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Jan. 3, 2024, 9:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Is your Instagram feed “news”? Depends on how you feel.

Plus: How AI exacerbates the news industry’s reliance on Big Tech, how Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter led to “strategic disconnection,” and why journalism educators need to talk more about hostility.

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.

We’ve become quite used to the notion that social media platforms’ endless stream of flattened, homogenized “content” has blurred the line between news and other forms of media and information (though, of course, that line was never perfectly clear to begin with). That blurring has allowed new and innovative voices into the news ecosystem, but it has also made news consumption more incidental and less intentional, and has contributed to an environment in which news seems less valuable and distinctive to people.

All this ambiguity around news raises at least one evident question: What do people see as news on social media these days? There’s been some interesting research on this over the past few years, some of it centering on the notion of “news-ness” — that nebulous quality that makes things “news” in people’s minds. It’s not just an abstract exercise, though. Researchers have found that audiences are more likely to trust and less likely to try to verify information they see as news, and more likely to learn from it as well.

We’ve seen from research that people’s sense of what’s news and what’s not is a continuum, not a binary, and that it differs by platformnews consumption context, and by the user’s age, among other things. In a new study in the journal Journalism titled “What feels like news? Young people’s perceptions of news on Instagram,” Dutch scholars Joëlle Swart and Marcel Broersma add two valuable dimensions to our understanding of this sense of “news-ness.” They look at news on Instagram in particular, and the relationship between the cognitive sense of what’s news (what we think is news) and the affective one (what feels like news in our everyday media use).

Swart and Broersma interviewed 111 Dutch Instagram users between the ages of 16 and 25, asking them about their news consumption and also observing while they talked through their thoughts and feelings as they scrolled on Instagram. They found that many young people were still strongly aware of traditional definitions around news (e.g., factuality, neutrality, public importance), even if they rarely consumed legacy news. But there was a substantial gap between this cognitive awareness and how they felt about the what they were seeing in their Instagram feeds.

Some exhibited little of that gap in their understanding of news: They dismissed almost everything on Instagram as not news because it didn’t adhere to traditional journalistic values, or because it was too positive to be news, or not transparent enough. But many young people found other strategies to make sense of the gap in their sense of what’s news. Some compartmentalized, creating different categories within news — traditional news was “current” or “pressing” news, while Instagram was “debatable” or “social” news.

Others homogenized and essentially called every piece of novel information news, whether personal updates from friends, content creators and memes, or everyday political talk. And another group reconceptualized news, reframing traditional values in a more individual- and audience-centric way. Just like traditional journalists, they said that relevance and proximity were key to defining news, but that relevance was personal and individual rather than public, and that proximity was emotional rather than geographical. And subjectivity was considered more desirable than objectivity.

All of those groups other than the traditionalists were changing and in some way expanding the definition of news to match what felt like news on Instagram, even though they were aware that news traditionally has been thought of in narrower terms. Swart and Broersma concluded that evoking this emotional element of news-ness could be an overlooked aspect for journalists who might be used to thinking of more cognitive ways to mark their work as news. “These tacit and emotional considerations,” Swart and Broersma argued, “are at least as important for users as their reasoned, cognitive arguments.”

Research roundup

“Escape me if you can: How AI reshapes news organizations’ dependency on platform companies.” By Felix M. Simon, in Digital Journalism. Platform companies — such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and the like — are hugely influential in how news is made, distributed, and consumed (and how it’s monetized, too). That such companies are also central players in artificial intelligence has become a growing cause for concern across many domains, including journalism: If news publishers already feel at the mercy of platforms and their power, won’t developments in AI only make things worse, as the news industry becomes even more dependent on Big Tech?

This was a question that Felix M. Simon, a doctoral student at Oxford who has done extensive research on AI and news, had puzzled over more hypothetically some years ago. Now, as he pointed out in a thread on X, he has the data to back it up.

The study here involved 121 interviews with news workers at 33 major publishers in Germany, the U.S., and the U.K., in addition to 31 expert interviews and other secondary material. (That’s a lot of qualitative data.)

On one level, Simon finds that (no surprise) news organizations are drawn to the obvious advantages of platforms for AI: “their robust data and computing infrastructures, the efficiency and effectiveness of many of their AI services, greater user-friendliness, security, stability, and seamless scalability.” It’s about efficiency, streamlining, and quickly implementing and adapting AI as a competitive strategy — and platform-based AI facilitates that easily.

“But there is no such thing as a free lunch,” Simon writes. “AI reshapes the dependency of publishers on platform companies by increasing their control over technological infrastructure, exacerbating existing dependencies in distribution, and introducing new dependencies in production, especially as generative AI is making inroads.”

And so an asymmetric power relationship between platforms and publishers likely becomes more skewed — or at least more complicated, including in ways that could further undermine the power and autonomy of news providers to publish and distribute news on their own terms. As Simon noted in his thread, “As the news gets reshaped by AI, ‘outsiders’ in the form of platform companies gain more control over the technical elements of this process as they increasingly are gatekeepers to the technology applications and infrastructures [that] journalism needs in the future.”

“Twitter: A necessary evil? Journalistic responses to Elon Musk and the denormalization of social media.” By Annina Claesson, in Journalism. Speaking of platforms, let’s consider Twitter, now called X. It’s a platform that used to be especially central to journalism (truly, Twitter was “the most powerful force in news” for over a decade), and one that has had, um, quite the past year since Elon Musk’s takeover in late 2022. (The Wikipedia entry for “Twitter under Elon Musk” is something else.)

The way that journalists both adopted Twitter en masse and also adapted to Twitter — that is, normalizing social media to fit journalistic routines, while also tweaking journalistic styles to meet social media’s rhythms and cultures — has been documented widely in journalism studies. So when Musk assumed control of the platform last year and enacted a series of changes that seemed aimed at undermining journalists, it became a key moment of reckoning: Would journalists abandon Twitter? Approach social media differently? Rethink how they engage online in general?

Annina Claesson’s study offers a window into these questions. She focuses on the French media sector during the six-month period after Musk took charge. Through a combination of interviews, participant observation, and content analysis, she shows that “Musk’s actions as CEO prompted journalists to question the broader legitimacy of social media as a journalistic tool.” For example, for some journalists, “this meant reemphasizing traditional journalistic values and more ‘old-school’ working practices.”

But she found that journalists didn’t quit Twitter so much as reshape their relationship to it. They relied more on strategic disconnection — that is, limiting social media use or drawing more careful boundaries around it, even while staying on platforms because they may feel obligated to remain present in such spaces. Claesson shows how strategic disconnection (described by other scholars here and here) “can be used as a method of resistance to unwelcome influences in the media sector.”

“Socializing students to accept hostility? How instructors talk about hostility in the journalism classroom.” By Kelsey R. Mesmer, in Journalism. Journalists face growing forms of hostility. This is true even in supposedly “safe” locales like the U.S., which has seen a marked uptick in anti-media rhetoric as well as more frequent abuse — online and offline — against reporters (see here for a research overview).

As Kelsey R. Mesmer notes in this article, despite the increase in harassment, early-career journalists have said they weren’t prepared for all this, with many noting that hostility wasn’t mentioned in any of their journalism classes. And student journalists may have insufficient training and support as they face physical threats and online abuse in their work on college campuses.

In this new study, Mesmer explores how journalism schools are preparing students (or not) for these challenges, using interviews with 30 journalism professors in the U.S. to assess how educators think about hostility in the field and how those attitudes relate, if at all, to what educators are saying about it in the classroom.

She found that while all of the educators interviewed acknowledged that hostility is a key problem today, “some failed to carry that understanding and importance of the topic into their class content.” Overall, she found a lack of attention given to hostility, or that it was invoked in the classroom too superficially.

“Too often, participants conflated hostility with routine reporting challenges students just needed to toughen up to deal with,” Mesmer writes. “This normalization of hostility socializes journalism students into thinking they must accept hostility as a regular occurrence without pushing back, trying to overcome it, or seeking help from others.”

Mesmer concludes with some teaching recommendations — including for photojournalism or broadcast courses that entail using equipment in the field, which research has shown to make journalists more visible and therefore more vulnerable to harassment.

“News from home: How local media shapes climate change attitudes.” By Talbot M. Andrews, Cana Kim, and Jeong Hyun Kim, in Public Opinion Quarterly. While many people recognize the threat posed by climate change, they don’t seem especially moved to action. Climate change often ranks fairly low when people are asked to list major national priorities for the government to address, and people often see climate concerns as distant and even irrelevant to their daily lives.

So, what might move the needle in terms of awareness and response? Research suggests that highlighting the local impacts of climate change can make a difference, but only when that information comes from trusted sources such as copartisan political leaders (e.g., Republicans hearing about it from Republican politicians). What about local news media, though? Because conservatives, who generally are deeply skeptical of anything about climate change, tend to trust local media more than national media, could local media sources be similarly beneficial in communicating about the local effects of climate change in a way that many people can trust?

In this paper, Talbot M. Andrews and colleagues focus on the case of Louisiana. They show that local and national newspapers cover climate change in rather different ways, with local news more persistently attentive to local impacts. Additionally, their survey experiment with Louisiana residents finds that “Republicans viewed the coverage of a hurricane in the region more positively when it came from a local newspaper rather than a national newspaper,” and that “local newspapers’ climate coverage increased Republicans’ willingness to take action to mitigate climate change.”

Chalk this up as another reason to care about the vitality and impact of local journalism and its potential role in mitigating mitigating partisan polarization.

“Political opinion leaders in high-choice information environments: Are they more informed than others?” By Jesper Strömbäck, Elina Lindgren, Yariv Tsfati, Alyt Damstra, Rens Vliegenthart, Hajo Boomgaarden, Elena Broda, Noelle Lebernegg, and Sebastian Galyga, in Mass Communication and Society. The idea of an opinion leader is one of the great concepts in the study of mass communication and society. First proposed by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and colleagues in 1948, it originally referred to those “people who are most concerned about [an] issue as well as most articulate about it.” And, crucially, such people served as intermediaries in the flow of information — for example, relaying facts and ideas from newspapers and sharing them with less-engaged, less-interested people in their social networks.

Although a lot has changed in the past 75 years about the information environment — from the vast abundance of information at our disposal to the complicated pathways of algorithms, text threads, and face-to-face conversations through which information moves nowadays — there has been, to date, “surprisingly limited research on whether political opinion leaders actually are more informed than others,” Jesper Strömbäck and team write in this study. After all, as they note, “political opinion leaders may be more prone to politically motivated reasoning, which may lead them to believe in and disseminate misinformation.”

So, what can we tell about how informed opinion leaders really are these days? Well, it’s somewhat complicated. Based on survey data from Sweden, the authors find that “those who score high in political opinion leadership traits in general are not more knowledgeable about contested and uncontested facts” (emphasis added). Yet the researchers also argue for further research in this area, because they see more to do in investigating the relationship between opinion leadership and knowledge, including disentangling whether — and, if so, what — kinds of information (correct or otherwise) that political opinion leaders might distribute in different contexts.

“Social curation will probably only get more important,” they write, “and hence also the role of political opinion leaders.”

Photo of person using Instagram by Unsplash.

POSTED     Jan. 3, 2024, 9:30 a.m.
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