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Sept. 8, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Journalists perceive stories published in local news outlets to be less newsworthy

Plus: “Cultural competence” through diverse sourcing; limitations in how journalists represent public opinion; and lessons from studying 7,000 news push notifications.

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.

A new test of the influence of national news coverage

It’s clear that in the U.S., the news industry is steadily becoming more national. Local news continues to be hollowed out, and national news organizations are taking an ever-greater share of news revenue and audience attention. But the most prominent national news organizations’ spot at the center of journalists’ vision of their own profession isn’t new at all. When scholars began looking sociologically at the process of news production in the 1950s, they found local journalists taking their cues on news judgment from the national news. Timothy Crouse’s classic portrayal of the 1972 campaign press corps, The Boys on the Bus, depicts a handful of national news organizations with an almost comically outsized influence on the rest of the field.

We’ve seen journalists follow the national leaders for long enough that few scholars have stopped to ask why. Does national news coverage give a story the imprimatur of newsworthiness in journalists’ eyes? Or is it more of a competitive instinct that drives the pack? Perhaps the largest news organizations’ influence is overstated, and they simply have more resources to get there first to stories that other journalists would’ve found newsworthy anyway.

Those are the ideas that drive Hans J.G. Hassell’s new study, “What makes news newsworthy,” published this month in The International Journal of Press/Politics. Hassell conducted a survey-based experiment with 1,510 American newspaper journalists to find out whether journalists considered a story more or less newsworthy based on whether they were told that it was published by a national newspaper, a mid-sized metro, a local newspaper, or nowhere at all.

Hassell found that journalists saw a story published by a national newspaper as being no more newsworthy than the same story having gone unpublished, or published by a mid-sized paper. This held true whether journalists were asked about newsworthiness in the eyes of their audiences or their editors — the latter intended as a measurement of competitively motivated perception.

But while national publication didn’t give stories a newsworthiness boost, local newspapers fared even worse. A story published by a local newspaper was seen as less newsworthy than one that hadn’t been published at all. Not surprisingly, this effect was stronger among journalists who didn’t work for small, local papers.

The study’s findings suggest that journalists’ follow-the-leader approach to national news may not be driven by the fact that it was covered by national news organizations as a sort of newsworthiness “stamp of approval.” Instead, Hassell posits that mimicry of national news may simply be because national news organizations have more resources to lead the way on stories that journalists broadly consider newsworthy, or because those organizations operate under a broader sense of newsworthiness that will resonate with a greater share of journalists.

The scope of newsworthiness may also help explain journalists’ apparently low view of newsworthiness of local newspapers’ stories. Since those newspapers’ sense of newsworthiness tends to be more narrowly defined by geography, journalists may be conditioned to view local newspapers’ stories as irrelevant to their own organizations’ goals. This would especially be the case as national politics increases its dominance over local politics in the American imagination.

Hassell’s study does provide an encouraging indication that journalists’ perception of newsworthiness leans less on the publication decisions of their more prominent colleagues than we’ve thought. But for local newspapers facing an existential crisis, other journalists’ apparent low regard for the newsworthiness of the work they publish could be read as a stinging reminder of their place near the periphery of a field they once were a more prominent part of.

Research roundup

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

“Sourcing diversity, shifting culture: Building ‘cultural competence’ in public media.” By Andrea Wenzel, in Digital Journalism.”

There has been a years-long conversation, intensified in recent months, about how news organizations can make a meaningful difference in diversifying their staffs, addressing race and the newsroom, and more fully including marginalized voices. In this study, Wenzel makes an essential contribution to that discussion by examining — through a year and a half of interviews and ethnography — how a U.S. public media station sought to “shift a culture of whiteness and increase the representation of people of color within both staffing and online and broadcast coverage.”

Wenzel finds some mixed success. Of course, any single initiative, like this foundation-supported effort to help Philadelphia-based WHYY to build “cultural competency,” is unlikely to transform things by itself, but there were some tangible changes. For example, the process of auditing and monitoring sources quoted in local stories allowed journalists to evaluate their routinized forms of quoting traditional authority figures (such as university professors) — practices that tended to over-represent white voices at the expense of a broader range of experts within communities.

At the same time, though, the enduring structures, patterns, and path dependencies of WHYY made it difficult for the cultural competency initiative to institutionalize change. “Many traditional journalistic practices remained in place, along with much of the white editorial leadership and largely white newsroom,” Wenzel writes. Citing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory about fields and how they change (or not), she goes on to write, “For cultural competency practices to undertake the work of ‘transforming the structure of relations of forces’ in the journalism field, the practices would need to become routinized and the structures and positions that support them will need to be strengthened.”

“The voice of the people in the news: A content analysis of public opinion displays in routine and election news.” By Kathleen Beckers, in Journalism Studies.

An important part of news is attempting to reflect public opinion, which journalists do in a wide variety of ways — from polls to person-on-the-street interviews to embedded tweets and more. “These public opinion displays,” Beckers writes, “vary in how explicitly they refer to public opinion, how representative they are of the larger population and how active the role of citizens is.” So, what can be learned from studying a broad sweep of how public opinion is portrayed in the news?

Analyzing nearly 4,000 items in Flemish (Belgian) print and television news media, representing both routine and election periods, Beckers found that journalists take seriously their responsibility to describe public sentiment: about 1 in 5 news items overall and almost half of all election coverage had one or more references to public opinion in some form or another.

But there are a few qualifiers to this finding: First, citizens seem to have little say in this process. “Proactive expressions of public opinion taking place in the real world” — such as protests — receive little coverage, and are covered even less frequently in election news, Beckers notes. Second, journalists’ most common methods for sourcing public opinion vary by media type — vox pops are preferred for television, and general inferences (i.e., claims without precise evidence) are most common in print news — and both of these approaches give journalists “quite some leeway in how to cover public opinion.” Plus, vox pops and general inferences, while certainly convenient, aren’t exactly the most representative ways of expressing the public’s mood.

“The temporal nature of mobile push notification alerts: A study of European news outlets’ dissemination patterns.” By Dawn Wheatley and Raul Ferrer-Conill, in Digital Journalism.

If you’re reading this, odds are that you get news alerts on your phone. Maybe even a lot of them.

Mobile push notifications are a vital (if overlooked) element of news distribution. They offer the chance to reach readers instantaneously and directly (without social media getting in the way), and at various time points to suit people’s on-the-go preferences for getting news during lulls in the day. Such notifications are under-researched in journalism studies, so Wheatley and Ferrer-Conill offer an important accounting — one that focuses especially on whether news organizations “attempt to integrate with existing mobile-user behavior patterns or seek to be a disruptive element, garnering attention when audiences are not typically using devices.”

They analyzed more than 7,000 push notifications from 34 news outlets in nine European countries. They found that, although news organizations do tend to emphasize reliably key moments for news consumption — such as first thing in the morning during commutes or when users have more downtime in the evening — they also tend to spread notifications throughout the day. In this way, they seek to embed themselves in users’ habitual “checking cycles,” capitalizing on how people turn to their phones repeatedly during the in-between periods of the day.

They also found that for-profit publishers tend to use push notifications more often, suggesting a market-focused element to notifications (no surprise there), and the same was true of print outlets compared to online-only ones — indicating, perhaps, a more concerted effort to win back newspaper audiences that were lost in recent decades. Regardless, there is much yet to learn about the rhythms of news notifications and how they figure into the evolving picture of news consumption today.

“Engagement moderation: What journalists should say to improve online discussions.” By Gina M. Masullo, Martin J. Riedl, and Q. Elyse Huang, in Journalism Practice.

The comment sections for news stories are notorious for being dens of vitriol and hostility, particularly when poorly managed or left unattended. When the discussion among readers goes awry, as it so often does on hot-button topics, what are moderators — or journalists, as the case may be at many news organizations — supposed to do in trying to intervene?

In this study, Masullo and team propose the idea of engagement moderation, which they define as “community managers or journalists interacting with commenters to improve the comment threads, rather than deleting comments.” They tested the utility of this concept using an experiment involving a mock Facebook page (because news organizations are increasingly shifting their commenting spaces there), built to appear as if it belonged to the ostensibly unbiased Associated Press. They found that such engagement could help in dealing with incivility, particularly when journalists or community managers used “high-person-centered messages” — that is, messages that acknowledge people’s apparent emotional pain or frustration. Such interventions, they found, led news readers to have “more positive attitudes toward the news outlet’s Facebook page, online community, and handling of incivility.”

“‘Friending’ journalists on social media: Effects on perceived objectivity and intention to consume news.” By Jayeon Lee, in Journalism Studies.

By now, we’re accustomed to journalists revealing more and more of their personal as well as professional selves on social media. It’s a gradual process of transparency, branding, and self-disclosure that has its pluses and minuses, and which raises a host of questions about how news audiences perceive and respond to such behavior.

Lee’s study, based on an experiment with 267 college students, explored how a journalist’s self-disclosure on social media affected the audience’s intentions to follow that journalist’s news updates as well as perceptions about that journalist’s objectivity. When journalists self-disclosed and interacted directly with users, that had the strongest direct effect on people’s likelihood to consume the news they produced. But that intention to follow the journalist was tempered somewhat by negative attitudes that these participants — yes, even young adults — had about the journalist’s objectivity, despite the personal disclosures avoiding partisan politics.

Still, the study’s overall assessment is that the negative influence of weakened perceived objectivity doesn’t offset the positive impact of a journalist’s self-disclosure. This suggests, Lee writes, that “general expectations about professional journalism have shifted, or at least the norms are expanding to accommodate diverse activities happening on social media.” Perhaps that’s true, but exactly how that gets translated into newsrooms’ social media guidelines of the future is yet to be determined.

Newspaper boxes by Mike Licht used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 8, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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