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Feb. 27, 2013, 10 a.m.

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: Why can Facebook posts be super-memorable, and did tweets direct bombs in Libya?

What does an ideal front page look like, can social media usage predict political involvement, and how is user-generated content coming into newsrooms: all that and more in this month’s roundup of the academic literature.


Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

The latest fruits of academia offer something for almost everyone interested in the digital media future — from newsroom coders to global Twitizens, from executives pondering paywalls to political junkies musing on the meaning of the Internet. Below is an à la carte menu of studies recently published online or in the hard copies of journals.

“Innovation and the Future of Journalism”: Paper from Northwestern University in Qatar, published in Digital Journalism. By John V. Pavlik.

For media organizations to remain viable over the long term, Pavlik suggests, they must link innovative practice and experimentation with core journalistic values. This paper touts model practices such as those variously pioneered by New York magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian. But innovation implies a careful balance, namely “taking new approaches to media practices and forms while maintaining a commitment to quality and high ethical standards.”

The author proposes four core principles to guide the future: (1) research intelligence, or gathering systematic data that can help measure impact and guide new design; (2) strong advocacy for freedom of speech, while reinforcing the public’s appreciation for the press; (3) adherence to truth and accuracy as core values in order to “maintain the trust of the public”; (4) a commitment to ethics. This research paper is distinctive for its emphasis on values and relationships with the public as inextricably tied to technical innovation: “Ethical decision-making insures the long-term viability of digital strategy, as well as promotes the social responsibility of that strategy.”

“Major Memory for Microblogs”: Study from UC-San Diego, the University of Scranton, and the University of Warwick, published in Memory and Cognition. By Laura Mickes, Ryan S. Darby, Vivian Hwe, Daniel Bajic, Jill A. Warker, Christine R. Harris, and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld.

The study explores how social media content is read and remembered. The researchers conducted three experiments to assess how well Facebook posts are remembered as compared to other types of information — particularly news such as CNN articles or entertainment stories — and the extent to which remembering is enhanced by a perceived social connection or post content. The researchers also compared reader comments and the content of news articles.

The findings defy expectations that social media posts are ephemeral and fleeting; in fact, in many cases they are more memorable than professionally produced content. “Especially memorable Facebook posts and reader comments, generated by ordinary people,” the researchers write, “may be far closer than professionally crafted sentences to tapping into the basic language capacities of our minds…Some sentences — and, most likely, those without careful editing, polishing, and perfecting — are naturally more ‘mind-ready.'” The study proposes that the language of social-networking sites and microblogs has shifted contemporary expectations for writing from formal conventions toward increased spontaneity.

“Who’s Reporting the Protests?”: Study from the London School of Economics and the BBC, published in Journalism Studies. By Maximillian T. Hänska-Ahy and Roxanna Shapour.

The study documents how journalism recently changed before our eyes. Subtitled “Converging practices of citizen journalists and two BBC World Service newsrooms, from Iran’s election protests to the Arab uprisings,” it notes how journalistic norms shifted over a crucial 18-month period, between the 2009 Iran uprising and the 2011 Arab Spring. User-generated content played an increasingly bigger role in the news gathering process, with Iran serving as something of a “testing ground.”

The authors interviewed many journalists with the BBC’s Persian and Arabic services, and they argue that these events were a “catalyst” in changing reportorial procedures: “While at the time of Iranians’ election protests, journalists felt some trepidation about having to use material and sources they would rather not, by the time of the Arab uprisings they had grown more familiar and comfortable doing so.” Further, citizens or lay journalists on the ground during these uprisings also became more fluent in the ways of the BBC, appearing to gain better knowledge of editorial process and journalistic practice and, for example, doing more to document dates, times, and locations.

“Digital Media and Traditional Political Participation Over Time in the U.S.”: Study from UC-Santa Barbara, published in Journal of Information Technology & Politics. By Bruce Bimber and Lauren Copeland.

The researchers note that digital media use has often been linked to increased political participation — voting, donating, participating in campaigns and much more — but that findings are inconsistent and the precise relationship remains unclear. The topic has already seen a vast amount of academic research. The new UC-Santa Barbara study analyzes a dozen years of American National Elections Survey data to establish a very broad sample, over multiple election cycles. It turns out that each election year has seen different dynamics: “We find that the set of relationships present in 2008 does not appear in any of the other years. In fact there is no pair of years in which the Internet measure predicts the same set of political acts. For example, in 2004, seeing political information online predicts persuading, attending an event, and voting…In 2000 it predicts only voting, in 1998 only donating, and in 1996 just attending an event.” The relationship seems to be growing stronger. The 2012 election was not part of the study’s field of analysis, and so it will be interesting to know if the trend continues.

“Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information During the Libyan Civil War: An Exploratory Case Study”: Study from researchers at Georgetown and the State Department, published in Policy & Internet. By Steve Stottlemyre and Sonia Stottlemyre.

This eye-opening paper (from authors who have U.S. government and intelligence affiliations) examines whether or not Twitter users in Libya effectively provided “tactical military intelligence” that proved crucial to Western intervention and helped enforce a no-fly zone. The answer seems to be “yes.”

Following crisis-mapping models like those employed during disasters in Haiti, Chile, and Japan — using the open-source platform Ushahidi — the United Nations-backed Libya Crisis Map was set up but suffered from weak data, the authors explain. However, alongside this effort, networks of social media users went to work on their own maps: “Some Twitter users, along with many media outlets, collaborated to create what resembled finished intelligence products.” Certain Twitter handles provided highly useful and accurate maps that seemed geared to help with military targeting, and even included hashtags like #NATO or included @NATO handles in map-based tweets.

Of course, the study’s authors hedge a little about the direct Twitter-bombing connection, but suggest a brave new world may have blossomed here: “There is no public information about the extent to which military commanders used information from crisis maps during the Libyan Civil War. Nevertheless, commanders had access to such information, and likely used intelligence products derived, at least in part, from information pulled from social networking websites.”

“Front-paging Online Newspapers”: Paper from the University of Thessaly, published in First Monday. By Ioannis Koutsaftikis, Nikolaos Nanas, and Manolis Vavalis.

Newsroom designers, here’s a paper for you: The researchers note that many media organizations still want front pages that are often unfriendly to readers’ needs, interests, and desires to explore. Instead, they want to design a platform for “creating the next generation of digital front pages for mass media that recognizes and utilizes the interests of readers.”

To that end, the paper explores principles and models to help produce better, more “adaptive” pages. The researchers look at current practices at sites such as Flipboard,, Reddit, and The New York Times and establish a spectrum running from static to dynamic, from customizable to collectively designed. The researchers ultimately endorse a more adaptive model that is embodied in an “electronic front page prototype, quite close to the philosophy and the presentation of a real newspaper front page with the additional benefits of Web 2.0.” Their paper even looks at specific coding practices and design layouts, displaying graphics and offering applicable JavaScript, CSS, and XML code for interested programmers.

“Networked Gatekeeping and Networked Framing on #Egypt”: Study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, published in The International Journal of Press/Politics. By Sharon Meraz and Zizi Papacharissi.

The researchers analyze some 1 million tweets published during the 2011 uprising in Egypt and examine the fluid dynamics of how certain citizens, activists and media members came to prominence and were elevated by the crowd. They look at the dynamics of networked “gatekeeping” and curation, and ultimately at how online dynamics helped frame these events around a particular narrative: “Our analysis revealed that online, #egypt was driven by several individuals, some activists, some journalists, and some nonelite media supporters who were crowdsourced to prominence through the pluralizing practices of retweeting, mentioning, and other addressivity markers. Prominent gatekeepers arose from elite and nonelite media institutions, with activist or journalistic agendas, or both, contributing to the labeling of this movement as a revolution….”

The study suggests new norms are at work in communications and media: “The status of the elite is contingent on the crowdsourced actions of nonelites, suggesting a new symbiotic interrelationship between the influential and the ordinary in a manner that elevates the actions of nonelites as active participants in the realization of what is newsworthy.”

“Online News Consumption”: Paper from the University of Texas at Austin, published in Digital Journalism. By Hsiang Iris Chyi and Angela M. Lee.

The paper constructs some new theoretical models for trying to figure out the problem of when to charge for online content. Highly germane as metered paywalls are being weighed now by many media properties, the study analyzes data from a survey of more than 700 respondents. The magic formula for getting online news users to pay proves to be elusive, as different people are incentivized by different things: “As many as five factors (age, gender, news interest, preference, and online news use) have direct impacts on paying intent,” the researchers write. “Among these, age…and news interest…are the strongest predictors. This presents a dilemma — while younger people are more likely to pay for online news, they tend to have lower interest in news compared with other age groups.”

They also produce counter-intuitive findings about print news, overturning long-held assumptions; the data suggest the “possibility that the long-lasting print business model is supported not by particular demographic groups, contrary to popular misconception, but by attitudinal factors such as format preference as well as news interest.” The researchers suggest all these research implications might be useful for both scholars and media professionals.

“Beyond Participation: Designing for the Civic Web”: Paper from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, published in the Journal of Digital and Media Literacy. By Eric Gordon.

The article, published in a new peer-reviewed journal supported backed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, explores ways civic organizations and government can foster digital experiences that help citizens learn about important issues, create content and stay engaged with one another. Organizations need to view the web as more than “just a portal to information and efficient transactions”; we now must imagine a broader “civic web” that is focused on more than paying parking tickets and giving feedback through established channels. The author lays out six new principles for communities to live, govern and code by: (1) tools solve problems; (2) audience matters; (3) networks are composed of people; (4) scale matters; (5) the civic web is on- and off-line; (6) design for distraction. The bottom line? Be skeptical of “flash functionality” and token new media gestures by government and organizations; digital tools should always serve a larger civic goal of engaging citizens.

“America’s Global Standing According to Popular News Sites From Around the World”: Study from Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, published in Political Communication. By Elad Segev and Menahem Blondheim.

In a globalized world in which so many countries are rising in their relative cultural and communications power, what kind of presence does the U.S. maintain in the news agenda of other countries? The answer: still quite a lot, unless you speak French or Arabic (in certain places). The researchers gathered data from 35 news sites across the globe — 10 different languages — over the period 2009-2010. The results suggest that the U.S. still gets three times the coverage of its nearest “competitor”: 18.6 percent of news items mention America; China comes in second at 5.5 percent. In France, though, the U.S. gets mentioned in only 4.3 percent of items and in Egypt it was only 6.4 percent during the period examined.

Not surprisingly, the “size and power of a country are very strong predictors of its news prominence.” An exception again is Egypt, where news focused more on neighboring countries. The researchers note that America’s prominence is “surprisingly close to what previous studies found over the past generation,” and this has implications for the debate over purported U.S. “declinism.”

“Communication About Health Disparities in the Mass Media”: Study from Cornell, Harvard, Indiana University, and the University of Minnesota, published in the Journal of Communication. By Jeff Niederdeppe, Cabral A. Bigman, Amy L. Gonzales, and Sarah E. Gollust.

Relevant to the ongoing U.S. debate about health care, the study notes that Americans continue to have a low awareness of health disparities among many communities — minority, disadvantaged or otherwise. To the extent that the media covers such issues, outlets usually focus on African-Americans. The study explores the most effective framings and the strong potential of narrative stories. Though primarily a paper focused on communications theory and future research directions, it serves as strong reminder that the topic of inequality in matters of health remains undercovered and that the way journalists present these issues — how they present those suffering and attribute the root of the problem — matters in terms of public understanding. One takeaway is that there’s room for a lot more examination of how differences in sex, age, socioeconomic status, and geographic location are linked to health outcomes.

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 27, 2013, 10 a.m.
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