Journalism, the Internet, and Empirical Research

I participated in a stimulating conference yesterday, marking the 25th Anniversary of the Thomson Reuters Fellowship at the University of Oxford. It was attended primarily by journalists, but it drove home the need for social science research to place more focus on the role of the Internet in shaping the quality of journalism.

For decades, much has been written about the potential relevance of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), like the Internet, to the production and distribution of news. Early visions of the 1960s around the ‘public information utility’, to discussion of wired cities and the future of videotext, always saw a role of new media in the news process. Likewise, many hopes were pinned in online news with the rise of the Internet. However, electronic news has always been marginalized by the news industry. Even when involved in new media, the news industry has done so mainly from a defensive position – as a means to track its development in case there really is a threat coming from the new media. Many videotext trials of the 1980s were in this vein.

No longer. In just the last several years, following the dotcom bubble, it has become clear that newspapers are beginning to think strategically about how to use the Internet to maintain and enhance their role. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, made the opening keynote of the conference, which clearly underscored the centrality of the Internet in his strategic vision for his paper and his industry.

In many respects, it is no longer as important to make the argument that the news industry should think more critically about how to use the Internet to support their future. As one practitioner put it to me: ‘We have no choice.’

Having accepted the arrival of the Internet as a central aspect of modern news organizations, two major research areas should become more prominent.

One is how the Internet is being used in all stages of the news process – in gathering news, gate-keeping and selecting stories, and producing and distributing the news. We need more research on the changes in covering developments in the field, the newsroom, and with its consumption at home, increasingly at work, and on the move. For example, will we see the training of journalists move away from creating the artisan to training more specialized individuals to work in more collaborative teams? Will distributed collaboration be even more important to the production of news than it has in the past?

But also, and possibly more important, can we develop research on how the Internet might shape the quality of the news? It was clear from the conference that more traditional journalists are worried about the impact of the Internet. In many respects, I find some worry to be based on an overly romantic image of the history of journalism. As many at the conference pointed out: ‘When has there not be concern over the quality of journalistic coverage?’ Looking a the history of journalism, people more often focus on the prize winning journalists, than on the partisan press, or the checkered past of world wide news coverage. Transformation in the work of the journalist, and the new skills that might be required, might also fuel this concern quality.

Most importantly, it seems that more traditional journalists view the Internet as a substitute rather than a complement for journalistic coverage across a variety of media. Good journalism can be extended over time and place via the Internet. Gaps in news coverage, such as in local and neighborhood news, might be addressed by blogging and lower cost Internet-enabled reporting.

However, this issue of complementarity versus substitution, along with a variety of other themes need to be addressed by journalism research. Some of the more prominent issues that found some expression at this conference, include:

The Rise of Amateurs

Andrew Keen’s view on the rise of a ‘culture of amateurism’ resonates with journalists. Journalists are concerned about the loss of professional, journalistic values and standards. This reflects concern over substitution, ignoring the greater degree to which the Internet and bloggers complement journalistic coverage. It also reflects concern over competition, but it might well reflect relatively less experience with the online world of blogging and listservs. Our OxIS research has found Internet users to be as trusting in online content as they are with broadcasting, and more trusting in what they can find online than in newspapers.

Less rather than More Diversity of Sources: Sunstein’s Echo Chambers

Some worry that readers will not be faced with the diversity of coverage supplied by the newspaper – at least the elite news. Caas Sunstein and others are concerned that in the online world, users can create their own media environment of content that reinforces their interests and views. However, most readers in all media environments tend to speak with, view, and read sources they tend to agree with. We even tend to interpret countervailing information in ways that conforms with our overall view. Far more research is needed to judge whether or not the Internet enables more people to be exposed to more diverse sources of content. It needs to be comparative, across media, and this will be a real challenge.

The Downside of a Disappearing News Hole

Journalistic coverage has always been limited by the so-called ‘news hole’ – the restrictions tied to a limited number of column inches in the newspaper. The Internet erases this limitation, but has raised concerns over the reader (and the journalist, I suspect) being confronted with too much information, too rapidly. Is this simply a holdover a top-down culture of managing the reader, or is information overload truly disabling the reader?

Mediated Coverage

Are reporters spending more time behind their computer screens, and less in the field, observing, conducting interviews, and gaining first-hand impressions of developments? Are bloggers filling some demand for reporting from the field, or are they simply rewriting other press coverage?

Concentration

Will the new media environment shaped by search engines and the Internet be even more concentrated than the news industry? Remember the wonderful spoof about ‘Googlezon’ — a 2015 scenario of when Google merges with Amazon.com? Should we be more worried about increasing concentration, or is this trend symptomatic of a transitional period?

The Fourth Estate
Closely connected to this concern is a worry about whether the press will continue to fulfil a Fourth Estate role. Will it have an independent basis for holding the government, and other major sectors of society more accountable? I would of course add to this my own observation that the Internet might well be creating a space that does not simply enable enhancement of the institution of the press, as a Fourth Estate, but also enables the development of networked individuals, forming the basis of a Fifth Estate, which can even hold the press to account.

These are just a few of the issues that merit more social science research on the changing nature and implications of journalism and the Internet, but the underlying, unifying issue is one of quality. A number of speakers at the conference suggested that journalists like nothing more than a crisis to energize the newsroom and the audience, and that we might be making more of the crisis in journalism than it merits. In fact, one session ended with a close vote, but one that suggested that good journalism was not in crisis. While I argued that position at the conference, I am convinced by the discussion that we need to turn empirical research to this question for it to go beyond a battle of opinions.

My congratulations to the organizers at the Reuter’s Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ). Useful overviews of some of the panels and the conference as a whole have been blogged by Charlie Beckett and Kevin Marsh.

7 thoughts on “Journalism, the Internet, and Empirical Research

  1. As for the rise of amateurs, I could tell you some situations in China and I’ll take the college students as an example, coz’ I just graduated from China.

    Because the government still place restrictions on media and journalism, most of college students, who are much more knowledgeable and rational than others in a low-educated society, don’t trust what they read from the main media. The college students are also forbidden to surf internationally when through the so-called Internet on campus. We have choice to connect to the off-campus internet service but it’s strictly prohibited by the school, and if you get caught, you would get warmed or even get kicked out, depending on the situation. And remember here, even the information on the Internet through the whole country is filtered by the government. So we don’t have sources to read the true reflection.

    Like the riot in Tibet on Mar. 14, the government began to dispel the media shortly after it happened. But thanks to the amateur journalists, who just had cell phone cameras and laptops, they posted the photos on line (soon deleted by the network police), and the debates went through all the students columns. College students have their own attitudes and judgement toward Tibet and the government. After seeing the photos posted by CNN, the students clearly knew who modified the photos and got irrigated by CNN. This time, it’s the professional journalists who lost their professional, their journalistic values and standards, but not the amateurs did.

    So the conclusion has been drawn by China’s college students, we don’t trust China’s main media, neither Western main media. We don’t even need them any more. Everyone could be a journalist once he/she has a cell phone with a mini camera on it.

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  2. Hi Bill

    Interesting stuff – are you exploring the role of community sites in digging local news out of the news hole? We have a good debate going on about it over here http://ultralocalvoice.wordpress.com/ with this article in particular drawing plenty of interest
    http://ultralocalvoice.wordpress.com/2008/10/05/talking-hyperlocal-ultralocal-workshop-at-mashup/

    Your suggestion of over romanticisation of journalism chimes with my local experience in London’s kings cross – if you can write and use very easy web publishing tools then you can provide a news service see http://www.kingscrossenvironment.com. we have produced 600 local articles on a huge range of issues. The vast majority of these are below the radar of our (very good) local paper.

    cheers

    w

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  3. Hi Bill

    A detailed post about what looked like a good conference. I published the findings of a short study examining the media agenda-setting capacity of political blogs in the UK last year. An overview can be found here: http://simoncollister.typepad.com/simonsays/2008/01/research-review.html

    In a nutshell the issue you flag above of ‘mediated coverage’ was a key one in the research. I found some reporters (presumed mainly younger reporters) spending more time behind computer screens and using blogs as’sources of insight’ for stories. While older reporters (i.e. section editors, rather than ‘mere’ reporters) claimed never to have used blogs for info gathering, despite indications to the contrary from bloggers interviewed as part of the study.

    One key conculsion (and one requiring further study if the OII/RISJ has space for me!) is that the simplified dichotomy of bloggers replacing first-hand, in-the-the-field information gathering or simply rewriting press coverage does not refelct reality.

    There is a significantly complex series of relationships emerging between journalists and bloggers that spans the entire news gathering, filtration, publication spectrum. In addition, it also appears that the nature and depth of these inter-relationships vary depending on the age/experience of the journalist.

    You can download the paper here: http://simoncollister.typepad.com/simonsays/2008/03/can-uk-politica.html

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