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Dec. 19, 2014, 2 p.m.

Complicating the network: The year in social media research

Journalist’s Resource sifts through the academic journals so you don’t have to. Here are 12 of the studies about social and digital media they found most interesting in 2014.

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.

Throughout the year, John Wihbey, assistant director for Journalist’s Resource, has been summing up the top papers in digital media and journalism each month. Now it’s time for the best of the year. (You can also check out this roundup from 2013 and 2012.)

This column has again reviewed hundreds of papers over the past year and tried to select a diverse mix of research that speaks to important issues. Here are a dozen papers from 2014 that we feel may be worth your time. We asked Amy Schmitz Weiss, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University, to help judge the “winners” this year. Of course, we admit it’s not a very scientific contest: How does one compare pioneering work on Syrian Twitter to ethnographic explorations of newsroom technology? But we tried anyway. Happy holidays.

“The battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a media controversy online and off-line”: From the MIT Center for Civic Media, published in First Monday. By Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman.

The Lab published a wonderful explainer on this study — worth checking out if you missed it. The study itself represents an ambitious effort to map public discourse around a national news topic — its ebb and flow, its catalysts, magnifiers and gatekeepers alike. How exactly do stories move across the wide array of information channels we use? The researchers conclude: “Our analysis finds that gatekeeping power is still deeply rooted in broadcast media…Without the initial coverage on newswires and television, it is unclear that online communities would have known about the Trayvon Martin case and been able to mobilize around it.” Effective public relations by parties involved saved the story from vanishing initially, and social media communities took their cues from this activism.

Graeff, Stempeck, and Zuckerman contribute important insights into the networked ecosystem of communication and news. The paper is a direct follow-on to an earlier paper by Internet theorist Yochai Benkler and Co., which suggested new network dynamics at work around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA/PIPA) and related online activism. Both papers leverage the underappreciated Media Cloud project, which is finally getting its due. Graeff, Stempeck, and Zuckerman basically show a kind of counter-example to the Benkler findings. If we are to answer the ultimate digital media question — “How much has the Web truly changed communication?” — this type of data-driven, comprehensive research is vital.

“The Ethics of Web Analytics: Implications of using audience metrics in news construction”: From Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Missouri School of Journalism, published in Digital Journalism. By Edson C. Tandoc Jr. and Ryan J. Thomas.

A skeptical thinkpiece on the rise of audience segmentation and customization, this essay laments how market forces may disrupt journalistic and ultimately democratic values. Tandoc and Thomas claim that relying on a purely analytics-driven approach runs the “risk of a media ecosystem that panders to, rather than enlightens and challenges, its audience, and thus poses a barrier to the formation of community around shared ideals and collective subscription to the success of democracy.”

They question whether we should celebrate more wholesale audience engagement in driving the news agenda. “[D]espite the somewhat sunny optimism of many journalism scholars,” they write, “we contend that this narrative portends a drift away from journalism ethics, toward an audience-centered free for-all governed by market logic. If we re-center journalism and its democratic obligations at the heart of the debate, the optimism about the reversal of top-down power structures can instead be read as a deep pessimism about the promise of journalism itself and of journalists’ capability to execute their role-related responsibilities.” The techno-centric view of journalism’s future neglects the crucial role that journalism has in deliberately bringing people together around a shared sense of vital issues, the authors suggest. In the era of web analytics, the news media’s “role should be about understanding what the audience wants and…balance[ing] this against what the audience needs.”

“Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption”: From Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford and Microsoft Research. By Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao.

A noteworthy contribution to the “filter bubble” debate, the research — one of the “largest studies of online news consumption to date” — suggests that overall ideological segregation because of online media channels and personalization is rather limited. Flaxman, Goel, and Rao analyze a dataset of the nearly complete (and anonymized) web browsing habits of 1.2 million Internet users over a three month period, some 2.3 billion pageviews; they focus on 50,000 U.S.-based users who frequently access news online. The researchers use machine learning tools to assess ideology of the persons studied, looking at county-level voting patterns and demographics – a “novel inference procedure based on [a] site’s geographic access pattern.”

For descriptive news articles accessed through social media, the level of ideological segregation is “marginally higher” than for those read by visiting a news site directly. The pattern is “more pronounced” for opinion pieces, and there is a higher degree of segregation in web search, roughly the “ideological distance between the centrist Yahoo! News and the left leaning Huffington Post (or equivalently, CNN and the right-leaning National Review).” Flaxman, Goel, and Rao conclude that a “relatively small amount of online news consumption is driven by the more polarized channels, social and search, and opinion pieces—which are typically the focus of laboratory studies—constitute just 6% of consumption relating to world or national news … [W]e find that individuals typically consume descriptive reporting, and do so by directly visiting a handful of their preferred news outlets.” Further, while it is true social channels and search can lead to “higher segregation” and filter bubbles, those methods of news discovery can also be “associated with higher exposure to opposing perspectives, in contrast to filter bubble fears.”

“Twilight or New Dawn of Journalism? Evidence from the changing news ecosystem”: From the Reuters Institute, University of Oxford, published in Digital Journalism. By Robert G. Picard.

Picard, a media economics and policy expert, furnishes a high-level overview of the industry changes at hand. He emphasizes that the “practices of journalism are shifting from a relatively closed system of news creation — dominated by official sources and professional journalists,” and that this is “not undesirable because it means that fewer institutional elites are deciding what gets attention and how it is framed than in the past.” However, he also warns that newer media institutions are “able to skew the availability of news and information through search, aggregation and digital distribution infrastructures. These are creating new mechanisms of power and a new class of elites influencing content.”

In terms of changes for the business model, Picard puts recent shifts in historical perspective: “What is clear is that news providers are becoming less dependent on any one form of funding than they have been for about 150 years.” This is also potentially a welcome change, as it reduces the “influence of commercial advertisers that significantly influenced the form, range, and practices of news provision in the 20th century.” Still, we cannot take quality news for granted. “We are experiencing neither an end nor a new dawn of journalism; we are experiencing both,” Picard concludes. “The historical, social and economic contexts of the changes occurring in journalism indicate we are in a transition not a demise of journalism.”

“Can We ‘Snowfall’ This? Digital longform and the race for the tablet market”: From the University of Iowa, published in Digital Journalism. By David Dowling and Travis Vogan.

In a thoughtful and deep examination of a new genre being born, Dowling and Vogan look at three case studies in innovative story treatment — The New York Times’ “Snow Fall,” ESPN’s “Out in the Great Alone”, and Sports Illustrated’s “Lost Soul” — to see how each outlet leveraged new opportunities in digital long-form storytelling.

The researchers note that, as with New Journalism in the 1960s, we are seeing a new form that breaks significantly with journalism’s past. The visual attributes, multimedia features and layout of each — as well as branding strategy and overall outcomes for the media companies involved — are reviewed in detail. These long-form pieces “function as opportunities for these prominent media organizations to build a branded sense of renown in an increasingly competitive market,” Dowling and Vogan write, noting that they are as much story-as-advertising as story-as-story. Indeed, such dramatically appealing and elaborately produced stories “encourage reader-driven circulation via social media, a process that expands the products’ reach and allows consumers to cultivate their own identities by associating with such artifacts.” Moreover, “Digital long-form…represents a major shift away from brief breaking news toward a business model built on a carefully crafted multimedia product sensitive to users’ appreciation of multimedia narrative aesthetics.”

“Mapping Twitter Topic Networks: From Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters”: From the Pew Research Internet Project. By Marc A. Smith, Lee Rainie, Ben Shneiderman (University of Maryland) and Itai Himelboim (University of Georgia).

This important new study, done in collaboration with academic researchers Shneiderman and Himelboim, goes a long way toward making social network analysis and theory intelligible to the general public. In a clean, straightforward way, it lays out the six basic “archetypes” of Twitter conversation, giving precise language to phenomena many of us observe at only an intuitive level (and yet which researchers have observed for some time).

Having analyzed millions of tweets, the researchers conclude that political discussions often show “polarized crowd” characteristics, whereby a liberal and conservative cluster are talking past one another on the same subject, largely relying on different information sources. Of course, you still see old “hub-and-spoke” dynamics, or “broadcast networks,” where mainstream media are still doing the agenda-setting. But there are novel networks, too: “Support” networks that form around customer complaints, which looks like “hub-and-spoke” but also involves more two-way conservation; “tight crowds” involving niche interests, hobbies and professional groups; “brand clusters” around topics of mass interest (celebrities, for example) that primarily feature “isolates,” or people talking about the same subject but not to one another; and “community clusters” that “look like bazaars with multiple centers of activity” and which “can illustrate diverse angles on a subject based on its relevance to different audiences, revealing a diversity of opinion and perspective on a social media topic.”

“Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes”: From the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. By Nicholas Diakopoulos, University of Maryland.

Early on in this path-breaking report, Diakopoulos sums up in a simple, declarative sentence one of the most important emerging issues for democracy as it relates to the digital world: “What we generally lack as a public is clarity about how algorithms exercise their power over us.” He looks at issues of establishing greater transparency and “reverse engineering” algorithms to help us better understand their biases – from autocompletion on Google and Bing to targeted political email to online pricing schemes that differentiate among users. Because algorithms are often proprietary, there are legal challenges to discovering and replicating them. And there are myriad technical challenges that the report digs into. Diakopoulos calls for greater capacity-building within journalism to explore these new problems and for new norms to be produced. “The challenge to standardizing what should be disclosed about algorithms may come down to building consensus about what factors or metrics are both significant and acceptable,” he writes.

“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.

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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“Shares, Pins, and Tweets: News Readership From Daily Papers to Social Media”: From Duke University, published in Journalism Studies. By Marco Toledo Bastos.

Drawing two weeks of data from The New York Times’ and The Guardian’s APIs, as well as the APIs of various social media platforms, Bastos set out to answer an important question: How much overlap is there between what editors choose to focus on and what social media users grab on to? This revitalizes an old debate over editorial judgment, gatekeeping, and norms of “newsworthiness.” The author looks about 16,000 articles on the news sites from late 2012; he also analyzes article links circulated on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Delicious, and StumbleUpon. Some raw data findings relating to links posted on social media prove interesting: Times articles earned an average of 39 retweets on Twitter and 445 shares on Facebook, while Guardian articles saw an average of 50 retweets and 190 Facebook shares.

Bastos concludes: “The results show that social media users express a preference for a subset of content and information that is at odds with the decisions of newspaper editors regarding which topic to emphasize.” Social media users tend to favor hard news over soft news, especially on Twitter. Only a quarter of the Times sports articles studied, for example, ever showed up on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, news editors’ preferences for more articles about the economy do not track with social media user’s apparent preferences. Further, Bastos says, “although most news sections are uniformly and symmetrically distributed across newspapers and social networking sites, we found remarkable differences on the number of news items about arts, science, technology, and opinion pieces, which are on average more frequent on social networking sites than on newspapers.” The variation may be partly explained by the more urban, educated and youthful characteristics of social media users, the study notes.

“Coproduction or cohabitation: Are anonymous online comments on newspaper websites shaping content?”: From Western Washington University, published in New Media & Society. By Carol E. Nielsen.

Based on a substantial national survey of 583 journalists conducted in 2010, Nielsen explores how media members feel about anonymous comments on their articles, and whether or not they find them useful. The data show that “35.8 percent of journalists reported that they ‘frequently’ or ‘always’ read comments on their own work, 29 percent reported they ‘sometimes’ read comments on their work, and 35.2 percent reported that they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ read comments on their work.” About three-quarters of journalists surveyed said that online comments should not be anonymous. Nielsen quotes one reporter who gave some qualitative feedback: “Those who post are free to lie and vent without accountability. The result is that online comments sabotage the credibility and dignity of the entire news organization.”

Just under half of respondents (45 percent) “slightly or strongly agreed” that they should not respond to online comments, though three-quarters agreed they should respond to set the record straight with regard to factual inaccuracies. Most journalists surveyed said it was not because of a lack of time that they forego reading comments, rather it’s because they don’t think it’s worth it. “While 53.5 percent of journalists responded that comments sometimes showed them a new perspective, only 8.4 percent said that frequently or always happened and 38.1 percent said that rarely or never happened.” Comment forums are for readers, as far as most journalists are concerned. “This study,” Nielsen writes, “concludes that journalists have viewed readers not as coproducers, but rather as users cohabiting the platform.”

POSTED     Dec. 19, 2014, 2 p.m.
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