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Nov. 30, 2022, 12:29 p.m.
Reporting & Production

How risky is it for journalists to cover protests?

Plus: Exploring why women leave the news industry, the effects of opinion labels, and susceptibility to disinformation.

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.

Growing threats to reporters covering protests

Journalism and protests, for better or worse, seem to go hand in hand.

By the conventions of journalism, news often doesn’t “happen” until there is a catalytic event of some kind. In the political realm, for example, that catalyst tends to be a protest that captures attention because of its conflict and drama, from anti-war marches to Black Lives Matter protests to the current demonstrations against Covid lockdowns in China.

For many years now, journalists have been criticized by scholars for their coverage of such protests, which tend to overplay the spectacle and underplay the substance, failing to adequately convey the concerns of people protesting.

This emphasis on how protests are covered by the news media remains a compelling question for ongoing research, as we’ve noted before — but there’s another piece of the equation that has received little attention thus far: What is it like for journalists who are experiencing protests as they cover them?

An important answer to that question comes in a new research article in Journalism by Kaitlin C. Miller and Samantha Kocan of the University of Alabama. Using a nationally representative survey of U.S. journalists at newspapers and broadcast stations, Miller and Kocan examine what it’s like for journalists to cover protests, how it affects them personally and professionally, and how their attitudes about the roles and purposes of journalism may be connected to the harassment they experience while covering protests.

It’s an apt moment to be studying what journalists encounter at protests. As a UNESCO report in 2020 summed up the grim state of affairs: “Hundreds of journalists around the world trying to cover protests have been harassed, beaten, intimidated, arrested, put under surveillance, abducted, and had their equipment damaged. Others have been held incommunicado, humiliated, choked and fired upon with non-lethal as well as live ammunition.”

The growing risks for journalists covering protests can be understood as part of a broader tide of threats against the press worldwide. This stepped-up abuse of journalists is most pernicious in authoritarian regimes and in places like Mexico — where journalists continue to be killed at an alarming rate — but also in Western countries long presumed to be “safe,” as journalists face greater forms of online attacks as well as in-person harassment from readers, viewers, and strangers.

So, how bad is it for journalists covering protests — at least in the U.S.? (Side note: How often do journalists cover protests? More than 90% of survey respondents said they had covered a protest at some point, and nearly 80% of that group had covered Black Lives Matter demonstrations — which speaks to how central such protests were to news coverage in 2020 and 2021.)

First, it’s important to note that the researchers in this study tried to tease apart the positive as well as negative experiences that journalists reported having with law enforcement and with demonstrators. And the picture that emerges from that mix is slightly complicated. For example, “journalists who had negative experiences with law enforcement and positive experiences with protesters were more likely to experience positive effects of covering protests, like their ‘professional identity was strengthened’ and they ‘felt inspired to take action.'”

It would thus be unfair to suggest that covering a protest is inherently a bad experience, but it is noteworthy that nearly half of all journalists surveyed said they experienced fear and also felt unsafe while covering protests. While few journalists reported serious physical injury, about 12% said they had minor physical injuries and some 22% said their mental health suffered as a result of covering demonstrations.

In particular, the researchers found that the more often a journalist experienced something negative (abuse, hostility, etc.) from protesters, and the less often they had negative experiences with police, the more likely they were to report trying to alter their professional situation — such as by asking to no longer cover protests or to consider leaving the journalism profession entirely.

Indeed, 1 in 10 journalists surveyed said they had considered leaving journalism because of their experience covering protests, and a similar number reported seeking mental health services because of what they encountered. While those may seem to some like relatively small numbers, the authors contend that “organizations and scholars alike must begin to consider what this means for democracy if the most pressing and dangerous place to be as a journalist in the U.S. is also the place with some of the most important news for society.”

Additionally, there is a gendered component to this as well: By a 2-to-1 margin, women were more likely than men to consider leaving journalism as a result of covering protests, and, by an even greater margin, women were more likely to seek mental health services for the same reason. What does it mean for the marketplace of ideas, the authors ask, if in-the-field harassment at protests is disproportionately burdening women and making it more likely that they might leave a profession that already may seem stacked against them (see the lead roundup item below)?

Finally, this paper offers some indication that journalists who experienced trauma after covering a protest may see journalism and its “role conceptions” differently than other journalists, which raises questions for future study: How might a less-safe world for doing journalism lead to different kinds of journalism being produced — and what might that mean for how we think about journalism’s idealized role in society?

Reading roundup

“Why are women journalists leaving the newsroom in South Korea? Gendered and emerging factors that influence the intention to leave.” By Na Yeon Lee and Changsook Kim, in Journalism Practice. Professional journalism has always had a gender gap across a wide range of local and national contexts, but the shape of that gap has changed in recent decades. The number of women entering the industry has accelerated, but newsroom leadership remains dominated by men. Scholars have found a variety of reasons that women journalists leave the industry — such as discrimination in beat assignments, male-dominated newsroom culture, and employers’ inflexibility in the face of work-family conflicts.

But other factors have emerged to drive many journalists’ departure from the profession, both men and women: Reduced resources that lead to lower pay and overwork, reduced social status for journalists, and online harassment (which disproportionately affects women). Lee & Kim set out to examine the relative prominence of both sets of factors (traditional gendered and emerging factors) in influencing women’s decisions to leave journalism. They surveyed nearly 700 women journalists in South Korea who were still working in newsrooms about those factors and their intentions to leave their jobs.

The single biggest factor associated with women journalists’ intention to leave was, perhaps surprisingly, the reduced social status of journalists. The next two most significant factors were masculine newsroom cultures and additional workloads associated with digital publication. Age also played a notable role: Younger journalists were more likely to be considering leaving, with weakened social status and masculine culture playing a particularly strong role for them. Work-family conflict was a strong factor for women at a particular career stage (10-20 years in), but not a factor outside of that. On the whole, emerging factors played a bigger role in women’s intention to leave journalism, though several traditional gendered factors remained persistent problems.

“The effects of transparency cues on news source credibility online: An investigation of ‘opinion labels'” By Andrew Otis, in Journalism. Virtually every journalist — not to mention non-journalists — has thrown up their hands at audiences’ seeming inability to determine the difference between news and opinion content. And the indication is that Americans, at least, aren’t so good at it, though different subgroups do better. Media critics have called for clearer labeling of opinion articles, and some news organizations have begun to do so. Otis’s study presents a straightforward test of one of the primary purposes of such labeling: Do they increase credibility?

In an experiment with U.S. participants, Otis created Google News-style summaries of articles labeled as news or opinion, using CNN and Fox News as the mock sources and articles with headlines framed as both conservative and liberal. He found that opinion labels do significantly increase credibility of news sources, even controlling for prior perception of credibility.

There were a few notable conditions, though. Credibility was only increased if the sources were unbranded — that is, if they weren’t shown as being from CNN and Fox News. When the source names were included, their existing images were too strong for opinion labels to make a difference. But the labels did increase credibility when participants faced oppositional content — if liberal participants saw conservative-leaning headlines, or vice versa. The results suggest some potential positive effects for labeling opinion content as such, as long as their brands don’t already create strong, widespread emotional reactions.

“Nobody-fools-me perception: Influence of age and education on overconfidence about spotting disinformation.” By Maria-Pilar Martínez-Costa, Fernando López-Pan, Nataly Buslón, and Ramón Salaverría, in Journalism Practice. The third-person effect is a long-established phenomenon in which people tend to overestimate media’s effects on other people and underestimate their effects on themselves. We’re very concerned about the way media bias will affect our imagined “them,” but we’re pretty confident in our own ability to see through it.

As you might imagine, this effect has been shown to be quite prominent in detecting disinformation. Numerous studies have shown that we overestimate other people’s susceptibility to disinformation but are overconfident in our own ability to spot it. Martínez-Costa and her colleagues were interested in a particular dimension of that effect: age.

Through focus groups with Spanish news consumers, they found that both younger adults and older adults saw each other as particularly vulnerable to disinformation. The older adults believed younger adults had grown up blindly trusting social and digital media, and the younger adults believed older adults did not understand digital information environments. Both believed the other group would fall for just about anything, but saw themselves as savvy media consumers who understood contemporary media systems. In the end, the authors suggested, this version of the third-person effect may be more of a collective, generationally based feeling — perhaps more “nobody fools us” than “nobody fools me.”

“The campaign disinformation divide: Believing and sharing news in the 2019 U.K. general election.” By Cristian Vaccari, Andrew Chadwick, and Johannes Kaiser, in Political Communication. Age may not be the determining factor in detecting disinformation that Martínez-Costa and her colleagues’ participants believe it to be. But this study from the U.K. found another significant factor in disinformation belief — where we get our campaign news.

Journalists certainly see some of their role as disinformation inoculation: Giving people regular doses of quality political information so that they’re more able to understand what’s false or misleading when they see it. Vaccari and his co-authors put this notion to the test, using survey-based experiments to give 4,000 people actual headlines from the 2019 U.K. General Election that were either true or false (along with a few “placebo” false headlines fabricated by the researchers) and determine whether they could tell what was true, and whether they would want to share it.

Their findings were pretty strong confirmation of journalists’ intended role. Those who used professional media for campaign information were significantly more likely to recognize disinformation and less likely to want to share it, and those who relied on social media for campaign information were just the opposite. Within those straightforward (and rather heartening) findings, there were two notable exceptions. Those who relied on the U.K.’s tabloid newspapers apart from any broader diet of professional news were worse at recognizing disinformation, and those who relied on Twitter apart from other social media use were better.

“Facing the competition: Gender differences in facial emotion and prominence in visual news coverage of Democratic presidential primary candidates.” By Mike Gruszczynski, Danielle K. Brown, Haley Pierce, and Maria E. Grabe, in Mass Communication Quarterly. The inequitable and stereotyped media treatment of women running for political office has been scrutinized for decades, as has the use of visual framing and image selection in political news coverage. Gruszczynski and his colleagues put the two together in a methodologically innovative way that tested how men and women’s emotions are depicted in a presidential campaign.

The authors used Microsoft Azure’s cloud-based automated facial emotion recognition program to determine the emotional orientation of more than 19,000 news images of candidates in the 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential primary. To ensure its accuracy, they had a human analyze 1,000 of those images, finding the two coding methods reliable.

The images were analyzed along two dimensions: emotion type (anger, happiness, and neutrality) and proximity (face shots and body shots). They found that although anger made up a small portion of the emotions depicted, women were significantly more likely to be shown as angry (80% more likely, before controlling for polling average) and as happy. Men, by contrast, were more often shown as neutral, with an overall effect of presenting men as being more emotionally regulated. The researchers found that depictions of women as angry were more likely to be at a distance — possibly because “there might be growing awareness in newsrooms about negative depictions of female leaders as feisty and cold” — though those shots were still disproportionately negative framings of women candidates.

“News is ‘toxic’: Exploring the non-sharing of news online.” By Nick Mathews, Valérie Bélair-Gagnon, and Seth C. Lewis, in New Media & Society. (As you can see, Seth co-authored this study, but Mark decided to write about it just because it looked really interesting.) Researchers (and news executives, and journalists, and…) have spent quite a bit of time over the past decade trying to determine what motivates people to share news online. Mathews and his co-authors stumbled upon the opposite question: What motivates people not to share news online? They were interviewing 52 Americans as a part of a larger study (not about news sharing) and found that non-sharing emerged as a key feature for almost half the group.

The answer to this question was fairly simple: Not sharing was an act meant to protect their online reputation and their relationships. Participants did acknowledge that not sharing left them feeling silenced, but they simply didn’t see any positive outcomes from sharing. They didn’t see any possibility for influencing opinion, they saw productive conversation as too complex for social media, and they viewed the risk of offending someone or being misunderstood as too great. So while news organizations are intent on creating news that gets people to share it widely on social media, they may need to account for the fact that doing so could be against those audiences’ own perceived reputational and relational best interests.

Journalist Julia Lerner, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, took the picture illustrating this post as she was being chased and pepper-sprayed by police in Columbus, Ohio on May 30, 2020. Copyright Julia Lerner.

POSTED     Nov. 30, 2022, 12:29 p.m.
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