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July 7, 2020, 8:30 a.m.

News coverage of violence in protests is more complicated than it may seem, new research shows

Plus: How journalists use Slack to promote transparency, what early adolescents think about news, and how social corrections of misinformation occur on WhatsApp.

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a new monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

Reversing the protest paradigm in news coverage

We’ve seen some spot-on critiques of the media’s coverage of protests over the past month or so, pointing out that journalists are often framing protests through the lens of those in authority and focusing disproportionately on episodes of violence. These are problems with protest coverage that have been widespread for at least several decades, to the point that media researchers have developed a concept for it: the protest paradigm.

The protest paradigm (as this recent Nieman Lab piece explained well) refers to a mode of coverage in which (predominantly mainstream) news organizations portray protests as illegitimate by emphasizing violence and attributing it to the protesters, and marginalizing the protesters’ grievances. It’s been a useful framework for understanding news coverage of protests, but in an article published last month in The International Journal of Press/Politics, César Jiménez-Martínez complicated the paradigm a bit, in some helpful and thought-provoking ways.

Jiménez-Martínez studied media coverage of Brazil’s widespread protests of 2013, also known as the “June Journeys,” through 43 interviews with journalists from mainstream Brazilian media, alternative media, and foreign outlets. His analysis centered on the attention to violence in that coverage — what he called “mediated visibility of violence.” He argued that media attention to violence isn’t necessarily damaging to protesters, or even a deviation from an idealized peaceful norm of protests. Instead, he showed how mediated violence is an instrument that can be used in a variety of ways. It can undermine the protesters and reinforce the authorities, yes, but it can also be used to question the status quo and support the protesters’ legitimacy.

In the case of Brazil’s 2013 protests, the main factor was who was committing the violence. As Jiménez-Martínez documented, media coverage of the protests shifted toward the protesters’ favor not because of anything the protesters did or didn’t do, but because of violence done to them — widespread videos and photos on social media and traditional media of violent eruptions by military police. In this case, Jiménez-Martínez argued, mainstream journalists used the violence involving the protest not to undermine the protesters and shift blame away from authorities, but to draw sympathy for the protesters.

That’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from alternative media, but a real surprise coming from mainstream media — though Jiménez-Martínez said that sympathy was ultimately co-opted by those mainstream outlets’ criticism of the center-left government of the time. Jiménez-Martínez also argued that the protest-supporting alternative media wasn’t as helpful as we might think: Its singular focus on highlighting images of violence by police pulled it toward the same type of sensationalism that has typically plagued mainstream coverage, submerging the protesters’ grievances.

Jiménez-Martínez ultimately found what he called a reversed protest paradigm, in which the news media (especially alternative media, in this case) focus on sensationalism and violence in their protest coverage, crowding out the protesters’ concerns — just as in the traditional protest paradigm. But in this case, the violence was by police, not protesters, so the paradigm was reversed and the protest was elevated rather than marginalized. Still, because of the focus on violence, protesters’ grievances received limited (and confused) media attention.

As Jiménez-Martínez found, the news media’s approach to the 2013 Brazil protests showed that media coverage of the protests can be much more complicated than the common assumption of a demonizing mainstream media and empowering alternative media. Violence, in particular, is a powerful tool that news media can employ for any number of purposes, both constructive and destructive.

Research roundup

Here are some other studies that caught our eye this month:

Subscribing to transparency: Trust-building within virtual newsrooms on Slack. By Rachel E. Moran, in Journalism Practice.

Slack is familiar (perhaps too familiar?) to journalists as the coordination software tool of choice in many newsrooms. In recent years, guided by the assumption that improved consumer trust in news could be achieved through more transparency about news-making processes, news organizations have begun to open their Slack channels — in effect, allowing subscribers or other community members to listen in on the virtual newsroom, in hopes that such efforts lead to enhanced audience engagement. Moran’s article asks: Does this actually work as a trust-building mechanism?

Her case study of the digital news outlet Rantt Media, which opened its Slack channel to subscribers in 2018, showed that “while Rantt argue that their public Slack channels exist as their actual virtual newsroom, the reality of its use (i.e., limited conversations regarding the actualities of news making) suggests differently.” Nevertheless, even if Rantt wasn’t giving subscribers a true view behind the curtain of news decisions, its open newsroom approach was giving readers a clearer idea of who its writers are, particularly in terms of their biases, perspectives, and expertise. This is a successful strategy for Rantt, she said, for two reasons: “(1) it leads to relationship-building, which they have been able to leverage for financial gain, and (2) it appears there does not exist within readers an explicit desire for radical newsroom transparency.”

The upshot is that such experiments — public-facing, virtual modes of news transparency — might have promise for capitalizing on highly engaged “fans” and developing new revenue opportunities. But, as Moran notes, the “price” (in time and resources) of newsroom transparency might be too high for the typical news consumer, who is neither a news junkie nor may have the wherewithal to navigate the information overload pouring from a platform like Slack.

‘We are a neeeew generation’: Early adolescents’ views on news and news literacy. By Sanne L. Tamboer, Mariska Kleemans, and Serena Daalmans, in Journalism.

For decades, scholars have been studying how young adults feel about news. By various accounts, many 20-somethings perceive news — especially newspapers — to be too inconvenient, too time-consuming, or simply requiring too much effort. But what about even younger people, such as early adolescents who are 12-16 years old, a group far less studied in the research literature? What can we learn about their level of news use and news literacy?

This study, based on focus groups with 55 Dutch early adolescents, found that their news consumption is “predominantly passive, possibly due to a lack of intrinsic motivation.” The authors zero in on this question of motivation. Yes, and not surprisingly, these early adolescents saw news as “important, but often as boring, repetitive and negative, and disconnected from youth.” More concerning, Tamboer and colleagues contend, is that simply being knowledgeable about the news and how it works does not automatically lead early adolescents to be critical news users. So, whereas many media literacy programs focus on building knowledge and awareness — helpful as those things might be — the authors argue that actually motivating critical news consumption, helping early adolescents move from passive to active news engagement, is of greater importance.

Dysfunctional information sharing on WhatsApp and Facebook: The role of political talk, cross-cutting exposure and social corrections. By Patrícia Rossini, Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Erica Anita Baptista, and Vanessa Veiga de Oliveira, in New Media & Society.

Political communication scholars have spent a lot of time studying social networking sites and far less examining the role and impact of private messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Facebook Messenger. These chat apps are rapidly growing in use worldwide, but their private nature makes them largely off-limits to researchers, even as these apps have become a notorious hive of misinformation.

In this study of internet users in Brazil — where false and misleading political information circulated widely on WhatsApp in the run-up to the 2018 elections — Rossini and colleagues explored the role of regular users in accidental and purposeful forms of “dysfunctional information sharing” on WhatsApp and Facebook. Their results indicate that on both platforms such sharing occurs frequently (nearly a quarter of people reported sharing misinformation), and yet people also frequently correct one another. However, corrections were more likely to occur on WhatsApp than Facebook, suggesting that the platform — with its privacy, intimacy, and closer social ties — could matter in providing “a sense of safety” that may be necessary for supporting social corrections against misinformation.

Auditing news curation systems: A case study examining algorithmic and editorial logic in Apple News. By Jack Bandy and Nicholas Diakopoulos, in Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media.

Apple News is a widely used news aggregator but one that remains relatively under-studied in research. In this paper, the authors present an audit study of Apple News, with an emphasis on the iPhone app’s algorithmically curated Trending Stories section and its human-curated Top Stories section.

Crowdsourcing data from U.S. users, Bandy and Diakopoulos found relatively minimal personalization of content in the Trending Stories section, and a separate “sock-puppet audit” using a simulator tool showed no location-based forms of content adaptation. Comparing the algorithmic to human approach of organizing news items, the authors discovered that human curation performed better on source diversity and “source evenness.” Additionally, algorithmic curation showcased softer news (e.g., about celebrities and entertainment) while human curation emphasized news about policy and international issues. These differences, the authors said, can be attributed to the “algorithmic and editorial curation logics underpinning the two sections.”

Ordinary citizens in the news. An issue of Journalism Studies edited by Christina Peter and Thomas Zerback.

Finally, this special issue deserves a look for how it sheds light on the role of “ordinary citizens” in the news. This is a topic of growing interest to researchers at a time when journalists increasingly draw on “everyday people” and their voices (think: embedded tweets as vox populi) as source material for news coverage, when comment sections have been shown to influence how people think about popular opinion and news quality, and when populist tensions in media and politics have raised questions about how elites vs. non-elites are included and depicted in the news (and whether such a dichotomy is even helpful to begin with).

In their introduction, Peter and Zerback argue that scholars need a more comprehensive approach for studying how ordinary people are selected and depicted by journalists, considering how such representations connect with things such as the purposes of journalism, the media visibility of citizens, and the role of politics, populism, and democratic or authoritarian regimes. Articles in the special issue focus on, among other things, sourcing strategies of journalists, how citizens are portrayed across international media, the role of citizens in letters to the editor, and how transgender people felt about their interactions with journalists.

Photo of riot police in Brazil in 2013 by Fernando Frazão/ABr used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 7, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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