How collaborative community journalism really works in a pandemic
Plus: What can (or can't) be done about news avoiders, the impact of Sinclair on national political views, and the everyday tactics that shape whether young people trust news
Welcome to another edition of RQ1! 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 other interesting work you might want to check out. We can’t cover it all, of course, so consider this a 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:
Creating community-centered news in Philly
Going back to at least the 1990s, some journalists and scholars have been pushing for a form of journalism that centers on the needs of the community it serves — not just in an abstract sense, but by allowing the community to actively set the agenda and including it in the newsmaking process. That philosophy has taken different forms over the years — public journalism, civic journalism, citizen journalism, participatory journalism, engaged journalism — but it has always maintained the same vision of journalists and community members together ensuring that the news serves the community, first and foremost.
In their new study in Journalism Practice, Andrea D. Wenzel and Letrell Crittenden give an up-close look at a fascinating ongoing example of this kind of journalism — community-centered journalism, as they call it — in Philadelphia, where both of them are based. Their case involves two neighborhood projects with deep community involvement: Germantown Info Hub and Kensington Voice. They were interested in two particular wrinkles to this community-based approach: One, what does this look like in historically marginalized communities, one majority Black and another majority Latinx, where distrust in the news media runs deep after decades of stigma and distortion? And two, how do these projects function during a pandemic, when public information is crucial, misinformation is rampant, and communities can’t get together like usual?
Wenzel and Crittenden combined an ongoing ethnography of the two projects with online focus groups of 26 community residents and leaders conducted last April, during the early days of the pandemic. Among the community members, they found frustration with sensational news and a lack of actionable information in local media, even as they consumed more local news during the pandemic. Community members also expected local journalists to act as advocates for the community, holding authorities to account on the community’s behalf.
Both Germantown Info Hub and Kensington Voice did much of what community members were calling for. Kensington Voice, located in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, asked local news organizations if they could translate important COVID-19-related stories into Spanish and post them on their website or distribute them through community organizations, focusing on actionable information. Local media enthusiastically allowed them to translate and republish stories, thanks to a local news collaborative project called Resolve Philly already in place.
In the predominantly Black neighborhood of Germantown, Info Hub held a virtual town hall for representatives of community organizations to brainstorm collaboration possibilities to meet community needs amid social distancing requirements. In doing so, they acted more directly as a connector than news organizations typically do, connecting organizations to each other rather than simply to themselves.
In both examples (and in other citywide collaborations the study describes), Wenzel and Crittenden offer concrete instances of the value of having newsroom staff that reflect the populations an organization covers (for example, the idea for Kensington Voice’s translation project came from a Latina staff member who was translating COVID-19 stories for her father). They also note that this kind of direct collaboration with community organizations challenges journalists’ traditional notions of objectivity.
But most of all, they find that it’s crucial to have community-centered, collaborative structures already in place when a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic arises. The roots for those collaborations need to run deep, Wenzel and Crittenden argue, and they truly need to have the community’s needs at their heart.
The head and heart of news avoidance: How attitudes about the news media relate to levels of news consumption
News avoidance is a hot topic in research and something we’ve featured previously in this newsletter. It’s the apparently growing phenomenon of people sidestepping news despite the plentiful choices that abound. In this study based on a survey of U.S. adults, Edgerly seeks to uncover why some people have especially low levels of news consumption and what might be done about it. For example, she asks, are news avoiders simply uninterested, do they not understand how news works, or is avoidance driven by emotion?
First, news has to matter to people. Edgerly finds that people’s level of interest in politics is “highly predictive” of their overall news use. While this is not surprising, and is not something easily remedied by news organizations alone, “one approach to slowing the growth of news avoidance is for journalists to learn how to tell newsworthy stories (about politics, for example) in ways that better convey its impact on certain segments of the population — like young adults and individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds.” (See Edgerly’s previous research on seeking and avoiding news among young people.)
Second, news is a turn-off for people who lack self-confidence in navigating an increasingly abundant and complicated media environment, the study finds. If the “cognitive costs” of navigating information seem too high, people check out. This, too, may be challenging for journalists to address, but it points to opportunities for simply improving the presentation of news: How can news be organized and packaged in a way that is less daunting and more inviting?
One curious finding: “Perhaps surprisingly, the emotional toll of news (e.g., news fatigue, upset feelings) did not explain variation in overall levels of news consumption.” This suggests that trying to reduce these feelings among audiences may not really move the needle on overall news consumption, or that perhaps regular news consumers have developed ways of managing (e.g., through occasional detox) what is an inevitable feature of our current high-choice media environment.
How does local TV news change viewers’ attitudes? The case of Sinclair Broadcasting
Matthew S. Levendusky
This study takes up an intriguing question: Can local television news — still some of the most-watched and most-trusted form of news for many Americans — shift viewers’ views on national politics?
The growth of Sinclair Broadcasting, which reaches roughly 40% of U.S. households as the second-largest owner of TV stations, offers a chance to test this question because it focuses more on national topics than its local TV counterparts. And, of course, because of Sinclair’s decidedly right-wing political slant — a bias made infamous with a variety of “must run” segments that local stations must air regardless of their misgivings about the conservative messaging from corporate.
The results are fairly straightforward: “Using data on Sinclair’s acquisition of local TV stations between 2008 and 2018, I show that living in an area with a Sinclair-owned TV station lowers viewers’ approval of President Obama during his tenure in office, and makes viewers less likely to vote for the Democratic nominee for president.” That is, even though viewers’ underlying predispositions and liberal-vs.-conservative self-identifications didn’t appear to change during the period, the mere presence of Sinclair in a market seems to have persuaded roughly 6% of the local audience to disapprove of Obama and become less likely to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This “persuasion rate,” which the author presumes is an undercount, is about half the effect of Fox News availability — but still notable because it is occurring via local rather than national media.
The trust gap: Young people's tactics for assessing the reliability of political news
Joëlle Swart & Marcel Broersma
The International Journal of Press/Politics
What does it mean to trust the news? Anyone reading this newsletter is well aware of the many studies documenting the decline of public trust in journalism happening in many countries, in part linked to withering trust in institutions generally as well as increasingly fractured political climates (for a good overview, see these reports from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism). But there’s still so much we don’t fully understand — for example, as this study notes, “the apparent paradox of why people may consume news that they do not trust and may not trust the news that they use.”
Swart and Broersma’s study, based on interviews with 55 young people from 10 nationalities living in the Netherlands, offers a window onto the everyday tactics and thought processes that go into how people — and young people in particular — approach political news and make sense of the complexity surrounding what to trust and why.
Based on the results, the authors develop a taxonomy of nine tactics that came up again and again — consistent across gender and cultural backgrounds — for assessing the reliability of political news. These ranged from prior knowledge and endorsements by others to factors such as news design/tone/format and one’s gut feeling. Overall, the results suggest that “rather than critically evaluating news through comparing and checking sources, users often employ more pragmatic shortcuts to approximate the trustworthiness of news.” And young people were more apt to see trust as nonbinary: for them, it was not a matter of figuring out if a source could or couldn’t be trusted, but rather whether it was “trustworthy enough.”
One sobering finding: “Our interviews confirm that increasing youth’s media literacy and awareness of misinformation may actually be countereffective,” which reinforces danah boyd’s argument about the misguided way that media literacy is being taught to today’s youth. “Emphasizing the risks of trusting what might be misinformation led some of our interviewees to conclude that no source of political information could be trusted.”
Changing the beat? Local online newsmaking in Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, and the U.K.
Joy Jenkins & Pedro Jerónimo
Audience perspectives on paying for local news: A regional qualitative case study
Angela Ross, Libby Lester, & Claire Konkes
While the shift from legacy to digital has been challenging for legacy news providers of all kinds, it has been especially hard for local media — their business models undercut by shrinking advertising revenue, less direct access to readers in a disaggregated media environment, and a precarious transition to a digital subscriber base that can offset losses elsewhere. Two recent studies offer a view of these dynamics both from inside and outside the news organization.
First, Jenkins and Jerónimo, in their study based on interviews with managers, editors, and journalists in five countries (Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, and the U.K.), show how local news media appear to be defying their innovation-averse tendencies and (finally) gaining traction in shifting their newsroom structures and cultures to adapt to digital-centric needs. This includes developing new beats, positions, and mind-sets. The upshot is that newsrooms now “increasingly prioritize products that do not mimic other digital platforms but are differentiated at the local level.” Finding and cultivating such distinctiveness in an increasingly crowded information market will be key to the future success of any news media.
Second, in their case study of regional Australian media, Ross and colleagues examine the factors that contribute to people being unwilling to subscribe to their local news organization. They zero in on a particular dilemma: Because audiences can too readily bypass the paywall and aren’t convinced that the cost and hassle of a subscription is worth it, news organizations need to fundamentally rethink their relationship with their community in light of what is known about successful brand marketing.
“We argue people need to feel they are a partner in an interdependent relationship where they receive something they value in return for committing to the ‘brand,’” the authors write. “We identified several obstacles to the development of such a relationship. Some participants said the news stories lacked context or quality. Some were disappointed in the lack of diversity of perspectives and others bemoaned what they perceived as content of reduced quality. It was not viewed as ‘extra’ to what they could access for free.”
In an echo of the community-centered journalism we described earlier, Ross et al. conclude that local news publishers need to realize that primarily covering community elites and assuming that qualifies as community advocacy isn’t going to cut it anymore. “They must make courageous attempts to connect with the broader base to understand people’s problems, concerns, fears and triumphs.”
Willing but wary: Australian women experts’ attitudes to engaging with the news media
Research has consistently found that women are under-represented as sources in news coverage. The picture looks especially dire in the realm of “expert communicators,” where women can make up less than 1 in 5 of the sources in areas such as science and medicine. But while previous studies have focused on the quantitative tallying up of representation in the news, they haven’t offered a close-up picture of the qualitative experience of women who are cited in the news. As such, Shine’s study, based on interviews with 30 women professors in Australia, seeks to uncover: What do expert women think about being interviewed as sources?
While nearly all of the women experts in the group were willing to be interviewed by a journalist and generally described having positive experiences with reporters, “they referred to various factors that may act as deterrents,” the study found. “These included a lack of confidence, a reluctance to appear on camera, time constraints and a lack of understanding about how the news media operates.”
Such difficulties can rather easily be minimized by journalists with a bit of proactive work in setting up interviews, Shine suggests, which will ultimately lead to greater representation for women experts as one interview leads to follow-up opportunities. This could mean providing more detail up front about the nature of the interview, the time investment involved, and the likelihood of the expert being quoted. “Although many journalists are reluctant to provide questions in advance,” Shine writes, “this is a strategy that is likely to make female sources more comfortable about agreeing to an interview. Even a brief sample of questions would give the source a better understanding of the nature of the interview and what the journalist was seeking.”
The imagined audience for news: Where does a journalist’s perception of the audience come from?
Mark Coddington, Seth C. Lewis & Valerie Belair-Gagnon
We talk a lot in this newsletter about how journalists think about their audiences, and about how, from the flip side, people think about the press. Perhaps it’s because we care a lot about these concerns as researchers ourselves. In this study we just published, we tried to bring some clarity to this question: If journalists produce news with a certain image of the audience in their mind, where does that image come from?
Previous research suggests that journalists often use people they know (e.g., family, friends, bosses, frequent sources) as stand-ins for the “imagined audience” they have in mind when they envision who they’re writing for. But digital media present new and different ways of knowing audiences, whether through audience metrics that aggregate and signal reader tastes or in more direct encounters with people on social media. Through a survey of 544 U.S. journalists, we found that journalists’ views of their audience spring from a complex variety of sources, each carrying different consequences for how journalists evaluate their audiences — e.g., whether they imagine their audience as smart/rational or similar to them. Why does this matter? Because, for example, the type of low-brow content often derided as clickbait rests on a view of the audience as irrational masses motivated by emotion, so it’s important to untangle how journalists working for commercial media, let’s say, may come to envision the audience differently than those working for non-profit outlets.
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