Chris Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture, University of Leeds

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.

C. W. Anderson, from his 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.

Gillian Bolsover & Stephen Coleman, Leeds University

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.

 

 

Visiting Leeds University and Jay G. Blumler

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.

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Jay and Bill, 2018

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).

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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).

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Jay and the Rooks

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.

Notes

Jay G. Blumler on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Blumler

Evidence of Benefits from Opening the White House Press Briefings via Skype Seats

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. th-1

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.

My earlier post is here.

Fake and More Categories of Bad News

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  th

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.

 

Rethinking White House Press Briefings: Two Steps Forward, One Giant Leap Back

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. th

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.

References

Davis, Juilie Hirschfeld, and Grynbaum, Michael M. (2017), ‘Trump Intensifies Criticism of F.B.I. and Journalists’, New York Times, 25 February: A1, A14.

Wright, Bruce. (2017), “White House Stops Press from Attending Media Briefing’, International Business Times, Yahoo! News, 24 February: https://www.yahoo.com/news/white-house-stops-press-attending-201309162.html

New Position as Quello Chair at MSU

After 12 great years at Oxford, I am delighted to be joining MSU as their new Quello Professor. Not sure how my former USC Trojan colleagues will react to me joining the Spartans!  The current Director of the Quello Center, Professor Steve Wildman, a recent Chief Economist at the FCC, posted a much appreciated announcement of the appointment. I’ll be joining MSU in August 2014 and look forward to staying in touch with you over this and related blogs in the future. One of my goals will be to put the Internet and Web into the center of a forward strategy for building the Quello Center’s role in the new digital world of communication research, policy and regulation. My work as a co-principal on the Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre will continue at MSU, as will my work on the Fifth Estate, partly through the support of a project on collaboration at the DTU (Danmarks Tekniske Universitet) as well as through support of the Quello Center.  At MSU, I will hold the James H. Quello Chair of Media and Information Policy.

Announcement by MSU http://cas.msu.edu/oxford-university-professor-named-quello-chair/

 

Financial Times Opts for Independence from Press Regulation

Hope springs eternal. Wonderful to learn that the FT has opted out of both the new Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), as well as the Parliament-backed Royal Charter system, which threatens to undermine the independence of the press in Britain. The paper is creating its own self-regulatory system through a new ‘editorial complaints commissioner’, according to The Independent (18 April 2014) and PressGazette, see: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/financial-times-opts-out-ipso-favour-its-own-system-regulation  The FT might continue to play a role in the Fourth Estate if it continues to guard its independence. Hopefully other papers will follow its lead.