Should journalists call themselves 'storytellers'?
Plus: On the ground with journalists in Mexico, the digital divide among investigative journalists, and why ESPN became politicized
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:
‘Storyteller’ label may be damaging trust in news
For many years, it has been virtually axiomatic in many corners of journalism: Journalists are storytellers.
They convey newsy facts about the world, yes, but they often do it through stories, using narrative techniques that seek to engage audiences so as to improve the reach and impact of reporting. This emphasis on storytelling as a core feature of journalism is evident all around (even if there has also been pushback against this idea). Consider, for instance, how many journalism schools emphasize how they teach aspiring journalists to be “storytellers.”
The presumption underlying all of this emphasis on “storytelling” as a key term is that journalists take pride in their ability to explain complex topics through narratives and bring to life key insights about people and issues that might be overlooked if not illustrated otherwise. But what if the public has a rather different interpretation of the term “storyteller”? What if that label actually undermines journalistic credibility rather than enhances it?
That is the question driving a new research article published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. The title from authors Brian Calfano, Jeffrey Layne Blevins, and Alexis Straka seems to say it all: “Bad Impressions: How Journalists as ‘Storytellers’ Diminish Public Confidence in Media.” There is, however, a little more nuance than the headline might suggest, as we’ll see below.
First, it’s important to situate why this matters. Whether journalists are perceived as credible by the public is partly based on how journalists present themselves to that public. This happens in the way news organizations market themselves (from “Fair and Balanced” to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”) to the way that individual journalists talk about themselves and their work — most obviously these days on social media, whether in profile bios or via tweets, Facebook posts, etc. What words do journalists use to characterize who they are and what they do — and what kind of effect might those choices in personal branding have for how news audiences react to the work?
Let’s consider again the term “storyteller.” Through random samples of U.S.-based Twitter biographies where “storyteller” was included as a descriptor, Calfano and colleagues found that roughly 80% of such Twitter accounts belonged to journalists or former journalists, including from leading national outlets such as CBS News, The New York Times, and the Associated Press as well as many local television news affiliates. The authors are careful to note that this doesn’t mean that 8 in 10 journalists use “storyteller” as a self-identifier; rather, it points to how frequently the term is used by journalists — and high-level ones at that — to characterize themselves.
An interesting side note to these searches of Twitter bios: 82% of those journalists using “storyteller” as an identifier had some connection to television news. This suggests that broadcast journalists put particular emphasis on this role, and it accords with research suggesting that TV news produces better audience comprehension and retention when narrative techniques are used (which makes sense: humans are hard-wired to remember stories).
So, as the authors describe, journalists for the most part embrace the role of “storyteller,” as do many journalism schools and journalism scholars—but what if news readers and viewers are coming to different conclusions? (This is particularly so given that Merriam-Webster definitions for “storyteller” tend to focus on more fictionalized forms of fibbing, lying, or telling tall tales.)
To test this, the authors used a survey-based embedded experiment with a national sample of 2,133 U.S. adults. Both groups saw a news story about local political matter (zoning regulations) that was designed to be as nonpartisan and neutral as possible, and which had been tested previously with a separate group of MTurk users to ensure that people did not find either the reporter or the article to be particularly biased. With that verified, the news article was shown to both the treatment and control groups in the experiment — but the treatment group also saw, atop the article, a one-sentence description: “The reporter who wrote the article below uses the term ‘storyteller’ to describe himself on LinkedIn.” Why LinkedIn? The authors felt it might reduce strong emotional feelings that people have about Twitter or Facebook.
The resulting findings are consistent: the “storyteller” cue led to lower positive attitudes about the article and the journalist in question. This becomes especially apparent when various measures of perceived bias that the authors use are brought together, showing that people exposed to that one-sentence description atop the story—as well as Republican respondents—tended to perceive more overall bias in the story.
To get a richer understanding of what people think, the authors also included an open-ended survey question that asked: “when you see the term ‘storyteller’ used to describe a journalist, what comes to your mind?” Using sentiment analysis to analyze the resulting write-ups at scale, the authors found that more than two-thirds of the responses were negative in tone.
“Some of the most frequent words and phrases offered in the open-ended response help show the extent to which respondents did not evaluate the ‘storyteller’ brand positively,” the authors note. For example, out of 1,733 usable responses, a variation of the phrase “made up” appeared in 264 comments in addition to many invocations of “fake news” (255 times) and “liar” (239 times)—while softer critiques such as “fictional” and “embellish” showed up in 197 and 178 comments, respectively.
“By the same token, a small group of respondents did perceive the ‘storyteller’ brand cue in the manner its journalist users likely intend,” the authors write, noting that “those offering positive sentiments focused almost entirely on the skill involved in telling a compelling story”—but these positive attitudes were very much in the minority.
What conclusions should journalists, media managers, and researchers draw from these findings? Clearly, there is evidence to suggest that leaning into “storyteller” as a branding cue may backfire. And yet the authors are quick to say: “We do not characterize our findings as supporting a wholesale avoidance of the ‘storyteller’ brand.”
Perhaps a different type of news story (one on a more partisan topic) or a different way of introducing the experimental treatment (after all, a descriptor like “this journalist identifies as a storyteller” at the top of a news story is not entirely realistic) might yield a different result. We need further research to confirm. But the findings, nonetheless, show that we have much yet to learn about how certain branding cues may be helpful or detrimental to public faith in journalism.
An RQ1 read: Surviving Mexico by Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine E. Relly
This is the second of what we hope will be occasional summaries by RQ1 readers of notable recent books on news and journalism. This month’s summary is from Erin Siegal McIntyre, a professor at the University of North Carolina who previously worked as a journalist based in Tijuana. If there’s a recent research-oriented book on news or journalism that you’d like to write about, let us know!
“In Mexico, undoubtedly, too many journalists have died, but journalism is far from dead.”
While that sentiment may be true, at least so far in 2022, the murder of reporters in Mexico has broken record after record.
This grim reality makes Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century, the new 288-page book by Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine E. Relly, even more urgently indispensable. For the last twenty years, Mexico has “fade[d] from a hopeful moment into an era of tumult and fear,” the authors note, despite “finally reach[ing] some level of democracy” after seven decades of semi-authoritarian rule.
Based on more than 160 interviews with journalists, activists and academics across several regions of the country, González de Bustamante and Relly present a highly readable account of the myriad dangers faced by journalists in Mexico, the impact of trauma and violence their lives, and how individuals and collectives had organized to meet the challenges of working in such a dangerous place. Journalists are more vulnerable, consequently, they’ve been forced to develop new mechanisms by which to both cope and survive.
While the first two sections of the book focus on anchoring and quantifying violence, the third and final section offers a refreshing long gaze towards the future. Building resiliency is key to basic survival. Drawing clear connections between resistance and resilience, González de Bustamante and Relly outline various ways that journalists in various Mexican states and cities have come together, formally and informally, to protest, resist, and organize.
“Changing course will require enormous effort in tandem with the will of all sectors of society,” they write. “Some journalists and activists have started down that road…. [and] many more must join them for real change to happen.”
How investigative journalists around the world adopt innovative digital practices
Jessica Kunert, Jannis Frech, Michael Brüggemann, Volker Lilienthal, and Wiebke Loosen
Investigative journalism has had a conflicted relationship with technology. It’s often seen as one of the least technologically reliant subdisciplines of journalism — the domain of “pounding the pavement” — but it’s been much more closely tied to data journalism over the past decade.
Kunert and her coauthors took an international look at how investigative journalists adopt and adapt to technology, interviewing 133 investigative journalists from 60 countries and analyzing the results through the lens of the diffusion of innovations, one of communication studies’ longest-standing theories.
They found that while investigative journalists are hungry to learn about new technological aids to their work, “they are overwhelmed with acquiring digital skills and feel helpless in the light of the complexity of the digital practices that are potentially at their disposal.” To cope, they often collaborate with specialists — largely technologists — and hang onto some traditional methods.
But the authors also found that social structures affect adoption far more than diffusion of innovations has typically held. Specifically, they characterize investigative journalism as a social system operating at two different speeds, with those in Global South dramatically limited in their ability to access advanced digital tools. “The gap between South and North is widening,” they wrote. “While in the Global North more and more digital practices are becoming part of everyday work in the newsroom, the Global South often continues to struggle with the preconditions for the use of digital practices.”
Harassment of journalists and its aftermath: Anti-press violence, psychological suffering, and an internal chilling effect
Changwook Kim & Wooyeol Shin
Journalists around the world have been subject to increased amounts of derogatory rhetoric, harassment and violence over the past decade. A wave of recent studies has examined the effects of that harassment on journalists, finding that it tends to make journalists less willing to pursue emotionally oriented tasks, cover particular types of stories, and view audiences as rational.
Kim and Shin provide a notable addition to these studies by examine the psychological and emotional effects of harassment and coping mechanisms among journalists in South Korea, where anti-press sentiment is severe. They argue that anti-press discourse has been normalized through the widespread adoption of the word giraegi, a portmanteau of the Korean words for “journalist” and “trash,” and the violent and abusive rhetoric around it.
Kim and Shin conducted interviews with 10 journalists and an analysis of 18 self-reflective articles written by journalists in response to harassment. They found that harassment, which is especially intense against women, produces senses of anger, helplessness, and fear in journalists. They try to cope through perfectionism (which isn’t effective, since the harassment rarely comes in response to actual mistakes), putting emotional boundaries between themselves and audiences, and ‘counter-hating’ and belittling them.
Kim and Shin also found that journalists are vulnerable to “mob censorship” when their organizations don’t support them against such attacks, leading journalists to choose not to pursue certain types of stories for fear of angering audiences. They conclude by posing a stark question: “Should journalists serve members of the public who deny the reason for their existence?”
“Stick to sports”: Evidence from sports media on the origins and consequences of newly politicized attitudes
Erik Peterson & Manuela Muñoz
How do people come to see areas of society, or media sources, as political where they hadn’t before? That’s the question Peterson and Muñoz are addressing in this study, and it’s one that many of us have wondered over the past several years, as subjects like vaccines and Dr. Seuss have become widely perceived as fundamentally political ones.
Peterson and Muñoz examine an interesting example in the sports broadcasting behemoth ESPN, which has seen its longstanding apolitical perception dramatically shift in the face of sustained conservative attacks on its impartiality over the past decade.
The authors hypothesize two potential routes to politicized attitudes about ESPN: viewing it as political because they perceive public opinion (and especially conservative media) as seeing it as political, and viewing it as political because of their actual experience with ESPN content. They also try to determine if politicization makes people more likely to reduce their consumption of ESPN.
Peterson and Muñoz address these issues in a remarkably thorough article consisting of three studies — two survey-experiments and a third survey. They find that people are much more likely to see ESPN as political based on consumption of political (i.e., conservative) media with commentary about ESPN than based on actually watching ESPN.
But the influence of these partisan media-induced cues doesn’t extend into action. The authors found no partisan differences in ESPN use during a time (2016-17) when they found massive partisan differences in perceptions of ESPN. (The biggest factor driving ESPN use was, of course, interest in sports.) Partisan media, they suggest, may be very effective at generating antipathy toward media sources, but much less so at changing media consumption behavior.
Do more with less: Minimizing competitive tensions in collaborative local journalism
Joy Jenkins & Lucas Graves
Collaborative journalism has created a lot of buzz in both the profession and the academy as a means for news organizations (particularly under-resourced ones) to undertake projects and achieve impact they couldn’t otherwise. But it can be difficult in practice, especially when the organizations involved have strong competitive interests with their newfound partners.
Jenkins and Graves sought to illustrate some potential solutions to these problems through three case studies of local journalistic collaboration in Europe. Through each case, they outlined a different collaborative model: co-op, contractor, and NGO.
In the co-op model, similar news organizations (a group of 11 Finnish daily newspapers) agree to collaborate only on specific topics in which they don’t compete. The contractor model (based on a collaboration between an Italian newspaper publisher and two startups) is structured through a contract in which organizations specialize in different areas. And in the NGO model (built around a British nonprofit news organization), a coordinating nonprofit manages common data through which many outlets develop their own stories.
For each model, Jenkins and Graves detailed the main level on which tension is alleviated — the topic, the role, or the story. While each differed on where competitive tension lay and how it was resolved, each one, the authors concluded, represented a sustainable path for local collaborations among news organizations.
Recommended for you: How newspapers normalise algorithmic news recommendation to fit their gatekeeping role
Lynge Asbjørn Møller
From Digital Journalism:
We’re in this together: A multi-stakeholder approach for news recommenders
Annelien Smets, Jonathan Hendrickx, & Pieter Ballon
Between personal and public interest: How algorithmic news recommendation reconciles with journalism as an ideology
Lynge Asbjørn Møller
To nudge or not to nudge: News recommendation as a tool to achieve online media pluralism
Benefits of diverse news recommendations for democracy: A user study
Lucien Heitz et al.
Five articles on news recommendations have been published this month — four by Digital Journalism (part of a forthcoming special issue on AI and journalism), and one by Journalism Studies. Together, they form a fascinating deep dive into what role algorithmic news recommendation systems are playing in the professional world of journalists and our political and social structures more broadly.
The studies by Møller (in Journalism Studies) and Smets et al. both examine how algorithmic recommendation systems are implemented by journalists, and both find that news organizations remain cautious in their use of recommendations out of a concern for maintaining traditional gatekeeping control and the kind of autonomy that comes with manual decision-making.
Møller looks at how Scandinavian newspapers have incorporated editorial control into their recommendation products, and Smets et al., based on interviews with media professionals in the Flanders region of Belgium, propose a model that takes into account the perspective of numerous stakeholders including users and management.
Møller’s other article looks more broadly at the tensions between journalistic values and news recommendation technology, arguing that journalists can navigate that conflict by emphasizing diversity, serendipity, and editorial input in designing recommendations. Vermeulen, meanwhile, reflects on a parallel set of tensions on the users’ side — between nudging users toward higher-quality news and preserving their autonomy and choice.
Finally, Heitz and his colleagues built an app aggregating and recommending news from Swiss outlets to test the effects of news recommendations on exposure to different viewpoints and polarization. They found some indications that diverse recommendations increase openness toward opposing views and appreciation of journalism, but no effect on political knowledge or participation.
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