As 2021 draws to a close, I asked some of our CRC Fellows to reflect on the last 12 months and share what was most noteworthy to them in the realm of communication research.

Two of our Fellows observed an increased emphasis on communication efforts for social change. For Assistant Professor of Public Relations Rosalynn Vasquez, who examines corporate sustainability and advocacy communications, she found the growth of social impact communications and the growth of JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) practice groups among PR agencies and in-house practitioners most interesting and something to keep an eye on. “There is a growing need for communication leaders to take the lead in defining and discussing diversity, equity, & inclusion in organizations,” she said. “Words matter and ensuring consistency and clarity will be crucial when communicating with internal and external stakeholders.” A similar observation was made by Assistant Professor Yi Grace Ji, who is a strategic communication researcher. While previously it was primarily health communication scholars that focused on communication for social good, over the last year Ji has noticed more advertising and public relations practitioners looking to see how they can align their programs with social change efforts. “Students are gravitating toward this, as well,” said Ji.

For Assistant Professor of Emerging Media Studies James Cummings, who studies media psychology and human-computer interaction, what was noteworthy was the increasingly mainstream discussion of virtual spaces and remote interactions. Most notable was the announcement of Meta, as a not just a corporate rebranding by Facebook, but a declaration by one of the world’s leading media firms that their vision of the near-term future is immersive virtual experiences. The envisioned scenarios in which our conventional “2D” media interactions  are integrated with VR and AR experiences poses all sorts of interesting considerations, both theoretical (in terms of classic approaches to studying message processing and effects, like excitation transfer, priming, and source attribution), as well as ethical (Meta is funding researchers to help them design a safe, inclusive, privacy-preserving “metaverse”).

For me, it was noteworthy that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners were journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitri Andreyevich Muratov for their efforts to defend freedom of speech and protect democracies from – as Ressa put it – the “toxic sludge” of misinformation. Ressa is co-founder of the Phillipine’s Rappler, a digital news organization that is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network. Indeed, my research has found that fact-checking may be understood as a democracy-building tool that emerges where democratic institutions are perceived to be weak or are under threat. That the Nobel Committee would bestow this prize upon those fighting misinformation shows that the importance of addressing the global infodemic continued in 2021 and will likely be a force for communication researchers to reckon with in the new year.