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March 10, 2021, 7:28 a.m.

Caliphate shows us what performative transparency conceals

Plus: What audiences expect of journalists covering right-wing extremism, how people follow and avoid fear-inducing news, and a peek behind the paywall curtain at paying vs. free-trial subscribers.

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.

Caliphate and the limits of performative transparency

Transparency is one of those journalistic values that’s tough to argue against. It’s been championed in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, numerous academic studies, and waves of journalism discourse on social media and the conference circuit.

And there’s a lot to like about transparency. It can give the audience new insight into what has long been an unnecessarily opaque news production process, and at a time when trust in media is cratering, it can be an effective way to establish the authority of journalists’ methods.

But Gabriela Perdomo and Philippe Rodrigues-Rouleau argue that this strategic use of transparency to establish authority isn’t necessarily in service of good journalism. This “self-celebratory transparency,” they say, omits as much as it conceals, carefully constructing a form of faux-revelation that’s meant not so much to let the audience into the newsmaking process as to construct an appearance of legitimacy.

Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau, both scholars at the University of Ottawa, turned out to have picked a chef’s-kiss perfect example for this phenomenon: The New York Times’ Caliphate podcast, which was largely retracted in December after its main character was charged in Canada with lying about the narrative (becoming an executioner for the Islamic State) at the podcast’s heart.

For their new study in the journal Journalism, “Transparency as Metajournalistic Performance: The New York Times’ Caliphate Podcast and New Ways to Claim Journalistic Authority,” Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau conducted their analysis of Caliphate’s transparency strategies before that scandal emerged. But this fall’s revelations fit perfectly into the model of transparency they described — more a performance meant to reinforce the journalists’ cultural primacy as truth-tellers than an exercise in accountability or self-critique.

The authors broke down three different types of transparency performances in the podcast: revealing the journalistic process, constructing the reporter’s persona, and reaffirming the journalistic culture. They argue that the inclusion of bits of process, from sound checks to sorting through documents to tracking down a source, are meant to reinforce the hard work behind the journalistic process and set a boundary between themselves and interlopers. The construction of the reporter’s persona through emotion and personal anecdote are meant to humanize, authenticate, and soften the professional authority being established. And the reaffirmation of journalistic culture invokes professional standards at key moments to reassure audiences that Caliphate’s journalists belong to that culture and to allow them “to define the journalistic principles, norms and performances they wish to be judged by.”

Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau conclude that those elements add up to a strategy that purports to bring the Caliphate’s journalists closer to their audiences, but instead serves to elevate themselves above those audiences. Performative transparency does this, they argue, by reasserting the journalists’ expertise while concealing the type of narrow vision and lack of editorial oversight that ultimately doomed the project.

This study is not the first to take a skeptical view of journalists’ incorporation of transparency — others have made similar arguments — but Perdomo and Rodrigues-Rouleau add an important element to our understanding of how transparency is deployed. They make the case that journalists use transparency to access their own professional culture and reaffirm it both to justify their decisions to themselves and to establish their authority to the public.

Those strategies can be effective — at least they seemed that way for Caliphate for a while. But as the Caliphate case’s conclusion illustrates, their ultimate effectiveness in building authority “is out of the hands of those performing transparency,” the authors argue. “It is for the public — including other journalistic actors — to grant that authority.”

Research roundup

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

The news expectation predicament: Comparing and explaining what audiences expect from the roles and reporting practices of reporters on right-wing extremism. By Philip Baugut and Sebastian Scherr, in Journalism.

What do people expect of journalists? That question is at the heart of a long line of research and public discussion about journalism, expressed in works like Jay Rosen’s 1999 book What Are Journalists For?, and in research such as Paula Poindexter et al.’s 2006 study that explored whether local news consumers expected journalists to be a “watchdog” or a “good neighbor.”

Philip Baugut and Sebastian Scherr add an important dimension to this research in two ways: first, by examining audience expectations when it comes to news coverage of right-wing extremism, and, second, by doing so with a novel set of methods involving a representative sample of the German population in combination with an independent sample of Muslims living in Germany to identify potential differences in perceptions among the groups.

They find that Muslims, who are more likely to be threatened by right-wing extremists, “expect a more active role from journalists and even accept controversial reporting practices to combat right-wing extremism.” These controversial practices included disguising one’s identity, using wiretapped conversations, and paying or pressuring informants for information. But, as the authors note, “if journalists exclusively followed their Muslim audience’s expectations, they would run the risk of ignoring (non-Muslim) mainstream society’s expectations of a moderate and less active political role for journalism, thus putting journalists in a predicament in terms of role expectations.”

Meanwhile, like those in the Muslim sample, more left-leaning respondents also expressed an expectation for more controversial reporting practices, but that only went so far. Among left-leaning people who were afraid of right-wing extremism affecting them personally, they actually expressed a seemingly paradoxical desire for journalists to hold fast to their traditional approaches of reporting. “Among these more left individuals,” the authors write, “fear of terrorism seems to activate the argument that a democratic society should not give up its core principles, including the professional autonomy of its journalists and ethical reporting practices.”

Following and avoiding fear-inducing news topics: Fear intensity, perceived news topic importance, self-efficacy, and news overload. By Carin Tunney, Esther Thorson, and Weiyue Chen, in Journalism Studies.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans make sense of the world through mental models guiding emotional responses and behaviors, and these are adapted to circumstances over time and passed along through genes. One of the most important of these “modules” of thinking and reacting is based around fear, triggering how people attend to fear-inducing stimuli — which, in the case of news consumption, could be particularly distressing news about terrorism, pandemics, plane crashes, and the like. While fear can attract attention (we inherently want to understand the threats around us), it can also repel, as we turn away from particularly upsetting information. This may help explain, in part, the kind of “news avoidance” described in the research literature as a growing body of scholarship focuses on how and why people tune out news in the era of smartphones and social media.

Against this backdrop, Tunney and colleagues applied an evolutionary psychology approach to examining when people follow fear-inducing news issues and when they avoid them. The results of a U.S. national survey show that fear is an important factor in both following and avoiding behaviors, but “so is the perceived significance of the threat, perceived personal efficacy to cope with the threat, perceived news overload, and news consumption habits.” Unsurprisingly, one’s sense of fear is strongly associated with news avoidance, even if fear appears to be mostly unrelated to one’s following fear-inducing topics such as news coverage of mass shootings. “This suggests that fear fails to affect following scary topics,” the authors note, “but it strongly increases avoiding them, which may explain why people report increased news avoidance.”

But Tunney and colleagues offer a new wrinkle to the study of news avoidance, the research around which suggests that there are heavy news users and light news users and that avoidance, naturally, is more often prominent among the latter. In this study, though, it was the heavy news consumers who reported both following and avoiding fear-inducing topics, which might suggest that these people are more aware of and intentional about how they seek out or steer clear of news depending on the issue.

Audiences behind the paywall: News navigation among established versus newly added subscribers. By Ingela Wadbring and Lovisa Bergström, in Digital Journalism.

A key problem has afflicted scholarly research on news audiences: Media organizations and analytics companies like Chartbeat have truckloads of data about how people behave on their sites — how long they spend, what they read, what they share, etc. — and yet very little of this information is ever shared with academic researchers, for reasons involving privacy, proprietary secrets, and the lack of trust that too often exists between the industry and the academy in journalism.

It’s refreshing to see, then, how Ingela Wadbring and Lovisa Bergström were able to peek behind the paywall curtain and offer an important study of audience activity among subscribers by drawing on commercial data not usually available to researchers (“traffic data generated from tracking scripts and stored in Amazon Redshift”).

The results, based on a case study of the Swedish national quality newspaper Dagens Nyheter, are rather clear: Whether someone pays for a subscription or is taking advantage of a free trial offer makes a big difference. “Readers with a paid subscription show a higher degree of activity, greater involvement, and more varied usage than do newly added readers with a free subscription, independent of age.” By contrast, subscribers on free offers show a lower degree of activity, and this is particularly true among younger people.

And, given the growing interest these days in understanding the nature of subscriber “churn” as news organizations seek to maximize reader revenue amid declining support from advertising, this study offers at least one key clue: Transitioning trial subscribers into paid subscribers requires helping them establish a habit of regular news reading activity early on; a low degree of activity almost certainly means they will drop off when the trial runs out. This is not especially surprising, of course, and yet it underscores the precarity of trying to make news business models work in an era of rapidly expanding subscription expectations and competition across apps, streaming platforms, and other media services.

Journalists on Covid-19 journalism: Communication ecology of pandemic reporting. By Mildred F. Perreault and Gregory P. Perreault, in American Behavioral Scientist.

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, we can take a moment to reflect on how all of our lives have changed in the past 12 months. For journalists, as for many of us, day-to-day routines have been adapted to fit work-at-home constraints, even as restrictions begin to ease in various states and regions. But beyond emptying out newsrooms and upending the logistics of making news, how has the pandemic influenced the wider “discursive construction” of journalism — that is, the way in which journalists talk about their work, situate themselves relative to others in society, and articulate the essence of what they do to (and for) the public?

This study explores this question by examining how journalists talk about covering Covid-19, based on interviews conducted in the early and later phases of the pandemic in combination with a close reading of trade-press accounts (which, in full disclosure, included some articles in Nieman Lab, where this newsletter is republished). In particular, the authors used the framework of “disaster communication ecology” and focused on “how journalists discursively constructed their ecological relationships during the Covid-19 pandemic (with sources, their communities, information, and personal networks) as well as how they placed themselves within the ecology in relation to crisis information.”

Taking this ecological approach, the authors emphasize the multi-faceted nature of journalists’ path through the pandemic — from the personal vulnerability and fear they experienced to shifts in how they managed sources to the heightened struggles to combat misinformation. For example, the study found that journalists “saw the pandemic as laying bare the endangered nature of journalism, which was a result of pressure from access to sources as well as market forces. This jeopardized journalists’ ability to fulfill their responsibility to society.”

At the same time, though, journalists felt a renewed sense of personal responsibility to provide the public health information that would keep people safe, and to do so against skepticism and misinformation. To be a journalist during Covid-19, one of the interviewees put it, is “to stump for the truth and to stump for critical thinking and to try to teach the importance of those things.” Moreover, the authors describe how journalists imagined their work in relation to that of other experts seeking to communicate clearly and authoritatively amid the crisis. “Journalists remind each other that they must be scientific in their process,” the authors write, “just as the scientists and doctors are with the disease.”

The promoter, celebrity, and joker roles in journalists’ social media performance. By Claudia Mellado and Alfred Hermida, in Social Media + Society.

At the mention of “journalistic ego,” one might think of a particularly puffed-up anchor or celebrity journalist. But in this study, Claudia Mellado and Alfred Hermida describe this notion in light of scientific notions of the “self,” and how we come to develop an opinion about ourselves and our importance in the world. We each perform that self, or that ego, for others through carefully crafted presentations. Perhaps nowhere is one’s self-image more assiduously staged than on social media, which, in this case, provide a space for individual journalists to show their identities (or ego) more readily than they can do so via traditional media forms.

Taking the “journalistic ego” as a starting point, Mellado and Hermida offer a useful framework for examining and measuring how journalists perform three distinct roles on social media: promotercelebrity, and joker. “While these roles are independent, they can overlap in practice, allowing journalists to perform multiple roles simultaneously. They can also be present alongside more traditional professional roles that can be expressed on social media, with journalists switching or combining roles depending on the circumstances and the specific moment in time.”

The role dimensions that Mellado and Hermida propose can be used in future research to examine patterns in how journalists use social media, even down to “the presence of specific performances within a single social media post.” For example, consider how social media is increasingly understood as an “influencer economy”; as such, they say, “it is important to investigate whether and how far established journalism is losing ground to influencer-driven information, and what this means for how audiences receive, interpret, and trust content on social media. Such research would help to identify how established journalistic practices are shaped or are shaping an influencer-driven media space, as well as considering the consequences on journalistic practices.”

Photo by Andreea Crainic on Unsplash.

POSTED     March 10, 2021, 7:28 a.m.
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