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Sept. 24, 2013, 11:05 a.m.

Rethinking shoe leather and professional boundaries in reporting — and academia

In a new study, academic and Nieman Lab contributor Mark Coddington looks at how journalists defined their work in response to WikiLeaks — what made them different from Julian Assange.

I was clueless about pretty much everything regarding academia and my field when I entered grad school three years ago (as opposed to merely “most things” now), and in retrospect, that cluelessness should have worried me more than it did at the time. Not just for my own sake, but for the sake of the field I was getting into: I had been a working journalist for at least four years, one interested in digital media and planning to go into academia. Why had I barely heard of any of the research that had been conducted about journalism? Why was Jay Rosen just about the only academic studying journalism that I was aware of before I started looking into grad school?

Some of my ignorance could be easily chalked up to my own incuriosity — if I had really been that interested in the academic research on journalism, I could’ve found it pretty quickly. But if I had no clue what was going on in the field that concerned my own work and I was thinking about going into it, how much chance did most of my colleagues have of encountering that research — let alone the rest of the public? That, of course, immediately leads to the big question that so many academics have spent their careers wrestling with: How much value does that research really have if such a small group of people even knows it’s out there? Who is all that work for, exactly?

I assumed I would just magically figure out the answers to those questions at some point during grad school, but it’s never fully happened. Instead, I’ve largely ended up absorbing the prevailing mindset that’s communicated at every turn in traditional academic settings: Getting articles published in academic journals is important because…well, because they’re academic journals. This is what we do. It’s how we get jobs, and then tenure. Besides, do you have any idea how hard it is to get published? And publishing journal articles is actually important, for real reasons that I’m not going to bore you with here. But I want to do more to make sure my research reaches the people who are actually making and consuming the journalism I’m studying, to make sure the work I put into it is not just for them, but for you.

There’s been a big push in this direction lately, coming from academia in the form of the momentum being gained by the open-access movement and from journalists like Derek Willis who have called for academics to make their research more available to the industry. I’m going to try to take a little step toward that by writing blog posts with what I hope will be accessible, layman’s-terms explanations of each of the studies I have published.

I’ll start with one that just came out: “Defending judgment and context in ‘original reporting’: Journalists’ construction of newswork in a networked age,” in Journalism, published Sept. 6, 2013. (The article’s paywalled, but please email me if you’d like to read a copy.)

What were you trying to find out?

It started with my fascination with the term “original reporting.” That term often gets used by journalists to differentiate their work from similar work, usually by aggregators — a phrase that journalists use to distinguish journalism from not-journalism. There’s nothing necessarily magical about that exact term — you see phrases like “shoe-leather reporting” or “boots on the ground” journalism serve essentially the same function.

But while original reporting gets thrown around a lot, it almost never gets defined. Without a real definition, the implicit argument for original reporting as journalism’s differentiating feature seems to be tautological: “We have to save journalism, because professional journalists are the only people doing original reporting! What’s original reporting? Well, it’s what real journalists do!”

I wanted to peel apart that concept — not just the literal term, but the concept behind it — and figure out not only what journalists mean by it, but on a deeper level what journalists see as the key features distinguishing their work from similar, almost-journalistic work. (And not just the broader role journalists play in society, which has been studied by numerous scholars, but specifically the work they do.)

Media scholar C.W. Anderson has done some insightful research (that second link is free) into the more practical building blocks of journalism, and he’s identified three core material elements of modern professional journalism: observation, documents, and interviews. I started with those concepts as the basic practices of professional journalism — observing events, finding and parsing documents, and accessing and interviewing officials and public figures. I also added two other practices: putting information into narrative form and applying news judgment.

But here’s the problem: None of those practices are unique to journalists. They may have been at some point, but their uniqueness has eroded, especially as the tools used to distribute information and do journalism have become so much more widespread. Anyone with a phone can observe, document, and publish an account of an event. Anyone with an Internet connection has millions of public documents at their disposal to scrutinize and publicize. Anyone with a Twitter account or the ability to find press releases can access many of the same statements journalists are eliciting from public officials. And anyone with writing skills, critical thinking skills, and a blog can publish that information in narrative form with their own news judgment.

So what do journalists have left to hang their professional hats (which I assume are fedoras) on? Are they continuing to define themselves around those traditional, material practices, or are they developing new definitions of what it means to do the work of a journalist? That’s the question this paper is built around.

So what’d you do?

We get a particularly revealing picture of what they think is specifically theirs when they’re trying to distinguish themselves from other, similar people and groups. This is tied to the sociological concept of boundary work, which holds that the boundaries between adjacent social or professional fields (like, say, professional journalism and tabloid journalism) are not inherent but socially constructed, and by examining the rhetoric used to define those boundaries, we can get a truer picture of the values undergirding those fields.

wikileaksSo I looked at the boundary work around a particular case: WikiLeaks. I wanted to examine the ways journalists defined themselves as different from WikiLeaks, and I did this by reading pretty much everything the biggest American news organizations said about WikiLeaks through April 2011. The full list of organizations was The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, PBS MediaShift, Online Journalism Review, and The Guardian as a British comparison. (If you want to know the full rationale for all those choices, let me know.)

I looked at everything they wrote that addressed WikiLeaks or Julian Assange themselves, not just the documents they released. That yielded about 1,700 articles, of which I singled out about 215 for more in-depth analysis. My analysis was qualitative, and it basically consisted of me reading, re-reading, categorizing, and cross-referencing the articles by themes over a few months in late 2011/early 2012, and again in summer 2012.

Of course, this is only one case, and the response to WikiLeaks is naturally going to be tailored to the specifics of the WikiLeaks case in particular. So this shouldn’t be interpreted as the once-and-for-all way journalists define their work, but the way journalists respond even to one case can still give us some valuable clues to their thoughts as a whole.

And what’d you find out?

There were three main markers that journalists used to define their work as opposed to WikiLeaks. Here they are, in descending order of use:

  • Context: Journalists saw the process of providing context — explaining to the public what the documents said and why they were significant — as the fundamental value they provided to WikiLeaks’ documents. Journalism wasn’t just accessing newsworthy items and publishing them, but explaining them to the public. Context was what turned mere publication into journalism. Journalists didn’t really explain how they added context, other than that it seemed to be vaguely tied to turning the documents into a narrative. Sample quote:

    …enigmatic lumps of information, without a narrative to connect them and without a political system capable of acting upon them, have no meaning. ‘Leaks’ out of context have no significance.

    —Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post

  • Filtering and editing: This was a much simpler process than adding context, and possibly the area of rhetoric most specifically rising out of WikiLeaks’ situation, with its release of tens of thousands of documents. Journalists continually emphasized their selectiveness as a distinction between themselves and WikiLeaks, and the news judgment that guided that process. They didn’t give many details (which is typical — news judgment is notoriously difficult for journalists to articulate), but they emphasized that it was methodical and systematic, involved consultation with experts, and considerations of national security and newsworthiness. Sample quote:

    …they’ve [The New York Times] been very judicious in what they have selected to actually publish. And that’s what you have to do. They are being, in my view, quite responsible whereas I think WikiLeaks putting everything out there ought to be more judicious in their editing.

    —Piers Morgan, CNN (in his debut on the network, actually)

  • Expertise: Journalists talked a lot about Assange’s lack of understanding of the events about which he was releasing information (which, to be fair, had some truth to it). They did this by contrasting it with their own expertise. The evidence of that expertise was, by and large, that concept I started out with — on-the-ground reporting, especially overseas, and on events the public didn’t know much about. Sample quote:

    …the WikiLeaks documents are snapshots, rough sketches, and first reports that demand fleshing out by those who are well-versed in the war from which they sprang. Rather than suggest a worrying future for investigative, on-the-ground reporting, WikiLeaks shows that it’s as important as ever.

    —Joel Meares, Columbia Journalism Review (note that he and others at CJR are not professional journalists in the same way the others are but media critics — in that role, though, they help define professional journalism to itself)

  • To journalists in this case, these three factors constituted the process that set their profession’s work apart. To journalists, context, news judgment, and expertise were the secret ingredients that turned publication into journalism and information into news. Without them, WikiLeaks couldn’t be defined as journalistic. More broadly, they seem to be part of a trend (noticed by several other scholars) in which journalists increasingly see themselves primarily as sense-makers, rather than simply reporters, and act accordingly.

    And that’s not a bad thing! It’s certainly a much better practice to define yourself around than the materially based practices (observation, documents, interviews) that can now be done by most everyone, both strategically and terms of value to democracy. I, at least, think I’d be better served by journalists who see journalism as adding context and expertise to information than ones who see it as simply observing and talking to people. But even these “new” definitions are being challenged as well: Can’t journalists’ own expert sources, as well as most bloggers, provide context, filtering, and expertise to newsworthy information? And if so, what sets journalists apart then?

    Those are tough tensions for journalists to resolve, but they seem to be the ones they’re stuck with. As I write to conclude the paper, “It may be difficult for journalists to defend their exclusive jurisdiction over those practices in a networked information environment, but journalists may be choosing to define themselves by them because, in such an environment, they have little else of their work practices to claim as uniquely theirs.” Journalists are falling back on a different set of practices as layer after layer of defenses of their professional uniqueness are breached by the steadily advancing journalistic capabilities of the non-professional public, and they may have to fall back yet again.

    Mark Coddington is a Ph.D. student studying digital journalism and media sociology in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s best known around here for writing our This Week in Review roundups every Friday. This piece appeared originally on his website.

    Photo of shoe leather by Nic feetsgood used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 24, 2013, 11:05 a.m.
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