Susan Robinson

Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism


Susan Robinson headshot

Order her latest book: How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care (Oxford University Press, 2023)

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Sue Robinson joined the UW-Madison faculty at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in January 2007 and now holds the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism endowed research chair. Working in the realm of “Journalism Studies,” she explores how journalists and news organizations can build trust by rethinking traditional news production norms and routines and instead adopting “engagement” practices. Central to her work is the consideration of power dynamics such as race, and other areas of marginalization in information flows as content moves through media ecologies at the local community level. She also studies how digital technologies and various information platforms can be used to improve news production, change content, and help audiences civically engage or construct meanings. As a scholar, she practices what is called “applied research,” which means she works with journalists and newsroom trainers to incorporate her evidence-based findings and then helps evaluate and learn from those interventions.

She is currently at work on a new multi-phased book project, tentatively titled, “Journalism Disruption: Interventions in Newsrooms to Rebuild Trust with Audiences.” Her co-researchers include Dr. Joshua Darr of the Louisiana State University and Patrick Johnson of the University of Iowa and her collaborators include journalism programs Trusting News, Spaceship Media, Solutions Journalism Network, and Hearken. Informing this work is the Journalism Educator Collaborative – a network of reporting instructors rethinking Journalism School curriculum in the United States – as well as a project with eight universities, their local media partners, and the nonprofit Cortico on developing training and skills about community conversation facilitations.

Her 2023 book is titled How Journalists Engage: A Theory of Trust Building, Identities, and Care (Oxford University Press) and explores how journalists of different identities, especially racial, enact trusting relationships with their audiences. Drawing from case studies, community-work, interviews, and focus groups, she documents a growing built environment around trust building and engagement journalism that represents the first major paradigm shift of the press’s core values in more than a century. She demonstrates how this movement mobilizes the nurturing of personal, organizational, and institutional relationships that people have with information, sources, news brands, journalists, and each other. Developing a new theory of trust building, Robinson calls for journalists to grapple actively with their own identities – especially the privileges, biases, and marginalization attached to them – and those of their communities, resulting in a more intentional and effective moral voice focused on justice and equity through the news practice of an ethic of care.

Her 2021 book with Matt Carlson of University of Minnesota (first author) and Seth Lewis of University of Oregon is titled News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture (Oxford University Press). It provides a book-length account of Donald Trump and far-right politicians’ relationships with the mainstream press, and offers the most comprehensive scholarly accounting to date of the Trump presidency’s relationship with the press. In addition, it points toward a future in which journalists can reassert their relevance and reclaim public trust through developing a moral voice in place of a detached objectivity.

Her 2018 multi-method book called Networked News, Racial Divides: How Power & Privilege Shape Public Discourse in Progressive Communities (Cambridge University Press) researches how digital platforms enable and constrain citizens – especially those in marginalized communities – who produce and share information in the public sphere about racial achievement disparities in the K-12 education system. Using Bourdieu’s field theory as its theoretical framework and a complex methodology called network ethnography, the book is meant to be a guide for journalists, politicians, activists and others on how to navigate information networks to improve public deliberation. This book won the 2019 Tankard Book Award with the Association of Educators in Journalism & Mass Communication and contributed to her earning the 2019 debut award for Public Engagement with the International Communication Association’s Journalism Studies division.

Her interests include:

  • Journalism studies
  • Media ecology
  • Power in information flows and exchange (as it related to cultural, social, political, ethnicity, sexuality, and class)
  • Social justice in media
  • Identity constructions
  • Collective memory in media
  • Digital technologies, especially social media, in mediated public spaces like journalism
  • Networks (particularly as examined through a qualitative lens)
  • News narrative
  • Civic engagement & public deliberation (in mediated spaces)

In her work, she questions: How do our stories – in journalism, social media etc. – flow through our society? Who gets heard and who gets left out of this storytelling and why? How does the use of new-media technologies change the ways we learn about and interact with each other through public, mediated spaces? She is particularly keen to appreciate who exerts authority over information during the adoption of new technologies, and how are people feeling empowered by or excluded from civic, cultural and professional conversations. Where are there opportunities for contestation in emergent networks of these information flows? What does all of this mean for the press and other entrenched institutions central to democratic deliberation and community life?

Her methods (generally a qualitative, cultural studies perspective) include:

  • Ethnography (newsrooms, community observation)
  • In-depth interviews
  • Focus Groups
  • Textual analyses
  • Network Analysis, Network Ethnography

Her past work includes a comprehensive, multi-year newsroom ethnography and corresponding in-depth audience study that led to a recently published monograph in Journalism and Communication Monographs as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Her work has been published in Journal of Communication, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, New Media & Society, Mass Communication & Society, Journalism, Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice and Convergence, among others. She has been a William T. Evjue Faculty Fellow and an H.I. Romnes Fellow. In addition, she received the Maier Faculty Development Endowment Award and the AEJMC Krieghbaum Under-40 Award.

Robinson teaches journalism studies, qualitative methods, news reporting, social media, literary journalism, and other classes at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

She is a consultant for a number of news organizations and has had collaborations with the Aspen Institute, the Kettering Foundation and the Minority Student Achievement Network. She advises The Black Voice and the National Association for Black Journalists. She also volunteers, works closely with, or has had collaborations with the following non-profits in Madison: Goodman Community Center, Freedom Inc., Urban Triage, Dear Diary, Cultural Connections, Simpson Street Free Press, Lussier Community Education Center, Centro Hispano, and LEAP 2 College.

A former business, technology, agriculture and seafood writer for a dozen years, Robinson earned her B.A. in journalism from the University of New Hampshire in 1994, her M.A. in journalism from Northeastern University in 2000, and her Ph.D in mass media and communication from Temple University in 2007.