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UNC professor receives the Helen Dinerman Award for political journalism research

Photo: UNC professor receives the Helen Dinerman Award for political journalism research (Josie Hollingsworth)
Donald Shaw has dedicated his life's work to the study of agenda-setting and public opinion. Shaw, a 45-year faculty member of UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and his colleague Maxwell McCombs were recently awarded the 2011 Helen Dinerman Award by the World Association for Public Opinion Research.

Nearly 50 years ago, journalism professor Donald Shaw started work on a theory that was first dismissed as too simple.

Now, he and a colleague have been honored for that work, which ended up changing the practice of political journalism.

Shaw, who has taught in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication since 1966, and his research partner Max McCombs were named the 2011 recipients of the Helen Dinerman Award.

The award is given annually by the World Association for Public Opinion Research to people who contribute significantly to survey research methodology.

Shaw and McCombs began work on their award-winning, agenda-setting theory in the late 1960s. The two met at UNC in 1967, when McCombs came to the journalism school as a junior professor.

During the 1968 presidential election, Shaw and McCombs collected survey data from a random group of UNC students.

They concluded that the public’s interest in certain issues, such as the Vietnam War, directly corresponded to the prevalence of those issues in news coverage.

This led Shaw and McCombs to publish “The agenda-setting function of mass media.”

Shaw said scholars weren’t receptive to the initial report.

“It was rejected as too simple and we almost dropped it,” he said.

But today, the report has been cited in more than 3,000 works and has been the basis for hundreds of studies.

Robert McKeever, Shaw’s current research assistant, said books about communication theory refer to Shaw’s work as a milestone.

“Don and Max changed political journalism,” said Chris Roush, senior associate dean of the journalism school.

“They changed how media across the world looks at their job of covering politicians and governments. I think it probably made political journalists more careful in what they write and how they write.”

“He is a very humble and unassuming man,” he said.

Shaw continues to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in the journalism school.

“He is the father of agenda-setting that has completely changed how we think about news media effects,” journalism professor Jane Brown said.

Shaw is working on a book about the specialization of today’s media outlets, which argues that specialized media is gaining ground in the industry at the expense of mass media.

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