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Feb. 5, 2021, 10:51 a.m.

New research shows how journalists are responding and adapting to “fake news” rhetoric

Plus: The rural-urban divide in news and politics, when journalists see themselves as villains, the effect of errors on media trust, and more.

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.

Adapting to the misinformation era, journalists emphasize transparency in their daily practices

“Fake news” is an unfortunate phrase. It is so casually invoked and widely deployed as to be almost devoid of meaning. And, most infamously, it has been weaponized by politicians (one former president in particular) as both a ready tool to dismiss inconvenient truths in the moment and also, more perniciously, to cast doubt on the legitimacy of journalism as a whole.

Yet, “fake news” captures for many people a defining set of features about our information environment: from declining trust in news media to concerns about the seemingly supercharged spread of misinformation on social media to the general unease with the level of fakery that seems to fight for our precious attention at every turn online. This creates a conundrum for journalists: Given how directly the “fake news” phenomenon and the discourse surrounding it challenges the authority behind producing “real” news, what are journalists to do? How should they respond and adapt?

new article in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly offers some initial answers. Researchers Hong Tien Vu and Magdalena Saldaña use a nationally representative survey of U.S. journalists to examine how newsroom practices have changed (or not) amid the rise of misinformation and the rhetoric of “fake news.” Specifically, the authors focused on whether journalists reported having either adopted new approaches or intensified existing ones as a way of “preventing” misinformation and thereby avoiding complaints of spreading fake news.

First, Vu and Saldaña found that “journalists were most likely to cross-check with sources more often, limit the use of anonymity, and make it as clear as possible where the information comes from.” On the other hand, journalists did not report substantially increasing their involvement in vetting information with lawyers or training on fact-checking platforms — though it’s possible that, particularly in the case of fact-checking tactics, they were already habitually doing these things. No intensification of such activities was needed.

Second, the researchers tested for differences between two types of professional practices that are core to journalism: accountability and transparency. The former emphasizes traditional fact-checking and verification, while the latter points to emergent forms of opening up the journalistic process to audience view — e.g., by providing raw footage, limiting the use of anonymous sources, making it clear how information was obtained, and disclosing details about a journalist’s background.

Survey results suggest that, against the current backdrop of misinformation and how it challenges the news industry, journalists have more readily adopted or intensified practices that promote transparency in their work. This may be seen as part of a larger effort among journalists to better understand and connect with their audiences, or it may simply reflect that transparency practices are being taken up increasingly as a means of delivering on journalistic accountability, just in a new way.

Regardless, it’s noteworthy that journalists who saw the rise in fake news as a threat to democracy were more likely to report using transparency-oriented practices — perhaps because they saw transparency as a solution to the misinformation problem.

Another key finding, the authors note, is that “those who felt responsible for providing accurate information to their social media followers were more likely to adopt/intensify both accountability and transparency practices.” A possible explanation for this is that journalists with a clearly perceived audience base online might feel compelled, in an accountability sense, “to do something to improve the information environment for their audience.” And, at the same time, social media, in their design and culture, encourage the kind of self-disclosure and relational exchanges that are indicative of the transparency approach to journalism.

In all, Vu and Saldaña offer an important step forward in understanding how journalists, depending on their background, role, and attitudes, may perceive and respond to the misinformation moment in ways that contribute to larger transformations taking place in the field today.

Research roundup

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


News media use, talk networks, and anti-elitism across geographic location: Evidence from Wisconsin by Chris Wells, Lewis A. Friedland, Ceri Hughes, Dhavan V. Shah, Jiyoun Suk, and Michael W. Wagner, in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

Polarization continues to be one of the dominant themes of contemporary Western political analysis, and one of the primary axes along which that polarization has run is geography — that is, rural and urban settings. But the rural-urban political dynamic is much more complex than the simple binary of popular imagination, with many geographical nooks and crannies, from the exurbs to small cities, complicating the picture. This team of University of Wisconsin researchers used their state as a case to examine the rural-urban divide in relation to three factors: News consumption, political talk networks, and anti-elitism.

They found that those in small towns, small cities, and the suburbs reported more politically diverse discussion partners than those in urban areas, particularly the state’s capital, Madison. And while rural residents consumed less centrist/liberal and prestige media than others, they also consumed less conservative media than urban residents, when controlling for other variables. Anti-elitism was strongest on the left from Madison and on the right from rural areas, but lowest in conservative suburbs.

The results don’t indicate a clean rural-urban split that we might be tempted to imagine. And the researchers note that for all the differences they found, one similarity was striking: Across the board, the top news source was local TV news and local newspapers, which attract only a fraction of the scholarly attention of cable news and Facebook. “This is an important reminder for our field,” the authors wrote, “not to neglect mundane news media, even as they wane in popularity.”

When journalists see themselves as villains: The power of negative discourse by Ruth Moon, in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

In much of the world, we expect journalists to reflexively defend themselves against external criticism and encroachment from the state and from competing spheres of influence. Dozens of studies on concepts like boundary workparadigm repair, and metajournalistic discourse explore the ways journalists use their public discourse to protect their own autonomy and jockey for cultural legitimacy. For many journalists, defending yourself is just part of the job.

That’s why Moon’s study of Rwandan journalists is so remarkable. In interviews with 40 Rwandan journalists as part of an ethnography of the country’s newsrooms, Moon found that their professional identity is dominated by a metanarrative in which they are untrustworthy, too powerful, and need to be reined in by other social institutions. This narrative stems from Rwandan journalists’ deeply rooted sense of complicity and guilt in helping foment the genocide of the 1990s. As a result, they’re treated extremely skeptically by audiences, sources, and policymakers, and in their eyes, they deserve it. It’s a haunting and fascinating picture of the power of negative discourse to shape professional identity in post-conflict journalism, fueled by collective guilt.

Legitimating a platform: Evidence of journalists’ role in transferring authority to Twitter by Logan Molyneux and Shannon C. McGregor, in Information, Communication & Society.

Over the past decade or so, researchers have spent a lot of time — seriously, a lot a lot — studying how journalists use Twitter. That focus has extended to how news organizations use Twitter as a source: How heavily they rely on ithow they verify it (or don’t)how they use it to quote politicians. But Molyneux and McGregor advance that line of research with a provocative argument. Journalists, they say, don’t approach Twitter as a source at all, something to be scrutinized. Instead, they treat it simply as content, an interchangeable, largely unquestioned building block of news.

Molyneux and McGregor (who’ve been looking at this for a while) argue that as they cite tweets in their stories, journalists use the tools they’ve long used to build their own authority to instead transfer that authority to Twitter, an external platform. In a content analysis of 365 articles citing tweets, they found that journalists rarely explain or qualify tweets, simply passing them along without evidence of journalistic processing. In doing so, journalists present Twitter as a news source whose legitimacy is self-evident enough not to need their validation or scrutiny, and they reduce their own authority to merely amplifying the algorithmic judgment of Twitter.

The tragedy of errors: Political ideology, perceived journalistic quality, and media trust by Tamar Wilner, Ryan Wallace, Ivan Lacasa-Mas, and Emily Goldstein, in Journalism Practice.

When audiences are asked why they don’t trust the news media, one of the major reasons they frequently give is accuracy: They say they don’t trust the news media because they regularly see errors in their work. But that response has drawn its own skepticism, as researchers have wondered whether what news consumers call “errors” are really just another form of perceived bias, heavily influenced by political ideology and the hostile media effect.

That’s the question that drives this study, as Wilner and her colleagues used a U.S. survey to look at the relationships between perceptions of various types of errors, media trust, political ideology, and news consumption. They found that economic conservatives perceive more errors in news, but not social conservatives. Overall, though, error perceptions didn’t seem closely tied to ideology.

Some types of perceived errors — inaccurate headlines, factual errors, and missing information — were significantly related to lower media trust, but strangely, those who perceived a lot of misspellings and grammar errors had more trust in the news media. Ultimately, while political ideology (specifically conservatism) was a greater driver of media distrust, errors played a significant role as well, and couldn’t simply be chalked up to partisan attitudes.

‘Forced to report’: Affective proximity and the perils of local reporting on Syria by Omar Al-Ghazzi, in Journalism.

When local or national conflicts escalate into issues that draw global concern, a complex power dynamic emerges between local journalists and the foreign correspondents who come in to cover the conflict. Al-Ghazzi’s study offers a nuanced look at that dynamic, and particularly the tensions at work for local journalists in those situations.

Drawing on 19 interviews with Syrian activist-journalists, Al-Ghazzi vividly illustrates the tug-of-war between those two roles. These media practitioners feel drawn into activism by their strong emotional connection to the place and the cause they are covering. But they also feel “forced to report” — to take on the journalistic norms of objectivity and neutrality in bearing witness, because of their lack of power relative to foreign journalists.

Al-Ghazzi centers on the concept of affective proximity to capture these dynamics. This proximity, he argues, is a form of emotional labor that rather perversely undermines local journalists’ authority rather than bolsters it. Proximity, he says, is “deemed the source of locals’ authority to take part in the news story but also what is held against them since they are deemed too attached to their countries and causes.”

The epistemologies of breaking news by Mats Ekström, Amanda Ramsälv, and Oscar Westlund, in Journalism Studies.

In the past decade, several researchers have sought to answer questions about how journalists balance accuracy and speed in reporting breaking news by looking at it through the lens of epistemology — how journalists establish knowledge about news and communicate it. Ekström and colleagues add a rich study to this line of research with their examination of the continuous news and live broadcast desk of a Swedish for-profit news organization.

In three weeks at the desk, the researchers observed a variety of strategies by which journalists dealt with an environment in which “reporters without much preparation and information are sent to report on events where not much happens.” In the process, Ekström and his co-authors found that journalists did care about accuracy, but developed routines to hedge against the uncertainty of their knowledge and the speed with which they might be proven wrong.

One particularly interesting concept they developed was epistemic dissonance, which occurs when a news item that journalists have structured as important turns out to be a non-story, or one that journalists can know very little about immediately. The authors outline the ways journalists grappled with epistemic dissonance in their coverage, but conclude that it inevitably erodes journalists’ authority by breaking their contract with the audience to produce reliable and proportionate news. (Full disclosure: Seth previously has worked with Ekström and Westlund on studies of journalism and epistemology.)

A photographer at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, by Elvert Barnes, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2021, 10:51 a.m.
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