Department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies



Image of Jen Birks

Jen Birks

Associate Professor in Media, Faculty of Arts


Expertise Summary

My research examines mediated political communication, with a particular focus on the democratic engagement of citizens and the media representation of political publics. I have an interest in media practices and innovations that engage and involve the public, including past projects on campaigning journalism and fact-checking journalism, and current work on formats that aim to counter political polarisation in debate on contentious issues. This research takes an interdisciplinary approach encompassing argumentation theory, political narrative, rhetoric, motivated reasoning, persuasion and political belief formation. My work has also addressed the representation of 'the public', 'public opinion', and activist publics in news media, as well as other parts of civil society.

I am the co-founder and co-director of the Centre for Media, Politics and Communication Research, which is an interdisciplinary centre for research and discussion related to political communication, digital media, media narratives and audience reception. We welcome colleagues from all disciplines, including but not limited to media studies, politics and international relations, film and television studies, linguistics, literature, cultural studies, sociology, social psychology, philosophy, and science and technology studies.

Teaching Summary

I teach modules on political communication, protest and public cultures and news media, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

My PhD students have completed projects on topics such as novel forms of digital propaganda in Malaysia, the role of social movements in general elections, neoliberal governmentality on social media, Black feminist analysis of digital cultures, a longitudinal study of media literacy in use of computer mediated communication, and discursive construction of British and European identities in Brexit Britain.

I am particularly interested in supervising projects on political journalism practices, approaches to tackling mis/disinformation, political narrative and argumentation, audience reception of political communication, and public engagement with digital political communication. I have experience co-supervising with different schools/departments, and welcome further opportunities to do so.

Research Summary

My current research explores the relationship between political argumentation and belief, and how we might rethink how journalism can best serve its social and democratic role. Given evidence that… read more

Selected Publications

Current Research

My current research explores the relationship between political argumentation and belief, and how we might rethink how journalism can best serve its social and democratic role. Given evidence that the most informed and engaged political partisans are also the most inclined and able to engage in motivated reasoning, journalism needs to do more than simply inform. This project will address the fundamental challenges to professional journalism in a digital world, and what it can uniquely offer to restore trust and engage partisans in a more meaningful way.

Past Research

My PhD research, undertaken in the Glasgow Media Group and funded by an ESRC scholarship, examined a sharp rise in campaigning journalism in the early years of post-devolution Scotland. The study involved interviews with editors, journalists and Ministers in what was then the Scottish Executive (now Scottish Government), as well as a discourse analysis of the representation of publics and public opinion in the campaign coverage.

I followed this with a Leverhulme-funded post-doctoral project examining the British media representation of the public and political role of civil society at a time of global uprisings, including Occupy LSX, the student tuition fee protests, public sector strikes, as well as the state visit of Pope Benedict, in which he argued for religion to have a legitimate role in the political public sphere rather than being relegated to private conscience. This two-year project was published as a monograph, News and Civil Society.

In my next project I focused in more detail on a single social movement - UK Uncut - that had appeared to have had an influence on public debate in a way that departed from the traditional protest paradigm in news reporting. This British Academy-funded project developed my argument from News and Civil Society that activists' use of digital tools and PR skills, in what Rucht terms an 'adaptation' orientation to mainstream media, was having a meaningful impact on representation of protest. The political aims and arguments received as much attention as the protest tactics, but the media also co-opted the framing of 'tax fairness' in a way that divorced it from the social justice and anti-austerity objectives of the movement.

In a connected small project, I picked up on another austerity-related policy issue - the Bedroom Tax (a cut to housing benefit for those deemed to have 'spare' bedrooms in their house) - that was opposed by two left-leaning tabloid newspapers, taking me back to my interest in campaigning journalism. This quantitative content analysis and discourse analysis found that those affected by the policy were given voice and agency to point out flaws in the policy based in their own experience in a way that departed from the traditional media criteria of a 'good victim', i.e. to be tragic, vulnerable and passive. Another small project in collaboration with the Right Lab addressed the media representation and audience reception of modern slavery in the East Midlands, where the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority in headquartered.

My latest project focused on a relatively new journalism practice - fact-checking journalism - in the context of concerns about 'post-truth politics' following the EU referendum and Trump's presidential victory. As well as Brexit, case studies included the 2017 and 2019 general elections and the early government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, in which they claimed to be 'following the science'. The findings were published in the monograph Fact-checking Journalism and Political Argumentation and a series of book chapters. This analysis finds little evidence for the 'post-truth politics' thesis in general political discourse beyond the outright bullshitting of Trump, but social media has brought long-standing issues with misleading rhetoric, polarisation and motivated reasoning into plain sight. Fact-checking journalism offers a corrective that goes beyond checking isolated statistical claims, but is marginalised online where its verdicts are jarring to partisans used to conventions of 'objectivity' and alert to media 'bias'.

Department of Cultural, Media and Visual Studies

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Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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