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Sept. 1, 2010, 10 a.m.

All the web’s a stage: Scholar Joshua Braun on what we show and what we choose to hide in journalism

Joshua Braun is a media scholar currently pursuing his Ph.D in Communications at Cornell. His work is centered at the intriguing intersection of television and the web: He’s currently studying the adoption of blogging software by network news sites, and the shifts that that adoption are bringing about in terms of the relationship between one-way communication something more conversational. At this spring’s ISOJ conference in Austin, Braun presented a paper (pdf) discussing the results of his research — a work that considered, among other questions:

As journalistic institutions engage more and more fully in interactive online spaces, how are these tensions changing journalism itself? How do the technical systems and moderation strategies put in place shape the contours of the news, and how do these journalistic institutions make sense of these systems and strategies as part of their public mission? What is the role of audiences and publics in this new social and technical space? And how do journalistic institutions balance their claim to be “town criers” and voices for the public with the fact that their authority and continued legal standing depend at times on moderating, and even silencing the voices of individuals?

The whole paper is worth reading. (You can also watch Braun’s ISOJ talk here.) But one aspect of it that’s especially fascinating, for our purposes, is Braun’s examination of TV-network news blogs in the context of the sociology of dramaturgy (in particular, the work of Erving Goffman).

News organizations are each a mix of public and private — preparing information for a public audience, but generally doing so in a private way. As with a theater production, there’s a performance going on for the audience but a big crew backstage. Blogging represents a potential shift in this dynamic by exposing people and processes that would otherwise be kept hidden behind a byline or a 90-second news piece.

And the blogging interplay — between presentation and communication, between product and process, and, perhaps most interestingly, between process and performance — is relevant to any news organization trying to navigate familiar journalistic waters with new vessels. I spoke with Braun about that dynamic and the lessons it might have to offer; below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Megan Garber: I’m intrigued by the idea of theater dynamics you mention in the paper — in particular, the distinction between backstage and front-stage spaces for news performances. Can you explain that in a bit more detail?

Joshua Braun: This is Steve Hilgartner‘s idea. He took this idea of stage management from classic sociology, which has normally been an interpersonal theory, and decided it worked for organizations. He looked at the National Academy, and noticed the way in which they keep all their deliberations effectively secret and then release a document at the end that gives the consensus opinion of the scientific community. And there are two aspects of that. One is that it’s intended to protect the integrity of the process. So when you’re a big policy-advisory body like the National Research Council, you have senators who will call you and tell you they don’t want you working on something; you’ll have lobbyists who’ll want to influence your results; you’ll have, basically, a lot of political pressure. So there’s this aspect in which this system of enclosure — in the Goffman/Hilgartner metaphor — this keeping of things backstage, really is meant to protect the integrity of the process.

But it also has the other effect, which is that it also gives the illusion of the scientific community speaking with a single voice. So basically, all the messy process of sausages being made — and all the controversial issues that, by definition, the National Research Council is dealing with — you don’t see reflected in the reports. Or you see it in very official language. So it gives them a tremendous amount of authority, this illusion of the scientific community speaking with one voice, and they cultivate that. I was actually a graduate fellow at the National Academies, and they definitely want that — they recognize that the authority of the documents rests on that.

And many organizations that deal with information and knowledge production, including journalism, operate in this way, frequently. The publication of the finished news item and the enclosure of the reporting process — there’s a very real sense that that protects the authority of the process. So if you’re investigating a popular politician, you need that. And at the same time, it protects the brand and the legal standing and the authority of the organization, and bolsters that. Those things are very reliant on this process of enclosure, oftentimes.

And so what you see in the new media spaces, and these network experiments with blogging, is that sort of process. They’ve taken a medium that they themselves talked about in terms of accountability and transparency and openness and extended it to this traditional stage management process. They continue to control what remains backstage and what goes front-stage. And there are good justifications for doing that. But they’ve also extended that to the process of comment moderation. You’ll get pointed to a description of why comments are moderated the way they are — but you’ll never see exactly why a comment is spammed or not. That’s not unique to the news, either. But it’s an interesting preservation of the way the media’s worked for a long time.

And this has been described by other scholars, as well. So Alfred Hermida has a really neat piece on blogging at the BBC where he talks about much the same thing. He uses different terms — he talks about “gatekeeping,” as opposed to this notion of stage management — but it’s a pretty robust finding across a lot of institutions.

And I don’t want to portray it as something unique to journalism. This process of self-presentation and this performance of authority is widespread — and maybe necessary to journalism. I think the jury’s out on that.

MG: Definitely. Which brings up the question of how authority is expressed across different media. Does broadcast, for example, being what it is, have a different mandate than other types of journalism?

JB: Right. One of the remarkable things about broadcast news is the amount of stage management that you see in the traditional product. So if you look at an organization like ABC News, for instance — before their recent mass layoffs — they have several dozen correspondents: 77 or so people. But they have 1,500 total staff. And when you’re producing for a visual medium, you’re very selective about what appears on front-stage — this mise-en-scène of network news: what appears on camera and what ends up on the cutting-room floor, and so on. The vast majority of their newsgathering operation — the desk assistants and the bookers and the people who do all the pre-interviewing and the off-air correspondents — are people who never appear on-air. No network is its anchor.

So there’s that aspect, in which a large portion of the news ecosystem isn’t visible to the public — and there’s an argument to be made that having a small set of news personalities with whom audiences can identify is good for the product — and there are a lot of organizations where the vast majority of people involved in things don’t really speak. So that was one of the interesting aspects of looking at the blogging efforts of network news: Once that somewhat natural distinction between on-air and off-air talent and support staff disappears, who becomes visible online?

And you do have a lot of producers, a lot of bookers and other types of professionals who appear on the blogs, which is a really fascinating thing. The blogs are an extension of the stage management thing, but also a challenge to that model.

Image from daveynin used under a Creative Commons License.

POSTED     Sept. 1, 2010, 10 a.m.
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