofiaperesoa.
Nisbet claims that social media presence has a huge impact of the success of journalists these days. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Sofiaperesoa.

While journalists are constantly striving to understand the judgments of the public and which factors shape public opinion, Nisbet proposes that the judgments and opinions of journalists themselves are influenced. These public intellectuals, experts, and journalists are writing for the public, in a “popular way,” and are shaping the opinions of the public based off of the opinions of a small group. Specifically, Nisbet is interested in understanding the role of journalists as public intellectuals in science policy debates.

Nisbet is an advocate of teaching knowledge-based journalism. This means using scientific and scholarly research in the journalism curriculum and making reliance on research as second nature as reporting. The creation of resources as curated repository and aggregation of relevant studies and research across frequently covered public affairs topics would further this cause. Big-time journalists Andrew Revkin, Tom Friedman, Bill McKibben, Nicholas Carr, and Malcom Gladwell, to name a few, were all cited by Nisbet as demonstrators of this themselves. With these skills, journalists can achieve that “public intellectual” status and become voices to the people.

Using The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot as an example, Nisbet examined the impact of media on the reception of Skloot’s work. He found that the influence of the book on the public was greatly shaped by its circulated marketing campaign, reviews, and summaries. People formed their own opinions, and consequently, opinions about the issues on which the book focuses, even if they hadn’t actually read the book.

Nisbet looked at the focus which journalists, as a part of the “media coverage,” lent to the book. He found that the issues’ frames were relatively narrow. Issues such as scientific progress, control and access, and accountability were all much less emphasized in the conversations. How the journalists handled the issues in the book influenced what shaped the debate as a whole in the public sphere.

Nisbet painted a picture of the future of “superstar” journalists:

  • They merge their public and private selves by relating complex ideas or problems to personal anecdotes, “journeys,” or “realizations.”
  • Their appearance, headshot, image, and dress are likely to be consistent with the subject matter about which they write.
  • They establish authenticity and commitment to a topic, i.e. “walks the walk,” “practice what they preach,” or acquire unique knowledge through exceptional experiences.
  • Most are commodities in that their books, writing, and speeches are bound up with a dense web of promotion, selling, marketing, and millions of dollars in transactions.

Articles become “most popular” by how many times they are emailed, flagged, highlighted, shared, contextualized, and spread. They are measured by reactions from bloggers and journalists at other news sites. Public intellectuals, journalists, and experts will be tweeting about it.

Nisbet used an example of a widely spread Dot Earth article on climate change. The article is not a simple narrative, but instead a series of interactions. Imbedded in the article is a Google Hangout conversation. The article is also consistently updated as more information is made available and reactions are received.

The key takeaway from Nisbet’s talk was the higher demands that the industry asks of rising journalists. Today, journalists must build a social media presence, start online conversations, and develop their own online personalities in a strategic manner. Journalists must consider not only how their work will be received, but how it will be shared and spread throughout the online community. Basically, they’ll have to be superstars.

About Emily Payne

Emily is The Quad's Managing Editor. Hailing from the smallest state, she loves the outdoors, photography, indie rock, biking, and all things Irish or organic. She has an addiction to running and can laugh about basically anything. Follow her @erpayne.

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