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Jan. 7, 2021, 8:30 a.m.

Our old models of journalistic impact need to change

Plus: How newsrooms “pressured from the top” cover their corporate bosses, studies of the “Serial effect” in podcasting, and Facebook’s role as an infrastructure for local political information.

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.

The Panama Papers and the process of journalistic impact

The notion that journalism is important to democracy because it holds powerful officials accountable to the public is one of those Journalism 101 ideas that’s so familiar that it becomes taken for granted in how journalists think about and justify their work. Of course journalism’s watchdog role is crucial, we say, because…Watergate, and remember that City Hall scandal a few years ago, and if journalists didn’t keep an eye on public officials, who would?

But thanks to the increased influence of foundation funding, some parts of journalism have been forced to make the case for their democratic role more explicit, as “impact” has become a watchword in nonprofit journalism. But as many news organizations become more concrete in how they document their impact, one question has still received relatively little attention: How exactly does that impact happen?

Here’s the standard way we think about it: Journalists (often investigative) produce evidence of malfeasance by public officials, which leads the public to demand action at the ballot box or public forums, which in turn pushes institutions and officials toward change. That folk theory has been termed the “mobilization model,” but how often does it work that way in practice?

That’s the question that Magda Konieczna and Lucas Graves are out to answer in a study out this month in the journal Journalism Studies. They examine what seems to be a perfect example of the mobilization model at work: In 2016, the Panama Papers revealed that Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, had had an offshore shell account set up on his behalf which had been a secret creditor to failed Icelandic banks. Massive public protests ensued, and Gunnlaugsson resigned within days of the story breaking.

But even in an apparent textbook case of journalistic impact like this one, Konieczna and Graves find that the mobilization model wasn’t a great explanation for what happened. The mobilization model, they argue, is embraced by journalists because it’s a way for them to reconcile two competing values: the detachment they feel is necessary to adhere to the objectivity norm, and the ideal that their journalism should move the public to keep its leaders accountable. So in this model, journalists only present the facts of misbehavior to the public, and the public produces the accountability.

But in piecing together the investigation’s full timeline through interviews, Konieczna and Graves find that the journalists involved made proactive decisions at various points before publication that were meant to maximize the story’s impact. This happened most notably in the decision to confront Gunnlaugsson in a dramatic TV interview, but also in more structural decisions about how to report the story and whom to partner with.

It’s not new for journalists to structure stories to maximize impact; every editor who’s held a bombshell story for the Sunday A1 slot in the paper knows this. But Konieczna and Graves argue that journalists do more to try to engineer a story’s impact than they’re comfortable acknowledging. They also find that our notions of journalistic impact tend to overemphasize the role of public opinion, and underemphasize the behind-the-scenes actions of political officials — in this case, even before the public was aware of the story. And the Icelandic journalists involved noted the limits of the impact for even a story like this: Gunnlaugsson has since been re-elected to Parliament, and no public officials have served jail time as a result of the story.

That’s not to say this type of work isn’t incredibly important. But Konieczna and Graves argue that especially through the rise of nonprofit journalism, journalists have begun to more actively try to produce and account for impact in their work. Their study is a call for journalists’ and scholars’ thinking about how that impact plays out to catch up with those changes.

Research roundup

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

“Interlocking among American newspaper organizations revisited: ‘Pressure from the top’ and its influence on newsroom and content.” By Adam Saffer, Deborah Dwyer, Jennifer L. Harker, Christopher Etheridge, Mariam Turner, and Daniel Riffe, in Mass Communication and Society.

Corporations are believed to become “interlocked” when a person from one organization joins the board of directors of another. This facilitates collaboration, knowledge sharing, the mutual influencing of practices and policies in organizations — and a degree of “environmental stability,” which, Adam Saffer and colleagues note in their study, can be a desirable thing in an uncertain climate.

But interlocks in the media industry, in particular, raise concerns about the independence of journalists who work within corporate structures that may become more monolithic as interlocks grow in number and influence. “Today’s media companies,” Saffer et al. note, “seem to be more intertwined than ever. But are they? Do these ‘interlocks’ affect editors and the content journalists produce?”

Saffer’s team took on these questions through a series of methods to explore connections among newspaper organizations and corporations: first, a network analysis to study the interlocks among newspaper companies’ directors; second, a survey of editors of newspapers owned by those companies to evaluate the possible downstream influence on the newsroom from the board and parent company; and, third, a study of news coverage of directors and their affiliated organizations for newspapers where editors perceived a degree of pressure from the top.

What they found is not encouraging. As the authors write, “The network analysis results suggest a monolithic interlocking structure that previous scholars feared. For one third of survey respondents, corporate parents and the boardroom were seen as influencing the newsroom.” These “pressured editors,” they say, sensed stronger influence from above — in the form of the board, owners/managers, and business interests — in comparison with editors who did not perceive such constraints. “So, how did pressured newsrooms cover ownership and directors? Routine coverage of directors and their affiliated organizations was lacking. Disclosure of a relationship between a director or affiliated organization and the newspaper was disclosed half of the time and traditional journalistic scrutiny was applied less than half of the time.”

Yikes. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

“The ‘Serial effect’ and the true crime podcast ecosystem.” By Lindsey A. Sherrill, in Journalism Practice.

If you’re into podcasts, you’ve likely come across the “true crime” genre that has exploded in popularity since the hit show Serial first arrived in our earbuds in late 2014. That show, which came at a time when podcasting was still finding its way into the mainstream, revisited a murder trial and conviction through a series of episodes that were downloaded millions of times, and Serial remained in the iTunes Top 100 for more than three years. The show’s acclaim contributed to a so-called “Serial effect,” as producers churned out many similar true-crime dramas for listeners, as part of a larger wave of true-crime genre offerings via books, documentaries, and streaming platforms.

This cluster (or “population”) of true-crime podcasts, Lindsey A. Sherrill argues in this study, represents a media genre that operates as a kind of ecological system in its own right — a “niche” in the broader media environment that helps shape “the evolution of [these podcasts’] organizational form and the way they are perceived by their creators, fans, and other media outlets.” Sherrill’s study, based on organizational ecology theory, therefore offers two contributions: a population analysis to assess the “demography” of the true-crime podcast genre and the breadth of this phenomenon (including founding dates and failures), plus a content analysis to examine how news media may grant public legitimacy to these podcasts over time.

One key finding: For all the talk about Serial and its influence, Sherrill’s population analysis suggests that a more nuanced set of environmental factors were at work — such as the inclusion of a separate Apple podcast app becoming native to iOS 8 in 2014. At the same time, Sherrill’s qualitative analysis of news content about true-crime podcasts suggests another twist: “While Serial may not have been as important as one might be led to expect from a population growth perspective, it appears to have been a major factor in the legitimation of the true crime podcast from a fringe, ‘salacious’ sub-genre to a mainstream force.”

“Platform civics: Facebook in the local information infrastructure.” By Kjerstin Thorson, Mel Medeiros, Kelley Cotter, Yingying Chen, Kourtnie Rodgers, Arram Bae, and Sevgi Baykaldai, in Digital Journalism.

Our next study this month draws attention to the ways that digital platforms are rapidly changing how information about politics is produced and circulated in local communities. Kjerstin Thorson and colleagues do this by developing a concept they call local political information infrastructure. This notion captures two key dynamics: (1) the expanding set of actors who play an increasingly central role in producing political information at the local level, beyond the news media alone, and (2) the influence of algorithms and networks that shape everyday practices of posting and sharing — for example, by encouraging media producers to focus on vitality and engagement in order to ensure visibility and reach on social media.

Much of this, of course, is happening on Facebook, where nonprofits, neighborhood groups, local governments, and a variety of related actors are working outside of local news media to connect with audiences directly. This is, in effect, rewiring the path by which many people learn about local politics. Through a two-part study that brings together a topic-modeling analysis of Facebook posts from news and non-news actors in a mid-sized Midwestern city in the U.S. in combination with interviews with communication managers for libraries, city services, local nonprofits, etc., the authors illustrate “the ways in which local news media are increasingly displaced from the centre of local political information infrastructures, while Facebook moves to take up a central infrastructural role.”

One troubling finding that emerges: As these local government agencies and civic organizations become increasingly dependent on Facebook for communicating with their local audiences, “the platform shapes the kinds of content that they produce, producing a bias away from posts about potentially challenging local policy and politics topics.” This suggests the need for more research about the “platformatization” of politics, not just at the national level that gets so much attention but also at the community level where the infrastructure for local information about politics in one’s own backyard seems up for grabs as never before.

“Trump, Mueller investigation, and alleged Russian election meddling: Russian media coverage in 2017-2019.” By Dmitrii Gavra and Pavel Slutskiy, in American Behavioral Scientist.

At this point, the Special Counsel investigation of into the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Robert Mueller’s subsequent report on Russian interference that was made public in 2019 may seem like a lifetime ago because it happened in a pre-pandemic time. But given the stakes involved in the investigation, including the impeachment proceedings that followed after them, it’s important to capture how such matters were covered in the news — particularly when examined through the lens of the Russian press. Recognizing that Russian journalists are not entirely independent of the state and are likely to take certain cues from the government, what can we learn from the Russian media discourse about these events?

Dmitrii Gavra and Pavel Slutskiy offer some answers through a content analysis of three widely followed daily newspapers and one official TV channel. Their first note in the conclusion section may surprise some people: In the context of the Mueller accusations, the Russian press expressed “no obvious sympathies for Trump … or, if there were any, they came to naught. The positive nomination of Trump in the provided publications is minimal.”

But if Russian news media were mostly indifferent toward Trump, they were emphatic in rejecting any idea of Russian interference in the election, painting the whole scenario as a domestic political struggle among U.S. elites they saw as caught up in Russophobic paranoia. The authors note: “One of the strong rhetorical denial strategies used by Russian media to convince their audience of the groundlessness and absurdity of claims of Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections was negation by mockery, irony, dismissive humor, and sarcasm.” Even more, Gavra and Slutskiy show how the media portrayed the U.S. political system not only as irrational and ridiculous but also dangerous to Russia and the rest of the world, contributing to a public-opinion climate in Russia that is increasingly hostile in its attitudes toward the U.S.

“Perceptions versus performance: How routines, norms and values influence journalists’ protest coverage decisions.” By Summer Harlow and Danielle K. Kilgo, in Journalism.

Protests against racism and police brutality were a key feature of 2020, and news coverage of such protests across the United States served to highlight what researchers have called the protest paradigm — or the longstanding tendency among mainstream journalists to marginalize protesters and their concerns, frame activists in mostly unflattering ways, and generally uphold the status quo. Not every protest is covered this way. For example, research found that stories about women’s marches and anti-Trump protests tend to give more voice to protesters than those about Black Lives Matter or indigenous people’s rights. But the protest paradigm remains an enduring feature, as we’ve discussed in previous editions of this newsletter.

Yet, there are questions as to exactly how journalists’ newsmaking routines, values, norms, and so forth might contribute to the negative patterns seen in the protest paradigm. While most research on news coverage of protests focuses rightly on the content of that coverage, Summer Harlow and Danielle K. Kilgo went a step further in this study by combining a survey of newspaper journalists with a content analysis of their reporting on protests, looking for possible connections between journalists’ perceptions and behaviors.

Among other things, Harlow and Kilgo found that journalists did not emphasize a protest’s underlying cause or its potential impact on society as factors that influence their decisions regarding how to cover the protest. “This is noteworthy,” they write, “because it implies a journalistic blindness — in the name of objectivity — so that all protests, in theory, would be covered the same, regardless of the cause, as long as they met the threshold for newsworthiness and as long as there weren’t other more important news events occurring at the same time.” This was one of several gaps between perceptions and practices that Harlow and Kilgo found. “Even as respondents suggested their coverage decisions were not made according to protest topic, the content analysis indicated otherwise.”

Indeed, in line with the authors’ other research, there was a “hierarchy of social struggle” evident in the coverage, with protests about racial injustice, for example, receiving more delegitimizing coverage (e.g., more use of the riot frame or an emphasis on confrontation). Overall, journalists thought they did a better job covering protests than the content analysis demonstrated, suggesting the need for greater self-reflection about what protest coverage should look like moving forward.

POSTED     Jan. 7, 2021, 8:30 a.m.
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