UW scholars receive major funding to study polarization and civic renewal

Researchers in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have received $1 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to establish the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal. The funding will support the continuation and expansion of a 10-year study of Wisconsin’s state and regional communications systems, to be housed under the new center.

Center leadership will draw on experts across several disciplines. Professors Lew Friedland, Dhavan Shah and Mike Wagner, along with collaborators in the Department of Political Science (Katherine Cramer), Department of Statistics (Karl Rohe), the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (William Sethares), and Boston University (Chris Wells), are co-principal investigators on the project.

Since 2010, researchers at the UW have used a unique approach to assess how state and regional information contributes to – or helps to ameliorate – polarization. The center’s research team will expand on this work, seeking to understand the state of politics and communication in Wisconsin over the last decade using ongoing public opinion research, computational content analysis of media, and qualitative fieldwork and interviews of citizens and elites. The center will conduct comparative public opinion research in swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina to further an understanding of ways Wisconsin is similar and different from other battleground states.

“Understanding how we move beyond polarized politics and toward civic renewal is a large-scale effort that requires detailed and extended study of the communication ecology and its social consequences using a range of approaches,” says Shah, who will lead the computational efforts. “Without support from Knight Foundation, this kind of multi-year, multi-method project would be impossible. But it is only through this kind of holistic research that we can start to understand how to heal our fractured political culture.”

Wagner, who has written about workings of American democratic institutions and processes, says that by studying how the news and conversations on social media influence attitudes and political behavior and knowledge, the center seeks an understanding of how Wisconsin politics became so contentious.

“We want to understand what we can do to help ease that polarization and encourage more productive political processes in the legislature and between citizens across lines of political difference. The fracturing in Wisconsin is a problem because democracy requires cooperation and compromise across lines of political difference,” Wagner says.

In addition to survey research, the investment will fund five graduate student project assistants, help hold conferences that will bring in scholars and practitioners every other year to discuss these important issues, and establish a partnership with local media to work on styles of news coverage and practices that are most likely to improve citizens’ feelings of respect across the political aisle. The funding will help support the center through the 2024 election, which will include two presidential election cycles and one Wisconsin governor’s race.

The funding is part of a broader, $50 million Knight Foundation initiative to develop a new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy.

“Wisconsin is ground zero for how changes in our politics and culture are colliding with changes to how we consume information,” says Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. “This center will make vital contributions to our understanding of the present and future of American democracy.”

A group of 12 former and current graduate students have worked on the project over the past several years, which, until recently, was unfunded. One of those students is Josephine Lukito, whose dissertation focuses on news coverage of U.S.-China economic relations.

“The training and collaborative opportunities for students in our department are second to none. This investment gives us a chance to push our integration of computational content analysis and time-series analysis forward in innovative ways that can shed important light on contentious politics,” Lukito says.

Friedland points to the scope of the qualitative components of the project, saying, “We continue to build on our co-investigator Kathy Cramer’s pathbreaking work. With our outstanding graduate students, we have conducted hundreds of interviews with Wisconsinites from every corner of the state, integrating the substance of these conversations with data we have gathered on counties’ economic, health and education outcomes and our own public opinion surveys. These interviews provide much needed depth and context to what we are finding with our other analytic strategies.”

The UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication is a leading choice for prospective graduate students interested in conducting political communication and civic engagement research and interdisciplinary mass communication research. The funding will further serve as a recruiting tool to attract top students interested in those disciplines.

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