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Nov. 16, 2021, 10:41 a.m.

Journalism internships are an education — in precarious work

Plus: What the shift to social media means for local news, how journalists imagine their professional autonomy, and how right-wing protests may be legitimated by coverage.

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.

A note before we start: We want to write about books, too, and we need your help! We’re interested in including short summaries of books based on academic research into news and journalism, and we’d love to have our readers contribute. So if you’ve read an academic book on news or journalism that’s come out in the past year or two — not your own — that you’d like to tell others about by writing a short summary, please let us know!

Internship as entryway into a merciless profession

Journalism has plenty of rites of passage — many journalists remember their first job on a beat covering far-flung local government meetings, or perhaps more commonly these days, doing quick-turnaround aggregation. But perhaps none is as ubiquitous as the internship. It’s become almost obligatory throughout Western journalism culture, and many young journalists go through two or more before they land more permanent employment or strike off on their own as freelancers.

Internships can be places where young journalists gain crucial experience that can’t be replicated in the classroom, and begin relationships that pay off for decades in guidance and career advancement. But as many have noted in recent years, it’s also a major part of the way the news industry perpetuates homogeneity and elitism, by creating a pipeline to top jobs for students at elite universities and shutting out others from less privileged backgrounds.

As Mirjam Gollmitzer, a researcher at Université de Montréal, argues in her new Journalism Studies article, “Laboring in journalism’s crowded, precarious entryway: Perceptions of journalism interns,” scholars have often viewed journalism internships as key sites of socialization into the professional norms and values of journalism. This, as scholars typically see it, is where journalists gain access to the tacit knowledge of journalism’s “community of practice” in exchange for low (or no) pay and transient employment.

Gollmitzer has a darker read on what happening sociologically in internships. As she argues, interns’ low/no pay, uncertain status, and long hours aren’t something exchanged for socialization; they are the socialization. That is, internships serve to reinforce to interns the marginal and precarious nature of employment in the industry they’re about to enter. And interns are being acclimated to these journalistic labor conditions all while they grind out their internships in the hope that they’ll lead someday to stable and satisfying jobs.

Gollmitzer bases these conclusions on interviews with 10 young journalists in Canada and Germany who have each completed at least two internships. It’s a relatively small sample, but yields some rich data and fascinating insights. She finds interns who are starved for mentorship and training, with their experiences marred by haphazard interactions with time-strapped colleagues and arbitrary decisions by supervisors. This, she argues, limits the effectiveness of the “community of practice” socialization model for internships, since there often isn’t enough structure for them to meaningfully socialized into journalism’s community norms and values.

Instead, what they’re left with is invitations to self-exploitation, as they assign themselves difficult tasks to fulfill vague employer expectations. “The tacit assumption,” she writes, “is that workers, not employers, are tasked with making the internship a success.” Interns are forced to rely on their own resources to make it through, whether it’s a side job, a car (sometimes without reimbursed expenses), or parents’ help with rent. Lack of access to these resources only widens the already gaping socioeconomic divide between some interns and the industry they hope to enter.

Gollmitzer draws on the concepts of “hope labor” and “aspirational labor” to explain why interns accept such conditions. Stuck in a crowded, demanding entryway to their desired profession, interns hang on because they hope the experience will get them better jobs that have higher pay and greater security. But what Gollmitzer says they’re actually learning in their internships is how to get used to the type of industry conditions in which those desired work situations may never come. It’s a bracing picture of what early careers look like in a creative industry in economic tumult.

Research Roundup

“Is social media killing local news? An examination of engagement and ownership patterns in U.S. community news on Facebook.” By Benjamin Toff and Nick Mathews, in Digital Journalism.

Local news in the United States is in dire straits: even some three-quarters of Americans say they pay attention to local news coverage at least somewhat closely, the supply of (and funding support for) quality local news is rapidly dwindling in many places, leading to “news deserts” in some especially underserved communities. And even while social media open new pathways for news delivery, allowing local news organizations to reach audiences where they are these days, the reality is that the average time spent with news on such platforms is a mere fraction of the total time people spend with digital media.

This study from Toff and Mathews is motivated by a desire to better understand the two forces that are presumed to be driving this diminishment of local news: first, the impact of increasing consolidation in media ownership; and, second, the influence that digital platforms and their economic incentives may have in driving editorial decision-making away from local coverage — or what some have called the “Facebook problem” or the “platformization of news.”

The authors, using a dataset of 2.4 million Facebook posts produced by local U.S. news organizations in 2018 and 2019, found evidence that both forces contribute to shaping how much (and what type of) local news circulates online. For example, they discovered that news organizations owned by publicly traded companies, in comparison to other kinds of local news organizations, are the most active on Facebook and generally are rewarded with more audience engagement.

Incidentally, though, it’s those same news outlets owned by chains and conglomerates that are more likely to post repurposed content, including wire service material, which suggests they may be substituting national content for local fare. What’s more, the study found that “particular types of content — namely national, ‘hard news’ stories — generate relatively higher rates of online engagement, all else equal, compared to local, ‘soft news’ stories, potentially disincentivizing posts about local affairs.” In sum, ownership matters, but so does the unique metric-driven nature of the social media platforms themselves, each of these factors shaping the relative quality and circulation of civically valuable local news and information.

“‘I know which devil I write for’: Two types of autonomy among Czech journalists remaining in and leaving the prime minister’s newspapers.” By Johana Kotisova and Lenka W. Císařová, in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

Speaking of media ownership, when news organizations go through particularly jarring changes at the top — ones with thorny political implications to boot — how do journalists respond? To what extent do they perceive a challenge to their autonomy as journalists, or their ability to act with the independence that is essential for journalism to function?

This study explored two rather different understandings of professional autonomy through a case study of Mafra, a Czech media house bought in 2013 by Andrej Babiš, who several years later the Czech prime minister. The authors interviewed 20 journalists — half of whom stayed with the media house after the acquisition and half who chose to leave.

From the interviews, it became apparent that the two decisions — to stay or to go — reflect two different ideas about autonomy: autonomy-as-a-practice and autonomy-as-a-value. Importantly, this wasn’t an issue of people getting different treatment. As the authors write, “The leavers were neither subjected to influence from the owner more than the remainers nor were the remainers isolated from it. The two groups’ experiences did not differ: both the groups knew that the owner (directly) or his people (indirectly) at times tried to interfere in the newswork.”

So, why did some leave and some stay? It seemed to turn, the authors found, on how the journalists imagined and attempted to enact a sense of autonomy. “The remainers stressed individual, practically construed autonomy and were ready to stand up for it.” Autonomy, for them, was an individual matter and could be engaged even within challenging organizational settings. By contrast, the leavers “valued a more general and abstract notion of autonomy as a principle that distinguishes ‘good’ journalism from ‘bad’ journalism … and their walkouts were gestures of protecting it.”

“News you can use to promote your interests: Media ownership forms and economic instrumentalism.” By Timothy Neff and Rodney Benson, in Journalism Studies.

Continuing a theme of media ownership this month, this next study argues that while ownership arrangements have often been studied, relatively little attention has been paid to a particular aspect of news coverage: “economic instrumentalism.” This type of coverage, the authors say, “directly or indirectly advances the economic interests of the owner, top investors, and allied companies and individuals to the potential detriment of the public.”

In effect, Neff and Benson sought to understand how different forms of media ownership might be connected to the relative frequency and positivity of mentions about owners, donors, and other allied business interests.

Through a sample of 19 U.S. news organizations that allowed them to compare promotional forms of economic instrumentalism, the authors discovered several key things. For one, stock market conglomerate-owned media show off more frequent (and more flattering) promotional economic instrumentalism. But there are exceptions: “Similar to previous studies, CBS, a relatively small conglomerate with an illustrious professional history, mentions and praises its owners far less than almost any other outlet in our sample.”

They also found that competition may provide “a critical counterweight to promotional economic instrumentalism.” As they point out: “Our quantitative and qualitative comparisons of MinnPost–Minneapolis Star Tribune and The New York Times–Washington Post suggest that competing outlets bring to light aspects of their competitor’s ownership that might otherwise remain hidden. Diversity of ownership forms may increase the critical scrutiny provided by competition.”

Finally, this bit of context they note is important to remember: on a day-to-day basis, owners are hardly mentioned at all, and less than 10% of those mentions are positive. And yet… “a few well-timed, prominently placed, and positive mentions may be enough to achieve economically instrumentalist goals.”

“When the right protests: How journalists cover conservative movements.” By Rachel R. Mourão, in Journalism Practice.

Research on how journalists cover social movements and protests has long found that the news media’s norms and routines generally lead to patterns of press coverage that delegitimize activists by disproportionately highlighting spectacle and violence and by defaulting to official viewpoints as compared to more carefully acknowledging marginalized perspectives. This pattern is so enduring that it has been called the “protest paradigm.”

Mourão’s study offers a twist by asking: When, how, and why might protest coverage actually aid in the legitimation of a movement — for example, when a movement takes on a return-to-authoritarianism tone? With the aim of understanding how reporters in the Global South cover right-wing demonstrations, at a moment when conservative populist/nationalist movements are growing around the world, Mourão focused on the case of Brazil.

Through a mixture of methods, combining content analysis and interviews with journalists reflecting on the coverage, this study found three conditions that led to news legitimization of right-wing protests: (1) the movement fit within a broader political clash between elites; (2) it was “sympathetic to the state’s repressive apparatus”; and (3) it had clear leadership and identity. “These conditions, which favor right-wing demands,” the author writes, “drove legitimizing coverage even when reporters viewed the movement with skepticism.”


“Artificial intelligence practices in everyday news production: The case of South Africa’s mainstream newsrooms.”
By Allen Munoriyarwa, Sarah Chiumbu, and Gilbert Motsaathebe, in Journalism Practice.

Many newsrooms in North America and Western Europe are adopting forms of artificial intelligence or at least dabbling in what AI might do to automate or argument reporting practices and news products. This has contributed to various debates what all of this means for journalists’ roles in relation to machines, or the extent to which news audiences are aware of — and put their trust in — AI-generated content. But this discussion has largely overlooked whether or how AI has been appropriated by news organizations in Africa or other regions in the Global South.

This study, based on interviews with journalists and editors, found a varied but nevertheless discernible and methodical uptick in the use of AI in South African newsrooms (though, not surprisingly, such technologies were limited to the largest and best-resourced organizations). There is accompanying concern among journalists: “This ‘AI-phobia’ is driven by fear of job losses, ethical issues around AI, its efficacy in the democratic process and the costs of adopting AI for newsrooms in Africa.”

While those sentiments are similar to ones expressed by journalists in other (Global North) studies examining the roll-out of automation and AI in newsrooms, the authors in this case note a key difference in the South African context: Journalists there link the appropriation of AI with their ability to contribute to democracy and accountability, raising important questions about whether (or how) developments in AI help or hinder the democracy-furthering work of journalism.

“Debates about AI in newsrooms,” the authors conclude, “should factor in the peculiar role of journalism in emerging democracies and the unique difficulties of their trade in the Global South.”

Photo by Derek Bruff used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 16, 2021, 10:41 a.m.
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