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.
To 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.
I have been amazed by the level of consensus, among politicians, the press and the directors of security agencies, over the origins and motivations behind the Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Seldom are security agencies willing to confirm or deny security allegations, much less promote them*, even when cyber security experts vary in their certainty over the exact details. Of course there are many interpretations of what we are seeing, including speaking arguments that this is simply a responsible press, partisan politics, reactions to the President-elect, or a clear demonstration of what has been called, in a study of a thread of Israeli journalism, ‘patriotic’ journalism.* For example, you can hear journalists and politicians not only demonizing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the messenger, but also arguing that those who do not accept the consensus are virtually enemies of the state.
One useful theoretical perspective that might help make sense of this unfolding display of consensus is the concept of the ‘certainty trough’, anchored in Donald MacKensie’s research** on missile systems and those who had different levels of certainty about their performance, such as their accuracy in hitting the targets they are designed to strike. He was trying to explain how the generals, for example, could be so certain of their performance, when those most directly involved in developing the missile systems were less certain of how well they will perform.
The figure applies MacKenzie’s framework to the hacking case. My contention is that you can see aspects of the certainty trough with respect to accounts of Russian hacking of John Podesta’s emails, which led to damaging revelations about the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton Foundation during the election, such as in leading to the resignation of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC post. On the one hand, there are security experts, most directly involved in, and knowledgeable about, these issues, with less certainty than the politicians and journalists about how sophisticated these hacks of an email account were, and whether they can attribute clear intentions to an ecology of multiple actors. At the other extreme, the public is the least knowledgeable about cyber security, and likely to have less certainty over what happened (see Figure). Put simply, it is not the case that the more you know the more certain you are about the facts of the case.
The upshot of this possibility is that the journalists and politicians involved in this issue should not demonize those who are less certain about who did what to whom in this case. The critics of the skeptics might well be sitting in the certainty trough.
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.
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.
I participated in a symposium that marked the first quarter century of research on digital journalism. It was organized by Pablo Boczkowski and Chris Anderson and held at Northwestern University on April 11, 2015. Titled “Remaking (Digital) News”, the symposium led me to look back on my career in communication and the progress I’ve observed in the study of journalism, and digital journalism in particular. I wrote a commentary for one section of their forthcoming book (Boczkowski and Anderson forthcoming), but beyond this commentary, I thought it useful to share my thoughts on the rise of scholarly research in the field, if only to provoke some comments and corrections to by perspective from outside the field.
Roots of the Study of Digital Journalism
Histories of digital journalism can be traced back long before the web. Pioneering two-way cable communication projects – so called “wired city” – projects in the late 1970s and early 1980s experimented with the delivery of news, such as facsimile delivery of local news, using Japan’s Highly Interactive Optical Visual Information System (Hi-OVIS) in Higashi Ikoma (Kawahata 1987). Trials of videotext, bulletin board services (BBS), and online services sought to deliver the news in new formats. Early work focused on whether anyone would use such services given the prominence of newspapers and magazines.
Later, but ever since the 1980s, in the early years of the Internet – then ARPANET – prominent concerns began to be raised about the potential for online news sources to erode the quality of journalism, such as by distributing rumors rather than verified facts. This potential became epitomized by the Drudge Report. Launched in 1996, as an email-based newsletter, it was the first source of rumors surfacing around President Bill Clinton’s “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” which more mainstream media decided to withhold from publication. [The Drudge Report was posted on January 17, 1998, with the headline “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern.”]
Ever since that time, the Internet has often been viewed as a Trojan horse that would lower the quality of journalism by enabling unprofessional bloggers – amateurs with lower standards – to enter the news business (Keen 2007). Research has focused significant attention on that potential, but often found that the new news sources, such as social media, complement rather than substitute for professional journalism, with the sourcing of material moving in both directions (e.g., Newman et al. 2012).
In parallel, since the mid-1970s, the rise of the new media, such as two-way cable, videotext, BBS, and the Internet, has fueled concerns over the potential for new media research, or research on the adoption and use of information and communication technologies. Many believed the new media to be ephemeral novelties, mere fads, but that research on these new media would sidetrack more significant research on mainstream media, and potentially erode the quality of media and communication research. Far from a fad, the new media converged around the Internet to become increasingly central to the media and society, and new media and Internet studies have become burgeoning sources of scholarly research in a wide range of fields, including journalism (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2002; Peng et al. 2013; Dutton 2013; Hartley et al. 2013).
Most concerns were raised about the Internet being a questionable new object of study, but there was similar unease about the Internet and digital media introducing new methodological approaches, such as e-research and digital social research, and about the rise of big data analytics. These new methods were also seen as a potential threat to the quality of scholarship generally – not just journalism research (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010: 343–47). Can the scraping of websites ever replace the use of in-depth interviews and qualitative case studies?
This tradeoff has turned out to be a false choice. It seems clear that a developing strength of the field of digital journalism is its pragmatic approach to methods – what might be called methodological eclecticism. Just as journalistic practices are growing in variety, from traditional interviews to data journalism, the methodological range of scholarship in the area has expanded to encompass approaches ranging from ethnographic research and content analysis to computational analytics and related “big data” approaches to discovery – digital social research.
Global Universities and the Demonstration of Scholarship
Just as journalism was in the center of concerns over studies of, and with, new technologies posing threats to scholarship and practice, the field faced more general trends across universities to become more focused on high-quality scholarship. Across disciplines, since the 1970s, universities have faced pressures to become more competitive in the metrics of scholarship, such as publication in high-quality journals, and good citation counts. Higher education has become more global. The days of local and regional monopolies in attracting students were seen to be declining, not only because of inexpensive travel, but also because of the increasing availability of informative websites that were fast becoming one of the student’s first points of contact with universities. Scholarly rankings were likely to increasingly challenge the role of geographical proximity in student choices of institutions of higher education.
All of these pressures have combined since the early 1980s, to move journalism schools, particularly in universities across the United States, to transform themselves from journalism training to placing a greater priority on scholarship, focusing effort on developing journalism research and producing top scholars of journalism to join and complement practicing journalists. Top journalism schools in the United States have long cherished their prize-winning journalists among their faculty. However, while practicing journalists once made up the lion’s share of most journalism faculties, they have given ground over the years to a rising number of academics who view journalism as an object of study rather than their own profession.
There remains strong support for recruiting successful journalists to teach the art and techniques of journalism, but there is growing interest in attracting scholars who also view the practice and role of journalism in society as an object of study from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Scholarship, as opposed to the practical arts, is not new to journalism. A number of major scholars of communication have developed within the field of journalism: scholars like Michael Schudson come to mind. It seems clear that the number of scholarly researchers among the ranks of journalism faculties has risen over the last twenty-five years.
However, as noted above, as this transformation in journalism faculties was developing, the Internet enabled a new technical approach to journalism – online news and digital journalism – that posed another threat to the very practice as well as the study of journalism. In introducing new technologies, such as the Internet and related blogging and social media technologies, digital journalism has bumped up against the traditional journalist’s skills and toolkits. In addition, the study of digital journalism became inherently more multi- or interdisciplinary, by requiring a greater understanding of the production and reception of new media as well as more mainstream journalistic practices. Also, like other interdisciplinary fields, the study of digital journalism has been problem-focused by its very nature, rather than focused on refining particular theoretical frameworks or concepts. As an interdisciplinary field, it was therefore not developing as a mainstream discipline, which also made it more problematic to build its scholarly reputation.
The concurrent rise of Internet studies and interdisciplinary research has helped support the study of digital journalism. The symposium provided many examples of digital journalism drawing theories and methods from a multitude of different fields, underscoring how digital journalism is advancing as a field of study just as the future of online journalism appears to be gaining a certain sense of inevitability, despite continuing concerns over the business models and economic bottom lines of supporting high-quality journalism.
Boczkowski, P. J., and Anderson, C.W. (forthcoming), Remaking the News. Book in progress.
Dutton, W. H. (2013) (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Dutton, W. H., and P. Jeffreys (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Kawahata, M. (1987), HI-OVIS. In Wired Cities: Shaping the Future of Communications, edited by W. H. Dutton, J. G. Blumler, and K. L. Kraemer, 179–200. Boston, Mass: G. K. Hall.
Hartley, J., J. Burgess, and A. Bruns (2013) (eds), A Companion to New Media Dynamics. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Keen, A. (2007), The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. New York: Doubleday.
Lievrouw, L. A., and S. Livingstone (2002) (eds), Handbook of New Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Newman, N., W. H. Dutton, and G. Blank (2012), “Social Media in the Changing Ecology of News: The Fourth and Fifth Estates in Britain,” International Journal of Internet Science, 7(1): 6–22.
Peng, T.Q., L. Zhang, Z.-J. Zhong, and J. Zhu (2013), “Mapping the Landscape of Internet Studies: Text Mining of Social Science Journal Articles 2000–2009,” New Media and Society, 15(5), 644–64.