What Happened to our Academic Culture?

Universities – along with their centers, departments, and colleges – vary greatly in the vibrancy of their respective academic culture (intellectual climate). Nevertheless, no university can be complacent about the vitality of their culture for academic excellence – least they lose it.

Of course, there is no single academic culture. There are differences in the values, attitudes, and priorities of academics cross-culturally and at teaching versus research institutions, for example, but some of the same questions are relevant: Are the faculty and students engaged with each other over important issues and questions in their fields? Are they open to new ideas, but also are they actively scouting for new ideas in areas close and far from their primary areas of study or research? Do colleagues exhibit a healthy analytical skepticism – questioning the validity of assumptions and arguments, regardless of their prominence among their colleagues or their field as a whole?

Arguably, if you feel that you need to build an academic culture at your institution, you might have already lost it. But in many respects, even institutions with a strong academic culture need to continue building on their success, and not taking it for granted. There are too many pressures in modern academe across all institutions to ignore the forces that could undermine the openness and engagement of academics.

Competition for Time and Attention

These pressures include a nearly universal sense of increasing time pressures. Traditional images of the academic sitting comfortably reading while smoking a pipe seem increasingly romantic to academics multi-tasking online to handle never ending streams of email, deadlines, reviews, and the pressures to publish. Time to think and write seems to be shrinking for many if not most and not only among early career scholars, but across the range of temporary, fixed term, and tenure-track faculty. With attention appearing to be spread more widely across multiple demands, it is understandably difficult to take the time out to have lunch with a colleague, meet with students, go to a seminar outside your immediate area, listen to a lecture, or even read a book!

Unfortunately, this can lead academics to prioritize their activities in ways that can be counter-productive, such as going only to seminars central one’s areas of research and teaching, if at all. However, it is so often the case that it is in a seminar outside of one’s immediate areas of interest that you can find new ideas, new methodological approaches, and analogies with one’s own research. Many activities that appear unproductive, such as having a relaxed lunch with colleagues, are central to building an academic culture. For example, you learn about developments outside of your normal field of view, or discover how to better explain your own work.

A risk is that a focus on publishing can lead to more of a culture of production than a more genuine academic culture. A production culture could lead to publishing more work, but in a day when virtually anything can get published, this can undermine the quality of the academic process, such as leading us to do more incremental versus more innovative research, in addition to creating an academic treadmill for yourself and your colleagues.

Change in Collaborative Research Practices

A related driving force is a move from the traditional model of the lone scholar to more team oriented research collaboration. There is a degree to which a lone scholar values interaction with colleagues, such as over lunch or through seminars, as a stimulating approach to their own thinking. As academics move more into collaborative teams, often distributed geographically, they are more engaged in communication online and offline with their team, potentially undermining the attraction and value of spending more relaxed time with colleagues that are not closely tied to their work. Of course, the resources available online for collaboration and research generally are enabling individuals to work on their own in more productive ways, but nevertheless, there is arguably more reliance on distributed team research that can supplant more informal collaboration (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010).

Of course, the move to online collaboration and teaching creates more pressures. It might be easier to meet with people at a distance, but this means we meet more often and about more things. Online courses might make life easier for students, but they are harder for teachers to produce, and put more pressures on the time of academics. But as they are a new source of revenue for universities, and a means for increasing the productivity of faculty, these pressures will increase, or create more teams for the delivery of courses, which reshape the collaborative culture of teaching as well as research (Dutton and Loader 2000).

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: a Focus on Careers versus a Liberal Education

Another pressure is the move of many universities to focus more on ensuring that their graduates get good jobs rather than a liberal education. Decades ago, I was intrigued by arguments that a university should train students for their ultimate job, and not simply their first job. I wasn’t sure if it was right, but it certainly seemed closer to what universities did in trying to provide a liberal education to students on how to do such things as communicate, listen, reason, appreciate new cultures, create new ideas and approaches to old ideas, and challenge conventional thinking. But as more pressure is placed on more universities to train students for their first career if not their first job, the priority of a liberal education diminishes and so do aspects of university life tied to an academic culture. Of course, this focus on a student’s first career is problematic when students are likely to have not just multiple jobs, but multiple careers over the course of their working life.

From the Ivory Tower and into a Political Cockpit

Another pressure worth mentioning is the politicization of education, including universities. In the US, for example, there is a growing disparity of trust in universities across political parties (Geiger 2016). Universities seem to be increasingly lumped into a category of liberal-elite institutions that are out of touch with popular criticism of the status quo. As politics becomes more prevalent and perceived as more partisan in the climate of universities, it is possible that universities might become less open and more self-conscious about expressing viewpoints, such as on politically sensitive issues. Moreover, as competition between industries – which often cuts more deeply than politics – becomes more politicized, such as in the EU and US, then there are even greater political tensions in the Ivory Tower that can undermine free and open inquiry. Already in the USA, it is difficult to get federal funding for policy research, given the partisan concerns that surround funding decisions and research outcomes.

To Build a Culture from Yourself Up

The pressures of the digital age, the economic imperatives to train for jobs, and the growing political visibility of academia might combine to undermine academic cultures across many institutions of higher education. This makes it even more important to constantly think about building the academic culture of your institution. Don’t be defensive – this is a general problem, not just a swipe at your institution, but more of a note to myself.

There are steps you can take. My suggestions are first to start with your own willingness to take the time to engage, participate, and be open to and challenging ideas in areas close to and also far from your primary areas of inquiry. The moment you hear yourself think that you are not interested in a topic, that is the moment you should make an extra effort to engage, hear more, and see what you can learn. An academic culture can’t be driven from the top-down, or required by the instructor. But an academic can teach by example. So make an open, inquisitive, skeptical academic culture your priority, and other good things will happen.

References

Dutton, W. H. and Loader, B. D. (2002) (eds.), Digital Academe: New Media and Institutions in Higher Education and Learning, London: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

Dutton, W. H., and Jeffreys, P. (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Geiger, A. (2016), From Universities to Churches, Republicans and Democrats Differ in Views of Major Institutions, Factank, September 26th. Available online here.

Pack Journalism – Digitally Networked

Digitally Networked Pack Journalism

Pack journalism is not only alive and well in the digital age, it is arguably more prominent than it could ever be in the analogue era of print journalism. There is clearly a need for multi-disciplinary research on the sociology and politics of digitally enabled pack journalism.

The concept of pack journalism was coined in the midst of the Nixon-McGovern election campaigns of 1972 through observations made of journalists riding on the campaign buses, leading to the book entitled The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse (Random House 1973).

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It is not difficult to imagine how reporters travelling together on a campaign bus would interact in ways that shaped the definition of the story and undermine the diversity of viewpoints that might otherwise emerge from multiple reporters covering the same campaign. Recall Kurt and Gladys Lang’s classic, Television and Politics, which demonstrated how different people watching the same parade or demonstration would have very different perspectives from different vantage points, such as being there in person versus watching it on television. Despite blogging and Tweets galore, the news is likely to present one perspective on a demonstration, as well as most other political events, as journalists are more networked – not just on the bus, but – nationally and globally, than ever before possible.

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Pack journalism was seen as a problem as it created a more homogeneous coverage of stories, but it also homogenizes the news agenda, every paper covering the same story in similar ways. This is dangerous in creating a sense of THE news agenda and THE truth about a story, rather than a healthier view of multiple perspectives on the news. It is important to remember that TV is still king, and sets the agenda for most other media.

The driving forces behind networked pack journalism are not simply technical, but also economic and socio-political. As news organizations are more financially stressed, in part due to the rise of online and the decline of revenues for traditional media outlets, then reporters are more likely to rely more than ever on other journalists. This is not only a recipe for more reliance on press releases, what has been called ‘churnalism’ rather than original reporting, but also for reliance on the increasingly networked pack of journalistic reporting. It saves money and time. News organizations are also increasingly operating in a highly partisan setting in which journalists might well be increasingly concerned with how their stories are politically categorized. It is safe to travel in the company of other journalists, creating another incentive to stick with the pack, or packs, as in the polarized news political news coverage of today.

Good journalists are alert to the value of diversity in reporting, but it is possible for even good journalists to drift into pack journalism without being aware of the degree there interaction with their peers is homogenizing the news. So beware of pack journalism in the digital age. The ‘boys on the bus’ are an anachronism, but pack journalism is not, and could well be an even greater problem in the digital age of networking.

In this respect, I would argue a need for more multidisciplinary research on the networking of journalists. This requires sociologists, academics in Internet studies, political scientists, and others to study how journalists use networks and with what effect on the diversity or homogeneity of the news. With all the attention being directed on how Internet users are networked into echo chambers, or filter bubbles, it is surprising indeed that journalists are not a stronger focus of critical research.

References

Timothy Crouse (1973), The Boys on the Bus (New York: Random House).

Kurt Lang, and Gladys Engel Lang, Politics and Television (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968).

Talks in Europe on Quello Center’s Search and Politics Project

I had a fascinating and challenging week in Europe speaking about the Quello Center’s work on search and politics. The findings of our project, called ‘The Part Played by Search in Shaping Public Opinion’, suggested that concerns over fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles is ‘overhyped and underresearched’. The project was supported by Google, and the findings and methodology are publicly available online (see references), along with the slides I adapted for each of the particular talks. The slides are posted here: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

In Paris, on the 10th and 11th, I was able to speak at a UNESCO Knowledge Café for a seminar chaired by the Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, for UNESCO staff, which included UNESCO’s Xianhong Hu. I then met with members of the French Audio Visual Regulator, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA); and then members of the Ministère de la Culture (Ministry of Culture); and gave a lecture at Sciences Po, which was jointly organized by Thierry Vedel for the MediaLab and CEVIPOF. I was also able to meet over lunch with a former colleague in the President’s office at the French National Commission on Informatics and Liberty (CNIL), which is central to data protection in France.

On the 12th, I was in Rome, where I first spoke at a roundtable over a wonderful lunch at the Centro Studi Americani – the Center for American Studies. That evening, I spoke on the Terrazza dei Cesari with members of YouTrend, an organization of political communicators in Italy, which was picked up by over a thousand on a Facebook Live video stream. The talk was sandwiched by an aperitif and dinner, and sequentially translated.

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Centro Studi Americani

My last stop was in Berlin, where I was able to meet at the Ministry for Culture with representatives of the state media authorities, representing the German Lander. I finished my talks with a roundtable at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute für Internet und Gesellschaft (HIIG – Germany’s first Internet Institute), chaired by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Schulz and joined by Professor Dr. Dr. Ingolf Pernice. As a member of HIIG’s Advisory Committee, it was great to end my trip with a sense of the quality and diversity of faculty, fellows and visitors at the Institute.

This week was an incredible opportunity for me to convey the results of our research. I want to thank all of those who helped organize and attended these events; thank my colleagues on the project, including Grant Blank, Elizabeth Dubois, and Bibi Reisdorf, along with our graduate assistants, Sabrina Ahmed and Craig Robertson; and thank our colleagues at Google for their confidence in our project.

I must say that I was unable to convince many of those involved in these talks that the panics over fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers have been overhyped. Despite evidence on the many ways that Internet users are likely to mitigate these problems, such as in consulting multiple sources of information about politics, many politicians, regulators and scholars remain very concerned.

I spoke to each group about the ways evidence can fail to change views on these issues as an example of how many divisions in society are not due to filtered or biased information, but to real divisions in opinion. These panics are powerful for several reasons, including the attraction of technologically deterministic perspectives, the role of a confirmatory self-selection or dismissal of evidence, and the role of the third-person effect – I’m okay, but others are likely to be fooled.

References

Dutton, W. H. Talking Points that Formed the Basis for the Talks in Europe: https://www.slideshare.net/WHDutton/search-and-politics-fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-july2017

Dutton, W.H., Reisdorf, B.C., Dubois, E., and Blank, G. (2017), Search and Politics: The Uses and Impacts of Search in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United States, Quello Center Working Paper available on SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2960697

Dutton, W.H. (2017), ‘Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped’: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Dutton, W. H. (2017), ‘Bubblebusters’, NESTA. http://readie.eu/bubblebusters-countering-fake-news-filter-bubbles-and-echo-chambers/

 

Simplify and Then Exaggerate, Big League

I was taken back years ago when the editor of a major news magazine told me that she told her editors to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. That was the secret formula for writing a good news story.

th-1To me it is increasingly clear that all the news media have moved in this direction, and to keep in line with political rhetoric, they have also added a huge level of hyperbole to the formula. Fox and CNN are driving this trend, particularly with their panels. We have almost become the nation of hyperbole.

The bad news is that more and more news is so exaggerated that it is simply wrong, misinformation. The worse news is that, in due course, no one will take political rhetoric or news media seriously. It will just be viewed as entertainment.

The best journalists and politicians work harder to avoid this formula, and clarify the complexities surrounding so many issues. Call out over simplistic hyperbole for what it is. Hyperbole is part of President Trump’s style, but it is not simply the President’s rhetoric as this level of exaggeration came before him (the Tea Party) and goes beyond the President today, such as with the media and resistance to Trump, with its followers being proud to be compared to the Tea Party of yesteryear.

 

 

 

 

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

Surrogate News: The End of Journalism?

News coverage of the 2016 US presidential election vividly illustrated a worrying trend. It goes well beyond the decline of the newspaper to the decline of quality journalistic reporting in favor of entertaining news commentary. Perhaps I have a romantic view of the past. Perhaps journalism may be better than ever, but let me develop this point.

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the larger context in which most news organizations are facing various levels of financial trouble. The newspaper, for example, used to be quite profitable enterprises in the US, with major revenue for classifieds and other ads. The Internet has undermined the growth of revenue for newspapers, such as by providing far better options to the classified ads. With ad revenue dropping, there have been major drops in subscriptions, and the number of newspapers published. However, the growth in online news has not been generating the revenues that maintained the traditional newspaper.

However, the decline of the traditional newspaper and its business model, does not necessarily translate into a decline in news coverage. The Internet and social media provide some new sources of news, and have also lowered the costs of traditional news gathering and reporting. And it is increasingly technically possible for any reporter in the world to be read by anyone interested in the story the reporter puts online. First hand accounts are increasingly more available through social media and mobile Internet smartphones. These developments are occurring, but so are some countervailing trends.

First, there are fewer reporters on site, in the field. Some of the major world news organizations, such as Al Jazeera and CCTV, are able to bring live reporting from the sites of news developments to their viewers. But these are exceptionally well-funded news operations, and funded by state entities, which can compromise their editorial and reporting independence. Generally, first hand reporting of the news is declining except for the rising reliance on Twitter and other social media coverage picked up by the wire services and other news organizations.

Secondly, there is some evidence of a rise of churnalism, which is the uncritical publication of press releases by politicians, business organizations and government agencies. Perhaps churnalism is simply more apparent with Internet Web sites devoted to exposing it. If true, as I believe it to be, this is another symptom of a decline in the quality of reporting.

Thirdly, and most worrying to me, is the rise of surrogates as major news sources. To the credit of CNN, for example, which makes a great use of these sources, they at least call them surrogates. During the election, CNN rolled out Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and many other candidates’ surrogates. Decades ago, I recall some early discussions of concerns over the major news organizations interviewing journalists as sources, rather than the actual protagonists and eyewitnesses to events. This was widely criticized as a poor substitute for authentic news reporting. Perhaps people of interest to the news reporter are more difficult to interview, more inaccessible, but for whatever reasons, there is a major growth in the reliance on journalists several steps removed from the actual actors who are the subject of the news.

There is a silver lining to the increased reliance on paid surrogates. They are trained and polished presenters, unlike many of the actual subjects of the news. There is no doubt that many of the surrogates are entertaining, bright, articulate, and knowledgeable individuals. But they are not so much reporting the news, but trying to interpret stories in ways that throw a positive light on their candidate. They can only provide commentaries on the news, most of which we already know, and from their staged point of view – a surrogate for a particular candidate. They are the ultimate extension of the so-called spin doctors for the candidates, such as immediately following a debate. They give us a perpetual debate of the spin-doctors, but not news. Whether print or TV journalists – the distinction is disappearing as the star surrogates move across platforms – the focus is on entertaining discussions of the ‘breaking news’ reported by others. The print journalists that are good on TV will be the most read in the papers, and that is likely to privilege engaging delivery over original substance.

The surrogates provide the greatest example of the decline of quality journalistic coverage. Journalists are not only becoming the sources of the news, many steps removed from the subjects and news events that they comment on, but also not from an objective, disinterested position. So you can hear a surrogate on a news panel ‘report’ that they had just had (presumably during a commercial) a call from one of their candidate’s supporters, and use that call as the basis of their sense of how the campaign was going. th

News has moved from the provision of information to entertainment as a means to reduce costs and increase viewers and readers. Journalists have moved from seeking to objectively report what is happening by distancing themselves from the hard news, being on stage rather than in the field, and slanting their story to fit their surrogate role.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there should be serious and careful discussion of all the institutions that brought us to two candidates with such unfavorable ratings among a worryingly divided electorate, but those institutions should go beyond the parties and the primary process, to also include critical assessment of the role of surrogate news in fostering our current distrust of the news, government, and the political process most generally. The public is – somehow – putting up with surrogates for real high-quality news. Its entertaining.

10th Anniversary of OII’s DPhil in Information, Communication & the Social Sciences

It was a real honour today to speak with some of the alumni (a new word for Oxford) of the Oxford Internet Institute’s DPhil programme. A number came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DPhil. It began four seemingly long years after I became the OII’s founding director in 2002. So while I have retired from Oxford, it was wonderful to return virtually to congratulate these graduates on their degrees.

The programme, like the OII itself, was hatched through four years of discussions around how the Institute (which is a department at Oxford University) should move into teaching. Immediately after my arrival we began organizing the OII’s Summer Doctoral Programme (SDP), which was an instant success and continues to draw top doctoral students from across the world who want to hone their thesis through an intensive summer programme with other doctoral students focused on Internet studies. The positive experience we had with this programme led us to move quickly to set up the DPhil – and four years is relatively quick in Oxford time.

As I told our alumni, the quality of our doctoral students has been largely responsible for the esteem the OII was able to gain across the university and colleges of Oxford. That and the international visibility of the OII enabled the department to later develop our Masters programme, and continue to attract excellent faculty and students from around the world. th-1

I am certain the OII DPhil programme has and will continue to progress since I left Oxford in 2014, such as in adding such strong faculty as Phil Howard and Gina Neff. However, I believe its early success was supported by four key principles that were part of our founding mission:

First, it was anchored in the social sciences. The OII is a department within the Division of Social Sciences at Oxford, which includes the Law Faculty. In 2002, but even since, this made us relatively unique given that so many universities, particular in the USA, viewed study of the Internet as an aspect of computer sciences and engineering. It is increasingly clear that Internet issues are multidisciplinary, and need a strong social science component that the social sciences should be well equipped to contribute. Many social sciences faculty are moving into Internet studies, which has become a burgeoning field, but the OII planted Internet studies squarely in the social sciences.

Secondly, our DPhil emphasized methods from the beginning. We needed to focus on methods to be respected across the social sciences in Oxford. But also we knew that the OII could actually move the social sciences forward in such areas as online research, later digital social science, and big data analytics as applied to the study of society. The OII did indeed help move the methods in the social sciences at Oxford into the digital age, such as through its work on e-Science and digital social research.

Thirdly, while it is somewhat of a cliché that research and teaching can complement each other, this was always the vision for the OII DPhil programme. And it happened in ways more valuable than we anticipated.

Finally, because Oxford was a green field in the areas of media, information and communication studies, with no legacy departments vying to own Internet studies, we could innovate around Internet studies from a multi-disciplinary perspective. And we found that many of the best students applying to the OII were multidisciplinary in their training even before they arrived, and understood the value of multidisciplinary, problem-focused research and teaching.

As you can see, I found the discussion today to be very stimulating. My 12 years at Oxford remains one of the highlights of my career, but it is so much enhanced by seeing our alumni continue to be engaged with the institute. So many thanks to Dame Stephanie Shirley for endowing the OII, and the many scholars across Oxford University and its Colleges, such as Andrew Graham and Colin Lucas, for their confidence and vision in establishing the OII and making the DPhil programme possible.

Remember, the OII was founded in 2001, shortly after the dotcom bubble burst and at a university that is inherently skeptical of new fields. Today the Internet faces a new wave of criticisms ranging from online bullying to global cyber security, including heightened threats to freedom of expression and privacy online. With politicians worldwide ratcheting up attacks on whistleblowers and social media, claiming undue political influence, threats to the Internet are escalating. This new wave of panic around the Internet and social media will make the OII and other departments focused on Internet studies even more critical in the coming years.