My handwriting is notoriously bad. I have penmanship that causes people to say things like, “With those scribbles, you should have been a doctor.”
Now I can smile and say, “I am.”
Of course, I’m not a medical doctor. My tools don’t include rubber gloves, blood pressure cuffs, or those wooden tongue depressors that get shoved to the back of your throat.
Instead, I use interviews, surveys, and words to conduct academic research since I now have my Doctor of Philosophy degree.
This indicated that I had completed all the required coursework except for writing and defending my dissertation, which is often referred to as a “diss” for short.
Over the course of the 2022-2023 academic year, I worked on my dissertation by doing hours of research and writing.
Then, on April 6, I defended my dissertation (a recording of the presentation can be viewed below), and my committee members approved of what I had done, which means I have earned my degree and became Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D. (or Dr. Vogts, if one prefers).
My committee members did have suggestions for corrections, and I found all of those to be valuable. As such, over the following week, I made those updates. Then I had to submit my final draft to the Kansas State University Research Exchange (K-REx) database by April 14.
My dissertation is titled “What’s right (leaning) with Kansas media: The cultivation of misinformation in rural America,” and it can be found via the K-REx site at the following web address: https://krex.k-state.edu/handle/2097/43055
The final step was to actually graduate.
Though completing my dissertation and receiving my degree marks an important conclusion to my doctoral journey, it is really just the beginning.
Moving forward, I aim to do more research. Initially, I plan to focus my efforts on mis- and disinformation, the intersection of media and democracy, sports media, community and rural journalism, and journalism education.
These interests align closely with my dissertation, which is convenient as I have several ideas for extending the work I’ve done, and I intend to continue in this line of inquiry.
Unpacking the Diss
To drill down a bit, my dissertation investigated the ways rural Kansans received their news to better understand how disinformation and misinformation spread. Specifically, here is how I described the focus in the abstract, or summary, of my research:
Misinformation and disinformation have shown the potential to fertilize distrust in the news (Kalogeropoulos et al., 2019; Karlsen & Aalberg, 2021; Swart & Broersma, 2022), which can allow democracy-damaging polarization to grow within the United States. This polarization often takes root due to the erosion of reliable information that can be exacerbated by confirmation bias that may cultivate filter bubbles and echo chambers (Flaxman et al., 2016; Lee et al., 2021; Nechushtai & Lewis, 2019; Pearson & Knobloch-Westerwick, 2019).
In many cases, politically motivated individuals and media outlets plant these seeds of misinformation and disinformation intentionally, leaving members of society to graze on the subsequent silage of content. If it lacks nutrients, this information constructs a skewed perception of society. This weakens the social capital bonds that germinate a functioning democracy, which sprouts from reliable and public knowledge (Belair-Gagnon et al., 2019; Lewis et al., 2014; Putnam, 2001). In order to prune misinformation and disinformation from the fields of democracy that are irrigated by journalism’s flow of truth, the pathways to news that individuals take and lead them to the invasive species of information must be considered.
This risk is particularly important as it relates to the news consumption habits of rural Americans, who largely live and work in agrarian communities and exist as an important voting block as was evident in the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the controversy surrounding the outcome of the 2020 election. However, most current research does not examine this group in specific focus or simply largely ignores this swath of the United States population as just “fly-over” country.
Thus, with the purpose of filling a crucial gap in the literature, this study investigated the pathways to news for individuals living and working in rural areas of the country, specifically rural Kansas. As the investigative focal point, rural Kansas provides a vital case study to explore how rural citizens come to believe in, and potentially further spread misinformation and disinformation, including conspiracy theories spread by partisan media outlets that include, but are not limited to, talk radio, cable television, and social media.
Through the implementation of interviews and an online survey that collected data from these individuals, this dissertation reports how individuals in rural Kansas access and use news in ways that stimulate political division and set the stage for polarization to flourish (Bail et al., 2018; Darr et al., 2021; Gaultney et al., 2022; Talisse, 2021), which can lead to a bruised and battered democracy. This method of inquiry sprouts from the social constructionism perspective of reality. This dissertation thereby positions the media effects theories of Cultivation Theory (CT), Uses and Gratifications Theory (U&G), and Communication Infrastructure Theory (CIT) as the optimal lenses through which to examine the pervasive problem of misinformation and disinformation by seeking the root cause of this noxious information’s spread.
Since I’m a journalist at heart, I focused on interviews to do this research.
A total of 35 people volunteered to speak with me, but due to time constraints, I ended up interviewing 25 people, all of whom were assigned an alias for use in the research.
The interviews were recorded using video and/or audio recording devices. The recordings were used to develop transcripts of the interviews that were coded and analyzed. Transcription was accomplished by using Rev.com, which charges $1.50 per minute for human transcription.
In total, the interviews resulted in 37.22 hours of recorded conversation and 267,497 transcribed words to be analyzed. For reference, this makes the combined transcripts longer than “Ulysses” by James Joyce, which contains 265,222 words.
The coding and analyzing of the transcripts used the method of thematic analysis (TA). Thematic analysis, according to Terry and Hayfield (2021), “is a flexible analytical method that enables the researcher to construct themes—meaning-based patterns—to report their interpretation of a qualitative data set” (p. 3). This method aligns with constructionist lens (Braun & Clarke, 2006, 2021; Kiger & Varpio, 2020; Terry & Hayfield, 2021).
As far as the interviewees go, seven of the interviewees were female, and the remaining 18 were male. They ranged in age from 21 to 76, averaging 47.28 years old.
Of the 25, 12 worked in agriculture-related fields, such as farming and ranching or agriculture-focused financial industries. The remaining respondents worked in areas such as education, manufacturing, and the service industry (see the below table for details).
|Assigned Alias||Reported Age||Gender Preference||Professional Industry||Education Level||Political Alignment||Religious Affiliation|
Then, to supplement the interviews, I conducted a survey.
A total of 267 individuals took the survey. After clearing out incomplete survey responses and whatnot, 255 people participated in the survey and effectively contributed data as research respondents.
To make sense of the data collected, I utilized concepts of descriptive analysis. Through this the responses are described through the following factors: looking at the average responses to questions, which is the mean; the middle value of responses to questions, which is the median; the frequency of responses to questions, which is the mode; the differences between the lowest and highest response values to the questions, which is the range; and the average variation from the average value of question responses, which is the standard deviation (Creswell, 2014; Ormen, 2021). This is also known as descriptive statistics. Ruel (2019) explained that descriptive “statistics are a set of methods used to analyze data to understand and describe the sample” (p. 99). As such, these methods look at the answers to a specific survey question in isolation, comparing the responses only to each other (Ormen, 2021).
Of these individuals who completed the survey, 87.1% (n=222) indicated they have roots in rural counties, while 12.9% (n=33) claimed urban counties.
The average age of the participants was 43.16 years old with a median age of 42.00 years old (SD=17.73). Females made up 62.4% of respondents, and 36.1% were males. Of the respondents, 91.0% were White.
Additionally, 60.4% of the respondents indicated they were married, and 70.2% reported the highest level of education they have completed was a bachelor’s degree or higher. Relatedly, 6.3% have earned an associate’s degree, 16.9% have completed some college coursework, 1.2% have earned a technical certificate, and 4.7% have earned only a high school diploma or an equivalent.
Respondents were also asked about their religious beliefs and general income levels. Christianity was reported to be the dominant belief system with 77.7% of the participants claiming that religion. Also, a majority of the respondents indicated they make between $50,000.00 and $139,999.00 per year.
In terms of political alignment, 38.0% of the participants reported they aligned with the Republican Party and 29.0% with the Democratic Party. A combined total of 28.7% said they were either Independent or Unaffiliated, while Libertarians and other parties made up 4.3%.
Through the interviews and survey, I was able to draw some conclusions that addressed my overall focus. On one hand, these results were not surprising based on my experiences of living and working in Kansas. However, there were some significant results that stood out.
I plan to distill my dissertation into an executive summary soon. According to the University of Southern California’s USC Libraries Research Guides, an executive summary “is a thorough overview of a research report or other type of document that synthesizes key points for its readers, saving them time and preparing them to understand the study’s overall content. It is a separate, stand-alone document of sufficient detail and clarity to ensure that the reader can completely understand the contents of the main research study.”
Until I am able to write that, here is how I described the results in the abstract, or summary, of my research:
[T]his study found that social media and news websites, television, and radio are the primary pathways to news for rural Kansans. The bulk of the content being consumed via these media comes from national and partisan sources, and, in many cases, it consists of opinion-based material. Driven by the state’s strong religious alignment (Wuthnow, 2012) and predominantly conservative political stance (Kansas Secretary of State, 2023), the media messages align with the previously held beliefs of the residents, even if the information is inaccurate. This leads to those beliefs becoming more entrenched, and the misinformation and disinformation spreads when individuals discuss the news with their peers.
The fact that individuals do not recognize inaccurate or false information for what it is indicates a deficiency in terms of media literacy skills. Such a finding was made even more evident by several participants expressing their deeply held beliefs in various conspiracy theories. Compounding this issue is the pervasive lack of trust in the media reported by the respondents. In most cases, individuals said they have little to no trust that they are receiving accurate and complete information from news outlets. This was particularly true in terms of national outlets, and although confidence still wasn’t high, local news was found to be more trustworthy.
Still, the overall results suggested that rural Kansans desire more reliable news and information, especially at the local level. Individuals indicated they believed journalism was important for society, and this was even more true locally because study participants suggested engaging socially and politically at that level proved to be more impactful than at the national level. Therefore, the implications of this study are multifaceted. First, misinformation and disinformation are being cultivated in rural Kansas because of the residents’ media consumption homogeneity. Also, media literacy skills need to be improved, which can be achieved through educational initiatives. Furthermore, rural Kansans need to be given better news options, and a primary way to achieve this is to improve local news and access to local news across modalities.
Again, I want to further explore this line of inquiry because I firmly believe the topic is ripe for investigation. I plan to continue harvesting research from this bountiful field of study.
To do so, I first want to turn my dissertation into an academic journal article or two. I would also be open to developing it into a book.
As a book, it would be in good company. After all, the title of my study pays homage to, Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” which was a best-seller. Using that idea to look at Kansas from a different perspective, Ed O’Malley published “What’s Right with Kansas: Everyday Citizens Transforming Their State.” Of course, both titles reference an editorial written by the famous Kansas newspaperman William Allen White.
To that end, portions of this study have already been transformed into a book chapter that has been accepted for publication. A publication date is not available as of this writing, but the chapter is slated to appear in the forthcoming book — “Political Communication in 2020: Social, Cultural, and Ideological Rifts between Red and Blue America in the Digital Age.” It is being edited by Dan Schill and John Allen Hendricks, and the Peter Lang Group plans to publish it.
This opportunity to share the research of this work begins to firmly plant this study in the realm of community-engaged scholarship. However, it is just the first sprout.
As such, the second way this inquiry will be extended in the short term is through the further development of a website created to accompany this study.
It can be found at www.cultivatingmisinformation.com.
This website will provide an invaluable avenue for engaging with rural communities as part of the ongoing investigation into the intersection of rural America and mis- and disinformation.
Also, it will provide a foundational online presence for a possible podcast titled “Cultivating Misinformation,” and it will serve as a resource for research and information concerning mis- and disinformation.
This will be accomplished by sharing content related to such topics, whether that comes in the form of overviews of books, academic journal articles, popular media reports, or research data, or through the sharing of the author’s personal thoughts, observations, and experiences.
Additionally, as more research unfolds, timely insights will be shared that can be used both by news consumers and news producers. Such items will aim to support individuals to become more aware of their news diets, how news is produced, how to improve news production, and generally educate with the goal of increasing societal media literacy, at least within rural communities.
Furthermore, the website will serve as the online home for future surveys concerning the spread of mis- and disinformation. This is important as the immediate goal is to expand to a national study that seeks input from rural Americans in all parts of the country.
For this next step, the same survey will be used with minor adjustments to make it more generic for a national population and to make needed updates based on feedback received from participants.
Interviews will still be a component of this, though an in-person option will not be made available. In the effort to pursue this new scope, the website will make it easier to direct people to the survey and interview sign-up form.
Relatedly, this study lays the foundation for a new venture.
Though I’m currently in the exploratory stages, the plan is to develop a nonprofit organization in the coming months. This entity will focus on the intersection of rural communities and the media.
It will be called the Rural Media Research Institute (RMRI). In preparation for creating this nonprofit, I established a website. It can be viewed at www.ruralmediaresearch.org.
This organization will conduct and support research concerning rural media, which will include media created in rural places and media consumed by rural citizens.
Associated with this, concepts of mis- and disinformation, media literacy, student and citizen journalism, and rural representation will be considered among others.
With this in mind, the general mission for RMRI will be to support rural citizens by working in partnership with content producers and consumers to develop research that benefits the media ecosystem, strengthening democracy and leading to a more informed public.
Thanks to the work I’ve done as part of my doctoral degree, several exciting possibilities are on the horizon. I’m looking forward to what the future holds.
However, I am also remaining mindful of what has occurred. I learned and experienced a lot during my time in the Leadership Communication program. I’ve made both personal and professional connections that I hope will last the rest of my lifetime, and I’m forever indebted to the faculty for the knowledge they imparted and the support they provided as I found myself as a researcher.
Most importantly, though, forever grateful to my family for their love and support.
That is why my dissertation is dedicated to my wife Kendall and children Presley and Kolten. They are my biggest supporters.
Without their understanding, completing my Ph.D. would have been impossible because this journey was arduous. It tested our family due to the time and stress involved, but they handled it with grace, always urging me forward and encouraging me to do my best.
As such, all of this is as much theirs as it is mine, and I’m honored to share it with them. I simply hope I have made them proud and shown that the time, effort, and hard work required to achieve dreams and goals is worth it.
If all goes well, I aspire to continue to do so in the future too.
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