Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication; Director, Center for Communication and Civic Renewal; Director, Graduate Studies
Michael W. Wagner is the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he is the Director of the Center for Communication and Civic Renewal (CCCR) and the Director of Graduate Studies. Housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication with appointments in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science, his research focuses how individuals’ experiences in the information ecology are associated with what they believe to do true, what they want from their government in terms of public policies, and how they participate civically and politically.
His focus on political communication, public opinion, and representation has shaped his four major lines of inquiry: (1) exploring the influence of mediated political messages on attitudes and behaviors, (2) examining how the interaction of psychological and contextual factors affect attitudes and behaviors, (3) how news logics influence political coverage, and (4) industry-academy collaborative research. He combines panel survey research, experimental methods, content analysis, in-depth interviews, focus groups, and collaborative interdisciplinary approaches to studying contemporary social problems relate to the health of democracy.
His teaching encompasses every level of coursework in the UW-SJMC from J201: Introduction to Mass Communication, J335: Principles and Practices of Reporting, J401: In-Depth Reporting, J404: Interpretation of Contemporary Affairs, J475: Advanced Fact-Checking, J566: Communication and Opinion, J618: Mass Media and Behavior to J801: Mass Communication and the Individual, J829: Political Communication, J880: Physiology and Communication Effects, and J901: Colloquium in Mass Communications. Over the course of his career, he has won five university-wide teaching awards, including the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award and the University Housing Honored Instructor Award at UW-Madison, and the Hazel R. McClymont Distinguished Teaching Fellow Award and the Outstanding Educator of the Year Award, both at the University of Nebraska. He has taught more than 30 OLLI lectures for lifelong learners and regularly teaches the political communication section of a summer course for legislative staffers in the Wisconsin State Legislature.
He has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in journals such as Science, Journal of Communication, Human Communication Research, Annual Review of Political Science, Political Communication, and International Journal of Press/Politics. He has also co-authored several books, including Battleground: Asymmetric Communication Ecologies and the Erosion of Civil Society in Wisconsin (Cambridge University Press), Mediated Democracy: News and Citizenship in the 21st Century, and Political Behavior of the American Electorate (both CQ/Sage Press). He has served as the major advisor for more than 10 completed Ph.Ds and a committee member for more than 50 students across six departments. His students have won the Thomas Patterson Best Dissertation in Political Communication award from the American Political Science Association and have received funding for their research from the Social Science Research Council, Facebook, and the Elections Research Center, and have been placed at institutions such as Cornell University, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Rutgers University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech University, and Washington State University.
Much of his work has been supported by more than $11 million dollars in funding from private foundations such as the John L. and James S. Knight Foundation and the Tow Foundation, public entities such as the National Science Foundation, and generous support from UW-Madison. As Director of the CCCR, he has helped lead a team of more than two dozen faculty and students – a group that has published several dozen articles, a number of books, and hosted major several conferences on campus about mediated information and contentious politics in Wisconsin.
Wagner is the Founding Editor of the Forum in Political Communication (where he served as editor for eight years), an Associate Editor at Public Opinion Quarterly, and an editorial board member of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. He is the co-recipient of four top article/top paper awards from the International Communication Association (ICA) and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. He also serves as rapporteur for the US 2020 Election Project, a collaboration between Meta and 17 U.S.-based academic researchers studying Facebook and Instagram’s influence on the 2020 presidential election.
A dedicated servant to the Wisconsin Idea, Wagner has given more than 350 public talks about his scholarship around the state, nation, and globe. He is recipient of the Ken and Linda Ciriacks Outstanding Alumni Outreach Award and co-founder of the Elections Coverage and Democracy Network, a group of more than 70 political communication scholars that seek to help journalists use a pro-democracy orientation report the verifiable truth. He has moderated live televised or radio broadcasted debates for the U.S. Senate (in Delaware), the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, and the Wisconsin Attorney General.
On campus, he has served as the Director of Graduate Studies in the SJMC, and as chair of: (1) the Education/Social and Behavioral Sciences IRB, (2) the Social Sciences Divisional Committee, and the (3) L&S Curriculum Committee.
Wagner’s professional service spans across three major fields. He is the only non-sociologist on the General Social Survey Board of Advisors. He has organized major sections of conferences for the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Social Science Research Council, and the International Society for Political Psychology. He has served on early career and best book award committees for the APSA and ICA. In the community, he is on the Board of Directors for the Isthmus newspaper in Madison and also sat on the original steering committee that created the Lussier Center’s Public Radio Station WWMV-LP 99.5.
Wagner began his career in journalism and media at the age of 14 when we began working as a part-time DJ and news anchor/reporter for his hometown radio station, KMHL 1400-AM in Marshall, MN. He earned his Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Nebraska in 1998. He worked as a political news reporter for CBS31/1470 WMBD in Peoria and KFAB in Omaha before serving as a press secretary on a congressional campaign in 2000. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from Indiana University in 2006 and served on the faculties of the University of Delaware and the University of Nebraska before joining the SJMC in 2012. He was tenured in 2015, promoted to full professor in 2019, and was awarded a Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professorship in 2023.