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Sept. 11, 2014, 12:09 p.m.

What’s New in Digital and Social Media Research: The realities of citizen journalism, and new possibilities for transparency

How “bridging elites” help on Twitter, perceptions of news by a skeptical public, and Wikipedia pages as newsmaking destinations: 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.

Recent papers from academe have continued to highlight tensions over letting citizens into the news process, as well as the need to be more open and transparent with the public. Many of the papers below have insights on related themes. In addition, several think tanks have published some important new reports. “Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence,’” from the Pew Research Center, highlights the sociological factors that inhibit robust discussion of controversial issues on notionally “open” platforms, while the American Press Institute has a paper advising news organizations on how to find extra money through shows, conferences, expos, and more: “The Best Strategies for Generating Revenue through Events.”

Here is a sampling of recent academic studies:

“Citizen Participation in News: An analysis of the landscape of online journalism”: From the University of Southampton, published in Digital Journalism. By Jonathan Scott, David Millard, and Pauline Leonard.

The paper examines how much citizen participation there really is in the realm of news by looking at the dynamics of 32 “systems” — from Reddit and Slashdot to YouTube, CNN iReport and The Guardian — and analyzing four case studies in how stories developed and were reported. Scott, Millard, and Leonard suggest that, despite hype around greater citizen participation, the reality is more disappointing; the “news outlets’ use of social networks does not create more openness as they use these outlets only as an additional distribution channel, and even the news outlets’ attempts at open news systems are still relatively closed.” Further, the researchers find “no real route for citizen news to move into traditional outlets…Even looking at systems such as iReport and uReport that were established specifically to create a route for citizen news to get into the mainstream, the results seem to be very limited.”

“Accuracy, Independence and Impartiality: How Legacy Media and Digital Natives Approach Standards in the Digital Age”: From Reuters Institute at Oxford University, by Kellie Riordan.

Riordan examines the ethical and transparency-related practices of six outlets — The Guardian, The New York Times, the BBC, Quartz, BuzzFeed, and Vice News. She praises emerging models of transparency embodied by the likes of Quartz — with its links to primary sources, and “swift, native correction of mistakes, with context” — but also warns that “speed and virality can threaten fairness and accuracy.” Further, she advocates that “native advertising should be labeled and distinguished from editorial content, even via search.” The paper highlights an important “third way” emerging in the world of journalism standards, a hybrid of old norms and new possibilities for transparency enabled by digital technology.

“Cynics and Skeptics: Evaluating the Credibility of Mainstream and Citizen Journalism”: From Susquehanna University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. By D. Jasun Carr, Matthew Barnidge, Byung Gu Lee, and Stephanie Jean Tsang.

The authors analyze results from an experiment embedded in a web survey conducted via Mechanical Turk, which yielded 184 responses. Not surprisingly, the degree to which respondents trust what they read comes down to their pre-existing attitudes: “[C]ynics and skeptics found citizen journalism more credible than mainstream journalism, while non-cynics and non-skeptics expressed the opposite.” Ultimately, the researchers conclude that “in an era of proliferating sources of news and information, especially on the Internet, people may distinguish less and less between mainstream and alternative sources of news and information, at least on the aggregate level.” But they concede that the citizen journalism they tested “remained relatively close to traditional news presentation formats.” In any case, the idea that cynics and skeptics might re engage with news, albeit produced by amateurs and non-traditional sources, sounds a hopeful note, the scholars suggest.

“Code, Collaboration and the Future of Journalism”: A case study of the Hacks/Hackers global network: From the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and George Washington University, published in Digital Journalism. By Seth C. Lewis and Nikki Usher.

The researchers performed a two-year qualitative study of the group Hacks/Hackers in order to derive some insights about the intersection of journalism and technology. They interviewed people from dozens of chapters to examine the group’s sociology and culture. Occasionally, Lewis and Usher detected sticking points: “A number of chapters found it difficult to develop a common language for translating that purpose toward productive ends, converting talk into action. Some of the problems related to technical jargon that developers knew and journalists did not; others were about differences in thinking — such as journalists’ concern with short-term, one-off stories compared to developers’ interest in long-term, ongoing software development.” Where there were structured activities and regular meetings, it seemed, increased understanding prevailed, and some chapters saw lots of “common ground of mutual appreciation.” Institutional backing from local media outlets and technology organizations promotes more active meetings. “News innovation may be a common cause,” the scholars conclude, “but what that means and how it serves as a rallying cry is quite complicated, and it is important to hold back on some of the unbridled enthusiasm for the potential fusion of technologists sharing with journalists, despite the clear potential this may offer to journalism.”

“Data Journalism in the United States: Beyond the ‘Usual Suspects’”: From Pace University and College of Staten Island (CUNY), published in Journalism Studies. By Katherine Fink and C. W. Anderson.

Fink and Anderson conducted 23 interviews with people involved in data journalism. Although they found some thematically linked sets of skills and roles, they also “discovered that there were some fairly profound differences between the way that data journalism was practiced at larger, more resource rich news organizations and the compromises required to practice data journalism at smaller newspapers.” Data journalism positions could be high- or low-ranking within news organizations; journalists might function in teams, or mostly alone — “one-man bands.” Time pressures can shape data story selection, interviewees say. So, on occasion, do the pressures of management: “Three out of the 23 journalists we interviewed said they felt pressured to make story choices based on what they thought would drive online traffic. One journalist said his newsroom was highly focused on generating pageviews.” Small and medium outlets have had trouble dedicating the necessary resources to keep data journalists on staff, the researchers found, noting, “economic downturn at many American news organizations has had a deleterious impact on the production of data journalism.”

“Of Big Birds and Bayonets: Hybrid Twitter interactivity in the 2012 presidential debates”: From American University and George Washington University, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Deen Freelon and David Karpf.

Freelon and Karpf analyze patterns across 1.9 million tweets during the most recent presidential debates to see how certain memes (“Big Bird” and “horses and bayonets”) proliferated across the Twitter-sphere. The study feeds into questions and debates about how social media networks behave during times of mass events, and how elites and average users interact. The scholars coin the term “bridging elite” to describe persons with large audiences who enable messages to be broadcast beyond narrow cliques and filter bubbles. (An example in the study is a former wrestler whose funny tweet happened to cascade across network hubs.) “[W]e see evidence that during media spectacles, political elites are not the only commentators that matter,” Freelon and Karpf conclude. “Political Twitter is not solely the reserve of ‘hyperactive reporters and short attention-span political junkies.’ It is also where actors, comedians, athletes, hip-hop artists and ordinary citizens come to opine on politics.” Moreover, humor plays a unique role in information sharing in this new “hybrid” media environment.

“Infoboxes and cleanup tags: Artifacts of Wikipedia newsmaking”: From the University of Oxford, published in Journalism. By Heather Ford.

If we take journalism’s job to be explaining what just happened, few “outlets” have bigger scale and more visibility than a given Wikipedia page on an event. Given that, it’s perhaps not a stretch to study Wikipedia as the locus of a novel newsmaking process — and an important one. Ford looks at the practices and mechanisms (e.g., infoboxes and cleanup tags) of contributions and editing by studying the construction of the “2011 Egyptian Revolution” page and interviewing some of the editors involved. Internal turf battles unfolded, and the newsmaking and documentary process were quite messy. “Editors continuously added cleanup tags relating to the instability of the article due to its current event status and what they believed to be attacks against NPOV [neutral point of view] at a time when the article was highly unstable,” Ford writes. “Cleanup tags were consistently removed because editors argued that they ‘were already working on the issues’ noted in the tags. Yet the removal of such tags to the casual reader may give the illusion of a return to stability before such stability had been reached. In the context of this article, battle over the visibility of cleanup tags could be seen as reflective of personal battles between editors, and less about warning readers of possible problems.”

“The Twitterization of News Making: Transparency and Journalistic Professionalism”: From the University of Graz, published in the Journal of Communication. By Matthias Revers.

Revers conducted hundreds of hours of observation at the New York State Capitol between 2009 and 2011, focusing on journalistic tweeting habits as they developed. He also interviewed media members and political communications persons as part of the case study. He details the widely differing views among journalists about professional boundaries and notions of serving the public. Traditional norms gave way before the researcher’s eyes. “Journalists of this study felt less bound to keep themselves, their appreciation of others and assessments out of tweets, contrary to requirements of authoritative distance, competitive lines of division and stringent notions of objectivity,” Revers writes. “The faceless gatekeeper has given way to a more human and status-equal interlocutor who shares expertise and informed judgments.”

“The Future of Breaking News Online? A Study of Live Blogs Through Surveys of Their Consumption, and of Readers’ Attitudes and Participation”: From City University London, published in Journalism Studies. By Neil Thurman and Nic Newman.

Thurman and Newman set out to analyze the significance of live blogs for news organizations and to examine audience responses to them. They base their analysis on a survey involving more than 11,000 respondents across nine countries, as well as analytics data from and ScribbleLive. The survey suggests that about 15 percent of news consumers access live blogs on a weekly basis; a “clear majority” of respondents said that live blogs are more balanced than regular news articles. However, “close to a third of readers found that live blogs’ formatting could make them difficult to understand.” In terms of citizen participation, the web analytics yielded mixed results: “Live blogs hosted by ScribbleLive and analysed for this article show 21 percent to 50 percent reader contributions compared with live blogs at where tweets and ‘above the line’ comments from readers make up just 7.5 percent of the total number of live blog updates.” These differences, Thurman and Newman write, may suggest that two distinct models of live blogging are emerging, with the degree of crowdsourced participation as the key variable. However, despite the innovations around this “new news format,” it’s unclear how long the trend can last, as “a key question for mainstream media in their development of live blogs is how to keep up with social media platforms like Twitter, not just in terms of speed, but also in terms of the inclusion of images and video.”

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 11, 2014, 12:09 p.m.
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