I’ve been a published author for 15 years and spent a lot of time in rooms with people much more famous than me. I’ve had the privilege of being scheduled for signings at Dragoncon and Archon and Midsouthcon and and and and … In the long tradition of SFFH conventions, they usually put someone like me next to a Super Famous Person, balancing out the crowds.
For example, one of my earliest signings was me and Anne McCaffrey. There were two people in line for me, and the line for Ms. McCaffrey stretched to Spain. This worked out nicely for me, since the layout of the room required them to walk past me when they left. Here, have a cover card!
Some of the Famous People I’ve signed with were cool or even dismissive, and no, I’m not naming names. Suffice to say one of them was outright rude and mocked the layout design on my book in front of the room, and another nearly ran me over with her scooter. Twice.
Others were sincerely friendly, and I prefer to remember them. I spent a Sunday morning chatting with Rod Roddenberry in an empty signing room, because seriously NOBODY shows up for a Sunday morning signing at Dragoncon. I told Rod about my father’s fondness for Star Trek back when he was a young airman during the original series, and how he shared it with me and now I was sharing it with my son, because Trek is a family tradition now. He was collecting stories like that for his eventual documentary on the impact of his father’s work. At my last Midsouthcon, I spent most of the signing hour getting terrific advice from editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow (in between customers), and I’ve written before about my wonderful dinnertime chat with Terry Pratchett and his vest full of stars.
What does this have to do with Grant Imahara? Well, he and I did a signing together at Dragoncon in 2012, and because I was living under a rock, I actually had to look him up to see why there was a line to Spain for him, too. Everybody was at his table! Who was he, again?
Look, I’m a writer. I barely get my nose out of the computer, I didn’t watch Mythbusters. Except the Jaws episode, I watched that one. Giant rock, underneath, me. It was later when my friends were aghast: “You signed with Grant Imahara? He’s the cool one from Mythbusters!“
Grant was friendly and kind. His line was extensive and the other two lines were practically nonexistent, so he kept directing people to go visit us after they had gotten his autograph. The tables were set up differently by then – we didn’t share a table, just a room – but before he left he made sure to come over and greet us lowly folk and look at our work.
That was rare for a superstar, folks. There’s a hierarchy, and definitely actors and TV personalities ranked much, much higher than scribbling writers. For any other actor, I think I would have had to stand in line at their own table to exchange a few words. Authors are better attuned to the scrabbling and desperation of gaining eyes on your work at a con, but even then, the Big-Time Names tend to forget us by the time they’re the lead name in a signing. For them to acknowledge our existence was cool; to actively encourage people to drop by our tables and consider our work was damn stellar. I know I picked up at least a few sales from Grant’s fans, and I am always grateful for that kind of support.
Others knew Grant Imahara much better than I did, but by all reports his friendly, gracious nature was reflected by everyone who knew him. I know that his genuine good nature made a far greater impression on me in that one-hour signing than any number of TV shows might have had. In an era where so many people we thought were great folk have turned out to be secret monsters, it is heartbreaking to lose one of the good guys – and so very young.
I am happy to report that my sort-of first academic conference went well, in that I completed my presentation and no one threw anything at me or shouted “Heretic!” and tried to chase me from the building. My barometer for “went well” might be a little low, but remember, I work in the news business.
Technically my first academic conference was the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity, where I spoke about the 2014 project to rewrite and update the SPJ Code of Ethics a couple of years ago. I was a bundle of nerves there as well, but I was not presenting original research; merely reporting on a process in which I was part, and with extensive assistance from then-chairman Andrew Seaman and former chairman Kevin Smith.
The conference took place the first weekend of March at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., which is just south of Oklahoma City. I flew down on Feb. 28 and took the afternoon to look around Oklahoma City before settling in to be all academic and stuff.
This is the first academic conference where I was presenting my own research, and as my friends and colleagues know, my research last semester was wrought with blood and tears, so I was more than a little uneasy about the presentation.
But no moreso than my traveling companions, both of whom are my fellow first-year masters students and at least twenty years younger than I, the younglings.
I’m glad to report that AEJMC is a fairly low-key and welcoming conference, with three or four presentations per hour in small rooms with receptive audiences. Following the presentations, there is a respondent (who apparently was tasked with reading all the papers) who gives initial feedback, then questions and comments from the audience.
The respondent for my session could not make it, which was both a disappointment and a relief – I hope for real feedback, but I’d be just as happy not to get it in front of a live studio audience. I’m shy.
I attended many other sessions as well, and got a sense of what kind of research is taking place on the academic side of the field. This is different than the usual trade conferences I attend (and certainly different than the pop culture cons).
The trade conferences tend to be focused on practical applications, career advice, recounting of methods and approaches, and other how-to’s for performing and promoting journalism.
At the pop culture cons, there’s usually people in costume. This was not present at AEJMC.
Here are some of the research projects I heard presented:
• A game-based intervention on adults for media literacy did not yield the expected results, but showed promise for refinement in helping to promote the ability to discern fact from fiction in news content.
Note: The more education one has, the more one interacts with text and the more time you spend on content, the more likely you are to be able to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation. Yet another nail in the coffin of “not everyone needs an education,” in my opinion.
As one person in the audience suggested, it is high time universities considered mothballing the old-fashioned “speech” class requirement in favor of intro to media or media literacy for all undergrads. Not every professional adult is going to give speeches in their work life, but everyone will need media literacy going forward. Food for thought.
• Along that line of thought, West Texas A&M University developed a service learning model for media literacy. Freshman students went through a five-week training course in media literacy, then went into the area high schools and taught the principles of media literacy to high-schoolers. The high schools want to incorporate it into their curriculum, but are swamped with mandates and limited on time and resources.
The program emphasized the importance of balance and fairness, evaluating sources, internet censorship, citizen journalism around the world, the impact of social media, and more. Then by teaching it to younger kids, the students learn better themselves.
Note: The program focused on finding a middle ground between championing journalism’s goals and successes, and dwelling endlessly on our errors and doom-and-gloom challenges. Teaching young people that all media is suspect, that journalism is dead and everyone online is awful does not help foster the next generation’s ability to navigate the media landscape or build a better one.
Or, as one speaker put it, a critical look at mass media should not turn into a conspiracy-theory cynicism that serves only to further tear down the profession and the industry.
• An examination of automated journalism in China. There have been previous studies of this, but focused only on such news in English. What is automated journalism? Apparently, news stories that are aggregated by algorithm, with no humans involved.
This is a beast heretofore unknown to me. The creation of aggregate stories alone was a bit of a shock to me a few years ago, when it tore down the age-old prohibitions on citing and linking our competitors’ work by compiling “stories” with links and citations to other news organizations. But at least those stories still have a living, trained journalist doing the compiling and evaluating the sources’ veracity. This is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to replacing journalists with robots.
It’s safe to say I’m not a fan.
Fortunately, the study found that readability and expertise rated higher for human-written news than automated, although for some reason readers rated credibility marginally lower for humans than machines. If you want to read more about Robby the Robot Journalist, Emerj did a piece on news by A.I. in January.
• Research on health podcasts found that doctors and people who have been personally diagnosed with an illness carried much higher credibility with podcast listeners than hearing the same information from a podcast host who did not have medical credentials. It also had a higher impact on health behaviors, and a higher interest in downloading and following the podcast in the future.
Another podcast study focused on commercials: the average is 5.1 commercials per podcast in the top 100 iTunes-distributed podcasts, up from 2.4 a decade ago. About 31 percent were sponsorships, and 87 percent directly or indirectly related to the subject of the podcast.
• This one will not please my teenage son: While 71 percent of Americans age 18-24 are habitual Instagram users, as much as 25 percent would qualify as “problematic users.” Social media addiction is a real, trackable thing, folks.
The addictive gratifications of compulsive Instagram use rival those obtained by food, sleep and sex, though they do not have a classification as a mental disorder (yet). They defined it as a state of unconscious activity, of compulsive use with multiple gratifications. I am probably mangling this definition, but it was an interesting study.
• In popular culture, there were examinations of Mad Men as a paradoxical feminist text, the portrayal of bisexuality on CW shows, the representation of Asian Indians in American film over the last 10 years, and the Kardashians’ impact on awareness of the Armenian genocide.
Don’t laugh. I didn’t know either, but they’re an Armenian episode and have apparently made a significant impact in advocacy for genocide victims and awareness of Armenian culture in exile. Who knew?
Also, the average CW viewer watches eight hours of TV a day. When do they work or sleep?
My colleague Rahul Menon did the Indian film study, and found an increasing number of positive portrayals of Asian Indians as hardworking, funny and helpful, though still fewer than half are actually portrayed by Indian actors.
Finally, there was a study on the impact that popular culture can have on people’s perceptions of mental illness. Specifically, they studied Batman and Beyonce, focusing on an article about Beyonce’s struggle with depression and Batman knocking the hell out of someone who said bad things about someone with mental illness. I’m paraphrasing, because this is already a long blog post, but it was an interesting study from the University of Missouri.
The answer is: yes, it makes a difference – but the study itself didn’t quite bear that out. Popular culture changes opinions, which sounds like a DUH, but in academia you need research and statistics to back up the things that should seem obvious, because sometimes it’s not. The “parasocial relationship,” which is academic-speak for our ability to identify with a fictional character, is key to whether the popular culture icon can shift personal opinion in real life. In short, mental health stigma can be reduced if it is responsibly discussed in media, but the message and the media matter.
Also: More than 80 percent of the audience was familiar with Beyonce. Only 69 percent were familiar with Batman. What?
This is a quick-and-dirty rundown on two days of research discussion, and apologies if I have mangled anyone’s research. I was honored to be there with my little study on journalists’ portrayal in film, and gained some ideas and feedback for my continuing research as I proceed into … wait for it … my thesis. But more on that next year!
Note: I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial while I was in town. A narration and photo array will be pending on the Patreon.
It was a quiet month here at Donald Media, largely in transition between the daily news beat and the brave new world of freelancing. I imagine bylines will be much rarer, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing.
My official last byline for the News-Democrat centered on the turbulent history of the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses of Southern Illinois University, as another president is forced to resign. I was a bit nervous writing this story right before I switched gears, but since both sides seemed to feel it was fair, I breathed easier. If both sides are happy or both sides are mad, you’ve done your job. It ran a week after I left.
• A essay titled “First Rough Draft of History” musing on departure from daily news, available to subscribers $5 and up.
• Blog posts on “Freelance Folderol, Part 1,” and on grad school: “First Class” and “Paradigm Shifts,” available to all subscribers.
• A photo essay from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Chinese Festival, available to subscribers $3 and up.
• A fiction excerpt from Banshee’s Run, the work currently in progress, available to subscribers $10 and up.
On the home front, we spent much of August in a mad frenzy of mucking out the house (which got about 75 percent done) and setting up my office again. It had devolved into a dumping ground of storage, and still is only halfway mucked out. But I have shiny new computers in the Tower now, which should greatly expand my capability to make art and words to entertain you endlessly. Now all I need is time…
Buckle in, because I imagine the movie reviews over on CultureGeek are going to largely center on journalism movies for a while, since that’s what my grad school research will focus on. I’ve had to (at least temporarily) discontinue the Linkspam posts and the Fake News Roundups here on Donald Media, because honestly, there’s only X amount of me to go around. Those are fun features, but time-consuming, and frankly the hit counts don’t justify continuing them until or unless I acquire more hours in the day.
I’ve been asked if I intend to write political essays now that I am no longer working for the newspaper. It is very tempting, and Zod above knows there’s plenty of material these days. Here’s the thing: I don’t know what form my freelancing will take. Most freelancers I know develop a niche and specialize in a particular kind of content. I haven’t done that – if anything, I’ve been a generalist my entire career, hopping from subject to subject from day to day. In short, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I will still be called upon to write politics, and thus it would still be inappropriate to opine about the issues of the day.
But yes, it is tempting.
Coming up this month: lots and lots of school, more Patreon work as the membership grows, the Student Boot Camp for SPJ, and the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference in Baltimore, which I will be attending to represent St. Louis SPJ. Watch my @edonaldmedia Twitter for the journalism-related material, and @edonald for personal and photographic evidence. As you might know, I lived in Baltimore for a time as a teenager, and I have fond memories of Charm City. I am really looking forward to five days staying right at the Inner Harbor, and will be shooting photos of anything that will stand still. If only I ate seafood.
In the meantime, the freelance folderol continues, the photo backlog is piling up, and the Patreon is (understandably) getting a large amount of my attention. You might consider subscribing…
It’s been a busy couple of months, with some neat changes pending I can’t talk about yet, and my appearances at Midsouthcon, the SPJ Region 7 Conference, and a couple of fun photo shoots I’m looking forward to sharing with you.
I particularly enjoyed my jaunt to Ames, Iowa, with side trips to the original Field of Dreams and the world’s largest (concrete) garden gnome. Of course, the highlight of the trip was the opportunity to talk ethics with some terrific journalism students, and I am very grateful to SPJ Regional Director Kari Williams for allowing me to speak.
Photos are in the processing queue, and I hope to have a new batch up on the photo site in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, enjoy some of these articles and a handful of blog reviews!