Research Conversations

The UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media's Research Conversations podcast series highlights the outstanding work of the school's faculty and students.


Each episode brings together UNC Hussman colleagues to discuss current research projects exploring various aspects of mass communication.


May 3, 2018

Associate Professor Suman Lee joins Professor Daniel Riffe to discuss his research on international public relations, public diplomacy, public relations theory and international communication. Click here to read more

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March 20, 2018

Assistant Professor Victoria "Tori" Smith Ekstrand joins Professor Daniel Riffe to discuss her research on conflicts between copyright law and the First Amendment, particularly as they arise in journalism and social media. Click here to read more

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Dec. 22, 2017

Academic Dean and James H. Shumaker Professor Francesca Dillman Carpentier joins Professor Daniel Riffe to discuss her research on mass communication theory and statistics. She also conducts research on mass media effects, audience responses to depictions of sex in media and audience motivations governing media content choices. Click here to read more

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Oct. 24, 2017

Associate Professor Deen Freelon joins Professor Daniel Riffe to discuss his research covering two major areas of scholarship: political expression through digital media and data science and computational methods for analyzing large digital datasets. Click here to read more

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Feb. 11, 2016

Associate Professor Rhonda Gibson joins Professor Daniel Riffe to discuss her research examining media images of transgender families and the effects of those images. Click here to read more

This is a research conversation from the UNC School of Media and Journalism, highlighting the work of our faculty and graduate students.

00:00:24 Dan Riffe: Hi, I'm Dan Riffe, the Richard Cole Eminent Professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism. I'm here with Dr. Rhonda Gibson, an associate professor in the MJ-school and one of the recipients of the school's $5,000 faculty seed grants. Rhonda, thanks for joining us today. How are you?

00:00:39 Rhonda Gibson: I’m doing well, Dan, and it's my pleasure to be here.

00:00:42 Riffe: You've taught a number of courses in the school covering topics like writing and reporting, and communication theory, media ethics and mass communication pedagogy, but much of your research has revolved around the portrayal of sexual minorities in news and entertainment media. How long have you been doing research like this, and how has the field developed in that time?

00:01:02 Gibson: Well, my interest in this area started when I was a newspaper reporter back in the late 1980s. I covered the medical beat, and one of the big health-related stories then was the emerging AIDS epidemic. It made me aware of how issues such as sexual orientation can influence all aspects of our public and private lives. Then once I transitioned to academia, I was able to more formally examine how news and entertainment media handled topics related to sexual orientation and now gender identity. There is so much more research activity in this area now than when I first started, and many of our graduate students have joined me on my projects. We all realize it's important to study how media have documented these monumental social and political changes.

00:01:43 Riffe: What about this latest project, the one that's funded by the school's seed grant? What's it about? How does it fit in with previous work?

00:01:50 Gibson: Well, I'm planning a two-step approach. First, I want to do an extensive content analysis to learn how news and entertainment media have portrayed issues of gender identity, specifically as they relate to families. The study will include print broadcast and online news, as well as TV shows and movies. Then I hope to secure additional funding to examine the effects of these media portrayals on people's attitudes about gender identity and transgender individuals. This is not something that's been addressed by academic research yet, at least not that I'm aware of.

00:02:21 Riffe: I noticed in your proposal that you mentioned transgender families and not just transgender individuals. What specifically is a transgender family, and why are you focusing your research on portrayals of families?

00:02:33 Gibson: A transgender family is one in which somebody in the family is dealing with issues and complications related to gender identity. So it might be a family where one of the parents is considered transitioning from male to female or vice versa, or a family where one of the children is showing signs of being uncomfortable having to live under the gender label the person was assigned at birth. We've seen a lot of media coverage of high-profile individuals such as Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono. And research has certainly begun to examine that coverage. But what we haven't seen is research that looks at media portrayals of non-celebrity transgender individuals, and how their gender transitions affect family dynamics.

00:03:12 Riffe: This topic must be a very important and personal one for a lot of people. How do you envision this research making an impact outside the academic world?

00:03:21 Gibson: I’m hopeful that this research will help media professionals, those who create both news and entertainment content, to understand the effects of their work. I hope it will make them think more carefully about the language that they use and not to rely just on tired stereotypes. It will also help GLBT advocacy groups to understand how transgender families are portrayed, so they can work with media professionals as they have for years regarding media images of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

00:03:49 Riffe: So how does the study actually come to be? I mean, where do you start out? Where does the researcher start out when she's doing research on a topic that hadn't been explored before?

00:03:57 Gibson: Well, the first step is to figure out what media to include in our content analysis. I'll be working with Ph.D. student Chris Etheridge to select the most widely viewed news and entertainment media, and to identify all news and entertainment storylines that include transgender families. We also need to think about non-traditional media formats, such as YouTube videos, to make sure we're examining the content most likely to influence people's understanding of issues related to gender identity. This seed grant will give me the opportunity to support Chris financially, and that allows us to focus solely on this project during the summer.

00:04:31 Riffe: Do you envision advocacy groups benefiting from this kind of research?

00:04:35 Gibson: Well, I certainly do, or at least I hope so. Groups such as GLAAD and the Human Rights Commission have a terrific track record in helping media professionals do their jobs better. They help news reporters understand terminology and help scriptwriters produce material that is fair, accurate and representative. They've put together some real high quality online guides to help content producers learn about nuanced issues related to sexual orientation. I'm hopeful my research will help expand this media and advocacy collaboration into the specific area of gender identity.

00:05:08 Riffe: I look forward to seeing where this research takes you and how it fills this gap in research on media imagery. Thanks for talking to us about it.

00:05:15 Gibson: Thank you, Dan.


Feb. 11, 2016

Assistant Professor Nori Comello joins Daniel Riffe to discuss her research pretesting an online tool that uses a tailored approach to aid smoking cessation. Comello was one of five MJ-school faculty members awarded 2016 seed grant funds to move their research forward. Click here to read more

This is a research conversation from the UNC School of Media and Journalism, highlighting the work of our faculty and graduate students.

00:00:24 Dan Riffe: Hi, I'm Dan Riffe, the Richard Coleman Eminent Professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism. And I'm here with Dr. Nori Comello, an assistant professor in our public relations specialization and the Interdisciplinary Health Communication program. Nori, thanks for joining me for a conversation about your upcoming research project – pre-testing an online tool for smoking cessation. You've previously studied efforts to prevent tobacco use. How has that work guided your new study, and what kind of gap do you hope to fill in the cessation research?

00:00:55 Nori Comello: Well, sure. Most of the research I've done in the last several years has involved messages to prevent tobacco and other substance use. For example, I've done experiments to test the effects of different messages in the lab. And I've also conducted focus groups to develop prevention messages prior to being used in campaigns. And that's part of a process called formative research. You want to make sure that the messages are based on theory and that they resonate with your audiences and don't backfire before you take them on a larger scale. So that's just a good investment of resources. And the process also tells you really cool and interesting things about how the messages are working. So that's what I propose in the seed grant project, and what my previous work has prepared me to do formative research to uncover the most effective messages for Nicotrax, which is the online cessation tool to use in their implementation.

00:01:51 Riffe: That's a new term for me. Can you tell me more about the new Nicotrax technology? What does it do? How does it work?

00:01:57 Comello: Yeah. Nicotrax is a really intriguing new technology designed by graduates of N.C. State's School of Engineering. And it's basically a hardware-software combination, the hardware being a cigarette case to kind, of course, monitor when, you know, the user takes out a cigarette. And so it collects that behavioral data. But it also collects lots of other contextual data related to smoking. So, you know, in addition to time, location and ultimately, you know, proximity to other smokers. So these are all data points that would be collected automatically by this technology. And that's the first in the field, so this is really groundbreaking technology. That data is really useful, of course, from a health communication perspective, because it can be used to help tailor messages that could be sent to the users at specific times. They can have content specific to individual users' goals and also be sent the times when the behavior is most likely to happen. So again, that's called tailored communication, and interventions that are tailored are more likely to be successful. And so that next presents the issue of, you know, how to tailor these messages to individuals most effectively.

00:03:13 Riffe: So how does your studies specifically help on the development of Nicotrax and ultimately aid in helping people try to quit smoking?

00:03:21 Comello: Well, Nicotrax right now is in late stage development, and so it's not yet ready for market. It still has to be tested in field trials for effectiveness. So my research will help get it to that stage. We're proposing a couple of rounds of focus group research. In the first round, you know, we will talk with potential target market audience members and ask them about the kinds, about their previous quit attempts and what messages they would find effective in a smoking cessation context. Then we analyze the data, give that to Nicotrax, and they would use that to help modify and improve the app. And in the second round of focus group testing, we would have the users actually use the app for a two-week period. And then that way we can discover how it fits into their day-to-day experience, what things are helpful, what things were not so helpful. And once again, Nicotrax would take that information to help improve the app for more formal testing in the field.

00:04:26 Riffe: When I know that you're nationally, internationally known as an expert in identity research and theory. What role does psychological constructs like identity and self-affirmation play in your work? What could that mean to the field?

00:04:40 Comello: Well, this is where it gets really exciting for me, Dan, because I've spent the last several years looking at identity and self-concept and the role they play in persuasive communication. So there are lots of aspects of identity that I studied that I find fascinating, but for this project, a concept I'm really interested in is called self-affirmation. And this is when we reflect on an aspect of ourselves that's really valuable to us. And in doing so, it can help soften the blow of other things that might be threatening to us, even in other domains. So the process of behavior change can be stressful and threatening. But with this technology, there's potential to craft messages that remind you things that are really affirming and send them at specific times so that you can minimize feelings of threat. So self-affirmation hasn't been studied yet in online-tailored intervention contexts. Typical tailored messages might give you, you know, information on how much progress you've made toward your goal, or maybe a tailored list of pros and cons to changing a certain behavior. But there's nothing that I've seen so far that's looked at self-affirmation and other identity constructs and really built them into, you know, into a program. And so because it's new, it would push the field and opens the door.

00:06:01 Riffe: How do you envision that working? How would someone who's trying to quit smoking and receive a self-affirming message? What might that content of that message, that self-affirming message look like?

00:06:12 Comello: Oh, well, that's a good question. Um, it'll be based, of course, on, you know, in-depth literature review and preliminary testing. But what I envision right now is that the user might be able to provide actual content, maybe messages or quotes or even images that symbolize things that they really value. So in my case, it might be, you know, my family, or my dog, or yoga. Maybe in your case it would be a view of a lake or something like that, or your victory. But the idea is that these reminders could be stored in a library and they could be sent out at specific times. And, you know, in a moment of, you know, weakness or temptation, seeing that picture of, you know, my family might help support the identity that I want to maintain. So yeah, that's kind of the basic idea, but, you know, we'll, of course, look at the literature and see what other things have been done.

00:07:13 Riffe: If the Nicotrax technology is successful, do you see potential for using similar psychological concepts and other behaviors besides smoking, in addition to smoking?

00:07:24 Comello: Oh, well, yeah, it's still kind of early in the game. But I think there might be to the extent that users can be asked to define in advance what's valuable to them and what they find personally affirming. I think that's really powerful and that there's potential to apply an identity perspective to other tailored health behavior change programs.

00:07:45 Riffe: So the developers of Nicotrax are helping support the project and you're working with the UNC School of Medicine. Who are the people with whom you're collaborating? And how do you make connections like those?

00:07:58 Comello: Oh, well, my main contact at Nicotrax is Kyle Linton. He's a CEO and co-founder of Nicotrax. He's a recent graduate of N.C. State's engineering program, and it's been really interesting to hear how this project evolved from an entrepreneurship class that he and his partners took while they were students. Through colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Health Communication program here at the IFC program, I heard that Kyle was looking for collaborators to help test their product. Kyle and his partners were working with Carol Ripley-Moffitt, who directs the Nicotine Dependence Program here at UNC. So we'll be partnering with them in terms of recruiting participants for focus groups. Within our school, I'm working with a couple of our fabulous graduate students, Jeannette Porter, who's a second-year Ph.D. here. She's going to be helping on facilitating focus groups and analysis. And also Deanna Puglia, who is a first-year master's student, will be helping with the project as well.

00:08:55 Riffe: Well, Nori, this sounds very exciting. The collaboration not only with our students, but with others in the industry and in the area. Thank you for telling me about your project and good luck as you get started.

00:09:07 Comello: Thank you, Dan. Pleasure to be here.

00:09:25 Riffe: Good morning, Americans. This is Paul Harvey.

00:09:32 Comello: Very convincing, very convincing.

00:09:33 Riffe: Stop laughing.

Feb. 11, 2016

Assistant Professor Adam Saffer joins Daniel Riffe to discuss his research examining the network of relationships and assessing the social capital among Chinese NGOs. Saffer was one of five MJ-school faculty members awarded 2016 seed grant funds to move their research forward. Click here to read more

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Feb. 11, 2016

Assistant Professor Joseph Cabosky joins Daniel Riffe to discuss his research exploring new ways to assess the benefit of public relations activity. Cabosky was one of five MJ-school faculty members awarded 2016 seed grant funds to move their research forward. Click here to read more

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Feb. 11, 2016

Assistant Professor Allison Lazard joins Daniel Riffe to discuss her research on how the use of e-cigarette imagery cues influences the effectiveness of messages designed to communicate the potential harms and risks of e-cigarettes. Lazard was one of five MJ-school faculty members awarded 2016 seed grant funds to move their research forward. Click here to read more

Coming soon