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Aug. 4, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Evoking empathy or seeking solidarity: Which is preferable when covering people without homes?

Plus: How journalists cover global infectious disease, how audiences think news organizations should improve trust, and “news minimalists and omnivores.”

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 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.

Improving how journalists cover homelessness

In decades of covering homelessness, American journalists have been known to deviate from the usual norms of detachment and neutrality to depict people without homes in ways that humanize them, helping readers and viewers better empathize with them and the challenges they face. But is that the best way to cover the homeless or other marginalized communities more generally?

Anita Varma takes up that question in a new article in Journalism Studies. Her case study of the 2016 San Francisco Homeless Project, a collaborative effort of local news organizations to tell stories of people in the city experiencing homelessness, involves a close examination of the 325 articles published as part of the weeklong series as well interviews with journalists who participated in the project.

The essential contribution that Varma makes is to draw a distinction between two themes in the project’s coverage that humanized people without homes: empathy and solidarity.

If empathy, she argues, focuses on personalizing individuals — on illustrating how “they’re just like us” to help audiences identify with homeless people — solidarity instead emphasizes politicizing the structural conditions that contribute to homelessness, or bringing to the fore the community-wide constraints that the marginalized face. While journalism of empathy seeks to establish individuals’ humanity, journalism of solidarity presumes it — and thus shifts attention to how structural factors can better attend to the marginalized and their needs.

“In the context of homelessness,” Varma writes, “solidarity in journalism construes the meaning of homelessness as a matter of politics that can and should be addressed through systemic change to the housing system, while empathy in journalism positions homelessness as primarily a matter of needing greater interpersonal understanding and harmony between housed and homeless people.”

Varma proposes radical inclusion as a solidarity-based approach (one rarely used in the San Francisco Homeless Project she studied) that involves moving away from using marginalized victims as “color” for stories and instead more purposefully sourcing, interviewing, and framing in a way that accounts for their perspectives on structural and social hierarchies.

Revisiting the protest paradigm in news coverage

In June and July, we highlighted examples of recent studies about protests — from tracing the history of “black witnessing” connected to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement to exploring how violence is depicted in news coverage either to the benefit or detriment of protesters and their grievances. But in light of ongoing demonstrations and the growing body of research on protests and news, there’s more to say on this topic.

Much of this research focuses on how the protests are conveyed, explained, and framed by news media. Is it a riot or a matter of resistance? As Danielle K. Kilgo has noted recently, journalists have great power in developing the narrative that comes to define how people perceive social movements.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “protest paradigm,” a concept that scholars have used to describe how mainstream media tend to “demonize protesters and delegitimize protests,” largely because journalists, out of longstanding routine, often rely on official sources rather than voices of protesters and often use narrative devices that emphasize conflict and the status quo, ultimately marginalizing protesters’ concerns. Much of this research is based on particular countries or contexts, like the episode in Brazil that we noted last month, which has also been the subject of excellent recent research by Rachel R. Mourão. But what can we learn about the protest paradigm around the world more broadly, particularly in a social media era that might counter older patterns of news coverage?

Recently, a team of researchers — Summer Harlow, Danielle K. Kilgo, Ramón Salaverría, and Víctor García-Perdomo — published an article in Journalism Studies that examined 1,438 English- and Spanish-language news stories about global protests shared on social media to develop a typology for making sense of how the protest paradigm works internationally. They found that whether coverage on social media follows or challenges the protest paradigm can be explained by a combination of factors such as type of protest, location of protest, and type of media outlet.

For example, Harlow and team’s typology predicts that alternative media organizations will continue to diverge from their mainstream counterparts in disrupting the paradigm. But they also note that, overall, “protests around the world continue to fight the stigmas associated with marginalizing coverage — media coverage of protests in every region showed few significant differences in patterns of overall adherence to the paradigm and individual frames, devices and sourcing patterns, indicating that protest coverage shared on social media is similar to protest coverage generally.”

This research builds on other recent work by Kilgo and Harlow, based on their analysis of U.S. newspapers, that found a “hierarchy of social struggle” — a pattern by which protests related to racial injustice are more likely to receive negative, delegitimizing, trivializing coverage in comparison to protests about other issues.

Research roundup

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

“Outbreak news production as a site of tension: Journalists’ news-making of global infectious disease.” By Youngrim Kim, in Journalism.

Journalists’ coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has been under a microscope this year, and this study provides some valuable insights on the journalists’ perspective of this kind of work. Two to three years before the current pandemic, Kim interviewed journalists from the U.S., U.K., and South Korea who covered the Ebola, Zika, and MERS epidemics during the 2010s. She found that the practice of covering global infectious diseases is defined by a series of tensions, perhaps the most significant of which is the tension between ethnocentric values that define newsworthiness based on cultural proximity to the audience on the one hand, and a desire to represent a global disease accurately and focus attention on areas most deeply affected, on the other.

Kim’s study portrays journalists who are often mindful of the need to portray infectious diseases as a global issue, but are constrained by their organizations’ idea of what their audience will find interesting, as well as how diseases have been covered in the past. And as we’ve seen in sharp relief over the past five months, journalists also described a tension between portraying the evidence-based risks of a disease and contributing to an alarmist tendency.

“Improving trust in news: Audience solutions.” By Caroline Fisher, Terry Flew, Sora Park, Jee Young Lee, and Uwe Dulleck, in Journalism Practice.

Journalists and researchers have put a lot of energy into how to resolve the crisis of trust in much of the Western news media find themselves, with some studies indicating that media distrust is rooted largely in partisanship, and others finding that audiences identify their own concerns as being based on inaccuracy and bias. This study, a survey of Australian news consumers, echoes some of latter findings, while adding a few new details.

Fisher and her colleagues asked their respondents about things news organizations could do to improve trust, and found that the most popular solutions involve increasing transparency, especially around conflicts of interest. Reducing bias and opinion in news stories was also popular, but more so among older audiences than younger ones. And in a possible indicator of the intransigence of this problem, those those whose trust in media was low were less open to possible solutions than those who already trusted the media.

“News consumption across media platforms and content: A typology of young news users.” By Sabine Geers, in Public Opinion Quarterly.

The research on “news repertoires” often tries to classify news consumers into groups based on the nature of their news use across platforms. That’s what Geers was doing here, focusing exclusively on young news users, based on a survey of Dutch high school and university students. She found four groups of young news users: Two that have been found in previous studies, news minimalists and omnivores, plus two other types she labeled traditionalists and online news users.

Not surprisingly, she found that minimalists make up the largest portion of young news users, and omnivores are relatively rare. But she also found that a surprisingly large share (around a third) of young people were traditionalists who tended to prefer traditional news platforms like TV and radio. Those traditionalists also consumed online news, but it came via news websites and apps, rather than social media, which were more the preference of the “online news users” group. These traditionalists tended to be men, and to have a higher interest in politics, while the more social media-based “online news users” were more likely to be women and showed more interest in entertainment news. Gender and political interest, Geers found, were larger factors in news consumption than education level.

“Why don’t we learn from social media? Studying effects of and mechanisms behind social media news use on general surveillance political knowledge.” By Patrick F.A. van Erkel and Peter Van Aelst, in Political Communication.

The notion that people who consume news learn something from it is a fundamental assumption to modern journalism, and one with a lot of empirical support (though to varying degrees depending on several factors) over the decades. But that doesn’t necessarily hold for news consumed via social media. As van Erkel and Van Aelst wrote, the evidence so far is ambiguous but not positive for learning from news on social media.

In a survey of Belgian news consumers, they found that consuming news on social media didn’t lead to greater political knowledge, and that news consumption on Facebook was negatively related to political knowledge. But beyond that, they found that more personalized news consumption on social media had no effect on political knowledge, while those who reported more indicators of information overload had lower political knowledge.

The implication, they argued, is that when it comes to knowledge, information overload may be more damaging than often-derided filter bubbles. Neither phenomenon explained the lack of knowledge for people who almost exclusively use Facebook for news, however — van Erkel and Van Aelst suggested that group simply isn’t getting enough news in their diet.

“Precarious professionalism: Journalism and the fragility of professional practice in the Global South.” By Julian Matthews and Kelechi Onyemaobi, in Journalism Studies.

Over the past decade, precarity has emerged as a useful concept to make sense of journalists’ current work environment, marked by threats of layoffs and the instability of freelancing. Matthews and Onyemaobi argue that precarity has largely been deployed as a Western concept, and without much explanation of how it affects journalists’ professional practices. To address those gaps, they interviewed journalists from Nigerian newspapers and developed the concept of “precarious professionalism” to illustrate what happens when precarity meets journalists’ professional ideals.

They found that precarity is more of a permanent state than a recent development for Nigerian journalists — an “ingrained instability,” as they described it. Beyond the instability of work that others have found in the West, they found very low pay, regular harassment (especially of women journalists), and a lack of training or access to technology form the backdrop for work as a journalist. Still, Nigerian journalists continue to hold very high ideals for themselves as professionals, though precarity represents an ever-present challenge to maintaining those ideals, such as when low pay increases the temptation to take bribes.

“Google, Facebook and what else? Measuring the hybridity of Italian journalists by their use of sources.” By Marco Delmastro and Sergio Splendore, in European Journal of Communication.

Delmastro and Splendore set out to measure the level of hybridity in journalism — the degree to which journalists have lost distinction and differentiation among them regarding professional roles and practices. That’s a complex concept to measure, but Delmastro and Splendore looked at it through the lens of journalists’ sources, using a survey to ask Italian journalists about what kinds of sources they typically use.

They found that some pretty strong differentiating factors remain. Journalists who write for less established and digital news organizations were much more reliant on online sources, as were journalists who cover “soft news” topics as well as science and tech. Overall, the use of social media as a source was, as the authors put it, “massive.” TV journalists were more likely to rate Twitter as a heavily used source than even personal contacts. The data, the authors wrote, was additional evidence of journalists’ growing reliance on enormous tech platforms not just for distribution, but information gathering as well.

“Algorithms and journalism: Exploring (re)configurations.” “Journalism from above: Drones, the media, and the transformation of journalistic practice.” By various authors in Media and Communication.

Finally, the open-access journal Media and Communication published two special issues this month that contain a lot of insight for anyone interested in the intersection between journalism and technology. The first, focused on algorithmic journalism, includes papers on social media algorithms’ influence on journalists’ decisions about newsworthiness, audiences’ perceptions of automated news compared with its human-written counterpart, and the work that journalists do to defend their professional roles in the face of increased automation.

The second issue is devoted to drones and journalism, and includes a study of interviews with journalistic drone operators, a survey of public openness to and trust in drones in journalism, and a study of how drones are actually used in journalism now that the hype has (largely) subsided. There’s a lot more to check out in both special issues as well, with some thoughtful work on both topics from conceptual and practical perspectives, and they’re all free to read.

Tents in Portland, OR, by drburtoni under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 4, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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