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Oct. 8, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Journalism faces a crisis in trust. Journalists fall into two very different camps for how to fix it

Plus: Life in a news desert, how journalists forge a digital self on social media, and online harassment of journalists as “mob censorship.”

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.

What work is required to build public trust in journalism?

Journalism faces a well-documented crisis of trust. This long-running decline in public confidence in the press is part of a broader skepticism that has developed about the trustworthiness of institutions more generally — leading to an overall trust recession that worries observers who speculate about the endgame of this downward spiral.

But might we see these issues of news and trust in a new light if we reconsidered our assumptions about what actually leads people to develop trust in journalism?

Consider, for example, how journalists for decades have sought to establish trust and confidence by focusing on their democratic responsibility to provide objective information — in which case, trust is presumed to be a product of faithfully adhering to standards and neutrality. In that case, reclaiming trust could be a matter of “getting back to basics,” as it were, and reporting facts in a way that more clearly communicates what people need to know, with the independence and distance that people have come to expect from journalists.

But if, in fact, journalists were to switch their mindset and understand their primary role differently as the facilitation of public deliberation, community connection, and democratic participation — of working with civil society as opposed to apart from it — what would that mean for the overall orientation of journalism and how it works?

A new study in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly — by Megan L. Zahay, Kelly Jensen, Yiping Xia, and Sue Robinson, all of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — offers some essential insights on this question. The team, led by Robinson and applying Zahay’s training as a rhetorician, interviewed 42 journalists, about half of them designated “engagement-oriented” and the others “traditionally oriented.” Based on a rhetorical analysis of what these journalists said (via the interviews) as well as what they did (via hundreds of pages of website materials and social media conversation threads), the authors developed a picture of two camps of journalists — both deeply concerned about the crisis of trust in journalism, but each with very divergent ideas about what should be done about it.

For traditionally oriented journalists, trust is achieved by transmitting facts and helping people perform their democratic duties, without any particular public participation involved in that process. Fixing the trust problem, in this view, means doubling down on objectivity, transparency, and accuracy — but in a way that helps citizens to more readily recognize the value that such things provide. By contrast, rather than focusing on institutionalized norms as the defining elements of journalism, “engagement-oriented journalists view [journalism] as a set of relationships, prone to complexity and messiness, and they expect this in the contexts in which they work.”

What’s especially striking about the engagement view, Zahay and colleagues argue, is that it implies not just a different mindset about one’s role but also a transformation in one’s work—the stuff of day-to-day labor, or what they call “the labor of building trust.” A focus on building and maintaining relationships thus suggests “entirely new kinds of journalistic labor that reorient reporters’ attention toward collaboration and facilitation.” From this perspective, public trust in news flows out of efforts that emphasize mutual understanding and empathy with communities — and which may be inherently slow, gradual, and long-term by nature. In the words of a cofounder of an engagement organization who was interviewed, “[I]t’s ineffective to double down on ‘Trust me, I’m a journalist’ … If you’re not in a relationship with someone, if you haven’t proved your value to them … then you don’t have trust.”

By now, there is a large and growing body of research about the possibilities and challenges of engaged journalism. These approaches, in fact, have a long history, going back to the public and citizen journalism movements of the 1990s. But what sets this latest study apart is in how it carefully charts what appears to be a key inflection point in the profession — one that even seems, in the authors’ conclusion, “paradigmatic.” Indeed, this piece is the first to be published out of Robinson’s multi-phased, ongoing book project about how journalists trust “regular people” according to their various identities.

To the extent that we’re beginning to see a decisive split in how journalists define and enact their democratic role — and to the degree that news organizations give individual journalists the freedom and encouragement to act this way and engage trust-building experiments — we may be witnessing a meaningful movement away from the institutional model of critical distance and toward an engagement model of facilitating discussion, building community, and partnering with the public.

Research roundup

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

Life in a news desert: The perceived impact of a newspaper closure on community members. By Nick Mathews, in Journalism.

As scores of weekly and small daily newspapers close across the U.S., scholars and journalists have sounded the alarm about the expansion of news deserts — areas without any dedicated news coverage via a local newspaper. We’ve presumed that news deserts are damaging to democracy, that they hamper public oversight of local government and weaken the fabric of community that are essential to the civic life of these areas.

Mathews supports those premises with a vivid and detailed picture of one of those news deserts — Caroline County in rural Virginia. Using the concept of “sense of community,” Mathews interviews residents of the county after their weekly paper has been shut down. He finds that residents of the county not only feel more in the dark about what their local government is doing, but that they feel more disconnected from each other without a common forum to promote and celebrate community events. “Without the Caroline Progress, I am more isolated,” one resident tells Mathews. “I think we all are. I think the paper was the one thing that kept us together.”

Gendered news coverage and women as heads of government. By Melanee Thomas, Allison Harell, Sanne A.M. Rijkhoff, and Tania Gosselin, in Political Communication.

Media coverage of women politicians, and especially the gendered differences with its coverage of men, has long been a subject of great scholarly interest, with some excellent research on the subject coming out lately. This Canadian study adds nuance to our understanding of it with an automated analysis of more than 11,000 news articles of provincial premiers.

Thomas and her colleagues’ findings are mixed and complex: They find that fewer articles are written about women-led governments than men’s, and that coverage of women features more gendered language and more references to clothing. Other findings, though, run counter to our common assumptions. There are fewer references to women’s families and private lives, and more positive references to their character and competence, than there are for men. Women are referred to with more feminine terms, but there are no differences in the proportion of masculine language used. They conclude that gendered news coverage certainly hasn’t gone away, but we need to think of it in more multi-faceted, fully mediated terms.

How to report on elections? The effects of game, issue and negative coverage on reader engagement and incivility. By João Gonçalves, Sara Pereira, and Marisa Torres da Silva, in Journalism.

There are few aspects of journalism that scholars and media observers criticize as frequently as political journalists’ framing of news stories as a game, or with relentless negativity. And there are few things that journalists criticize as frequently as toxic comment sections under their work. This Portuguese study combines those two elements, trying to determine to what degree game frames influence the civility of news comments.

The authors found that stories that are negative as well as those that are positive toward political actors led to more uncivil comments. Game framing by itself didn’t lead to more uncivil comments overall, but it did predict more incivility among more polarized commenters. Perhaps most practically pertinent to many news organizations, both negative and game-framed articles led to more comments overall, suggesting they may be easy to justify as “drivers of engagement.”

Platforms, journalists and their digital selves. By Claudia Mellado & Amaranta Alfaro, in Digital Journalism.

There’s been plenty of research over the past decade that examines how journalists use Twitter, though quite a bit less looking at their use of Instagram. Mellado and Alfaro explore journalists’ use of both platforms in an illuminating way by looking through the prism of journalists’ identities and perception of their professional roles. In interviews with 31 Chilean journalists, they find three approaches by which journalists see their journalistic identities on Twitter and Instagram: The adapted, skeptical, and redefiner approaches.

The adapted approach involves fully incorporating the routines and features of social media into journalists’ work, but without adjusting their traditional roles and identity. The skeptical approach goes further in defending traditional journalistic identity, seeing those tools as an encroachment on it and something that shouldn’t be validated as journalistically legitimate. Only the redefiners are willing to allow social media to reshape their professional identities, focusing less on strict professional/personal boundaries and more on social media as a self-branding and professional development opportunity. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, they argue, but are divergent ways for journalists to reconcile their professional, organizational, and personal identities online.

Anticipatory news infrastructures: Seeing journalism’s expectations of future publics in its sociotechnical systems. By Mike Ananny and Megan Finn, in New Media & Society.

We often talk about news in terms of trying to represent what has happened, or what is happening, but in this creative and intriguing theoretical paper Ananny and Finn are interested in journalism’s approach to what’s about to happen. “Where do journalists get their authority to report on the future?” they ask, and the place they’re led to as they answer that question and others like it is the concept of anticipatory news infrastructures.

Ananny and Finn characterize anticipatory news infrastructures as sociotechnical systems — that is, they’re made up of both material and technological objects as well as the social relationships that shape them. They use examples like the Los Angeles Times’ Quakebot system, NPR’s automated transcription-driven real-time debate fact-checking, and the analytics dashboards meant to help journalists determine what’s about to become news soon to illustrate how these infrastructures allow journalists to manage uncertainty and limit risk in a work environment tightly bound by immediacy and time.

These infrastructures ultimately create their own “anticipatory publics,” Ananny and Finn argue, by planning for and expecting particular relationships between people, data, and issues. This pushes journalists away from their familiar territory of detached objectivity and toward an arena in which their own efforts to anticipate news envision and create new social relationships.

Mob censorship: Online harassment of US journalists in times of digital hate and populism. By Silvio Waisbord, in Digital Journalism.

Online harassment and its implications for the journalist–audience relationship. By Seth Lewis, Rodrigo Zamith, and Mark Coddington, in Digital Journalism.

Online harassment has become a chillingly regular part of the job for far too many journalists around the world. In an important conceptual article, Silvio Waisbord argues that such harassment — often motivated by populism and directed against women, journalists of color, and LGBTQ journalists — is more than trolling, and doesn’t qualify as press criticism. Instead, he frames it as a “political struggle to control speech,” and specifically as a form of mob censorship.

As mob censorship, he argues, it’s part of collective, violent (verbally and/or physically) action to silence journalists, distinct from censorship efforts by the state, markets, or parastate groups. In its use of violent discourse to control journalistic speech, he says, it complicates the already fraught relationship between hate speech and democratic rights.

And if you’ll permit us a bit of self-promotion at the end of this month’s newsletter, we published a study examining some of the effects of this online harassment. In surveying American journalists, we found that journalists who’ve been harassed by audiences online are less likely to view audiences as rational or like themselves. That’s a significant fracture in the journalist-audience relationship, and one that causes us to rethink the optimism that’s often surrounded scholarship around journalists’ reciprocal relationships with audiences, a concept we’ve espoused ourselves.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 8, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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