Communication Research and Practice Trends to Look for in 2020

Wondering what is on the horizon in the vast world of communication? With the new year upon us, it’s only natural to think about what 2020 might hold. Our faculty members, from various perspectives in the field, tuned in to let you know what trends they think you should expect this year. They assert that the study of technology in communication, the end of objectivity, a focus on corporate purpose, and environmental communication are all recent trends that will carry over into 2020. Read on to learn why.

The Study of Technology in Communication

Dr. Carl Brown, Communication Studies

Technology has permeated human communication. Letter writing has long been out of vogue and face-to-face communication, though still vital, seems to be going the way of the buffalo. In their stead, emails, social media, and video chat fill the interpersonal void. On one hand, technology mediated interactions remove some human elements of traditional communication. The ability to perceive and interpret nonverbal cues is, at best, reduced and, at worst, removed. On the other hand, technology allows interactions to take place that might otherwise not due to obstacles like distance or inconvenience. From professional positions to meaningful personal relationships, technology mediated communication has made the world a smaller place. This focus on virtual and mediated communication has prompted scholars to study the phenomenon by applying multiple and various approaches to communication research. Conversation analysts explore the differences and similarities between face to face and virtual communication, communication ethicists chart the ways in which honesty and open communication are, or are not, seen in this modern mode. Empirical researchers seek to identify predictors of successful mediated communication; interpretive researchers capture the essence of the experience of communicating through mediated channels, and; critical researchers look for ways to transform and expand access to communication. Regardless of the form of mediation or style of research applied to it, scholars are studying this modern communication in ways that ensure its transition from a trend to a staple of communication scholarship.

The End of “Objectivity”

Dr. Eric Harvey, Multimedia Journalism

For journalists and journalism scholars alike, the past 20 years has been a time of radical change. The thorough digitization of newsgathering, news publishing, and news consumption has occasioned significant changes in the fundamental tenets of journalistic practice. Print circulation has plummeted, online advertising is dominated by Google and Facebook, breaking news is often consumed on Twitter hours before a story is written, and new “disruptive” business models to reinvent the form seem to emerge weekly. Yet amid all the technological and economic change has emerged a significant, and promising, cultural shift. More diverse populations than ever before are using new technologies to make their voices heard, collaborate across continents, and, with data and documents, illustrate complex stories and hold those in power to account. Most compellingly, old school and new school journalists alike have come to the realization that the 20th century standard of “objective” reporting–always much more of an institutional mantra than an actual possibility–cannot meet the challenge of a 21st century world facing climate disaster, rising inequality, and a growing population who brands inconvenient truths as “fake news.” By preaching the gospel of objectivity, 20th century journalists established themselves as impartial arbiters of truth on par with scientists, which allowed journalism (and journalism education) to flourish in a society in which news consumption was mostly one-way. Yet even then, few practitioners actually believed such a goal was possible. Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine, once said, “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective and I’ll show you a liar.” Now, in a connected and curious world, journalists are abandoning what is now called the “view from nowhere,” that serves the economic and political elite more than citizens, for a model that is more open and honest. Instead of treating their profession as a rarefied skill, modern journalists are showing their hard work, both in their stories and on social media; collaborating with community members as fellow reporters and researchers; and contextualizing their stories with an ethically-informed worldview shared by their readers, listeners, and viewers. At a time of immense global change, journalism’s role is more important than ever. By merging traditional emphases on accuracy, timeliness, and fairness with newly honest, open, and forthright approaches, journalists will best position themselves to address the future.


Dr. Tim Penning, Advertising & Public Relations

One key trend in PR research and practice is the notion of “Purpose.” CCOs (Chief Communications Officers) are increasingly wrestling with the ideas that corporations can’t just be promoting their products and services. Companies have to have purpose, some larger societal vision for what they do and the impact they have not just on the bottom line but on society. This has been coming from related issues such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and other topics. What needs to be studied is the impact of articulating a broader social purpose. Does the purpose need to be related to the company in some way, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods and gun control, or can it be about more general social issues, such as 84 Lumber and immigration? This affects other aspects of public relations, such as employee relations, in which employees often drive the purpose or chose where to work based on it; investor relations, given that many socially conscious mutual funds have merged; community relations, where in some cases business is seen as a better source of addressing issues than government, and consumer relations, since taking a stand can both win and lose customers.

Environmental Communication and the Anthropocene

Dr. Richard Besel, Communication Studies

For communication studies scholars, interest in environmental issues has grown steadily over that last few decades. In the early 1990s, “environmental communication” began to first appear in conference titles. Eventually, the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA) was founded in 2011. Today, environmental communication is recognized as an important topic worthy of academic attention. For example, the National Communication Association’s (NCA) magazine, Spectra, prominently displayed “Communication and the Environment” on its cover last March. Within this larger interest area of environmental communication, scholars have recently begun to consider a fairly new idea: the Anthropocene. At the 2019 NCA convention, there was a panel session on “Communication and Surviving in the Anthropocene.” Popularized by atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch when humans have a significant impact on the environment. Environmental communication scholars have an interest in several aspects of this new name and time: Are we really in a new geological epoch? How has the way we communicated about major environmental concerns, such as climate change, brought us to this point? Where do we go from here? Environmental communication concerns, such as those associated with understanding the Anthropocene, will likely maintain our scholarly focus for years to come.

So there you have it. Our experts have weighed in and now it’s your turn. Let us know what you think we should be looking for in 2020.

This post was co-authored by Drs. Brown, Harvey, Penning, and Besel.