Research Spotlight: Understanding mass media with David Atkin

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David Atkin is a professor of communications at the University of Connecticut. His work focuses on the quickly-growing field of new media. In recent months, his work has focused on the intersection of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic. One example of how Atkin’s research is applicable to real life is his work is the way mass media influenced the public’s conception of COVID-19 mitigation tactics. Photo courtesy of @ravinepz on Unsplash.com

David Atkin is a professor of communications at the University of Connecticut. His work focuses on the quickly-growing field of new media. In recent months, his work has focused on the intersection of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Atkin explained that he had a family orientation to the field.  

“My dad was one of the first in the country to be a PhD student of communication and mass media,” Atkin said.  

Atkin then became interested in the field of new media in sociology classes in his undergraduate career.  

“I was an undergrad at Cal Berkeley. It seemed like an exciting area of study in the early 80s, looking at the effects of media on public opinion and individual users. I just loved the classes on it,” Atkin said. 

This led him to studying cable television. Since then, Atkin has written two books about television.  

Atkin’s research was not limited to television, however. Atkin is an author of over 160 scholarly articles which span a wide range of topics in new media. Much of Atkin’s recent research deals with social media. Atkin explained this was important to him because of social media’s increasing presence in our media diets. 

“We spend something like 40% of our lifespan with media,” Atkin said. “I figured we better get busy and look at what these media are doing to us individually and as a society.” 

Atkin is an author of over 160 scholarly articles which span a wide range of topics in new media. One example of how Atkin’s research is applicable to real life is his work is the way mass media influenced the public’s conception of COVID-19 mitigation tactics. Photo courtesy of the UConn Department of Communication’s website.

One example of how Atkin’s research is applicable to real life is his work is the way mass media influenced the public’s conception of COVID-19 mitigation tactics.  

“I and a colleague in China got one of the first surveys at a national sample back about issues people had with mitigation of COVID-19, and how they were reacting to government campaigns telling them to wash their hands and social distance. Those were kind of new concepts. That was fascinating, to get that early data,” Atkin said.  

Here, Atkin is referring to a study released in April in collaboration with former student Hongliang Chen, now an assistant professor at Zhejiang University, and doctoral candidate Qike Jia. The study looked at how the risk of COVID-19 was communicated to the public, and how the public interpreted that risk. 

Currently, Atkin is working on a follow-up study to that research. This involves doing a survey that tracks how different traits like news consumption and personality traits contribute to mask-wearing habits. 

This isn’t the only way Atkin’s research has been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We have to be very concerned about, for example, print journalism. Some say COVID-19 is an extinction-level event for journalism because businesses are shut down so they don’t buy advertising. What that means is that we’re losing the advertising support for the media, which has been relatively constant since 1945—to be precise, 2 to 4% of gross national product,” Atkin said.  

This means that digital media ad money has slowly overtaken legacy media ad money, according to Atkin.  

“By the end of 2023, it’ll be roughly two thirds of ad dollars going to digital. Unfortunately what that means — we don’t get news for that. We’re mainly watching Google and Facebook have 60% of the ad market for digital advertising,” Atkin said.  

“By the end of 2023, it’ll be roughly two thirds of ad dollars going to digital. Unfortunately what that means — we don’t get news for that. We’re mainly watching Google and Facebook have 60% of the ad market for digital advertising,”

David Atkin, Professor of Communications at the University of Connecticut

This is dangerous, according to Atkin. This is because the news that many people get from sites like Google and Facebook exists in an echo chamber.  

“Social psychology tells us that we like to be exposed to information that confirms our predispositions. We find that more gratifying. Sadly, we’re all kind of withdrawing from more neutral, objective sources, and withdrawing into these echo chambers that sometimes are quite divorced from reality,” Atkin said. 

This means that some of Atkin’s recent research has also revolved around misinformation, and how it spreads on social media. This involves researching those echo chambers, also known as information silos.  

“If we start losing track of truth, as Obama wrote this week in his press release, that’s really dicey for democracy. We have to have some agreed-upon currency. Now we’re getting to a post-truth era,” Atkin said. 

These developments have influenced the field of new media greatly, but they don’t mean that Atkin has changed his approach to media entirely. As he explained, media isn’t inherently bad or good: It just is.  

“I take all media as neutral. It’s a kind of surgeon’s knife analogy, where it could do harm or it could do good.” 

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