'Engaged journalism' is taking us back to the 'public journalism' debates of the 1990s

Plus more key findings from news research published in March 2020

We hope this finds you safe and well. These are exceptionally challenging times for people around the world. We all made it through March, and we’ll get through April together as well. One day at a time…

Welcome to the third edition of RQ1—now with a whole lot of new subscribers. Thanks for joining! For those who are new, we are Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis—two former journalists turned academics, now teaching and researching at Washington and Lee University (Mark) and the University of Oregon (Seth).

In trying to keep pace with all the new research about news and journalism, we hope to give you each month a quick breakdown of a notable piece of new research, and also to highlight some other interesting work you might want to check out. We can’t cover it all, of course, so consider this a good-faith sampling of some of the most interesting findings in news research.

If you have ideas or suggestions, please shoot us a reply—we’d love to hear from you. And if you enjoy this, please share the newsletter with your colleagues so they can sign up. If someone has shared this email with you, then you can subscribe here:

Here’s what we found in this month’s news research:

A persistent pursuit to reform U.S. journalism

For decades, critics have argued that journalists and news organizations (particularly in the U.S.) are too disconnected from their audiences. Journalists, these critics have said, struggle to fully appreciate people’s concerns, dismiss opportunities to involve them in news-making, and altogether fail to develop a more mutually beneficial relationship with the communities that journalism is expected to serve in the first place. In recent years, this critique and its push to reform journalism has taken the form of “engaged journalism,” which, broadly speaking, suggests that public trust in news will improve as the public has a more active, rather than passive, part to play in the news agenda. But where did this concept of engaged journalism come from, and why does it sound so familiar to the similarly styled “public journalism” movement that emerged in the 1990s but failed to take hold in American journalism?

A new (open-access) paper in the International Journal of Communication offers some answers. To better understand how the journalism community has explained (to itself) the need first for public journalism and later for engaged journalism—as well as how journalists have come to envision their audiences through both reform movements—the authors conducted a close reading of dozens of trade-press articles published during the public journalism period (1992-2001) and the rise of engaged journalism (2005-2018).

In their analysis, Patrick Ferrucci, Jacob L. Nelson, and Miles P. Davis identify three key themes about the apparent need for public journalism and engaged journalism, as championed by their advocates in trade magazines: “First, journalism is in trouble and needs fixing; second, there is a need to remodel how journalists think and act; and third, the industry needs a market-driven or nakedly capitalistic approach due to an economic downturn.”

Then, looking at how the public journalism and engaged journalism movements imagine the news audience, they point to three assumptions that are consistent in the trade-press discourse of both time periods: “First, the audience includes marginalized populations who want to contribute to the news production process, yet are traditionally not allowed to do so. Second, the audience knows more about its needs than journalists do. And third, the audience is disdainful of journalists’ elitist approach to their work.”

There’s a striking similarity between the diagnoses of and prescriptions for what ails journalism in both cases: namely, allow audiences to participate because they want to as civically minded people who can help improve news quality in the process, and because doing so may help the bottom line at the same time—a win-win. This belief has “an obvious, intuitive appeal,” the authors write, “because it suggests that the news industry has a great deal of autonomy when it comes to solving its profession’s most pressing problems.”

Overall, the consistent ethos of these reform efforts indicates that even if public journalism failed in its 1990s form, its spirit lives on in engaged journalism today. And it suggests that the debate about the role of the audience in news—a debate at least as old as the “Lippmann-Dewey Debate” more than a century ago—will persist for some time, even if it’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon or, perhaps, lead to the kind of significant change in the way news is produced that reformers hope.

Even more, the authors wonder, reformers’ focus on the audience relationship and their assumption that journalists can fix things on their own may be misleading, particularly at a time when larger structural forces—such as the economics of digital advertising and the power of platform companies—may pose more existential problems for the future of journalism.

Research roundup

Here are some other studies that caught our eye this past month:

Gender differences in political media coverage: A meta-analysis
Daphne Joanna Van der Pas & Loes Aaldering
Journal of Communication

It might seem self-evident that political news coverage is unfair to female politicians, but research in this area has been divided, with some scholars concluding that women receive less attention than their male counterparts and others arguing that we’ve moved toward gender parity in political news. Van der Pas and Aaldering analyze a massive amount of data (90 quantitative studies covering 750,000 media stories over decades) and find that women in politics do indeed get less media attention than men — 17 percentage points less on the whole. The numerous secondary factors they examine are fascinating: In one particularly surprising finding, the gender bias in amount of coverage virtually disappears in majoritarian political systems where politics is more personal than party-oriented.

The culture of free: Construct explication and democratic ramifications for readers’ willingness to pay for public affairs news
Manuel Goyanes, Marton Demeter, & Laura de Grado
Journalism

Goyanes and his colleagues pose a question that has vexed most of the world’s newsrooms over the past decade — Why won’t more people pay for news? — by interviewing several dozen digital news consumers in Spain. Their answer is encompassed in a concept they call “the culture of free,” which has four characteristics: A belief that news is a public good that should be free, habits of consuming news for free, freely available competition among news sources, and a notion of news consumption as a sort of mindless free-time filler. A key aspect of the study’s argument is that these news non-payers don’t believe the news they consume is low-quality; they just believe it must be available for free. That view has been encouraged by the homogenization and commodification of news in recent years, the authors argue.

Protecting news companies and their readers: Exploring social media policies in Latin American newsrooms
Summer Harlow
Digital Journalism

As journalists move into their second decade of widespread professional social media use, guidelines from their employers continue to be one of the main places where the tensions over what that use should look like play out. In a survey of journalists across 20 Latin American countries, Harlow finds that most Latin American journalists don’t have social media guidelines in their newsrooms, suggesting that social media still isn’t very institutionalized in many of those countries. As journalists understand them, those policies are focused on what not to do, as a way to protect professional norms and the news organization’s image. This defensive mindset does extend to emphasizing respect for readers and sources, but not to protecting journalists themselves from harassment.

Populist attitudes and selective exposure to online news: A cross-country analysis combining web tracking and surveys
Sebastian Stier, Nora Kirkizh, Caterina Froio, & Ralph Schroeder
The International Journal of Press/Politics

Stier and his colleagues address a longstanding issue of interest to researchers — where partisans, in this case populists, get their news — through a remarkably comprehensive method. They collect web tracking data from more than 7,000 people across Europe and the U.S. and tie it to survey data from the same people, so they can make precise connections between their political attitudes and their actual news consumption habits. It turns out populists do indeed consume less legacy news media than others, but they still consume a lot more legacy news than they do hyperpartisan news. The results also vary widely by country: Populists only consume more hyperpartisan news in countries (like the U.S. and Germany) where the hyperpartisan news ecosystem is very strong and where such attitudes aren’t found in legacy media (as they are in the U.K. tabloids).

Computational news discovery: Towards design considerations for editorial orientation algorithms in journalism
Nicholas Diakopoulos
Digital Journalism

Through interviews with journalists, Diakopoulos goes deep into how newsrooms use what he calls “computational news discovery”: tools that use algorithms to flag potentially newsworthy events or information. He finds that despite the algorithmic intervention, the process of turning those leads into news is still a deeply human and variable one. The tools are still subject to the immense demands on journalists’ attention, at some times helping direct that attention but at others merely diverting it. The tools also highlight the extreme complexity and, as Diakopoulos calls it, “configurability” of newsworthiness, as journalists’ sense of what is actually newsworthy depends heavily on idiosyncratic factors and organizational influences.

Sorting the news: How ranking by popularity polarizes our politics
Yotam Shmargad & Samara Klar
Political Communication

Shmargad and Klar are interested in the role that algorithmic rankings based on social inputs (like the ones on Facebook and Reddit) have in users’ news attitudes toward the news they’re consuming — specifically, whether those rankings have a politically polarizing effect. They use an experiment to build rankings based on popularity among Republicans and Democrats, and find that when users are given rankings based on cues from a un-like-minded network (e.g., conservatives with a liberal-ranked list), they actually express support for some articles that oppose their own views. But the good news ends there: Those participants show less political engagement and more frustration with media representativeness as a result, and the participants who get algorithms that support their own views find their partisan reactions to news heightened.

Electoral reckonings: Press criticism of presidential campaign coverage, 2000-2016
Elizabeth Bent, Kimberly Kelling, & Ryan J. Thomas
Journal of Media Ethics

One of the longstanding routines of U.S. presidential campaign coverage is the news media’s criticism of its own coverage, especially as critics grapple with the election’s results after the fact. This trio of University of Missouri researchers examine this press criticism over the last five election cycles to find trends in the coverage itself. They find that many of the critiques circle around a few recurring themes, most prominently a failure to exercise independent judgment, especially as it relates to use and misuse of polling data. They also found repeated criticism of the news media’s failure to properly represent the electorate, whether “values voters” in 2004, a more diverse voting base in 2008, or white working-class voters in 2016. Notably, they see a dramatic shift in the tone of criticism in 2016, as the change called for went from incremental to an overhaul, and the rhetoric around the role of technology turned negative for the first time.

If you want to go deeper, there’s a lot more where these studies came from. Journalism Research News has a comprehensive list of journalism research published in March.

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