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March 7, 2023, 12:50 p.m.

Social media policies are failing journalists

Plus: The trouble with journalists’ involvement in news literacy programs, soft news as a gateway to propaganda, and social media editors between news and marketing.

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.

Social media platforms present a conundrum for journalists.

On the one hand, journalists rely on social media for so many helpful aspects of their jobs. To name just a few: to connect with potential sources, to interact with audiences, to promote their work, and to find solidarity among fellow journalists.

On the other hand, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook present a dizzying array of problems, from the growing variety and intensity of online harassment — hostility, trolling, doxing, etc. — that especially targets women and journalists of color, to the constant threat that one wrong tweet might incite a mob or cost a journalist their job.

It’s important to ask: What are newsroom leaders doing to support and protect their journalists facing the increasing risks and challenges of social media?

new study in Digital Journalism examines this question. Its author, Jacob L. Nelson, conducted in-depth interviews with 37 U.S.-based reporters, editors, publishers, freelancers, and social media/audience engagement managers, covering current and former employees at a wide array of outlets (local and national, for-profit and nonprofit, legacy media and digital media). Interviews focused on journalists’ experiences with and thoughts about their newsroom’s social media policies. Women and journalists of color made up a large share of interviewees because such journalists are more likely to encounter online harassment.

So, what did the journalists interviewed say about the value of social media policies and their organizations’ support mechanisms? The research article’s title provides a hint: “Worse than the harassment itself.”

“I find that although journalists face both external and internal pressure to devote considerable time and effort to social media platforms — primarily Twitter — they encounter little in the way of guidance or support when it comes to navigating the dangers inherent within those platforms,” Nelson writes. “On the contrary, journalists feel newsroom social media policies tend to make matters worse, by offering difficult to follow guidelines focused primarily on maintaining an ‘objective’ perception of the organization among the public rather than on protecting journalists from the harassment that many will inevitably receive.”

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Journalists interviewed for this study seemed to be “one step ahead of their newsroom managers,” argued Nelson (who, full disclosure, does collaborative research with Seth, though not on this project). The journalists realized, in a way their bosses didn’t, that “the very behavior that social media most encourages and rewards — being active and personal — is the same kind of behavior that brings journalists their biggest frustrations.”

That is, journalists understood that being authentic and acting like a “real” person on social media was more likely to bring more professional opportunities and improved interactions with the public. Sounds good, right? But, at the same time, such an approach to social media, journalists realized, also made them more vulnerable to recurring personal attacks from harassers, and it increased the odds that they would inadvertently say something that would get them accused of bias and thus punished by their managers for failing to abide by strict policies on neutrality.

The overall result is that journalists feel they are walking what Nelson has elsewhere called a “Twitter tightrope”: “They spend a great deal of time engaging with the public on social media platforms, while constantly wondering if and when that engagement will come at their professional peril.” So, what do journalists want? For their managers to do more to help them mitigate the challenges and risks endemic to this work. (Indeed, as other research has found recently, news organizations are doing little to protect their journalists from online harassment.)

The “fluidity” of the social media audience — its unpredictability, particularly when some posts “go viral” and spread widely while others get little attention — was a key part of journalists’ frustrations with their managers.

“Traditional journalistic values privilege audience perceptions of professionalism, independence, and neutrality,” Nelson writes, “each of which is easier to predict when focused on a fixed audience for a specific news outlet than for the much larger, more amorphous audiences found on social media platforms.”

On top of that, some of the study’s interviewees questioned whether audiences were really so firmly committed to old-school ideas about total objectivity and neutrality, “which many journalists see not only as impossible aspirations on their own, but also as wholly inconsistent with the performed authenticity privileged by social media.” Future research could help untangle this puzzle. Because while research suggests that people generally want journalists to present the news without a point of view, it’s still unclear whether rules and expectations apply the same to social media postings as they might, say, for news articles on legacy platforms.

As Nelson writes, “Perhaps news audiences hold seemingly contradictory preferences, where they value both accurate, opinion-free news stories, as well as the political opinions of the journalists behind them. If this is indeed the case, then it might be in newsroom managers’ best interests to give the public a bit more credit when deciding what those audiences want not only from journalism, but from journalists as well.”

Research roundup

“The place of media organizations in the drive for post-pandemic news literacy.” By Fran Yeoman and Kate Morris, in Journalism Practice. How involved should news organizations be in news literacy efforts? And what are the benefits and drawbacks of their involvement? Those have been crucial questions as educators, news industry leaders, nonprofits and governments have implemented news literacy programs over the past decade. Through these programs, journalists can provide distinct insight into the news production process and humanize their work for people. But journalists’ involvement also risks these programs becoming little more than PR disguised as education.

Yeoman and Morris bring an education lens to this question by looking at five news literacy initiatives for children in the U.K. that incorporate news organizations in some form. They observed lessons and interviewed program leaders and the teachers in whose classrooms they ran. They found that there was some element of “pedagogical public relations” throughout the programs, as their leaders expressed desires to revitalize news by capturing young audiences and frequently contrasted the work of trained professional journalists with other forms of news in their sessions.

The program leaders were wary of the perception of this self-interested motive and were careful not to promote their own news organizations specifically. But they still promoted a largely uncritical view of the work of professional journalists. Yeoman and Morris instead advocated a news literacy approach of “informed skepticism” as part of a national curriculum. Journalists should have a role in such programs, they argued, but we need to be cognizant of news organizations’ self-promotional motivations lest we turn news literacy programs into little more than advertisements for traditional news media.

“How propaganda works in the digital era: Soft news as a gateway.” By Yuner Zhu and King-wa Fu, in Digital Journalism. Zhu and Fu’s study is organized around a fascinating conundrum: If we’re in a high-choice media environment in which a more trusted (or at least more entertaining) news source is a tap away, how is authoritarian propaganda still effective? Zhu and Fu note in particular the online success of People’s Daily and CCTV News, China’s premier Communist Party news sources, which each have more than 100 million followers on Sina Weibo (China’s dominant social media platform), garnering unprecedented popularity in an environment where we might think consumer choice might leave them behind.

The authors were especially interested in whether soft news plays a role in maintaining propaganda’s popularity. Does soft news offer an escape to avoid propaganda, or help capture an entertainment-seeking audience to increase the reach and palatability of propaganda? They tested their hypothesis with 5.7 million Sina Weibo posts over seven years from 103 Chinese newspapers.

The answer, in short, was that yes, soft news does serve as an effective gateway to authoritarian propaganda. More than half (58%) of the news that party daily newspapers published on Sina Weibo was soft news — less than than their non-party counterparts, but enough to have a measurable effect on the popularity of propaganda news (in this study, news about Chinese premier Xi Jinping). An increase in the popularity of soft news one month led to a significant increase in the popularity of propaganda in the next. (And notably, that effect didn’t occur in the reverse.)

There were limits to this strategy — softening the propaganda stories themselves with things like videos actually undermined their effectiveness. But on the whole, the authors conclude, “These batches of human-interest content are devoid of propaganda in text yet are instrumental to propaganda in effect,” as party media uses infotainment to lure in an otherwise politically uninterested audience.

“Now hiring social media editors.” By Tai Neilson, Timothy A. Gibson, and Kara Ortiga, in Journalism Studies. The notion that the boundaries are blurring between news and marketing within news organizations — and even within journalists’ own jobs — is hardly news to anyone at this point. Yet few feel the tension between these two realms quite as acutely as social media editors. It’s not clear there’s much difference on social media between publishing news and promoting it, and social media editors are staking out a home in the newsroom on that fault line.

Neilson and his co-authors explored that defining tension of the work of social media editors by looking at 291 American journalism job postings for social media editors (as well as engagement editors, community managers, audience strategists, and other similar titles). They also interviewed 11 social media editors working at American news organizations.

Among the job postings, they found an interesting dichotomy. Job postings rarely explicitly mentioned marketing as a desire skill or part of the job — rather, journalism experience was the top form of experience sought, almost nine times more than marketing experience. But social media editors’ primary tasks, such as analyzing audience data and helping with audience growth, “could only be classified as marketing.” Those jobs, the authors concluded, were being publicly framed as news jobs, but were in fact more commercially oriented jobs in practice.

In the interviews, though, the authors noted that editors didn’t find many of these day-to-day audience (and metrics) monitoring tasks rewarding. Instead, they were working to redefine their own roles as being oriented around newsroom strategy and decision-making, using their data analysis skills as an attempted avenue into more active newsroom leadership. The boundaries between editorial and marketing work for social media editors, the authors conclude, have not so much been blurred as simply redrawn to include marketing functions as central — and as a potential path to a more managerial role.

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Information flows from local to national: Evidence from 21 major U.S. cities. By Lei Guo and Yiyan Zhang, in Journalism. It’s become a truism that news, especially in the U.S., has become increasingly national as local journalism has been hollowed out and political dynamics have pushed most debates to the national level. The national media’s preeminence over local media in determining what issues get covered has been demonstrated for decades. But Guo and Zhang’s study tests that notion on local media’s turf, with coverage of urban issues.

Using an automated analysis of thousands of news articles from 21 of the largest cities in the U.S., Guo and Zhang measured coverage over time of 16 locally based issues ranging from taxes to the environment to religion and morality. They found that in only three cities the local media predominantly led the national media in covering these urban issues — Chicago, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. (In about half the cities, there was no significant relationship between local and national coverage.) Across all cities, local media tended to lead on taxes, politics, and media and the internet, and national media led on gun control and crime.

Larger cities were not more likely than smaller ones to lead the national media in coverage of urban issues. Instead, cities’ GDP and number of local news organizations were the strongest factors in predicting whether a city’s local media would lead national media. “Affluent cities with more journalistic resources are more likely to control the information flows,” the authors concluded. This leads to more power for those cities to control their images while leaving less affluent cities even more marginalized.

The push to reinvigorate local news, they said, should center more on those less affluent (and therefore less powerful) cities, though of course their relative lack of wealth makes it more difficult for them to support new or expanded local news initiatives.

“‘Voices from the island’: Informational annexation of Crimea and transformations of journalistic practices.” By Ksenia Ermoshina, in Journalism. / “‘Keeping an eye on the other side’: RT, Sputnik, and their peculiar appeal in democratic societies.” By Charlotte Wagnsson, Torsten Blad, and Aiden Hoyle, in The International Journal of Press/Politics. The power of Russian media has been widely observed, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last year. But two notable recent studies have given us insight into Russia’s media influence through some less-understood avenues. The first of those studies, by Ksenia Ermoshina, examines the process by which Russia asserted its dominance in the media sphere after it began occupying the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

Along with a year of fieldwork in Crimea, Ermoshina interviewed 45 Crimean journalists, NGO workers, information security experts, and others. She found that while they all engaged in individual strategies to adapt to Russian rule, those strategies are best understood against the background of infrastructural changes — the ownership of cables and cell towers, and the quality of internet connections. She coins the term “informational annexation” to refer to the process of controlling access and circulation of information that occurred.

While policing content was certainly involved in Russia’s information control strategy, Ermoshina draws attention to the structural elements involved, like choking off internet traffic to turn Crimea into an “informational island” and by making it much more burdensome to travel to and from Crimea, cutting off institutional support and increasing journalists’ perception of the risk involved with reporting.

In the second study, Charlotte Wagnsson and her colleagues sought to determine who watches the Russian state-sponsored propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik outside of Russia and why. They interviewed 43 Swedish consumers of RT or Sputnik and found that while there were many who fit what might be the stereotypical Russian propaganda consumer — right-wing, with strong anti-establishment media beliefs — there were even more who didn’t fit that profile.

Some were more centrist pragmatists, and others were progressive and directly disagreed with views put forward by RT and Sputnik. So why were they consuming that media? The authors broke down a typology of four types of motivations, three of which involved some distance from RT and Sputnik’s positions.

Some (“media nihilists”) distrusted establishment and alternative media but were confident in their ability to consume them skeptically. Others (“reluctant consumers” and “distant observers”) consume media counter to their own ideas more out of curiosity or a pride in keeping tabs on opposing ideas. But all types, the authors concluded, contribute to those organizations’ goal of establishing international influence, since RT and Sputnik “do not need to be seen as legitimate; only as legitimate enough.”

POSTED     March 7, 2023, 12:50 p.m.
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