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Archive for December, 2010

Notable nationals in ‘10

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

You know it’s the week before Christmas when there are more cats on campus than actual human beings. They’re probably getting more work done, too. In the middle of desk-cleaning and post-break-interview-arranging and holiday-message-sending, it’s worth looking back at the year that was on the national news front.

UNL was the subject of some big headlines in 2010 — at least two of them being at the intersection of academics and athletics. In April, all-everything defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh gave $2.6 million back to the university before he was even drafted by the NFL. The story was the subject of glowing coverage by everyone from jaded sports columnists to the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was great publicity for the university and, in particular, the College of Engineering, of which Suh is an alumnus.

Two months later came the Big Ten maelstrom. It’s a fairly safe bet to say that we’ll never see a story like that again in our lifetime. The university’s move from the Big 12 to their more prestigious and competitive league not only generated a flurry of headlines from around the country and world, but allowed us an opportunity to show how ready UNL was to step onto a bigger, grander stage in both an academic and athletic sense. Chancellor Perlman’s op-ed directed at Big Ten audiences, circulated the week after the Big Ten decision became public, helped solidify our main message that UNL was a natural fit with its new league brethren.

There were plenty of other notable appearances in the last year, too. A running tally of 2010’s UNL national media appearances can be found here, of course. But what follows are some of the more notable appearances of the last calendar year that come to mind.

In no particular order:

Philip Schwadel’s research into how  and why Americans worship. Phil’s research strikes at the core of American identity, which is why we had a lot of success in promoting it. From studying the modern role of southerners, women and Catholics in today’s churchgoing America to comparing the differences in religious loyalty between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, Schwadel’s work has been worthy of discussion at many a kitchen table in the last year.

Ken Kiewra’s focus on how we study. An educational psychologist, Kiewra is well-known as a studier of studying. This year, his innovative SOAR studying technique was featured by USA TODAY. Also, a study he conducted involving student cheating also went far and wide. Finally, the New York Times tapped his expertise on note-taking for a story in their annual fall education supplement.

Namas Chandra and the College of Engineering’s project to build a “blast tube” — and, eventually, more effective armor for the troops. The project’s goal is to better protect those who protect us. It got some good play this fall, as well, including in National Defense Magazine.

Susan Swearer’s expertise on bullying. One of UNL’s “perpetual placements,” Swearer is sought for comment regularly and by a range of media outlets. Besides penning an op-ed for Newsweek, she also was interviewed by CBS Sunday Morning.

Julia McQuillan’s research into the sociology of motherhood. Much of McQuillan’s recent work comes from the national survey of fertility barriers, a huge linear study that parses women’s attitudes and statuses on a number of motherhood issues. We had particular success on her May study about U.S. women’s attitudes on motherhood. Here’s a roundup of how that story took off.

Dave Specht’s innovative course on family entrepreneurship. One of the most interesting additions to UNL’s College of Business Administration is Specht’s course on family businesses. By tying the course to the economy, we were able to secure coverage in Bloomberg BusinessWeek and the New York Times. Specht has been a great advocate for family-run businesses in Nebraska and we’re pleased he’s gotten some much-deserved recognition.

Peter Harms’ research into leadership styles. When his study  on how some “dark side” leadership traits might actually be good things for leaders hit CNN, The Associated Press and especially the Telegraph of London, CBA’s Harms suddenly found himself making a virtual media tour across North America, Europe and parts of South America. He took all the media requests, many in English as a second language, in stride and with good humor.

Nicole Narboni’s cool Piano-in-Tow tour. The UNL School of Music professor loaded up a U-Haul and toted her 1,000 baby grand across the prairie twice this year, playing concerts in tiny towns on the map. A story from The Associated Press on “Dr. NAN’s” tour went national, leading to a number of interviews after she returned, including with Westwood One Radio and NPR affiliates in Texas.

Mike Dodd, Kevin Smith and John Hibbing’s work on the politics of attention. Lots of discussion at year’s end about this study. TIME, ABC News and AP picked up the story, which naturally was subject to a fair amount of spin on both sides.

Rhonda Garelick’s efforts to bring cutting-edge arts to UNL. The International Arts Symposium was featured by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Alexander Kafka in October, recognizing Garelick’s work on bringing world-class artists to Lincoln around a singular theme. You may recall at the time it being an example of the London-Paris-Rome-Lincoln pitch.

Linda Major’s leadership on UNL’s efforts to curb binge drinking. Another “perpetual placement,” Major’s 2010 in the media was often in the role of wise counselor for campuses struggling with student-alcohol issues. Both former conference sister school Kansas and future conference sister school Iowa spent a lot of time in Lincoln and with Major looking at how UNL has become a leader in this realm.

Marvin Ammori and the ever-relevant world of telecommunications law. The year started with a flurry of appearances in the Washington Post, then led into an appearance on C-SPAN, a quote in the New York Times, then a pair of op-eds in the Times, and a Christmas-week live appearance on MSNBC. Other than that, our resident internet law and net-neutrality expert hasn’t been doing too much. :)

Eric Thompson’s thoughts on regional economies. Thompson’s work is precisely relevant in an era where the economy is being watched very, very closely. From his regional economic forecasts going far and wide via AP to his thoughts on Lincoln’s low unemployment rate in USA TODAY to his research on eco-tourism being highlighted in Audubon magazine, Thompson has been an invaluable resource for business reporters around the country this year.

Wheeler Winston Dixon on all things entertainment. The film studies guru was tapped regularly by national media on everything from his Oscar picks to the Conan/Jay flap to whether a real Russian spy ring being busted would help Angelina Jolie’s spy thriller “Salt.” In between that, he wrote a new book and appeared in a new documentary on horror films. A pretty good year, in all.

And some who are primed to go big in 2011:

Mike Wagner’s research into congressional redistricting. An early indicator of the relevance of Wagner’s work occurred Tuesday, when Ed Hornick of CNN cited it in a story about congressional reapportionment. Wagner is looking at how effective “new” representatives following redistricting are. The expected answer? Not very. Should be fun to see political pundits chew on that one.

John Hibbing’s study of the role of politics in choosing your mate. As it turns out, physical and personality traits often take a back seat when choosing one’s spouse to … you guessed it, political persuasion. This one is likely to make some noise in 2011.

Sarah Gervais’ examination of the consequences of objectifying looks. As it turns out, women who get “checked out” by someone in authority tend to perform less well on mathematical tasks, which has all kinds of ominous implications. Interestingly, those women also tended to seek more interaction with the person who “objectified” them. Gervais, a leading researcher in this area, should see some headlines as a result of her work early next year.

Emily Kazyak’s in-depth look into the lives and identities of rural gays. A new addition to the sociology department, Kazyak’s work focuses on breaking down stereotypes — both external and internal — regarding gays and lesbians who do not live in cities. Interesting stuff.

Dennis Molfese’s study of the brain. Another faculty member new to UNL, Molfese brought his years of research and multimillion-dollar lab to Lincoln last fall. An expert in brain imaging, Molfese will be a big part of a number of lines of research in the coming years. Stay tuned.

Have a great holiday. See you in 2011 — it should be a good one.

Expert alert: Congressional reapportionment and voter behavior

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The first major wave of Census data came pouring out today, showing that (as of April 1) the United States had 308 million people, a fairly slow growth rate of 9.7 percent since 2000, and population shifts from the Rust Belt and Northeast to the West and South. In the political realm, this population shift meant reapportionment for the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Texas picked up four new House seats and Florida two, while Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Nevada, Washington and Utah gained one each. Big Ten states like Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania lost a seat, along with New York, New Jersey, Missouri and Massachusetts.

Lots of stories so far about who wins and who loses in the new alignment. Conventional wisdom says the electoral table gets tipped a bit towards the GOP, but Democrats also claimed reasons to be optimistic. There’s plenty of spin to go around.

Meanwhile, enterprising reporters who are interested in how redistricting affects voters will want to see this research co-authored by University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist Michael Wagner. The study, which appears in this month’s edition of Political Research Quarterly, finds that when “communities of interest” are carved up in the wake of squeezing in a new congressional district, many voters struggle at the ballot box.

Think of it this way: Say you’re from Gretna, just a few miles from Omaha. You watch Omaha TV stations and get the Omaha World-Herald. You shop in Omaha, go to restaurants in Omaha and have a good number of friends in Omaha. You see the 2nd District’s representative, Lee Terry, on TV and in the newspapers regularly. But you’re actually in the 1st District, which is oriented mostly toward Lincoln on up into northeast Nebraska — meaning your congressman is Jeff Fortenberry, who you hear nothing about. What do you do when it comes time to vote in congressional elections? Do you vote along party lines? Do you “roll off” — leave blank — your congressional ballot? Wagner’s research looks at this voting behavior from a national perspective over several years both before and after the redistricting following the 2000 Census, and finds that many voters — particularly those who have been “carved out” of their original congressional district — don’t know who or what they’re voting for when it comes to their congressional ballots. This kind of stuff happens every 10 years around the country, and its effects can be far-reaching.

“The fact that people living in this ’short end of the split’ are just as likely to cast a congressional ballot as anyone else, given their informational disadvantage, results in a vote about as random as buying a sealed ‘mystery’ bag of groceries — sure they picked something, but they don’t know quite what it is until they get home,” Wagner says. “Consequently, there are real questions about the quality of representation these people are likely to receive, through no fault of their own.”

The study suggests that political mapmakers should work harder to keep natural communities intact — not splitting up counties, for example, or if so, splitting them more equally so local media cover both fairly equally, thereby informing the electorate more effectively.

Mike Wagner, assistant professor of political science at UNL, is at, 402.472.2539 or

Updated to add: Ed Hornick of has included Wagner’s work in his main story about the political ramifications of the 2010 Census figures. Check it out here.

If story pitches were movie scenes

Friday, December 17th, 2010

For all the talk about how social media has changed the landscape of communication, some things stay remarkably the same. It’s nearly the end of the first decade of the 21st century and the best way to successfully pitch a news reporter is still e-mail. It is, and will remain for some time, the central application in journalists’ lives. That’s the good news; the bad news is that, because e-mail remains so very, very popular with journalists, they get a ton of it. So if you’re hoping to make a media placement on your whiz-bang story idea, then the pressure’s on these days to really stand out. Here are a few ways, with a little help from some box-office friends, to give your pitch a little more staying power and to bolster your e-mail’s chances of sticking around a reporter’s inbox.

1. Think and write in headlines. It’s certainly what journalists do when presented with information or a potential story. This is where you make the best use out of your e-mail’s subject line. A simple, subject-verb headline in that space that leaves no question to what your e-mail might be about can go a long, long way toward your pitch being read. The punchier, the better. If you have trouble with forming headlines, think about Billy Pretty in “The Shipping News” explaining to Quoyle about how to grab someone’s attention with a headline:

Billy: Now, have a look. What do you see? Tell me the headline.
Quoyle: “Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds.”
Billy: No. “Imminent Storm Threatens Village.”
Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?
Billy: “Village Spared from Deadly Storm.”

2. The shorter, the better. It’s a pitch, not a news release. It’s not a full-blown treatise about the subject. You might be as excited as all get-out about the story, but you can’t expect journalists to plow through a seven-paragraph description of it. A couple of paragraphs, with an offer to share more if they’re interested, works best. Before you hit send, rake through your e-mail pitch one last time and tighten up any loose writing. Kill off needless adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and clauses. Speak in an active voice. This will hold their attention much better than a series of run-ons that lead you nowhere. Journalists are busy people, who are often easily distracted. Think of them as the Alpha dog in Up:

Alpha: Mayhaps you desire to — SQUIRREL!

3. Timing is everything. The difference between a successful pitch and failure is often the time of day, week, or year that you send it. There’s no empirical data on this, but I can tell you what my gut and a few years of experience has proven to be true. In general, pitch in the morning hours, when many journalists are setting up their schedules for the day. In general, pitch early in the week — Tuesday tends to be better than Monday, since Monday is often crowded with leftovers from the weekend (and a lot of up-and-at-’em pitches that show up first thing Monday morning). Thursday and Friday can be difficult, because many journos are filling for the weekend and aren’t able to take the time to consider new pitches. And in general, there are two very good times of the calendar year when the path to placements has a little less resistance: the “dog days” of summer and the weeks around Christmas. The former is a good time because newsrooms are hit by lots of late-summer vacations, leaving editors scratching for stories. The second is a good time because nearly everyone is out of the office, meaning sources can be hard for reporters, stockpiling evergreen stories to get their publications through the holidays, to find. Pitches that once seemed impossible with reporters who once seemed impenetrable may stand a better chance. I call it the Hans Gruber Effect:

Theo: And you better be right because this one’s going to take a miracle.
Hans Gruber: It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer.

4. Kill ‘em with kindness. I’ve mentioned before that on average, the pitch-to-hit ratio is about 10:1. That means you’re going to get to hear “No” a lot. And sometimes, that “No” will be a little more … emphatic than others. One of the first pitches I ever threw out was returned by a journalist so brittle he might have crumpled to dust if poked with a stick. He told me I was a huge waste of time and that he had absolutely no interest in reading my “trivial attempts at pushing academic propaganda.” At first I wanted to write him back in kind, but instead I replied with a brief e-mail thanking him for at least giving the story idea a quick read and providing some feedback. He actually wrote back with an apology, with a few thoughts about how to better approach him — which I duly noted. Since then, he’s been much more amenable to hearing from me. If you have trouble with this one, think of Dalton from Road House, telling his bouncers about how they were going to conduct themselves from now on:

Dalton: All you have to do is follow three simple rules. One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. And three, be nice … if someone gets in your face … I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

5. Actually, it IS personal, so be personable. Before sending, do a little research. What does this journalist cover? Write about? Tweet about? Do in his or her spare time? Where is he/she from originally? Learn these things and find common interests with them, and personalize your pitch accordingly. Think you’re being crafty by cutting and pasting the same pitch to three dozen different reporters, and are “personalizing” them by merely changing the name of the reporter in your introduction? Yeah, um, journalists can spot that little trick a mile away, and they resent it. When writing a pitch, I envision I’m talking to a friend about it — besides helping me eliminate industry jargon and make the pitch clearer, it also connotes a sense of authenticity and care to the pitch that tells the journalist, “this is for you and only you.”

Jerry: We live in a cynical world … And we work in a business of tough competitors. You … complete me. And I just –
Dorothy: Shut up. You had me at hello.

6. You can’t afford to be wishy-washy. With e-mail pitches, you’ll likely only get one swing at the reporter. So make it count and don’t beat around the bush. Do you want them to look at some research from a faculty member? Say so, and offer to send it to them in a follow-up e-mail. Do you want them to interview said researcher? Say so, and include the researcher’s contact information. Do you have other sources they might talk to, who might not be affiliated with your institution? Say so — it’ll enhance your credibility and position you as someone who is doing more than shilling for their university. You’ll be a helpful resource that they can turn to in the future. The point is, don’t be oblique or vague. Be bold and come out with it. Like the cathartic scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s characters finally dispense with pretense:

Crash: Come on, Annie, think of something clever to say, huh? Something full of magic, religion, bulls___. Come on, dazzle me.
Annie: I want you

There you go. Keep these scenes in mind the next time you fire up your Outlook, your Gmail or your AOL with the front page of the New York Times in mind. Wait, does anyone have AOL any more? They do? OK, wow.

What we’ve been up to

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Quick national-news roundup from the week:

– Telecom law prof Marvin Ammori pens an op-ed in the New York Times regarding internet privacy rules – or, more specifically, the need for some. Ammori is a media star and always represents UNL well. Plus, he’s on the cutting edge of a number of important issues, including net neutrality.

– Law prof Jo Potuto weighs in on the NCAA’s ruling on beleaguered Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton, saying she probably would’ve arrived at a different conclusion than college sports’ governing body.

– Feral cats. Yes, a UNL report from last year makes a number of suggestions about how to manage feral cat colonies, including instructions on how to shoot them. Representatives of the campus trap-neuter-release program also got a chance to comment in the story, which pretty much landed in every media outlet in the country and in about three dozen foreign countries. Good times.

– The recent gaze-cuing study from Mike Dodd, Kevin Smith and John Hibbing has been percolating in the blogosphere since yesterday afternoon, and has received a number of nibbles from national media outlets. Next week should be interesting.

Have a great weekend.

What following others’ eye movements says about your politics

Friday, December 10th, 2010

It goes without saying that conservatives and liberals don’t see the world in the same way. Now, UNL research suggests that is exactly, and quite literally, the case.

In a new study, researchers measured both liberals’ and conservatives’ reaction to “gaze cues” – a person’s tendency to shift attention in a direction consistent with another person’s eye movements, even if it’s irrelevant to their current task – and found big differences between the two groups.

Liberals responded strongly to the prompts, consistently moving their attention in the direction suggested to them by a face on a computer screen. Conservatives, on the other hand, did not.

Why? Researchers suggested that conservatives’ value on personal autonomy might make them less likely to be influenced by others, and therefore less responsive to the visual prompts.

“We thought that political temperament may moderate the magnitude of gaze-cuing effects, but we did not expect conservatives to be completely immune to these cues,” said Michael Dodd, a UNL assistant professor of psychology and the lead author of the study.

Liberals may have followed the “gaze cues,” meanwhile, because they tend to be more responsive to others, the study suggests.

“This study basically provides one more piece of evidence that liberals and conservatives perceive the world, and process information taken in from that world, in different ways,” said Kevin Smith, UNL professor of political science and one of the study’s authors. “Understanding exactly why people have such different political perspectives and where those differences come from may help us better understand the roots of a lot of political conflict.”

The study involved 72 people who sat in front of a white computer screen and were told to fixate on a small black cross in its center. The cross then disappeared and was replaced by a drawing of a face, but with eyes missing their pupils. Then, pupils appeared in the eyes, looking either left or right. Finally, a small, round target would appear either on the left or right side of the face drawing.

Dodd said the participants were told that the gaze cues in the study did not predict where the target would appear, so there was no reason for participants to attend to them. “But the nature of social interaction tends to make it very difficult to ignore the cues, even when they’re meaningless,” he said.

As soon as they saw the target, participants would tap the space bar on their keyboard, giving researchers information on their susceptibility to the “gaze cues.” Each sequence, which lasted a few hundred milliseconds, was repeated hundreds of times.

Afterward, participants were surveyed on their beliefs on a range of political issues to establish their political ideology.

Listen to Dodd and Smith discuss their research online at

In addition to shedding light on the differences between the two political camps, researchers said the results add to growing indications that suggest biology plays a role determining one’s political direction. Previous UNL research has delved into the physiology of political orientation, showing that those highly responsive to threatening images are likely to support defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War.

Traditionally, political scientists have accounted for political differences purely in terms of environmental forces, but this study shows the potential role of cognitive biases – wherever they may come from – as a relevant area of future research.

“Getting things done in politics typically depends on competing viewpoints finding common ground,” Smith said. “Our research is suggesting that’s a lot tougher than it sounds, because the same piece of ground can look very different depending on which ideological hill you view it from.”