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July 26, 2022, 9:31 a.m.

How the wealthiest 0.1% view the media (and why it matters)

Plus: A more nuanced picture of misinformation on less-moderated platforms like Telegram, and a strategy for how journalists can transform “fake news” attacks into teaching moments for news literacy.

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 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.

Strategic media avoidance by the ultra-wealthy

Few subjects have captivated both journalism critics and scholars over the past half-century like the ability for powerful individuals to influence the news media. Much of our attention in this area goes to politicians and media owners, as characters like Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch have flaunted their ability to steer media priorities toward their interests. The research on political and ownership influence has been robust for decades, too.

The public often talks about the role of the ultra-wealthy more generally in shaping news, but that group is much less understood by scholars. Sure, there are several of the richest people in many societies who make their feelings about media well known, and often eventually work to buy or financially support media sources or initiatives (see Bezos, JeffMusk, ElonNewmark, Craig). But the large majority of the world’s wealthiest people tend to keep their views of the media (and their strategies for it) to themselves.

So how do they actually interact with the news media? Given their reticence, that’s been a tough question for scholars to answer. But two Finnish scholars, Anu Kantola and Juho Vesa, have given us some of the most direct data yet on this issue, in their new study in the European Journal of Communication, “Silence of the wealthy: How the wealthiest 0.1% avoid the media and resort to hidden strategies of advocacy.”

Kantola and Vesa interviewed 90 of the 5,000 richest people in Finland — the wealthiest 0.1% — using tax records and other public data to identify them. They zeroed in on three groups of wealthy elites: business executives, entrepreneurs, and heirs.

They built their study around the concept of mediatization — an idea that has been especially popular in European news scholarship over the past decade or two — which holds that the media’s power to shape social and political processes is growing, requiring public actors (like politicians and businesspeople) to adapt their behavior to a ‘media logic.’ In other words, if the media increasingly run the game, other sectors are being forced to change to play by their rules.

That premise would seem to entail that the ultra-wealthy need to increasingly use media to influence society. But Kantola and Vesa found the opposite at work. Most of the people they interviewed remained reserved toward the media, expressing a desire to stay invisible. They tended to view media logic as sensationalistic, motivated by clicks, politically hostile and biased against them — in other words, they saw the media a lot like the rest of the public does.

But unlike the rest of the public, they didn’t feel they needed the media in order to see their interests advanced. They saw it as irrelevant and unhelpful: “I don’t know what I’d do there” and “no need to share anything with a larger group of people at all” were typical quotes. And perhaps most centrally, they saw the news media as uncontrollable, with most of its possible effects strongly negative for them, such as political scandals.

In its place, they largely relied on direct advocacy to influence politics — calling well-placed friends and serving on the boards of lobbying groups rather than backing media campaigns or astroturf efforts. There were exceptions, of course — notably, executives of consumer-facing businesses — but these were rare.

These findings, Kantola and Vesa argued, don’t undermine mediatization’s basic claim: These wealthy elites still saw the news media as salient and powerful, which was why they were so wary of it. They simply saw its power only playing out in negative ways for them. In most cases, their astronomical wealth bought them not so much the ability to manipulate the media as the privilege to ignore it.

Research roundup

“Misinformation and professional news on largely unmoderated platforms: The case of Telegram.” By Aliaksandr Herasimenka, Jonathan Bright, Aleksi Knuutila, and Philip N. Howard, in Journal of Information Technology & Politics.

Misinformation on social media and digital platforms is such a sprawling challenge — hard to grasp in its entirety because it may be so context-dependent by place and platform (e.g., when it comes to encouraging conspiracy theories). And while ample attention has been paid to the Facebooks and Twitters of the world, only in recent years has scrutiny shifted to more alternative, niche apps and services where misinformation has been presumed to thrive more readily, in the absence of greater moderation oversight.

Such is the case of Telegram, which by various estimates has more than 500 million users (bigger than Twitter) and which has become in several countries a leading source of news sharing and discussion. Telegram has been known as a haven for far-right extremist groups, and, like other apps of its ilk (such as Gab and Parler), has less developed or less stringent forms of content moderation.

But the researchers in this study wanted to know more precisely: How big of a problem, really, is misinformation on Telegram compared to the spread of professional news on the platform?

The results, based on an examination of 200,000 Telegram posts, came as something of a surprise.

“Rather than finding that Telegram is simply awash with misinformation,” the authors write, “our analysis instead suggests a more nuanced picture, showing how a largely unmoderated platform has been integrated into professional media ecologies where leading media organizations appear to be able to compete for wider audiences with misleading sources and to win this competition. We show that trusted professional news content can dominate political information compared to sources that occasionally spread misleading content even when moderation is minimal.”

“‘It’s not hate but…’: Marginal categories in rural journalism.” By Gregory Perreault, Ruth Moon, Jessica Fargen Walsh, and Mildred F. Perreault, in Journalism Practice.

The state of rural journalism in the U.S. has received more attention lately amid concerns about “news deserts” and diminishing resources for journalism in many communities, particularly rural ones. These structural challenges for rural news organizations are complicating efforts by journalists to provide vitally important news and civic information — perhaps “the only nuanced local coverage [that] community members will encounter,” as this study notes.

This study by Perreault and colleagues adds a novel dimension to this line of research by examining how rural journalists navigate the tricky business of covering hate groups and hate activity in their communities. Amid growing concern about extremist hate groups in the United States, including in rural areas where hate activity may tend to be higher, how do journalists deal with this complicated aspect of reporting?

The authors describe how, for the journalists they interviewed, “hate speech” operates as a kind of “boundary object” — something with a widely agreed-upon meaning, and yet also with a high degree of localized interpretation.

“The journalists we interviewed articulated a clear definition for hate speech but struggled to apply that definition to the events they articulated within their communities,” Perreault and team write. “Using the common refrain of ‘We don’t have any hate groups, but … ,‘ journalists nevertheless articulated acts of hate in their communities, which were not always associated explicitly with hate groups.”

Being more closely connected to their audiences, rural journalists were more reluctant to label such people and activities in their communities as hate — at least in part because of the fear of repercussion that would arise from such declarations in coverage. Indeed, as the authors note, “Journalists in some cases felt pressure from their audience to apply false balance in their work through labeling groups like Black Lives Matter as a hate group.”

Why the media gets it wrong when it comes to North Korea: Cases of ‘dead’ North Koreans in the Kim Jong-un era.” By Soomin Seo, in Journalism.

When it comes to prominent North Koreans and how they are portrayed in global news media, at least this much is clear: the reports of their deaths are, at times, greatly exaggerated.

Since Kim Jong-un rose to power in 2012, this study notes, “Major outlets have reported that generals, diplomats, and artists have been shot, poisoned, or even fed to dogs. However, many of those individuals later emerged very much alive.” What might explain these all-too-frequent journalistic errors, particularly at a time when the resources for reporting on faraway places that journalists may never visit are presumably better than ever?

Seo’s study examines the ultimately erroneous death reports of seven high-profile North Koreans between 2012 and 2019, through a combination of tracing the evolution of these news stories as well as reconstructing them through interviews with journalists.

The study found “a widespread practice to ‘report first, verify later,’ seeing North Korea as unworthy of proper journalistic scrutiny” because of its role as a despotic regime defying international norms. “Such relaxation of basic journalistic standards,” Seo writes, “meant journalists would quote each other’s stories without additional verification, contributing to a global cascade of errors. The violation of basic professional principles extended all the way to the absence of corrections.” What’s more, the “clicks and revenue generated by salacious North Korea-related stories make them especially susceptible to distortion.”

“Maintaining a freelance career: How journalists generate and evaluate freelance work.” By Maria Norbäck, in Journalism Studies.

From a career perspective, journalistic work has become increasingly “precarious.” Think: the shift from longer-term, full-time positions to a growing array of shorter-term, part-time, freelance-based contracts, in addition to the heightened intensification of the work cycle and its associated stress and burnout.

As a result, growing numbers of freelance journalists are working harder to make ends meet — but “more research is needed on how freelance journalists negotiate precarity to maintain a career, and on how career progression can be achieved.”

Norbäck’s article offers a useful window into these dynamics. Based on interviews with 52 Swedish freelancers, it illustrates the stunted career possibilities for the average freelance journalist. “There are a limited number of ways for senior, established freelancers to progress to more strategic, complex, or qualified jobs,” the author writes. “Hence, the freelancer’s position along the production chain, where he/she has little strategic control over the content being produced, made it difficult to achieve career progression over time.”

Instead, the study found that most freelance journalists had to settle for an emphasis on “networking, bundling jobs, and being a jack of all trades,” with some freelancers finding enhanced career progression opportunities, in terms of more strategic and better-compensated work, by working as an editor. As such, the author concludes that “much of what the freelancers did to source, generate and evaluate their jobs could be described as career maintenance, whereby their focus and efforts were directed at avoiding a downward movement rather than achieving upward mobility.”

The study wraps up by considering how the Covid pandemic exacerbated inequalities for freelancers (e.g., many national relief programs did not include them) and why it remains difficult for freelancers to achieve greater power through collective action.

“An ‘assumption of bad faith’: Using fake news rhetoric to create journalistic teaching moments.” By Kelsey R. Mesmer, in Journalism Practice.

Journalists have long encountered hostility from sources, strangers, and a host of others, but anti-press conditions, including in supposedly “safe” places for journalists like the U.S., have worsened dramatically in recent years. This is, in part, because populist politicians like Trump have normalized attacks against journalists as “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.” Even worse, of course, is the epidemic of violence against journalists in Mexico, as well as similar assaults by authoritarian regimes around the world.

Amid this rising tide of hate toward the news media, this study examines how journalists respond to this social climate. Mesmer focuses particularly on the experiences of 38 U.S.-based journalists who frequently find themselves on the receiving end of anti-media rhetoric from the sources they approach for stories. How do these reporters negotiate these encounters and seek to manage such lack of trust?

Mesmer discovered that journalists tend to use one of three strategies: “reframing the situation by flipping the fake news script in their favor and/or choosing to use hostile content to color their stories; accepting the distrust as part of their new normal on the job and disengaging with it whenever possible; and transforming the situation by reframing the distrust as an opportunity for journalistic teaching moments.”

The “teaching moments” strategy is the most adaptive and intriguing approach, and it points to some interesting implications for journalists.

For example, the author finds that reporters employing this approach tended to have a ready “script” they could draw on to explain to skeptical sources how news works. Such a script would include “a description of the story being reported, a brief list of the type of people being interviewed for the story, an explanation of how the interview would be conducted (audio recorded or on video), what is required of the source to be interviewed (such as their name, demographic information and consent to be on the record) and a disclaimer that only a short part of their interview may make it into the final version of the story,” among other things.

By creating these journalistic moments, Mesmer argues, journalists might begin to slowly transform the climate of mistrust they encounter, one source at a time — and, in the process, introduce a degree of news literacy into the conversation that is lacking in many communities.

“Although this strategy requires more time and effort on the part of the reporter,” the author writes, “it has the potential to create long-term change. Sources who have a positive experience with a reporter might be more likely to speak to future reporters. They may also develop more positive feelings about the press, which they might share with others who believe in fake news rhetoric.”

An RQ1 read: Journalism, Data and Technology in Latin America, edited by Ramón Salaverría and Mathias-Felipe de-Lima-Santos

This is part of an occasional series of summaries by RQ1 readers of notable recent books on news and journalism. This month’s summary is from Olga Lopes, a researcher at Instituto Nacional do Semiárido in Brazil who recently completed a master’s degree in journalism at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina. If there’s a recent research-oriented book on news or journalism that you’d like to write about, let us know!

“We are what we do, especially what we do to change what we are,” wrote Eduardo Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. A deep dive into the state of the journalism practiced in that particular region, often overlooked or incorrectly homogenized by Western scholarship tradition, is the subject of Journalism, Data and Technology in Latin America, edited by Ramón Salaverría and Mathias-Felipe de-Lima-Santos, part of the Palgrave Studies in Journalism and the Global South book series.

Besides the editors, other five authors present, in eight chapters, investigations based on surveys, semi-structured interviews, and case studies covering topics like audience participation, revenue sources diversification, the strategic value of collaborative transnational projects in efforts to dodge censorship, and distribution systems adapted to citizens deeply reliant on restricted mobile internet access.

While discussing the challenges that emerge from the adoption of technology-driven practices, like automated journalism and the use of social media platforms to reach a broader audience, the researchers examine the intersections between past and present economic inequalities, which is refreshing to see being done considering internal power dynamics.

The book offers an overview of the diversity of media landscapes and journalistic cultures across some of Latin America’s countries and, simultaneously, highlights common traits shared by them, such as the prevalence of media ownership concentration and constant violations of press freedom principles. Understanding all of these tensions helps us to see journalism “as it is,” besides the pursuit of an ideal practice, in all its possibilities, disputes, and contradictions.

Photo of a yacht in Monaco by Marc Barot used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 26, 2022, 9:31 a.m.
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