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Are We Shallow? That’s a Deep Question


The title of a Feb. 27 talk at the Lincoln Center campus—”A Shallow Nation?”—prompted some deep answers, as four members of Fordham’s faculty delivered detailed, and surprising, news about human communication and behavior.

It was the latest event in a series, Growing Research at Fordham, which highlights faculty findings. First up was political science professor Costas Panagopoulos, Ph.D., who talked about the type of direct-mail pieces that motivate people to get out and vote. Research has found that invoking civic duty is less effective than promising that someone will take note of whether or not the recipients cast their ballots, he said.

“Turns out people care what others think of them, so they engage in pro-social behavior more often when they know that other people are watching,” he said. Such social cues, along with “information shortcuts,” present a more accurate picture of voters than the image of information seekers who are highly engaged, he said.In fact, all it takes is a subtle suggestion, like a picture of two eyes staring out from a postcard, as he found in his own 2011 study of voters in a Florida municipal election. That image produced a significant increase in turnout, compared to different images on other postcards, he said.

“I will leave it to you to judge whether this evidence speaks to a more shallow or a less shallow nation,” he said.

Education professor Kristen Turner, Ph.D., presented a new take on teens’ “digitalk,” or online messages with idiosyncratic spellings that are often derided as a sign of laziness. In her research, she found that teens’ messages actually followed accepted writing practices like communicating efficiently and tailoring one’s writing to one’s audience.

The teens also strive for a unique voice in their texting, shown by one teen who writes “5” instead of “S”—”just to have me in there,” as he put it, Turner said. Also, the spellings can reflect careful thought rather than shallow impulses, as demonstrated by the girl who wrestled with whether to add three or four y’s at the end of “hey”—”because if she puts four, that means she really likes him,” Turner said.

She found that, overall, the teens’ writing adhered to the idea of reciprocity, or a sort of implicit contract between writer and reader.

“This was pretty sophisticated writer behavior,” she said. “So I’m not trying to say that the teenagers … are Shakespeare. But I’m kind of thinking maybe they’re not doing things that are so bad.”

As far as deep reporting in American newspapers, Beth Knobel, Ph.D., professor of communication and media studies, found it’s alive and well despite the shrinking newspaper industry and the flight of readers to the Internet.

“Accountability reporting has not died out. There’s more total original reporting about government in newspapers than there’s probably ever been before,” she said, based on her study of front-page stories in two national papers and two regional ones over 20 years.

Since readers have already gotten their breaking news from the Internet by the time they pick up the paper, journalists have a new incentive to dig deeper into topics, she said.

“If you’re going to get somebody to pay for a newspaper … you have to give them original reporting that’s worth paying for,” she said.

There was bad news, however: While watchdog reporting was growing at the two regional papers, it was dropping at the two national ones, even though they still published a lot of it. Plus, stories tended to have fewer sources and more anonymous sources, she said, noting that people are aware that their quotes can be widely circulated online.

The final presenter—history professor Thierry Rigogne, Ph.D.—argued that academia isn’t immune to shallowness.

He described his current project, a history of a more enduring communication venue: the French coffeehouse, which, in 1800, “looks very much like it is today.”

With 150 books published on the topic and new ones coming out every year, he’s had a hard time convincing people that a history of the coffeehouses hasn’t been written yet. But after slogging through all the books’ sourcing information, much of it slipshod, he found they all trace back to a single text written by a French archivist in 1893.

“The scholarship is really shallow in the case of the café,” he said. “There’s not a single text that doesn’t go back to this one.”


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