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Feb. 13, 2024, 11 a.m.
Audience & Social

How an ethic of care can heal the harms of journalism

Plus: What local news audiences really value, defining ‘precarious’ journalistic work, and what journalists say good newsroom leadership is.

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.

This newsletter is almost four years old, and during that time we have chronicled again and again how research has shown how deeply frustrated many consumers are with news as it exists today. In the U.S., that’s especially true for conservatives who feel alienated by the mainstream media, and thus have abandoned local and national news sources in favor of Fox News and other alternatives.

But they are not the only ones who feel forgotten or misunderstood by journalists. Many immigrants, African-Americans, and other communities report also turning away from traditional news organizations that they find alienating, instead looking to friends and family, ethnic media, and social media influencers to fill the void.

These problems can seem intractable, and, as our featured research article shows, the potential remedies can seem obvious in theory but hard to implement in practice: “Make content inclusive! Listen more! Diversify your newsroom! But these solutions get subsumed by the daily chaos of economic crises, pandemics, and the like.”

That scenario is all too familiar and dispiriting for many newsrooms — but it’s not inevitable, as Sue Robinson and Patrick Johnson illustrate in their newly published article in Journalism Studies, “Rectifying harm through care-based practices: How journalists might tend to disengaged communities.”

Truly, there is a lot of woe-is-journalism these days — just witness the many media layoffs in January — but Robinson and Johnson offer a compelling dash of evidence-based optimism, at least when it comes to capturing how journalists might learn to listen and engage more proactively, and why doing so might lead to journalists who are “more receptive, flexible, and empathetic to audiences.”

For the research, Robinson and Johnson partnered with Trusting News, which works with news organizations on trust-building in their communities, in asking nine newsrooms to host 78 listening sessions, nearly all involving a journalist talking one-on-one with “disengaged” community members. Roughly half of these community members were white conservatives and the other half were BIPOC individuals. Trusting News provided the participating reporters with a set of open-ended questions to ask in the listening session, with the instruction that the journalist not get defensive at the responses. Questions included: “What do journalists often get wrong about you or about things in your life (interests, demographics, values, beliefs, etc.)?”; “What could local news organizations and journalists do to earn more of your trust?”; and, “Tell me about your experience consuming the news. What does it feel like, and what do you hope to get out of it?”

The researchers wanted to know, first, what people who are disengaged from mainstream news need from journalists for them to be willing to engage with — or even subscribe to — the news brand. Second, using the journalist-conducted listening sessions in combination with follow-up surveys and reflections with reporters and participants, the researchers wanted to understand how these disengaged community members feel that journalists might “cause, relieve, or otherwise negotiate harm in their communities.”

The answers that Robinson and Johnson heard led them to suggest “care ethics” as a way forward for journalism: “The ethic of care offers a moral framework that prioritizes the meeting of needs for all through intentional and active outreach and nurturing.” In essence, how can journalists actually rectify the feelings of harm that are present among disengaged community members?

So, back to research question one: What do people need from journalists? The specifics varied between participants of color who were mostly independent or liberal and the other half who identified as right-leaning white people: e.g., conservatives saw journalists’ increasing use of “woke” language as a progressive bias and thus an automatic rejection of their values, and BIPOC participants were frustrated that journalists rarely do the “work” to understand their communities and portray them in a nuanced, holistic way. But the overarching feeling was the same for both sides: nearly everybody felt that their group was being over-generalized, under-represented, and depicted in a negative way.

As Robinson and Johnson write, “journalists need to be careful with their word choice and framing to avoid using polarizing language and stereotypes; journalists need to go out of their way to ensure many different voices are included; journalists need to produce more positive stories reflective of cultures and ideologies; and journalists need to partner with people in the communities to produce more inclusive content.”

On the second research question, about how harm is inflicted or remedied, “community members told journalists that they felt trauma when journalists failed to appreciate the cultural relevancies associated with their political ideology, racial identity, or sexual orientation,” the authors write. This is complicated, of course, by different ideas among different people about what harm looks like: For example, one community member talked about the harm of “journalists inaccurately [conflating] things on Latinx people…assuming they’ve all experiences being undocumented,” while, on the other hand, conservatives felt harmed by what they saw as excessive and overly celebratory coverage of diversity and inclusion issues.

Yet across the board, there was a common thread in participants calling for journalists to be more positive (even if, as reporters responded, such stories don’t get the same number of clicks as negative news), to avoid overgeneralizing by quoting “the loudest person in the room” as a stand-in for groups and ideologies, and to care about the issues and people they care about.

“It was clear to us as we parsed all of these research stories,” Robinson and Johnson concluded, “that all the community members — BIPOC or right-leaning — yearned for a more care-based practice of journalism that that reflected these five values [drawn from Joan Tronto’s ethic of care]: attentiveness, responsibility, competence, responsiveness, and solidarity.”

Each is important, but perhaps the most useful of those five elements for journalists, the authors suggest, is the fourth one. Responsiveness means “making sure to align the caring practice for the actual needs of the individual or community. In other words, the caregiver must not assume all kinds of caring are beneficial or equal. What is caring for one person, may be harm to another.”

That may be tough when different community members define care and harm differently, but journalists can clearly do better, as the study contends: They can avoid polarizing language (such as “don’t say gay” and other nicknames used for policies or bills), they can break out of the left-right, Democrat-Republican binary that frustrates people, and they can develop more and better relationships — ones built on attentiveness from the start — with people representing marginalized groups in their communities.

Journalists can simply start listening.

Indeed, consider what Robinson and Johnson say are “the most significant and startling findings to come from the listening sessions in the post-surveys from the community members: More than two-thirds of the participants reported feeling that the conversations had built trust for them with the news outlet and the specific journalists, and a third of the sample wrote that they were considering subscribing to the news brand (emphasis added). This is so remarkable, especially given that the transcripts of these listening sessions seemed, in many cases, to demonstrate so much anger and vitriol toward the journalists and the mainstream news brands.”

Research roundup

“Local journalism and its audience.” By Lene Heiselberg and David Nicolas Hopmann, in Journalism. The value that local news provides can be taken for granted by those who work in journalism and study it — of course we need to have someone watching city hall! — but it’s obviously not as much of a given among local news audiences. Why is local news valuable to people, and what makes it valuable enough to induce them to pay for it? Is it the democratic value of having eyes on local institutions? The social value of feeling connected to a community? The functional value of getting useful personal information?

That’s what Heiselberg and Hopmann set out to find, specifically connecting audiences’ sense of local journalism’s value with their willingness to pay. In a survey of more than 1,000 Danish adults, they analyzed respondents in three groups: Those who are already paying for local news, those who are willing to pay, and those who are not willing to pay. They asked open-ended questions about what makes (or would make) local journalism valuable, finding four main themes: Functional value (understanding, synthesis, and analysis), symbolic value (community building and sense of belonging), emotional value (feeling enthusiastic and connected, not missing out on what’s going on), and economic value (making money from information, especially for business owners).

When they analyzed those themes by groups, they found something interesting: Both the payers and those unwilling to pay tended to see functional value as a significant part of local journalism’s benefits — the non-payers just saw local news as falling short in functional value. But the emotional and symbolic value of local news was overwhelmingly named by those who pay or are willing to pay for local news, rather than those unwilling to pay. In other words, those notions of community connectedness and positive emotions didn’t seem to be valued by people who wouldn’t pay for local news, even though they saw value in local news helping them understand issues.

Heiselberg and Hopmann closed their study with an argument for constructive and solutions journalism as a way to provide many of the values expressed in the survey. They also identified three possible strategies to connect with skeptical audiences based on their findings: Strongly communicate the symbolic and emotional values of local journalism; focusing on improving the quality (i.e., depth, analysis) of their functionally oriented journalism; and focusing on improving the personal relevance of their functionally oriented journalism.

“Acutely precarious? Detecting objective precarity in journalism.” By Jana Rick, in Digital Journalism. This month’s particularly tall wave of layoffs and closures in American journalism has been a disheartening one for many reasons, among them its vivid reminder of what’s often described as the increasing precarity of journalism as a profession. The days when journalism was often talked about in stable terms are long past, and precarity has become a core obstacle to journalists enteringremaining, and seeking to do their best work in the profession.

Given that shift, Rick has done valuable work in this study by getting very precise about what exactly we mean when we say precarious. She surveyed nearly 1,000 German journalists about their work conditions, testing a three-part measure of precarity that she developed. Precarity’s three dimensions, she argued, are substantial (the inability of income from work to provide a living), contractual (unstable employment situations, such as much of journalistic freelancing or fixed-term contracts), and legal-institutional (lack of access to social benefits, like insurance or a pension or retirement savings).

She found that just under half of German journalists were working in a precarious situation, either acutely (that is, already precarious) or latent (at risk of becoming precarious). Women, younger journalists, and journalists in online media were, unsurprisingly, more likely to be working in precarity. Of the acutely precarious journalists, 38% had a second job outside of journalism, and a quarter got financial support from their partners.

Rick identified the increase of freelancing as a central factor in the precarity of the journalists she surveyed, and noted a widening gap between the economic conditions of freelancers and journalists with full-time employment, one that disproportionately hurts women and young journalists. “Decision makers in journalism have to take the responsibility over the future career perspectives of the next generation by guaranteeing them secure working conditions,” she argued.

“Who drives news coverage of trans issues? Intermedia agenda setting dynamics in Spanish digital press.” By Rubén Olveira-Araujo, in Journalism. The question of which areas of the news media influence the others — and which are most strongly influenced by others — has long been a source of contention for journalists and curiosity for researchers. And it’s become much more complex in recent decades, with the fragmentation of the media environment and the ability for non-traditional media to influence legacy media more directly through social media.

Intermedia agenda setting is a theory that has been used for decades by researchers to examine whether (and how) some news organizations and other actors “set the agenda” for other news providers in influencing what issues to cover. (Both “second-level agenda setting” and framing address the question of influence over how to cover those issues.) Olveira-Araujo looked at this dynamic as it plays out in news coverage of trans issues — a particularly interesting case study, given the rapid rise in prominence of these issues over the past two decades and the potential influence of news coverage on public acceptance of individuals who are trans.

couple of other recent studies have provided some valuable insight on how news agendas move between areas of the news media on trans issues. Olveira-Araujo extended this research by going beyond the U.S. and looking at the dynamics over time between legacy and digital media, as well as progressive and conservative media. Olveira-Araujo did this by looking at more than 31,000 news articles on trans issues over a 20-year period in Spain.

The study found three main avenues of influence on news coverage of trans issues (the amount of coverage, not the tone or approach of the coverage): national media to local media, progressive media to conservative media, and legacy media to digital media. To zoom in on one of those avenues, it’s not surprising, of course, that progressive media might have covered trans issues before conservative media did, and in more detail. But it is notable that the progressive news agenda flowed to the conservative one. Olveira-Araujo suggested that “conservative media might have felt forced to participate in the discussion on trans issues, as progressive media increased the newsworthiness of an issue that conservative media have historically considered of low priority.” Since 2016, though, the direction of that influence flipped, with conservative media influencing progressive media coverage since then.

A similar flip in direction of influence may have happened around the same time with digital media beginning to influence legacy media. But amid all these dynamically shifting media influences, it’s worth noting what wasn’t found to be influenced by other media: the attributes of the coverage itself. “These results suggest that, if the media are more easily influenced about what to publish,” Olveira-Araujo wrote, “they are not so much about how to publish it.”

“Effective leadership in journalism: Field theory in how journalists evaluate newsroom leadership.” By Gregory P. Perreault and Samuel M. Tham, in Journalism. It doesn’t take much prodding to get a journalist to start an ode to the best editor they’ve ever had, or to start a rant about the worst. But it’s a subject that’s been studied formally less often than you might think, given its importance to satisfaction and prosperity of journalists. Some recent research has worked to correct that oversight, looking at what constitutes effective and ineffective newsroom leadership during times of crisis or structural or cultural change in particular.

Perreault and Tham looked in this study at newsroom leadership more generally, interviewing 27 U.S. journalists about their own experiences with newsroom supervisors, as well as their senses of how an ideal newsroom supervisor ought to lead. They examined those journalists’ perspectives through the lens of field theory, a sociological theory that has been widely used to study journalistic culture and work over the past two decades.

What most interested Perreault and Tham was field theory’s notion of different forms of capital — scarce resources that people or organizations in a field compete for, such as economic capital, social capital (networks of social relationships), cultural capital (recognition or skills within a field), and symbolic capital (field-specific expertise or status). They found that journalists tended to be pretty forgiving when their supervisors didn’t have a lot of economic or cultural capital (i.e., money and awards), but that they deemed social capital (deep connections and strong communication throughout the newsroom) and symbolic capital (a strong sense of journalistic expertise and news judgment) as indispensable.

Journalists’ criteria for their editors were clear: They “primarily evaluated their supervisors based on their ability to communicate, their expertise and, less prominently, the degree to which supervisors offered trust and autonomy.” Not surprisingly, journalists were often frustrated with what they considered unreasonable expectations and inadequate compensation. But in what is probably good news (except for those in upper management), they didn’t blame their supervisors for that, but rather the organization as a whole. Instead, journalists saw their supervisors largely as supportive members of their team, “partners who needed to navigate the same challenging field,” the authors concluded.

“Don’t say failed innovation, say failed implementation! The unsuccessful implementation of early paywalls and chatbots in the Spanish news market.” By José M. Valero-Pastor, Alicia De Lara-González, José A. García-Avilés, Miguel Carvajal, Félix Arias Robles, and Dámaso Mondéjar Aráez, in Journal of Media Business Studies. The failed experiments of news organizations in the digital era are myriad (remember when The Daily wasn’t a New York Times podcast, but an iPad-only newspaper run by News Corp.?), but they rarely get detailed post-mortems, beyond the immediate wave of tsk-tsking thinkpieces. This group of Spanish researchers sought to mine that trove of missteps for insights that could be applied to other news innovation efforts in the future.

They interviewed 20 experts to determine the most important recent failed innovations in Spanish journalism, and to explore why those innovations failed. Based on those interviews, they zeroed in on two efforts in particular: the early implementation of paywalls and micropayments, and the use of chatbots for news. They evaluated the factors in those experiments’ failure on three levels: internal (the management, structure, and resources of the organization itself), intermediate (access to financing, market position, and industry maturity), and external (the audience market and needs).

The particulars of each case differed — early efforts to charge for news collapsed but more recent ones have gained more traction, while chatbots have yet to see a successful use case in the Spanish market. But some of the reasons for failure were similar. In both cases, the user market was simply not ready to accept the innovation, indicating “poor detection of user problems or poor solution design,” as well as “absence of technological tools sufficiently developed to provide a comfortable and safe user experience.”

The experts did not identify significant internal problems that led to the failure of these innovations. Instead, they pointed to intermediate and external ones: The lack of understanding of audience needs and desires, poor communication of the innovation’s value, and, in the case of paywalls, a lack of coordination across organizations that left organizations charging for news at a distinct disadvantage in implementing their paywalls. In the case of chatbots, the enthusiasm about the potential usefulness of AI for users may be proving to be warranted, but a focus on the “shiny new thing” may have been taken at the expense of a sharper assessment of the audience’s actual desires.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2024, 11 a.m.
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