Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, May 18, 2001
Steven Chaffee, professor emeritus of communication, dead at 65


Steven H. Chaffee, a highly regarded communication scholar and Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication, Emeritus, died unexpectedly on May 15 at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 65.

The cause of death was cardiac arrest following a circulatory problem.

"Steve was the outstanding communication research scholar of his generation," said Henry Breitrose, a professor in the Department of Communication. "What he brought to the department, in the doctoral program and in communication research, was an intellectual rigor."

Chaffee had a long association with Stanford. He first came to the university in 1963, when he did graduate studies under communication research pioneer Wilbur L. Schramm, who established Stanford's Institute for Communication Research. In 1981, Chaffee returned to the university as a professor in the Department of Communication. He retired from the department in 1999 after having served as chairman two times: from 1986 to 1990 and from 1996 to 1999.

His research focused primarily on the role of politics in mass communication.

"He was one of the foremost scholars of political communication, of how people used and responded to mass media for political information and how the mass media exerted political influence," said Donald Roberts, the Thomas More Storke Professor of Communication.

Chaffee wrote 13 books and more than 100 articles and book chapters in his lifetime. He co-edited the heavily used graduate text, Handbook of Communication Science. For many years, Chaffee also edited Communication Research, a scholarly journal, and he served as president of the International Communication Association.

He was much admired by colleagues. In 1999, Chaffee received the Paul J. Deutschmann Award for career excellence in research from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

Equally important, Chaffee was known as an extraordinary mentor to graduate students. "He was wonderful at helping students frame questions," Breitrose said.

One of Chaffee's recent projects was studying Kids Voting USA, an effort to encourage schoolchildren to participate in elections. His research indicated that children's civic enthusiasm made their parents more likely to vote.

After his retirement from Stanford in 1999, Chaffee accepted the Arthur N. Rupe Chair in the Social Effects of Mass Communication at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He taught at UCSB for two years.

Chaffee was a native Californian. Born in South Gate, Calif., in 1935, he earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Redlands and his master's in journalism at the University of California-Los Angeles. He worked as a journalist at several Los Angeles-area newspapers before becoming a communication scholar.

After earning his doctorate from Stanford in 1965, Chaffee worked as a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until 1981, when he returned to Stanford to teach in the Department of Communication. Chaffee also was affiliated with the Department of Political Science here. He served as director of the Institute for Communication Research from 1981 to 1985 and again from 1994 to 1996. Chaffee also led the master's program in media studies from 1992 to 1996 and the doctoral program in communication from 1993 to 1996.

Chaffee had a passion for non-scholarly communication, too. He loved movies and was able to recall film dialogue verbatim, Breitrose said. He also was an avid volleyball player, who coaxed the Communication Department into games on the Oval in front of the Quad, Breitrose recalled.

Chaffee is survived by his wife, Debra Lieberman, a researcher at the Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and their 10-year-old son, Eliot, both of Santa Barbara. He also is survived by three adult children from his marriage to Sheila Chaffee of Madison, Wis., Laura Friedrichs, Adam Chaffee and Amy Chaffee, and three grandchildren, Calvin Chaffee, Colin Friedrichs and Harper Friedrichs. He is survived by two siblings as well, Elaine Kern Brooks and Henry Paul Kinghorn.

Memorial services were held May 18 at Congregation B'nai Brith, Santa Barbara.

The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made in Chaffee's name to the Yosemite Association, P.O. Box 230, El Portal, CA 95318.