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Sept. 6, 2018, 11:24 a.m.

BuzzFeed, Bourdieu, and Samantha Bee: Here’s a collection of new research on where journalism is headed

“Recent love letters to journalistic innovations today read like declarations of world peace in 1938. Resisting the temptation to find sure-fire redeemers of journalism is important.”

A year ago, a group of academics gathered in the Welsh city of Cardiff for the 2017 Future of Journalism Conference. Panels were held, papers were discussed, ideas were tabled. And now a selection of the scholarly work presented there has been published in a new issue of the journal Journalism Studies. (Ah, the breakneck speed of academic publishing!)

Even if the work isn’t hot off the presses, there are still quite a few valuable insights in the collection. I sifted through the papers, and here are a few I liked:

“Truth is What Happens to News: On journalism, fake news, and post-truth,” by Silvio Waisbord:

Here I propose that the phenomenon of “fake news” is indicative of the contested position of news and the dynamics of belief formation in contemporary societies. It is symptomatic of the collapse of the old news order and the chaos of contemporary public communication. These developments attest to a new chapter in the old struggle over the definition of truth — governments waging propaganda wars, elites, and corporations vie to dominate news coverage, and mainstream journalism’s continuous efforts to claim to provide authoritative reportage of current events.

The communication chaos makes it necessary to revisit normative arguments about journalism and democracy as well as their feasibility in radically new conditions. Conventional notions of news and truth that ground standard journalistic practice are harder to achieve and maintain amid the destabilization of the past hierarchical order…

Also, we should cautiously approach any innovations with democratic possibilities. Journalism studies have a spotted record identifying trends as potential saviors of news and democracy. In recent times, the field has praised several innovations—public journalism, citizen journalism, hyperlocal news, startups, and digital news activism. All have made important contributions to news diversity and quality, but the problem goes beyond specific experiences.

Recent love letters to journalistic innovations today read like declarations of world peace in 1938. Resisting the temptation to find sure-fire redeemers of journalism is important. Learning from past experiences of hope and disillusion may provide good insights to recalibrate normative arguments. All good practical ideas stand on a precarious situation given the instability of journalism in a new context.

One particularly difficult question is implementing the vision of journalism as nurturing a sense of public commons at the time of privatized spheres, manipulated opinion, hardened differences, and political tribalism and polarization. How is such vision possible when certain belief communities seem pretty content upholding fictions, refusing to engage with other epistemologies, and/or endorsing politics aimed at purging difference? How can journalism foster empathy, tolerance, reasoning, and other central values of democratic communication at a time of broken-up public life?

“The Information Politics of Journalism in a Post-Truth Age,” by Matt Carlson:

Although “post-truth” is riddled with conceptual shortcomings, its usage to describe the contemporary epistemic moment directs attention to the underlying issues it encompasses. This is particularly the case for journalism in the United States where antagonism toward journalists has already been a regular feature of political discourse, and has been magnified through the rhetoric of Donald Trump. Journalists face increasing challenges in their attempt to occupy the symbolic communicative center of democratic society while remaining outside of governing power.

Contemporary information politics are marked by a power struggle among competing groups to not merely contest claims within journalistic content but to contest the journalists making the claims. Given this context, this article argues that the epistemic context of contemporary journalism demands that journalists do more to develop arguments legitimating their claims to render valid judgments. This metacommunication includes a more vigorous and public articulation of the social value journalists offer, a self-critical stance through which they can address their weaknesses and limitations, and a defense against self-interested criticism directed at them by political actors…

Journalism has been and remains an object of struggle. Journalists’ power to create a shared symbolic world invites scrutiny, some of which is meant to rectify journalism’s shortcomings and some of which is meant to exploit journalism’s weaknesses for political advantage. Drawing a fine line between these two types of critical discourses is difficult and subjective. How journalism participates in this struggle is a matter of how it articulates its own extrinsic information politics rather than relying on the intrinsic arguments bound up in news reporting.

“Provoking the Citizen: Re-examining the role of TV satire in the Trump era,” by Allaina Kilby:

TV satire has been commended for its ability to hold power to account and provide audiences with context and alternative perspectives to news events. Despite accolades to public discourse and journalistic integrity, TV satire is fraught with limitations including; its inability to change politics, its ability to encourage political apathy and promote a partisan logic. While this may be a counter-liberal response to the right-wing media and politicians it critiques, TV satire often preaches to a converted audience, the potential impact of which can lead to a repudiation of deliberative politics and increased political disengagement.

Under the Trump administration, America is experiencing more intensified demonstrations of partisanship and public distrust in political and media institutions. Furthermore, in a culture where satire has become reality and critical journalism has increased, its role has become problematic…

This study found that TV satire has continued to reimagine the possibilities of the genre by adopting advocacy journalism practices that included solution building and audience motivation techniques. By adopting a hybrid mix of comedy and advocacy traits, both satirists [John Oliver and Samantha Bee] challenged the perception that satire is too angry to propose solutions to political problems. In fact, this study found that Oliver and Bee proposed strategies to help educate conservative news audiences and change journalistic practices, although these solutions were a tad ambitious.

The most significant finding was the satirists’ use of motivation building. It would have been far easier for them to make Trump the target of ridicule. However, this would have been an example of the same old TV satire narrative: attacking the powerful and preaching to the converted liberal agenda of its audience. Instead, Oliver and Bee redirected their satirical skewering onto their respective audiences. This enabled them to mock and criticize the audiences’ political self-righteousness, cynicism, and their superficial and unrealistic approaches to activism. These examples demonstrate the importance and necessary inclusion of advocacy skills within satirical discourse. After all, it is unlikely that comedic criticism alone would transpire into audience political action. Yet, when combined with traits of advocacy this enables the TV satirists to mitigate the impact of criticism by encouraging the audience to engage in more realistic and practical forms of civic participation.

“Finding a Place in the Journalistic Field: The pursuit of recognition and legitimacy at BuzzFeed and Vice,” by Paul Stringer:

This research explores how two digital native news organisations, BuzzFeed and Vice, compete for recognition and legitimacy in the journalistic field. Specifically, this paper focuses on the hiring practices and organisation of news coverage at both outlets, viewing these in Bourdieu’s terms as significant forms of capital that BuzzFeed and Vice valorise in an attempt to claim a place in the journalistic field. Findings suggest that BuzzFeed and Vice both challenge and reify existing ways of doing journalism, and thus play a double role in conserving and transforming the established cultural capital of the field…

As relatively new entrants to journalism, digital native news organisations look to establish a place in the field by adopting a hybrid approach to news work: one that “preserves certain ethical practices and boundaries that lend legitimacy” and “embraces fresh values … more compatible with the logic of digital media and culture.” This is apparent in the hiring and content strategies of BuzzFeed and Vice, which seem to be based, in principle, on achieving two different forms of legitimation: peer recognition, afforded to those “who internalize most completely the internal ‘values’ or principles of the field”, and public recognition, “measured by numbers of readers, listeners, or viewers, and therefore, in the final analysis, by sales and profits”…

While these more market-driven forms of legitimation have supported BuzzFeed and Vice’s desire for public recognition, a simultaneous desire to be recognised as legitimate by peers has led to emphasis on traditional journalistic norms and practices. This is evident in the hiring of experienced journalists, along with an investment in traditionally-esteemed areas of reportage, which, in contrast to strategies aimed at public recognition, appear more strongly connected to the promise of intangible rewards such as status, credibility, and prestige. This reinforcement and avowal of journalism’s traditional cultural capital ultimately has a conservative effect on the field, ensuring a certain level of continuity in journalism’s established “rules” or doxa.

“Media Repertoires and News Trust During the Early Trump Administration,” by Rachel R. Mourão, Esther Thorson, Weiyue Chen, and Samuel M. Tham:

Levels of news media trust have been steadily declining in the United States since the 1970s and frequent attacks against the press have characterized the first year of the Trump presidency. This study focuses on the relationship between media trust, news repertoires and support for Trump. Our goal was two-fold: first, we tested how individual predispositions influence patterns of media consumption (repertoires), which in turn predict news trust. Then, we analyze how attitudes about Trump relate to repertoires and media trust.

Survey results revealed four repertoires: low news users/some local news, news junkies, conservative news users, and mainstream news users. News junkies and mainstream news users trusted the media more, while conservative news users had the lowest levels of trust. Support for Trump is the strongest predictor of news distrust, even controlling for conservatism and news repertoires. Findings suggest that the impact of a White House that is hostile to the press goes beyond the way partisanship affects media trust…

Not surprisingly, results show that those who are left-leaning, news junkies and mainstream news users have higher trust levels, and conservative media users have more negative attitudes towards the press. This study, therefore, adds to the vast body of evidence that shows conservatives have higher levels of distrust in the mainstream press…

The impact of Trump attitudes in this model is remarkable: it explains more than 10 percent of the variance observed and is more than double the impact of partisanship alone. This finding strongly suggests that the influence of the President’s rhetoric goes beyond the traditional impact of Republican identification found by the literature…

It is clear that when these two institutions clash, citizens do “pick sides”: those who consume mainstream media have deep levels of mistrust towards the President, and those who are fervent Trump supporters gravitate towards consuming their news exclusively via conservative media platforms. This effect is significant beyond the impact of conservative partisanship. Taken together, our evidence suggests that Trump supporters are strongly engaging in selective exposure, shutting off from mainstream news sources that challenge their perspectives beyond the levels observed among Republicans in general…

It is important to note that we also found that news junkies included a small but noticeable percentage of Trump supporters. That is, not all Trump supporters are choosing the conservative news media pattern, but some are using a wide variety of news sources and spending significant time with them, which defies stereotyped demographics of this group. The motivations behind this media pattern are worthy of further investigation.

“Transparency to the Rescue? Evaluating citizens’ views on transparency tools in journalism,” by Michael Karlsson and Christer Clerwall:

Transparency has emerged as an ethical principle in contemporary journalism and is contended to improve accountability and credibility by journalists and scholars alike. However, to date, few attempts have been made to record the public’s views on transparency. This study enriches current knowledge by using data from an experiment, survey and focus groups in Sweden collected between 2013 and 2015.

Overall, the results suggest that the respondents are not particularly moved by transparency in any form; it does not produce much effect in the experiments and is not brought up in the focus groups. While that is the key finding of this study, it should also be noted that various forms of user participation are evaluated negatively, while providing hyperlinks, explaining news selection and framing, and correcting errors are viewed positively…

…respondents are most positive towards being informed when and why news reports are erroneous (e.g. corrections) and least positive towards journalists mixing reporting with their own opinions and entirely replacing journalists with audience-produced news content. It can also be noted that they do not seem keen to know the journalists’ own opinions, even outside of the context of news stories…

While most transparency tools, save participation, are received positively, it should also be asked if working with transparency tools is worth the resources required, because transparency seems to be of relatively little overall importance to the respondents. The lack of effect of and disinterest in transparency by the public begs the question of whether the performative level (i.e. journalists‘ actual work) is the driver of changes in norms, credibility and trust and, if so, what should the timeline of change be?

“‘Post-Truth’ Politics, Journalistic Corruption and the Process of Self-Othering,” by Vera Slavtcheva-Petkova:

The poorest EU member-state Bulgaria also has the lowest press freedom ranking, significantly lagging behind all EU members, including neighbouring Romania and Greece. While “a laggard” in many respects, the country has leadership potential in at least one area: “post-truth” politics is not a new phenomenon…

A 2016–2017 survey of Bulgarian journalists as part of the Worlds of Journalism study shows they have grappled for years with the kind of issues their Western colleagues have been lamenting about over the past few months—from covert collusions with political and business elites to a range of corruption practices such as bribes, “subsidised” smear campaigns and “sponsorships” of TV programmes in exchange for cover-ups. A resilience technique adopted by journalists is that of self-othering, which involves a strong condemnation of the “dire” state of journalism and distancing from the unethical practices that plague their profession without assuming any responsibility…

A journalist at a national daily newspaper highlighted the disjunction between ideals and practice: “Tragic, at the moment, journalism, the real one, the one we had dreamt of practicing, has categorically vanished”. A magazine journalist provided his interpretation:

One word — tragic. There is NO demand for quality journalism — either by society or by publishers. No resources and potential for professional development and positive recruitment. A very low level of trust in the media as a whole. Very low status (in terms of pay and prestige) of the journalistic profession. As a result— complete demotivation of the media workforce. A lot of the highest quality journalists have eloped to other professions. It’s a MASS practice for journalists to become PR professionals.

These papers — plus a few more on subjects including self-censorship around terrorism, plagiarism in Danish media, gender inequity in photojournalism, and feminist standpoint epistemology and #metoo — are all available here.

Graphic via Vecteezy.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Sept. 6, 2018, 11:24 a.m.
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