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Nov. 12, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

How are journalists like Instagram influencers? In some key ways, audiences judge them the same

Plus: How news organizations use TikTok, challenges in covering white nationalism, newsbot–audience communication, and the organizational behavior of Russia Today.

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.

How do audiences view the boundaries between journalists and social media content creators?

The relationship between journalists and the journalism-adjacent people who compete with them for attention and authority has been a fascination of scholars over the past two decades. Whether it’s bloggers, WikiLeaks, or citizen journalists, these “peripheral actors” or “interloper media” have formed a continual challenge to journalists’ ability to distinguish themselves as a profession and argue for their own legitimacy to the public.

Most research on the relationship between journalism and its interlopers has focused on journalists’ own efforts to draw boundaries around their work in order to keep others out and reinforce their distinctive authority. But those efforts are empty without the assent of the audience — someone to reinforce journalists’ exceptionalism and grant them credibility based on that.

So how do audiences interpret the boundaries between journalists and those interlopers, and to what extent do they even separate the two? That’s what Sandra Banjac and Folker Hanusch sought to determine in a study published in October in the journal New Media & Society. Banjac and Hanusch used focus groups of young people in Austria to examine their perceptions of, and standards for, journalists and content creators on Instagram, YouTube, and blogs.

Their participants drew hard, normative boundaries between journalists and content creators in many of the places you might expect: journalists act selflessly in the public interest, while content creators are working for their own gain. Journalists are detached and objective, while content creators are emotional and subjective. Journalists have particular education and training, while content creators lack specialized skills.

Banjac and Hanusch argued that those boundaries, and their predictability, indicate how deeply embedded journalists’ discourse about the grounds for their authority is in audiences’ notions of journalism. But they were more intrigued by the subtler similarities that audiences drew between journalists and content creators. Namely, audiences held the two groups to much the same standards and voiced the same concerns about their missional drift.

Audiences’ standards for content creators, the authors argued, were implicitly journalistic. They were troubled at how commercially oriented some Instagram and YouTube creators had become, and how the drive for profits and desire to please sponsors had compromised their autonomy. They complained that some of these market-driven creators began posting incessantly, forsaking more substantive material to appease advertisers’ demands and try to capitalize on a relentless attention economy.

Sound familiar? Those are two of the primary critiques that audiences have leveled at journalists, particularly in the digital era. And now, Banjac and Hanusch argued, they were applying those same critiques and standards to content creators.

The solutions that audiences posed to those problems for content creators echoed recent calls for journalism reform, too. They wanted creators to perform authenticity by being transparent about their influences and their imperfections. They wanted more engagement, more acknowledgment of their own priorities and interests. And they wanted creators to slow down and prioritize quality content over a rush for clicks and likes.

This convergence of standards doesn’t mean audiences have wiped away the differences between journalists and, say, makeup artists on YouTube. But the authors argue that while audiences keep a firm boundary between journalists and social media creators in their minds, their standards for journalism may be bleeding into adjacent fields, providing the potential for those groups to be seen within the same realm as journalism. Journalists may be adamant about their distinctiveness from the people populating your Instagram feed and YouTube queue, but the audience might see them as implicitly more similar than they themselves might even be aware.

Research roundup

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

Let’s dance the news! How the news media are adapting to the logic of TikTok.” By Jorge Vázquez-Herrero, María-Cruz Negreira-Rey, and Xosé López-García, in Journalism.

Journalists have been known to gravitate to wherever audiences are going (think: Twitter and Facebook a decade ago). These days that’s toward TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing service that is a hit with younger people (Gen Z especially). So, it was inevitable that news organizations — such as The Washington Post, NBC News, and The Dallas Morning News — would make a play for the “of-the-moment platform” beginning in 2019 (here’s a running list of publishers and journalists on TikTok). And, where journalists go, journalism scholars tend to follow — whether in tracking, back in 2009, how journalists were “normalizing” Twitter to suit existing journalistic routines and also to develop a more opinionated voice, or now in exploring how news companies are experimenting with the song-and-dance rhythm of the TikTok platform.

Thus we have this new paper from Vázquez-Herrero and colleagues. After an initial process of identifying media-related accounts — of which they discovered 234, mostly of the TV and digital-native variety — they settled on 19 general news media accounts with verified profiles. They found, over time, a gradual incorporation of the aesthetics and expectations of the platform, including popular elements such as filters, stickers, and GIFs. In this way, the authors argue, the news organizations meld uncommon media forms (e.g., funny videos, challenges) with adapted versions of traditional ones (e.g., news segments, fragments of interviews). “Sometimes, the content moves away from journalism to approach young audiences in their natural habitat,” they write. “They do not literally dance the news, but they position the brand and show work behind the scenes in a casual and musical atmosphere that seems appropriate for the TikTok audience. Moreover, they do so with a fun, simple and attractive tone, seeking a balance between factual information and positive emotions and empathy, in line with current trends.”

Covering hate: Field theory and journalistic role conception in reporting on white nationalist rallies.” By Gregory Perreault, Brett Johnson, and Leslie Klein, in Journalism Practice.

As white nationalist groups have become more active in recent years, both in a racist response to the first Black U.S. president and then emboldened by the rhetoric of his successor, journalists have been presented with a serious dilemma. The rise and rallies of white nationalists are newsworthy issues — not least for the threats they pose to local communities (e.g., Charlottesville, Va., in 2017) — but how should journalists cover such extremism in a way that doesn’t provide a platform for hate speech and thereby lend such movements the “oxygen of amplification”?

For this study, Perreault and colleagues interviewed 18 journalists who have covered white nationalist rallies, and conclude with some best practices for reporters tasked with covering these issues. Overall, they found that journalists worried about walking into an “objectivity trap” and giving too much legitimacy to white nationalists simply by virtue of covering their rallies, particularly given that such hate groups take advantage of journalists’ professional predilections toward fairness and neutrality to convey and mainstream their message.

“To avoid that outcome,” the authors argue, “journalists should seek to resist the tendency to cover [white nationalist] rallies episodically (with conflict as the driving force of the story) and instead look to cover rallies more thematically by placing them in broader social and political contexts.” But achieving that switch in perspective, according to the journalists interviewed, isn’t easy, in large part because conflict is often the reason these rallies are deemed newsworthy in the first place.

Characterizing communication patterns between audiences and newsbots.” By Diego Gómez-Zará and Nicholas Diakopoulos, in Digital Journalism.

A lot has been said about the nefarious use of social bots — to engage in computational propaganda, spread misinformation, and play up polarization — but what about the potential for more productive, even virtuous use of such tools? One example is the growing variety of “newsbots,” or social bots deployed by news organizations to automate news distribution or develop new forms of engagement on social media. But while we know quite a lot about how news organizations are experimenting with newsbots, we know much less about how audiences are making sense of these interactions: How effective, really, are these newsbots in engaging audiences on social media?

To address this issue, Gómez-Zará and Diakopoulos analyzed a newsbot called Anecbotal NYT, which “listens” to Twitter users who share New York Times news articles and then follows up by sharing with them comments made by Times readers about those articles. The study examined this question in light of the human-machine communication (HMC) framework, an approach that helps scholars better understand the potential “creation of meaning” between humans and machines that may occur when machines are situated not simply as channels through which humans communicate but indeed as communicators that may be sources and recipients of messages (e.g., see how this works in automated journalism).

The authors’ qualitative analysis of messages between Twitter users and Anecbotal NYT indicated that the newsbot was “perceived in different ways by Twitter users, from not being recognized at all, to being considered as a communicative actor.” Likewise, the bot generated a range of emotional reactions from people, from politeness to hostility, in part depending on whether users realized they were engaging with a bot and not a human. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that “the low response rate — only 366 responses after two years of operation — helps demonstrate how difficult it was for the newsbot to start a conversation with human users and be recognized in their natural environment.” Nevertheless, the study raises important questions about how designers should build newsbots and what roles these tools should play in the process of developing human-like conversation around news.

‘Anything that causes chaos’: The organizational behavior of Russia Today (RT).” By Mona Elswah and Philip N. Howard, in Journal of Communication.

RT (formerly Russia Today) is, by many accounts, one of the most significant purveyors of disinformation globally. Well-funded by the Russian state, organized in the service of the Kremlin, used as a tool to interfere in the politics of other countries, and widely influential on YouTube (with one of the highest viewership rates for a TV channel), RT is a significant media presence to be reckoned with — and yet scholarly examination of how the channel works has been largely missing.

Elswah and Howard, through a year and half of interviews with current and former RT staff, take on that problem by studying the organizational behavior of the channel rather than its infamous propaganda content alone. Their aim: to illuminate how RT journalists are “recruited, socialized, and controlled.”

Their study shows how RT, though originally conceived to present a positive image of Russia to the world, went through a considerable transformation during the Russia–Georgia conflict in 2008 and has since oriented its operations around sowing doubts about Western governments, media, and ideals, as captured in RT’s oft-repeated phrase, “Question More.” Among the authors’ key findings: “RT promotes the Kremlin’s anti-West ideology, professional journalistic skills are not prioritized, editors are appointed by the government, and the channel is not driven by revenues.”

Battle of the classes: news consumption inequalities and symbolic boundary work.” By Johan Lindell, in Critical Studies in Media Communication.

What is the connection between social class and news consumption? Studies have repeatedly shown that well-educated, well-paid, highly political engaged people are more likely to spend time with news (and “higher-quality” news at that) in comparison with those of lower social grade. But it’s also quite clear that working-class individuals are at a distinct disadvantage not only in terms of leisure time and job opportunities, but also with regard to the information sources readily available to them. The poor, in effect, are served mostly poor-quality news and information.

Lindell’s study, however, provides an important twist to this narrative: How do perceived differences in the way other people use news serve to mobilize certain class identities and distinctions? Lindell creatively studied this question through separate focus groups with middle-class and working-class youth in Sweden. When asked to describe the typical features of a “news avoider,” for example, middle-class teens conjured up a negative “other” in the form of the working class — “lazy, sedentary and disconnected,” as opposed to the middle-class aspirational notion of being a busy and up-to-date cosmopolitan. Meanwhile, working-class youth “challenged the pretentiousness of the middle class — for instance, by portraying them as ‘proper,’ ‘boring’ ‘news junkies’ who failed to live life at its fullest.” These findings reveal how symbolic boundaries of class can be developed around perceived ideas of what it means to be “informed” and “connected” in the digital era.

Photo of person using Instagram by Unsplash.

POSTED     Nov. 12, 2020, 8:30 a.m.
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