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Aug. 23, 2022, 12:43 p.m.

Which news audiences are underserved?

Plus: How news organizations work to repair their histories of racism, media criticism on TikTok, and what news consumers think about fact-checking

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.

There has been no shortage of concern lately about the state of local news.

In booksresearch, and policy briefs, a number of key questions have emerged: Are people’s vital information needs being met at a time when news media in some communities are closing and others are retrenching? What are the impacts of “news deserts,” where people have little access to trusted sources of local information, and how are such gaps manifest in urban as well as rural places? How can we really know whether journalism, the kind believed to be essential to healthy communities and democratic well-being, is broadly available to the people who need it most?

At the same time, we’ve seen experimentation in producing and funding news through digital-only startups, nonprofit initiatives, and the like. To what extent might these efforts help make up for shortfalls in news on key issues as traditional media shrink or disappear? And how does the picture look when we consider how well such news reaches equitably across different types of audiences in a given community?

We get a rather interesting answer to these questions in a new study in the Journal of Communication. The authors — Timothy Neff, Pawel Popiel, and Victor Pickard — develop what they describe as a multi-dimensional approach for evaluating local media systems (i.e., discernible media markets like Chicago, Miami, etc.), with the goal of identifying “potential gaps in news provision, especially among socioeconomically marginalized communities.”

The authors do a deep dive into the greater Philadelphia media market. As the authors note, this is a market with ample experimentation with news models in recent years, but it’s also an area with news outlets that historically chased wealthy suburban residents at the expense of urban audiences.

In the Philly market, the researchers identified 89 print, television, radio, and digital-only outlets — a mixture of “mass-oriented outlets prominent across the city and niche-oriented outlets serving specific geographic or social groups.” To keep the data analysis more manageable and relevant, however, they dropped radio, low-power TV, and smaller affiliate stations, and focused on a final grouping of 38 outlets that represented a combination of ownership types that served a variety of mass and niche audiences. They analyzed these outlets on several dimensions: e.g., the size and socioeconomics of each outlet’s audience, the level of staffing at each news organization, and the nature of the outlet’s news platform (“more recent digital-only entrants in the media system vs. older, legacy outlets that generally combine platforms such as print, broadcast, and digital”).

To assess whether these news organizations fulfill the kind of “critical information needs” that previous research has identified as being the most essential, the authors conducted a content analysis of what these outlets produced in spring-summer 2021, seeking to evaluate how much the news organizations focused on Covid-19 coverage relative to coverage of crime incidents, “taking a higher ratio of COVID-19 to crime coverage as an indicator of a stronger focus on an unarguably critical information need for Philadelphia’s communities, including socioeconomically marginalized communities.” (The authors describe how an over-emphasis on individual crime incidents has been shown to be counterproductive for communities, particularly for marginalized groups.)

Overall, this analysis of Philly-based news producers — their content and their audiences — offers a sobering look at the state of affairs in journalism.

The authors write: “Findings indicate that Philadelphia’s news media system underserves communities with lower levels of income and education and that this structural gap generates a measurable gap in the provision of news content meeting the critical information needs of these communities.”

The researchers point to a few caveats: their findings are limited to a subset of news outlets in greater Philadelphia, and they could not measure some demographic variables for the city’s major TV affiliates. But the general finding is still highly significant: the data “paint a multi-dimensional portrait of Philadelphia’s media system that strongly suggests that differences in audience size and staffing levels, ownership structures (commercial vs. noncommercial), and format (print vs. television vs. digital-only) together work to underserve socioeconomically marginalized populations.”

What’s more, their results point to a possible concern — one warranting further research — about what they call “digital news deserts.” These are situations where “online-only outlets devote their already small staffs to reaching the same higher socioeconomic audiences served by large, legacy outlets and online-only outlets reaching lower socioeconomic audiences lack the capacity to significantly change this broader trend.”

As for the news content provided, the researchers found that more affluent and older audiences tended to receive proportionally more Covid-19 coverage, while less affluent, less educated, and younger audiences encountered a stronger emphasis on breaking-news crime coverage.

Finally, on the question of whether ownership has an impact on critical information needs, the study finds that “public-funded and nonprofit media produce more COVID-19 coverage relative to crime stories than their commercial counterparts.” In particular, the authors point out that hedge fund ownership, which has been criticized for a “vulture capitalism” approach that drains journalism resources for profit rather than public service, and other forms of private investment are associated with low ratios of pandemic vs. crime coverage.

In all, these findings may not be all that surprising — and yet they provide important empirical weight to arguments that there are concerning inequalities in news provision that need attention. More concerning still, these results suggest that such gaps and disparities can emerge even in metropolitan areas with “robust and thriving” media systems like Philadelphia’s.

Research roundup

“Journalism as historical repair work: addressing present injustice through the second draft of history” by Nikki Usher and Matt Carlson in Journal of Communication.

American journalism’s history of racism and exclusion is a long and ugly one, and against the backdrop of recent racial justice protests and reforms, many publications have apologized for and revisited the injustices done by their historical coverage (or sometimes lack thereof). Some Southern newspapers began interrogating their own racist pasts in the 2000s, but the number and depth of these apologies has accelerated in recent years.

Usher and Carlson take a deep dive into these re-interrogations, dubbing them “second draft of history” journalism and examining three prominent cases at The New York Times (The 1619 Project), the Los Angeles Times, and The Kansas City Star. Second draft of history journalism, they argue, is set apart from other journalistic attempts to revisit the past and shape collective memory by being “deliberate and explicit in its effort to address past harms in the public record” — a more advocacy-oriented approach that challenges journalism’s dominant mode of presentism and neutrality.

Usher and Carlson identify four components of second draft of history journalism: discursive consciousness (a belief that discourses have power to shape reality), moral consciousness (a belief that ideas and practices that were once considered acceptable now aren’t), institutional consciousness (a sense of collective responsibility for these moral failings as an organization), and past-orientation. They show how each of their three case studies embody these characteristics while ranging in approach from active (re-reporting the past) to reflective (looking inward at the organization’s failings).

They find places where these kinds of components of second draft of history journalism clash with journalistic norms of objectivity and smoothing over past oversights rather than highlighting them. But on the whole, they find that this emergent practice is aiming to accomplish one of the same primary tasks that virtually all of journalism is doing — casting itself (in this case, by “repairing” the past) as a legitimate authority to help society define reality.

“Questioning fact-checking in the fight against disinformation: An audience perspective” by Maria Kyriakidou, Stephen Cushion, Ceri Hughes, and Marina Morani in Journalism Practice.

Journalistic fact-checking has waxed and waned in popularity over the past decade, alternatively being celebrated as a check on political obfuscation and pilloried as an ineffectual default to moderatism. Researchers have published dozens of studies aiming to determine precisely how useful fact-checking is, with mixed and nuanced results. The upshot: Fact-checking can help correct mistaken political beliefs, but with a lot of limiting factors — audiences’ pre-existing beliefs, ideology, and knowledge; and fact-checkers’ truth scales, equivocal rulings, and reliance on campaign claims. In particular, conservatives tend to be more resistant to fact-checking than liberals and progressives.

But there are a couple of key limitations in many of the existing studies on fact-checking, which Kyriakidou and her colleagues at Wales’ Cardiff University identified. They’re heavy on the U.S. context, with its low media trust and highly politicized opinions about the media. And they overwhelmingly rely on experiments, which rarely take into account how people encounter fact-checking in their daily lives.

Kyriakidou & Co. sought to fill in these gaps with a study of U.K. news consumers through 14 focus groups and two qualitative surveys, gauging their attitudes toward, and practical use of, fact-checking operations. First, the bad news: Participants rarely used — and were seldom even familiar with — the fact-checking operations of major U.K. news organizations like the BBC and Channel 4. They saw fact-checking as something they did themselves — “independent research” that only came into play on occasional issues that greatly interested them. For many, professional fact-checking just wasn’t on the radar.

But there was good news, too. Participants were quite amenable to idea of fact-checking, especially in broadcast television. There was little partisan gap in these attitudes, as many consumers saw it as a necessary check against lying politicians. And when focus groups were shown examples of fact-checking, they clearly preferred it to a non-fact-checked version of the same claim. The researchers concluded that in this (non-American) media environment, one key may simply be greater awareness: “for fact-checking to play the revolutionary role imparted to it by practitioners and academics alike, it needs greater visibility.”

“Protesting the protest paradigm: TikTok as a space for media criticism” by Ioana Literat, Lillian Boxman-Shabtai, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

We’ve looked in a couple of past issues at some of the fascinating recent research on the protest paradigm — the notion that journalists often delegitimize protests and marginalize protesters by emphasizing conflict and relying on official sources. But of course, in a media environment defined by the ability to post and critique media content for oneself and connect with like-minded audiences, mainstream journalists don’t get the ability to unilaterally define protests in the public’s mind.

That kind of remixing and interrogating news coverage is happening continually on TikTok, especially in the wake of prominent protests. Literat and her colleagues wanted to see how TikTok is used as a space for this kind of personal media criticism of protest coverage by comparing videos around 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot.

The authors were clear that they didn’t consider these equivalent events — one a protest of racial injustice and the other an insurrection aimed at undermining democracy. But they provided a useful contrast to note how a platform’s tools, styles, and logic could be used to critique media protest coverage in both pro-social and anti-democratic ways.

In a qualitative analysis of 115 top TikTok videos (plus the thousands of comments on them), Literat and her colleagues found some particular TikTok-based practices, including annotating news coverage with TikTok’s editing features and distinct visual grammar, and providing footage from among protesters and positioning it as a challenge to media narratives. They concluded that TikTok does provide users new ways to counter established media narratives of protests, but not always for socially beneficial purposes. “TikTok may be democratizing the act of media criticism,” they wrote, “but it does so for both democratic and non-democratic ends.”

“The role of news media knowledge for how people use social media for news in five countries” by Anne Schulz, Richard Fletcher, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in New Media & Society.

If you’ve spent much time reading about and discussing misinformation and disinformation over the past several years, you’ve heard (or talked about) news literacy as a key tool for fighting it. There’s been some research indicating that, indeed, news literacy can be effective in helping people identify and resist disinformation and conspiracy theories.

But beyond disinformation, our knowledge of the influence of news literacy on people’s actual news consumption is rather thin. Schulz and her colleagues helped elaborate one dimension of this relationship with their study on its role in how people use social media as a news source.

Schulz and her co-authors focused on news media knowledge, which is the “head-knowledge” element of news literacy (the other being the ability to assert control over one’s relationship with news). Using a large international 2018 survey, they looked at how social media fit in with other dimensions of news consumption and how people determined what news was worth their time on social media.

The results were quite similar across the five countries they examined (the U.K., Spain, Germany, Sweden, and the U.S.). People with greater news media knowledge were more likely to use social media for news, but less likely to use it as their main source. They also were more likely to use a variety of cues in determining news’ importance on social media, such as photos, headlines, news brands, or the person who shared the story. They were less likely, though, to be influenced by the number likes, comments, or shares a story had.

The takeaway: Contrary to prevailing public opinion, people who know more about how the news is made understand that social media actually can be a useful news source, but they’re more careful to combine with other sources of information and diligently evaluate the news they see there.

“Attacking the gatekeepers: A survey experiment on the effects of elite criticism on the media” by Patrick F.A. Van Erkel and Karolin Soontjens in International Journal of Communication.

Criticizing the news media has been a central part of the communication strategy of politicians for about a half-century at this point. It typically has two intended targets: the news media itself, as a way to pressure journalists into friendlier coverage (what media critic Jay Rosen has called “working the refs”), and the public, as a way to inoculate audiences against negative coverage.

Politicians and scholars have tended to assume that such attacks are quite effective — politicians, in continuing to use them, and scholars, in flagging them as democratically dangerous. But Van Erkel and Soontjens posed a question that hasn’t been tested as often as you might think: Do those attacks actually work?

Their answer: Yes, sort of. They used a survey experiment in Belgium (a country with relatively high trust in media) to test the effect of hypothetical tweets by political leaders criticizing a public-service broadcaster’s news item. Tweets calling the broadcaster biased did lead audiences to perceive it as more biased, if the politician was in the participant’s favored party.

Which makes sense, of course. But those tweets didn’t affect people’s trust in the outlet, nor did they lead people to see the news media as a whole as biased. When politicians criticized the broadcaster as inaccurate, it had no effect at all. So, Van Erkel and Soontjens concluded, politicians can feed like-minded citizens’ perception of a media outlet as hostile, but trust, as well as people’s perceptions of the news media as a whole, take more than just a few tweets to dislodge. (Though a massive, years-long campaign may exert rather more force.)

Photo of a gap in Chahkouh Canyon by Farnoosh Abdollahi used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 23, 2022, 12:43 p.m.
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