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Jan. 31, 2014, 10:30 a.m.

What’s New in Digital and Social Media Research: Linking helps save newspapers and how multitasking spikes arousal

Vigorous linking as an antidote to newspaper failure, who gets crowdfunded, and skepticism around the standard narrative of the Arab Spring: 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 Media, 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. Here, John Wihbey sums up the top papers in digital media and journalism this month.

The academic community is out of the gates this new year with some intriguing findings — from the limits of funding stories through micropayments to the importance of social media for people’s news diets. Many big thoughts, some data-driven takeaways and a whole lot more are below. If you’re just joining us, our “best of” of 2013 is here; and the 2012 year-end review is here. Hope you’ll tweet suggestions this year to @JournoResource if you know of a good study.

“Crowd-Funded Journalism”: From George Washington University and the University of Southern California, published in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. By Lian Jian and Nikki Usher.

The researchers examine a database of story projects crowdfunded through Spot.Us, a nonprofit news platform that allows for ideas to be funded by micropayments. Usher and Jian set out to establish patterns of funding preferences and how these affected the stories produced. The data they examined included the 234 pitches approved by editors, 102 stories produced, and 10,227 donations, as well as both reporter data about their qualifications and internal surveys with the donors.

It turns out that “compared to reporters, consumers favor stories that would provide them with practical guidance for daily living (e.g., public health or city infrastructure), as opposed to stories from which they gain a general awareness of the world (e.g., government and politics).” Surprisingly, Usher and Jian found that “reporters with less experience working with traditional news organizations tended to be more successful in raising funds from the crowd.”

The researchers conclude that crowd-funding may have a mixed future. It can be successful, and some public affairs stories do get supported; but this method of funding typically supports one kind of news: “This result seems to justify some scholars’ concern that if consumers, who are well known to prefer non-public affairs news, play an important role in news production, coverage of general public affairs news would decrease.”

“Industries in Turmoil: Driving Transformation During Periods of Disruption”: From Rutgers and the University of Southern California, published in Communication Research. By Matthew S. Weber and Peter R. Monge.

Examining 487 newspapers over the period 1997 to 2007, the study establishes an association between newsroom adoption of hyperlinking and organizational disruption. Essentially, the practice of hyperlinking to outside content, which many news organizations were slow to embrace, serves as a proxy for progress on digital strategy. Weber and Monge crawled the relevant news sites through the Internet Archive and did some interviews for qualitative context. As a measure of disruption, they looked at Editor & Publisher International Yearbook, which showed that, over that period, there were 905 changes in editors, 467 changes in publisher, and 92 changes in ownership. (A sample of these was checked, and it was determined that only 13 percent were due to retirements or planned departures.) The scholars note that they use “changes in management or ownership as an indication of major organizational disruption; this is not directly a failure, but is likely to indicate a change in direction.”

In any case, the researchers conclude that “organizations that adopted the most aggressive hyperlinking strategies significantly reduced their likelihood of failure. Results for less aggressive strategies were not nearly as strong, further emphasizing the results of this finding.”

“The Relative Importance of Social Media for Accessing, Finding and Engaging with News”: From Roskilde University, Denmark, published in Digital Journalism. By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Kim Christian Schrøder.

The study analyzes data from the 2013 Reuters Digital News Survey of media consumers in eight countries: Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (Samples in each country ranged from about 1,000 to 2,000 persons.) Nielsen and Schrøder conclude that “social media at this point still play a relatively limited role as sources of news — less widely used and less important than printed newspapers in all eight countries; that they in some cases play a somewhat larger role as a way of finding news; and that only a minority use them to engage in more participatory forms of news use like sharing, commenting on, or publishing their own stories.”

U.S.-specific data points include: 27 percent of online news users said social media was their most important source of news, though among 18- to 24-year-olds that figure was 45 percent; in terms of finding news online, 20 percent of Americans surveyed said news websites were the most important, while 33 percent said social media and 30 percent cited search engines. Nielsen and Schrøder note that “Germany and Japan have relatively low levels of social media use for news purposes, Italy, Spain, and to some extent the United States have higher levels, and Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom lie somewhere in between.”

The broader takeaway here regarding the importance of social media: “It is simply that sometimes both academic and public discussions of their relative importance for contemporary media users suggest that the glass is full to the brim when in fact the data suggest more of a glass-half-full–half-empty situation.”

“Reciprocal Journalism: A Concept of Mutual Exchange between Journalists and Audiences”: Study from the University of Minnesota, the University of Utah, and the University of Texas at Austin, published in Journalism Practice. By Seth C. Lewis, Avery E. Holton, and Mark Coddington. (Pre-print open version here.)

This study sketches out a new theory that is something like “audience engagement 3.0,” or “participation plus.” The specific coinage here, “reciprocal journalism,” seeks to advance the endless discussion among journalism circles about community engagement and go even a step further.

Despite its more democratic feel, participatory journalism as we know it is still mostly one-way: serving the news organization’s needs more so than the audience’s. Lewis, Holton, and Coddington focus on how Twitter, Facebook, and other social media can facilitate more reciprocal forms of journalism, whether directly (e.g., journalists exchanging tweets with followers one-to-one), indirectly (e.g., journalists returning favors not to particular individuals but to their communities as a whole, by encouraging discussion around certain hashtags), or sustained (e.g., journalists creating Facebook community pages where audiences can expect longer-lasting exchanges of goodwill among journalists and audiences).

This means journalists seeing their role as quasi-organizers of democracy, or “community-builders who can forge connections with and among community members by establishing patterns of reciprocal exchange.” Ultimately, the authors argue, “reciprocal journalism” isn’t describing some entirely new kind of journalism, but rather “points to the unrealized potential for a participatory journalism that has mutual benefit in mind, that is not merely fashioned to suit a news organization’s interests but also takes citizens’ concerns to heart.”

“Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War”: From George Washington University and American University, published by the United States Institute of Peace. By Marc Lynch, Deen Freelon and Sean Aday.

This paper provides important notes of skepticism for discourse around the issue of social media and its role in conflict zones. It moves past many of the preliminary research findings with respect to the early stages of the Arab Spring. Lynch, Freelon, and Aday analyze patterns of Twitter conversation, looking at how information flows around certain hashtags and key users or “hubs.” They conclude that looking at patterns of English-language tweets is increasingly insufficient, as the Arabic-language Twitterverse grows more complex.

Their findings should prompt everyone to be cautious about definitive claims regarding influence and trends. The researchers state that “social media create a dangerous illusion of unmediated information flows,” as “key curation hubs within networks may now play a gatekeeping role as powerful as that of television producers and newspaper editors.” Other key points in the report include: “We need to study more carefully the extent to which the network insularity we observe allows videos or messages to be ‘narrowcast’ online — that is, jihadist messages in Arabic reach one audience and moderate messages in English reach another.” Further, “Journalists and analysts must think more carefully about how to correct for the systematic over or underrepresentation of particular viewpoints or data and how to check online information against offline developments.”

“The Great Equalizer? Patterns of Social Media Use and Youth Political Engagement in Three Advanced Democracies”: From the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Sydney and University of York, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Michael Xenos, Ariadne Vromen and Brian D. Loader.

The study provides some reasons for optimism on two long-standing worries: Both political disengagement among youth and patterns of political inequality. The authors look at dynamics in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Xenos, Vromen, and Loader oversaw original survey research in the three countries, totaling 3,685 people ages 16 to 29 — 1,241 in the U.S., 1,216 in Australia, and 1,228 in Britain.

Respondents were asked about social media usage as well as acts of civic and political engagement (but not voting). The researchers state that the analysis “offers the most comprehensive study of social media use and political engagement among contemporary youth to date.” Their findings are striking: “[W]e find a strong, significant, and robust positive relationship between social media use and political engagement.” Further, it appears that socioeconomic status (SES) — which scholars have long known is a big predictor of civic/political engagement — appears to be a less powerful factor with this generation: “Stated plainly, our results suggest that if one were seeking an efficient single indicator of political engagement among young people in the countries studied here, social media use would appear to be as good as, or better than, SES.”

The scholars don’t get into the exact “why,” or causal explanations. And they concede that their measurements of social media use and engagement are more “broadly cast than most others used in the [prior scholarly] literature.”

“Discourse architecture, ideology, and democratic norms in online political discussion”: From American University, published in New Media & Society. By Deen Freelon.

The paper looks at how the platform design of Twitter and comment threads of news sites influences how political discussions unfold. Freelon analyzes data around certain hot-button issues — climate change, immigration, gays in the military — during 2010; the Washington Post and Seattle Times sites were used as representative samples.

He finds that people use different political expression styles in different online spaces across issues: For example, Twitter leans toward a more “communitarian” style, with users making more frequent group appeals and calls to action; by contrast, news site comments lean more “liberal individualist,” with less replying to others and more insults, although there were lots of reasons given for arguments and questions asked across ideological lines — in essence, news comments had both reasoned debate and incivility in the same space. Overall, the data provide “robust evidence that the common features in each space are facilitating particular patterns of communication norms.”

Related: Another recent study specifically on comment threads, “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The effect of anonymity on civility in online newspaper reader comment boards,” finds that “there is a dramatic improvement in the level of civility in online conversations when anonymity is removed.” The research, by Arthur D. Santana of the University of Houston, was published in Journalism Practice.

“Multitasking on a Single Device: Arousal and the Frequency, Anticipation, and Prediction of Switching Between Media Content on a Computer”: From Stanford University, published in Journal of Communication. By Leo Yeykelis, James J. Cummings, and Byron Reeves.

The study looks at multitasking from a slightly different angle than many prior studies do — namely, the toggling between content on just one device (as opposed to multiple device usage). The researchers experimented on 12 undergraduates using their personal laptop in a natural setting, generating “396,000 data points equaling 110 hours of moment-by-moment changes in switching and arousal over 10 hours during a normal weekday.” Arousal was measured by “skin conductance levels” determined through wrist censors, which measure activation levels through the sympathetic nervous system.

Yeykelis, Cummings, and Reeves determine that, on average, subjects switched content every 19 seconds — faster than expected based on prior literature. In fact, “One-fifth of all content was viewed for 5 seconds or less, with 75 percent viewed for less than a minute.” Email and Facebook took up a quarter of all subjects’ time online. Further, they “discovered that people have an anticipatory arousal spike 12 seconds before switching to [other] content.” The findings, the authors suggest, give some support both to those who argue the positives of multitasking and those who focus on the negatives.

“The Emergence of a Freedom of Information Movement: Anonymous, WikiLeaks, the Pirate Party, and Iceland”: From the University of Washington, published in Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. By Jessica L. Beyer.

Global rhetoric around freedom of information is “becoming increasingly similar across sites” worldwide, this paper says. Beyer reviews activist sites and movements over the period 2007-2011 to look for converging patterns. “The idea of ‘freedom of information’ expressed online,” she writes, “appears to be a cross-national online norm of freedom of information that is related to, but also often in conflict with, domestic legal practices.” This is playing out even as intellectual property rights advocates and government security concerns are being asserted and pushing back. Beyer notes that the “ability of groups such as Anonymous to channel the power of like-minded, but not tech savvy, allies is increasing. Whatever the future of this newly forming ‘freedom of information’ movement, its emergence from the online world offers evidence for the power of the Internet and online communities in shaping participants’ political beliefs and actions. Young people online are willing to mobilize on behalf of abstract rights claims, and that willingness spreads quickly across the social spaces online.”

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2014, 10:30 a.m.
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