Media and news research the right route for School of Communication alumnus
Media surrounds us everywhere we turn. Smartphones enable us to get news in an instant. Televisions are planted in the living room of every home.
We consume media, oftentimes, without even realizing it. It’s hard to escape and forms so much of our thinking nowadays. That’s why Frank Waddell, a Virginia Tech alumnus and an award-winning media researcher, loves what he does.
“One of the coolest things about being a media scholar is that we all watch television, we all read newspapers, so things start to catch your eye,” said Waddell, an associate professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Journalism, who teaches courses in research methods, communication theory, and mass communication statistics. “You say, ‘OK, let’s dig a little deeper into this and see if there’s something here that we should pay more attention to.’”
Waddell’s inquisitive nature has always served him well, but it was the process of learning to apply that curiosity at Virginia Tech that has led him down this path. He graduated from the School of Communication with a Bachelor of Arts in communication in 2010 and a Master of Arts in communication in 2012.
From the beginning of his time as a Hokie, Waddell was surrounded by professors who challenged him, including Beth Waggenspack and James Ivory. While taking courses in research methods and media effects, Waddell was learning the impact of media on people’s lives. Then, there were the hands-on experiences with Ivory in the research lab looking at topics such as video games and new technology.
“Dr. Waddell's productivity conducting, presenting, and publishing research as a master's student here was without parallel,” said Ivory, research director in the School of Communication. “He is an indefatigably hard worker with a keen sense of duty about producing knowledge for the good of humankind. The chance to be involved in even a small way with Dr. Waddell's exceptional career and life has been among the greatest moments of my academic work at Virginia Tech.”
Waddell also served as a graduate teaching assistant for a public speaking course. It all led to a solid footing for him as a researcher and a professor.
“I always tell people that the M.A. at Virginia Tech was the hardest I worked in my life up until that point,” Waddell said. “It truly was the perfect preparation for going into further study. Not just the quality of the courses, but also a lot of the in-depth experiences I got outside of the classroom.
“I was lucky to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve done at Virginia Tech.’ Not only have I learned a lot, but I’ve had a chance to apply it, too. I would not have had that opportunity at other programs.”
It’s not enough to go through graduate school and further into a doctoral program because it’s simply the next step. As Waddell worked through the master’s program and eventually completed his Ph.D. at Penn State University, it was the passion for communication research that kept him afloat as he pored over hours of long work.
“You’ve got to love what you’re planning to do,” Waddell said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this topic something that I think I can be excited about for several years or four years at a time?’ That passion is what’s going to draw you through the process.”
Since completing his Ph.D. in 2016, Waddell has worked at the University of Florida, where he’s published an array of research. Recently, he was awarded tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor.
A lot of his research since moving to Gainesville, Florida, has focused on declining levels of trust in the news. Waddell operates under the principle that people often don’t have the time to think critically about the news they’re reading, especially with so much news to choose from. So what mental shortcuts do they take and how does that frame their opinions?
“My research shows that what the crowd has to say about news is influential to how much people trust it and find it credible,” Waddell said. “Unfortunately for news organizations, this is especially true when the crowd is angry at whatever is in the news. If the crowd is patting the journalist on the back, that doesn’t actually do too much to help them in terms of trust. But when the crowd is angry and complaining, that hurts their level of trust in the news.”
There’s another side of this that Waddell examined. Most people don’t realize that weather reports or the fantasy sports articles they read are written through automation.
Automation in the future is only going to be more widely used. However, Waddell discovered that this might not actually produce the results that news organizations were looking for.
“What my research has found is you can take the exact same news article that’s actually written by a person, but when people believe that automation has played a role in the process, they find it less credible and less trustworthy,” Waddell said. “We’re pretty comfortable with robots parking our cars or vacuuming our carpet, but we don’t really like it if they show up in places that we’re not used to them being.”
Waddell has received a number of awards for his research. He was named a 2020 Distinguished Reviewer by the Journal of Media Psychology for the second time. He was also a recipient of a top paper award from the 2021 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication Conference.
“Dr. Waddell was already showing the intellectual curiosity, work ethic, and integrity at Virginia Tech that has made him an influential and respected scholar with an international reputation today,” Ivory said.
Recently, he’s looked at the differences in conforming versus confronting families when a member of the family shares a piece of misinformation. Waddell has also researched the portrayal of female journalists in movies and television shows, as well as the influence of media portrayals of refugees on public opinion.
Now, there’s an even greater sense of purpose that has taken shape in Waddell. One that dates back to all his years in Blacksburg.
“One of the best things about being in academia is you start to give back to the next generation,” he said. “I had a lot of wonderful mentors at Virginia Tech who poured into me tremendously. That always stuck with me in a very powerful way.
“I love doing my own research, but the more I get to work with my own students, I get to try to show them the same Hokie spirit that I got during my six years while I was at Virginia Tech.”
Written by Cory Van Dyke