I joined up with Brian Loader in 1998 as a co-founder to help launch a new journal, Information Communication and Society(iCS) with Taylor and Francis Routledge. In our first year, we began with four issues per year, and most of our then small number of readers were located in the UK. Since stepping down as an editor, while staying on the Board, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of the editorial team this week, and had an update that was heartening – even exciting – in every way.
Over the past 20 years of its existence, iCS has become a truly global journal, publishing 14 (yes, 14) issues per year. It is on- as well as off-line, with all articles published online as soon as they have gone through final proofing – months ahead of their publication in print form through a policy of online first. In 2018, there were 362K downloads of iCS articles, up 23 percent from the previous year. Its impact factor has risen to 3.084 and readership puts it top of all sociology journals in the UK, and 7th worldwide. It is 5th in communication worldwide. All upwardly slopping curves.
The journal was put together early in the rise of Internet and new media studies. Its mission was to draw ‘together the most current work upon the social, economic and cultural impact of the emerging properties of the new information and communications technologies’ in order to be ‘at the centre of contemporary debates about the information age’. So its success is due in large part to its central position in a burgeoning substantive area. It also has enjoyed a strong team, led by Brian Loader, and a supportive publisher in Routledge a member of Taylor and Francis.
In a recent online discussion about another more niche academic journal, several colleagues pronounced the end of print journals. My experience with iCS underscores the degree that print journals, like iCS, are routinely online as well as in print, and they are very much alive and well. They take time and hard work to build a dedicated community of scholars, but they remain one of the main channels of communication in academia, including the social and economic sciences, such as in cultural and Internet studies.
As a student of, and advocate for, digital citizens of the Fifth Estate, I have been seriously interested in journalism studies. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a symposium organized by the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University by virtue of being a Visiting Professor at the School this year. It was entitled ‘Distinctive Roles for Public Service Journalism in Challenging Times’. The event brought practitioners, mainly from the BBC, together with academics, for a set of well-chosen topics, outlined below. The symposium adhered to the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t attribute quotes to individuals, but I will try to capture some of the ways in which the discussions stimulated my own thinking about ‘public service journalism’ in the Internet Age.
Held on 27 November, the one-day event was organized by Professor Stephen Coleman at Leeds, and Ric Bailey, from the BBC, who is a Visiting Professor at Leeds. I presume that Ric Bailey took a strong role with Stephen in bringing speakers from the BBC and Ric moderated the entire day of discussion. This academic-practitioner collaboration was key to the day’s success.
The symposium began with a presentation by Joanna Carr, Head of Current Affairs at the BBC, who covered key challenges facing public service broadcasters. This was followed immediately by a panel led by Joanna and John Corner, a Visiting Professor in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, formerly based at Liverpool University,on the challenges of reporting and explaining complex issues covered by the media, such as ‘austerity’, climate change, or Brexit. The presentation and panel drove home some key themes for me of the entire day – mainly around the thought and craft that professional journalists put into their strategies for putting audiences at the heart of their work.
I approached this panel with some level of skepticism about complexity as an issue. First, my own academic colleagues too often lament that their work is too complex to convey in a more accessible way. But they nevertheless come up with engaging titles for their books, and abstracts for their articles, so it is not impossible to simplify. Complexity is not an acceptable excuse for being unclear. Secondly, I can never forget an editor of a prestigious news magazine once telling me that she instructions to her writers was to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. I’m simplifying, but nevertheless her phrase worried me. Simplification might be a central problem facing journalism.
However, this panel won me over to the challenges facing good journalists. It drove home the degree that leading journalists are truly focused on reaching their audiences with coverage that is both engaging and understandable. As one speaker reminded us: “You can’t force people to eat their greens”, or to listen to their news coverage.
So the ‘craft skills’ that journalists bring to the table in selecting, defining, and communicating stories is a huge contribution to the public, what one panelist referred to as ‘BBC simplification’ is not to simplify and exaggerate to gain readers or viewers, but simplify to deliver a public service. They seek to avoid ‘elite speech’, even though some well-regarded journalists believed in talking to elites rather than the mass public, and not simply report what the subjects of the news say freely, but to structure and sequence the flow of complex stories and determine what needs to be ‘dug out’ through good interviewing skills, often conducted in a highly politicized space. Their efforts are clearly around adding value to the news, not simply reporting it.
There was an interesting discussion of the differences in complexity across issues, such as Brexit versus climate change. Some complex issues are abstract and don’t have the ‘lighting flashes’ that that make some events, such as a crash, relatively easier to report. It also seemed to me that some issues are complicated but some well-known fundamentals, such as climate change, while others, like Brexit, are impossible to know precisely as they are unfolding and unpredictable futures – what the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously called ‘known unknowns’.
The second panel focused on data journalism, kicked off by Professor Chris Anderson of Leeds, who spoke about some of the continuities and discontinuities that data journalism brings to traditional journalistic practices. John Walton, who leads the BBC data journalism team at the BBC, followed with an overview of their work. Chris focused more on the discontinuities, but I kept thinking of data journalism as a continuation and growing sophistication of a long tradition of journalists valuing data. Social scientists are often advised to provide some percentages in their press releases to increase the likelihood of a story being picked up. But today, the best news organizations are developing more sophisticated teams within their own organization, like the BBC journalism team, to locate and analyze data that can create news items, often in collaboration with others. Of course, the same trend towards more collaborative and team research is evident across the social sciences as data sciences in academia as well..
After lunch, Professor Jay Blumler gave a brief talk that identified some of the new challenges facing investigative journalism. He surveyed the changing context of journalism as well as the enduring value of journalistic roles, such as in exposing wrongs, before providing a litany of challenges facing investigative journalism, such as when the targets of investigative journalism are overwhelmed and find it difficult to reply in a timely and comprehensive manner. He also argued for journalists more explicitly considering the social implications of journalism, such as the degree to which investigative reporting might lead politicians and other public figures to consider themselves ‘sitting ducks’ for the media. What impact will this have on the willingness of individuals to step into the public arena? His talk was followed by responses and additional input from Gail Champion, Editor of the BBC programme, File on 4, and Phil Abrams, who gave impressive examples of stories that got things right, and a few where they ‘got things wrong’, but learn from them.
This panel was followed by one focused on the enduring challenge of moving journalism beyond its centre of gravity in the London/Westminster bubble, such as with the decision to locate the new Channel 4 headquarters in Leeds. Professor Katy Parry led off this panel, followed by Tim Smith, Regional Head of BBC for Yorkshire, and Andrew Sheldon, Creative Director of True North TV. I found it amazing that the politics of broadcasting in the UK remains so focused on the nations and regions, such as in respect to the distribution of production and original content. The BBC and other major broadcasters in the UK have such national prestige that the locations of new headquarters, such as Channel 4’s recent decision to build in Leeds, can be very significant to attracting talent outside the London bubble. But even more interesting to me was the degree that the Internet and social media as well as on-demand streaming video was not viewed as a threat to broadcasting in the UK, as it would be in the US. In fact, examples arose of Netflix investing in UK content and production skills.
The final summary panel featured the symposium’s academic organizer, Professor Stephen Coleman, who nicely captured and built on the key themes of the day. His remarks were followed by a panel-led discussion. Stephen emphasized the motives of what he called ‘public service journalism’ by comparing public service media organizations to public universities, such as Leeds, where there are legitimate demands for a commitment to justice, accountability, and a civic – citizen – orientation.
This was of course a friendly and receptive audience for journalists. Nevertheless, I was left more convinced than ever that public service broadcasting is alive and well in the UK through the BBC and other public service broadcast journalism, and that collaboration between practitioners and academics, as orchestrated on the day, adds real value to both.
I had the pleasure of attending Professor Chris Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture at Leeds University on 24 October 2018. I won’t attempt to summarise what was a wide-ranging, historically rich, and engaging lecture on journalism in our contemporary political context. However, I would like to provide a few points that most resonated with me. The title of his talk was “Who Cares About Journalism? Facts and the Anaesthetised Public in an Irrational Era.” I’ll look for any text from his talk and share on this blog.
If you do not know Chris, he describes himself as an ethnographer who studies the news. Professor Anderson was awarded his PhD from Columbia University in 2009, studying with two of the major figures in the communication field, Professor James W. Carey and Prof. Todd Gitlin. He worked as an Associate Professor from 2009-2018 in Media Culture at the City University of New York, when he left to join Leeds’ School of Media and Communication – a School for which I am presently a Visiting Professor.
From the introduction to his lecture, it seems Chris may have started a tradition for the School in presenting an inaugural lecture. Before joining Leeds, I was involved with Chris in a conference he organised with Pablo Boczkowski at Northwestern University that led to an excellent book, edited by Boczkowski and Anderson, entitled Remaking the News (MIT Press 2017). I am delighted to be associated with him again through my visiting position at Leeds.
But to the lecture: The most obvious point is that Chris cares deeply about journalism. He spoke of his first attraction to journalism through his exposure to community newspapers during his childhood, and then to the alternative activist media. He later became an observer of journalism and the media broadly, with a recent focus on data journalism in some of his work.
His talk touched on his own intellectual history of research on journalism, before moving to his current question about the role of journalists in our polarised world – presumably anaesthetised by the 24/7 rancorous coverage of contentious issues around the American presidency, Brexit, and more. Should journalists be focused on shinning a light on events – illuminating problems in all sectors of society, or in supporting democracy, or trying to reduce political cruelty. This latter theme he developed on the basis of work by Judith Shklar on the ‘Liberalism of Fear’ – that government needs to address cruelty of the powerful to the powerless, and this also be the role of journalists.
This would clearly be a role journalists might seek to play, but my sense is they don’t have the power to address these problems directly. That said, their traditional normative role in exposing wrongs wherever they might lie is an indirect route to addressing such problems. Holding a mirror up to our political system. However, the role of journalists is in some senses far more varied. I can’t help of thinking of the community newspapers and alternative media, and the degree that journalists at these local and alternative media are not so often addressing wrongs as they are simply trying to convey life and events in their communities.
That said, Chris has me thinking harder about not only about what the role of journalists should be in this age of tribalism, but also the role of academics. Looking forward to any text or related materials coming out of this talk.
As it happens, the occasion also allowed me to meet many faculty at Leeds and also to reconnect with two former OII colleagues: Professor Stephen Coleman, a former Visiting Professor of E-Democracy at the OII, and the recently hired as a Lecturer in Politics and Media at Leeds, Gillian Bolsover, who was a student and co-author of mine at the OII.
So this inaugural lecture was valuable to me on several fronts.
I had a short but pleasant visit to the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds that provided me an opportunity to catch up with new and old colleagues. The School has made some brilliant new hires, such as Christopher Anderson. Chris is finishing his first year at Leeds with a new and timely book, forthcoming in 2018 through Oxford University Press, entitled Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt.
The University of Leeds is also home to one of my oldest and enduring colleagues, mentors and friends in the UK, Professor Jay G. Blumler. Jay first took a position at Leeds as Granada Television Research Fellow in 1963, going on to direct his Centre for Television Research. He has taught at a number of universities since, but continues his affiliation with Leeds today as an Emeritus Professor.
On my very first trip to Leeds in the early 1980s, I stayed at Jay’s home, and recall watching Top of the Pops with his family. Lo and Behold, a rerun of that classic was on television decades later, when I walked back into Jay’s home after dinner this past Friday evening. But a more important, enduring feature of my return, was Jay’s continuing pursuit of creating – not just listening to – music, a charming aspect of his entire career. For example, Jay often entertains his academic audiences with brief refrains from a wide range of songs. He has a clear, baritone voice that led to him being involved in, and most often organizing, all sorts of singing groups throughout his life – a topic we discussed that evening.
Even before I was born (if you can imagine that), in 1944, Jay was part of a quartet of American servicemen studying Russian language at Georgetown University. They called themselves ‘The Four Freedoms’, playing off of FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, given in 1941. A colleague who heard them sing arranged for Jay and his quartet to perform at a recording session for the Folk Song Division at the Library of Congress (photo below).
In 1946, while still stationed in Berlin, Jay was Chair of the American Veterans Committee, a group he helped found and organize in Berlin. In that role, he was invited to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the city. She had heard of some of the charity work the committee had done and asked to meet with them. A diary of her day in Berlin mentions her conversations at a ‘soldiers club’ in the last paragraph.
After the service, Jay taught Social and Political Theory at Ruskin College, Oxford, serving several years as Resident Tutor at the Rookery, later called the Ruskin College Academic Building. As the tutor, he formed another group, called ‘Jay and the Rooks’ (photo below).
If you ever have the opportunity to visit with Jay, don’t hesitate to ask him if an appropriate tune comes to mind. It will. I am delighted that Jay decided to pursue an academic rather than a singing career, as he has done so much to advance the field of communication, such as in serving as President of the ICA, and advancing studies of political communication in particular. However, I am so happy that he has found ways to spice up his and others’ academic presentations with an occasional song.
I’ve argued on this blog that the idea of enabling the press to ask questions from outside the White House Press Office, in fact, outside the Washington DC Beltway, was a good idea. Some anecdotal evidence is being reported that the strategy is working. USA Today reported that over 13 White House press briefings, Sean Spicer has taken questions ‘from 32 outside-the-Beltway outlets’. This is a great example of using the Internet to enable more distributed participation. The Washington press is obviously defensive when people complain about the ‘media bubble’ in the briefing room, but the potential for what was once called ‘pack journalism’ is real, and location matters. Geographically distributing contributions is symbolically and materially opening the briefings up to more diversity of viewpoints and issues.
Inevitably, more voices means more competition among the journalists in asking questions. But there are already too many in the room, and why it is fair to give more access to the outlets that can afford to station staff in Washington DC is not clear to me. That said, the Skype seats will always be the cheap seats, and be less likely to get their turn in the question and answer sessions.
There is the ideal and reality of high quality news and journalism, and then there are many categories of news that undermine the quality of information available in print or online. Much has been said lately about ‘fake news’ – a popular but increasingly broad – overly broad – concept. But ‘fake news’ fails to capture the many variants of low quality, weak or dysfunctional news offered to the public. [Also see piece by David Mikkelson.] While not necessarily comprehensive, consider the following categories, which I will try to differentiate, and invite others to refine and build on:
Fake News: purposively fabricated stories designed to generate clicks and advertising revenue
Inaccurate News: news that has factual inaccuracies in reporting
Uncovered News: stories that are unreported, not covered, often for unintentional but systematic reasons, such as murders that are so frequent that they are not considered news
Suppressed News: unlike uncovered news, there is news that is purposively not reported, such as when an institution fails to report security problems, fraud, or offenses that might harm its reputation
Rumors, Gossip: hearsay or gossip that at one point would not have been reported, but which the Internet and social media has brought to the public
Patriotic News: news that is exaggerated or influenced by patriotic feelings in the midst of threats, such as during war or after a terrorist incident [I attribute this category to Avshalom Ginosar]
Propaganda: most often state sponsored falsification, advertising, or selection of good news designed to build support for a particular state, political actor, or political cause
Partisan News: selective reporting or biased news that is designed purposively or unconsciously to support a party or political movement in opposition to other parties or movements
Surrogate News: journalists reporting on or covering other journalists rather than actors in the news
Misinformation: stories that purposively veer from the facts or actual events in order to achieve some objective, but distinct from fake news in that it is not focused on generating revenue
Otherizing News: treatments of news that turns another person, group or nation into an ‘alien other’ – he’s a New Yorker, that is a red state, etc – in ways similar to stereotyping*
Wars on Information: efforts to cloud or confuse the treatment of real or high quality news with contradictory reports and denials, such as around Russian involvement in Eastern Ukraine
Newspeak: Orwell’s use of this term in 1984 to refer to the use of words that mean the opposite of their normal definition, such as truth meaning propaganda, as in the Department of Truth
Personalized News: news designed for a particular individual rather than a broad public – a possible future of news, for better or worse
Excluded Middle: weakness of many cable news shows in creating a debate between extremes and excluding the expression or even the existence of a middle position*
What am I forgetting? Other categories? I’m sure we could go on, but please let’s stop calling every story we don’t like ‘fake news’.
*Added with thanks to peteybee for comments below.
I was on the brink of applauding the White House for challenging some traditions of the daily press briefings in opening to more news organizations and adding the Skype seats, only to then learn of some mainstream news organizations not being welcomed in the room. So instead of diversifying access, this seems to be a blatant political reconfiguration of access to the briefings.
Two Steps Forward
The White House Press Briefings have been slow to change, and seem antiquated in the face of new media. For this reason, I was pleased to learn of two developments.
First, there were changes in the seating. Since 1981, 49 seats were assigned to reporters to be present at the briefings by the White House Correspondent’s Association. The Association is arms length from the White House, so less open to charges of any partisan or other political bias. However, the mainstream press dominates the Association, which are assigned the prime seats in the front and are, by tradition, normally called on first. The new press Secretary, Sean Spicer, has admitted more reporters to the briefings albeit without assigned seats. He and the President have also made clear moves to not call on the mainstream media first, and in fact, they have made an effort to by pass mainstream correspondents for new arrivals to the briefing. This is a good step toward diversifying access to the news, diminishing privileged access by the elite press, and empowering more media outlets. However, ignoring the mainstream press in answering questions is of course a worrisome bias if continued.
Secondly, the White House enabled two so-called Skype channels for virtual and interactive participation by remote journalists. I have never been present in any White House briefing, but it appears that the set up permits about eight or more remote journalists to participate. This seems like a long overdue reform enabled by the Internet and the new media environment. Again, this diversifies and builds on the number of journalists with more direct access to the briefings. It also helps incrementally to escape from the locational bias of the press by enabling participation by correspondents anywhere in the world, not just physically in Washington D.C.
So far, some promising reforms. But then …
One Giant Leap Back
On Friday, February 24th, Sean Spicer ‘barred journalists from the New York Time and several other news organizations from attending his daily briefing’ (Davis and Grynbaum 2017: A1). In addition to the Times, other press stopped from attending included the BBC, Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. According to reports, other correspondents, from the Time magazine, and the Associated Press – which traditional had the first question – decided not to attend as a protest against this action (Davis and Grynbaum 2017).
In my view, it is okay to expand access to the briefings, even if this might dilute the role of those who have assigned seats, particularly in the front rows. It is great to broaden access to those who are remote from Washington DC. But once the White House restricts access by strong press organizations, and correspondents, it taints the entire process. Even if you believe the press is increasingly biased by partisan coverage, the remedy is not to punish the opposition, but to ensure that there is a more diverse and pluralistic range of sources with access to the briefings. Create a more diverse range of news sources, rather than a more politically tailored set of news sources. These restrictions will undermine the coverage by the press excluded, but also the coverage by those who are included, but become less trusted as objective sources.
Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.