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From Nieman Reports: The powers and perils of news personalization
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March 3, 2009, 8:19 a.m.

Lab Book Club: Journalists as goods

We’re nearing the end of our month-long Nieman Journalism Lab Book Club (which has seeped into March). Here’s my discussion with Jay Hamilton, author of All the News That’s Fit to Sell, about Chapter 8. It’s one of the most interesting chapters in the book, dealing with “journalists as goods.” Among the topics we discuss:

— Why poverty stories might generate more audience sympathy if they had fewer poor people in them;
— Why George Will is a different animal in print than on cable;
— How journalists’ self-conception might change over time; and
— What Joseph Stalin and Marshall McLuhan have to do with all this.

As always, there’s a full transcript below.

Josh: All right. We’re back with Jay Hamilton. We’re at Chapter 8, the penultimate chapter of his book, All the News That’s Fit to Sell — I always get an extra “s” in there. This is the chapter that I found really fascinating, and the title alone of the chapter is enough to get me interested: “Journalists as Goods.” Which I think is interesting to a lot of journalists who are interested in their own value as goods, and whether it is on a downward slope.

We talked about a lot of these issues during the previous video we did for Chapter 6, so a lot of that stuff is covered. But one thing that is in this chapter which is really interesting is the degree to which language can be evaluated — and how it differs depending on the medium within which a journalist is operating. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Jay: Sure. So what I always wondered was: Is George Will different in [print] than he is on television during the same week? Because he has the same set of stories to consider. Does the medium, does the audience demand, in part, affect what he does?

And you would expect it to, because people — journalists are increasingly part of the story. They are — again, information is an experience good. And a journalist does something in the same way, in a particular way, to signal to you what you can expect. And so what I did — and usually when I say “I” you should think of very skilled work study students at Duke, who are able to gather a lot information. In this case it was Lucinda Fickel, who did this analysis and created this data.

So we took transcripts from Lexis/Nexis of broadcast and cable TV, found those same people in their print columns. Ran them through a program called DICTION that Rod Hart had invented, which is basically taking a dictionary of 10,000 different words and pairing them up into 40 different categories.

And what we were able to find is, depending on the different time of day — you obviously had different types of Nielsen ratings for a particular type of program — and we were able to show how the attention of males and females by age varied for different ways of describing the news: the contrast in language and topics in the morning versus during the evening.

And then we also went back and got the advertising rates for those programs, and showed the different returns to talking about human interest versus another topic.

And then we did a contrast between how pundits behaved when they were on television, when they were much more likely to use less complex words, really focus on the individual as an example, as a way to talk about policy, versus in print — because they are reaching a different audience, they can be more abstract, talk about collectives, and not have to use as much of a human-interest focus.

I think that’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Number one, Shanto Iyengar has done research that says: Suppose you take a story like poverty. And what he did was he took the CBS Evening News, showed it to people in a lab, but did a subtle change. In one episode he had poverty covered about an individual poor person. In the other it was poverty about statistics being released: it was covered from a social angle.

And he found in the debriefing afterwards that the people who saw the individual story focus were more likely to blame the individual for being poor — to say their poverty is a function of their individual failings and circumstances. Whereas the people who saw the story about poverty as statistics were more likely to see it as a social phenomenon, and more likely in their conversations to hold the president accountable for poverty as an issue.

So this drive to personalize stories can actually effect how people derive political conclusions.

Josh: That is interesting. That’s almost the exact opposite of what I would have imagined. What’s the old Stalin line? — not that I thought I’d be quoting Stalin here, but — one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. I thought it would have been the opposite.

Jay: Yes. The other thing that was interesting is that a political consultant read the book, read that chapter. Then he called me and said: “Do you think it would be possible that you could derive a list of words that the candidate could use when they are on one set of programs versus when they’re on another set of programs?”

And that type of thing shouldn’t surprise us any more. If you look at Bob Shrum’s book, the political consultant, for example, he talks about how Al Gore would videotape potential speeches, and then how they were tested through dial meters, so people could see responses to particular types of descriptions. Many political speeches go through that process now.

But this consultant said: “Could you take what you learned there and develop a set of words?” Then midway through the conversation we both agreed that, given the set of people he was working with, it’s hard enough to keep them on topic, and to actually try to get it down to particular types of words — that wasn’t going to work.

Josh: Well, I won’t ask you whether journalists would be any more able to handle that dichotomy than politicians would, but that’s, I guess, a separate issue.

Let me ask you a question then, to get vaguely McLuhanesque: Is it the medium that is the difference? Or is it the knowledge of a different audience? In other words, is George Will acting that way differently on television because there is something about the medium of television that encourages a different kind of behavior? Or is it that he realizes he is reaching a different set of people when he is on CNN than he does when he is on the op-ed page of The Washington Post?

Jay: I think that, again, if you go back to the logic of what a set of pundits who survive — the set of pundits and people who survive are the ones that meet the market test. And they’re given rules of thumb. And the rules of thumb are things that could be taught and translated.

There are even seminars in D.C. If you are an aspiring pundit, you can be trained as to how to be a great cable guest. And so, if you said to a particular pundit, “If you talk this way you will help us reach that marginal voter and sell it to an advertiser,” they might be offended by that. They might not any more. They might say, “Great, that revenue stream, in part, I get a part of that.”

But the set of ones who survive and get invited back are the ones who meet those audience demands.

Josh: So you would say it’s probably more of a learned behavior, either consciously or simply by observing others, rather than something that is inherent in the television medium, or in the cable television medium?

Jay: Well, I think it’s definitely more audience driven, because if you look across the time of day, the language varies by the demographic group that they are targeting.

And it’s even down to, on the morning news programs, there is a distinct shift after 7:30 — because there’s an idea of we’re trying to reach one demographic, people who are working, about to get out the door. So between 7:00 and 7:30 we’ll talk about one set of issues in a particular way. After 7:30, it gets much softer. We switch to different issues. It’s still the same medium, but the audience change generates that change in language and topic.

Josh: We’ve talked throughout these conversations about journalists’ identity and self-identity as professionals — and as part of a profession that has a professional code.

I’m curious how you see that self-conception evolving over time. This chapter when you are talking about journalists as goods, to a lot of journalists — certainly not all — and I probably wouldn’t include anyone who goes to aspiring pundit school in this group — but a lot of journalists — the kind of people who you might say have souls, if you want to be judgmental — view that with some suspicion. It’s part of the professional code.

Do you see that changing over time? And as people realize: Okay, I don’t have a safe slot on the state desk of a major metro newspaper anymore, I need to be marketing myself, I need to adapt to the audience’s needs, and so on.

Jay: I think that there are a couple of things that are changing. One is that the trajectory is changing. So the idea that you would potentially work in newspapers and — a smaller newspaper — learn a set of skills, maybe they were individually or family-owned, and learn a particular craft — that career model is changing. In part because a lot of people — some of those outlets are on hard times. They’re not hiring.

In the development of television, at least in the ’50s and ’60s, some of those folks that once worked in newspapers — and newspapers are really where many stories are created. So the fact that people have different career trajectories now, less experience working their way up, maybe in areas where there was more focus on public affairs — that could affect them.

And then now the better monitoring of audience attention and the increased competition from other outlets means that profit margins are going down. So people are watching what you are saying and what you are talking about. And they have a better sense of who’s watching and what the demographics are.

So all of those things are pushing you away from that old professional norm. And there’s actually a wonderful book, co-authored in part by Howard Gardner, called Good Work, in which he interviews people in two different fields. One is biotechnology, which is a field which has more responsibility but is also growing economically, and then journalism, which is a field which also has a moral element to it, which is declining. And he does a great job talking about the job tensions — what it’s like to be a field where the economics are good versus where the economics are bad.

Josh: All right. Well, we know which field we are in. Thanks very much.

Jay: Thank you.

POSTED     March 3, 2009, 8:19 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Lab Book Club: Jay Hamilton
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