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Snurb's blog

Research, rants, and random thoughts by Axel Bruns.


The Problem with Objectivity in Journalism

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 15:36:17 +0000

Gatewatching and Citizen JournalismJournalismIndustrial JournalismFuture of Journalism 2017The final keynote speaker at Future of Journalism 2017 is Linda Steiner, who begins by introducing us to feminist standpoint epistemology: bodies of knowledge are socially situated and embodied, and this both limits and enables what one can know. From this perspective, it is clear that there is a thin procedural view of objectivity at the basis of journalism – and this is a problem. This is simultaneously also a reason that Donald Trump and other critics of the mainstream media are able to attack the press as 'fake news' when it does not live up to a narrow standard of objectivity, and a reason that journalists themselves will choose to cover more straightforward stories rather than topics that would challenge their ability to remain objective.There is therefore now also a moral panic over news consumption, as many audiences are turning away from the sometimes anaemic news coverage of the mainstream media and towards more engaging, partisan, energetic, and entertaining forms of news coverage and discussion. Indeed, these audiences are increasingly also admitting and celebrating their preferences for 'soft' and entertaining over 'hard' and dry news. This means that the paradigm of objectivity is now beyond repair, and needs replacement, Linda suggests.Feminist standpoint epistemology, then, is a knowledge project that challenges ethnocentric, sexist claims to value-neutrality in science; it aims to reshape science to be less false; and it seeks to be more democratic and more engaged. These aims can also be applied to journalism: objectivity serves dominant groups; conventional views of objectivity are too weak to identify the interests and values that shape agendas, contents, and results of inquiry; it seeks to improve the process of fact-finding, not of selecting issues and topics in the first place; and it focusses on the point of verification rather than the process of discovery of facts.Instead, there is a need for strong method, strong reflexivity, strong objectivity, and strong ethics to combine in journalism in order to produce strong information. The approach resists the suggestion that we all have our equally valid interpretations of the facts; instead, it allows for historical and cultural relativism, meaning that our personal backgrounds influence how we evaluate information, but not for epistemological and judgmental relativism. Indeed, outsiders to social order are more likely to generate critical questions about received beliefs, due to their own bifurcated consciousness, even if they are themselves also grounded in their own historical specificities.Strong method, then, means transparency, accountability, comprehensiveness, interrogated with reflexivity and and awareness of subjectivity. Inquiry starts from the lived experience of people who are usually excluded from knowledge production; this generates more critical questions and can generate greater insights into the object of study. The aim is for the provisionally least false, discarding false beliefs when counter-evidence or new conceptual frameworks offer better insights.In this, the work of alternative media, when they represent a diverse range of journalists, adds crucial diversity by drawing on a variety of non-privileged sources; they develop transparency and self-conscious politics; they share control over their stories with the subjects and sources of those stories; they experiment with accountability; and they commit to group self-reflexivity. In this, they clearly stand apart from conventional news media. Given the perilous state of mainstream news, we have little to lose from further embracing this revolutionary model.[...]

Does Using Social Media for News Change Attitudes to the EU?

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 14:00:14 +0000

The final speaker in this Future of Journalism 2017 session is An Nguyen, who begins by focussing on the role of major tech companies in influencing information exposure for their users, which has given rise to concepts like 'echo chambers' and 'filter bubbles'. Various studies have now started to explore the presence of such patterns, building on a variety of data and focussing on a range of contexts, communities, and cases – with highly variable outcomes.

The present study uses the Eurobarometer 86.2 survey, to explore whether in the turmoil of 2016 EU publics changed their views on social media as sources of political news. To what extent do they rely on social media, and under what circumstances; how does this impact on their level political knowledge? The survey covers some 28,000 participants from 28 EU member states, during the first fortnight of November 2016.

First, in spite of events like Brexit and the Trump election, the survey respondents' attitudes towards social media as sources of political news have improved substantially. Reliance on social media for political news is mainly related to age, with younger users more likely to rely on social media; such users are also more likely to trust what they see on such social media platforms. There is no practical effect on political attitudes, however: social media users are no more likely to see the EU in a positive or negative light across a number of evaluative dimensions, compared to non-users.

This is likely to mean that people rely on social media for news not because of pre-existing attitudes towards the EU or towards the mainstream news media, but instead mainly for other demographic reasons, including especially their age. This also means that 'echo chamber' and 'filter bubbles' must be revisited, and moral panics about social media should be questioned.

Online News Exposure in Spain

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 13:44:42 +0000

The third presenter in this Future of Journalism 2017 session is Jaume Suau, focussing on agenda-setting in the digital public sphere and exploring especially the role of Spanish citizens as online participants. Spanish users are highly active in engaging with political and social contexts, and this is focussed largely on commenting and sharing news (especially on Facebook and WhatsApp) rather than producing content. News media have failed to harness these energies fully so far.

Such audience participation is changing traditional hegemonies in journalism. Old and new media coexist in the news environment, and complement and influence wach other. Audience roles are changing, and new participatory formats are emerging; media consumption therefore also changes: while audiences may still selectively seek out particular media sources based on their pre-existing political positioning, they may now be exposed to a wider range of news than they had been offline – or they may exist in 'echo chambers' and 'filter bubbles'.

The present study surveyed some 6,600 registered users of Spanish online news media; 66% of respondents were male, and the vast majority of them were aged 35 or above (and this is also a reflection of who still registers a mainstream media account). 42% of them never or rarely used social media.

Notably, 43% registered with both ideologically aligned and non-aligned sites; on social media, access to news was largely via like-minded media, but oppositional media still featured to a notable degree, too. Those who are more active on social media were more likely to access, comment, and share news from media with whose political stance they disagreed.

Friends figured especially strongly as sources of news dissemination on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram; Twitter was more important for both friends and news outlets as sources. News accessed on Twitter was also more politically diverse. This lays the groundwork for a substantial volume of accidental exposure to news from sources that do not align with the user's own political position, but the degree of pluralism in the news received thus depends strongly also on the ideological pluralism of one's friends.

Analysing Filter Bubbles in the Facebook Newsfeed

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 13:28:58 +0000

The next presenter at Future of Journalism 2017 is Anja Bechmann, who shifts our focus to news engagement within the private and semi-private spaces of Facebook. Here, the Facebook newsfeed serves at least in part also as a news platform, where news stories are shared and curated in a collaborative fashion. News, here, is variously a journalistically, user-, and algorithmically defined concept.

The investigation of the newsfeed can also help to detect 'filter bubbles', defined as non-overlapping content segments. Key questions here address source diversity, content diversity, and exposure diversity, as experienced by Facebook users; this can be addressed both by analysing link sharing patterns (through measuring link similarity across users) and observing the shared semantic spaces in which newsfeed updates operate (using LDA and related semantic analysis tools).

Link overlaps shows that less than 10% of all accounts exist in a distinct filter bubble that does not overlap with other communities; other communities do emerge, but overlap considerably with each other, too. An analysis of the semantic spaces inhabited by each newsfeed shows that the vast majority of personal newsfeeds studied here form one large shared semantic space, while all others exist in highly idiosyncratic spaces instead.

Education, gender, residence, or age have no effect here; instead, the main driver is a user's level of sociality (measured by friend numbers, group memberships, page likes), with users with lower sociality more likely to be placed outside the majority semantic space.


The Impact of Facebook Page Editors on the Visibility of News Stories

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 13:28:38 +0000

The next Future of Journalism 2017 session starts with a paper by Kasper Welbers that explores the gatekeeping role of newspapers' social media editors (who manage their Facebook pages), in part by gathering engagement data for the posts on these pages through the Facebook API. Data gathering here is non-trivial, however, as it requires the regular re-gathering of engagement information over longer periods of time in order to establish engagement time-series.

First, there are significant differences between the publication time on the news Website, and publication on the Facebook page; U.K. papers are slower to push content to their pages than Dutch or Flemish papers, for instance. Also, not all news articles are posted to Facebook pages, but those that are not posted here still gain substantial engagement on Facebook through alternative channels.

Typical engagement patterns range from immediate attention on Facebook to a delayed publication on Facebook that initiates a new wave of engagement with an article. But it is difficult to accurately assess whether it really is the publication on the paper's Facebook page that kickstarts a new wave of dissemination, or whether there are other alternative channels that also drive such engagement.

Facebook page editors are therefore not gatekeepers in a traditional sense, as audiences are also able to bypass them easily. Yet their activities on the page also result in a considerable boost for the visibility of some stories, so they do have an impact.


Journalism as an Inferential Community

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 11:33:18 +0000

The final paper in this Future of Journalism 2017 session is by Henrik Bødker and Scott Eldridge, which begins by positioning journalism as an inferential community. Journalism often operates in a context where there is an absence of facts, but in writing about matters of societal significance rumours and other unsubstantiated information cannot be ignored and excluded. Instead, inferences – statements about the unknown, based on the known – need to be made.

Such inferences are being made within news texts, across texts, and across institutions, as a communally elaborated text. One example for this is the supposed dossier of kompromat that Russia could use to blackmail Donald Trump; this story first emerged on CNN and Buzzfeed, and was subsequently widely reported across other mainstream media around the world. Such reporting employed a variety of disclaimers and disclosures, cross-media referencing, metajournalistic commentary, and hypotheticals.

Another is the coverage of Donald Trump's claims that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower, where a great deal of subject/object switching also appeared as coverage focussed less on the substance of Trump's claims than on his actions in making such claims via Twitter.

Much intermedia commentary also focussed on journalistic verification practices, differences between the coverage approaches of different news outlets, journalistic ethics and disclosures, and related matters; in this, there's also a certain closing of ranks especially amongst established news outlets (with Buzzfeed positioned somewhat separately from this community). This is an example of an inferential community, which moves speculative discussion towards meaning-making.


A Brief History of Rumours in the News

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 11:33:03 +0000

The next speaker at Future of Journalism 2017 is Scott Eldridge, whose interest is in the presence of 'fake news' in its various guises in political campaign coverage. This includes news, rumour, and speculative fact, and indeed attempts to address political rumour go back at least to the Roman Empire.

The promise of print news was initially that it would shut down the circulation of rumour by providing black-on-white facts on a professionally organised, mass-market basis – yet rumour clearly persists nonetheless, in formulations such as "sources say", in the push towards insufficiently verified live reporting, and in the incorporation of public commentary from a variety of sources that may not be fully committed to the facts. Rumours exist in the crowd (e.g. on social media); at large (e.g. circulating irregularly online); and in the press (which lend them an aura of factuality).

Scott's project gathered some 1,400 news articles from major news outlets around the 2016 U.S. election and its aftermath, focussing especially on articles that addressed rumour topics. 'Trump' and related terms were central to such coverage, and surprisingly the term 'not' also appeared prominently; this was substantially driven by phrases like "whether or not this is true" that highlighted the speculative nature of particular stories, demonstrated journalistic authority over truth judgments, and discursively marginalised rumours (yet also perpetuated their circulation).


The 'Fake News' Debate in Norway

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 11:32:47 +0000

The next speaker at Future of Journalism 2017 is Bente Kalsnes, whose aim is to develop a more systematic approach to 'fake news' in the Norwegian context. Bente has some personal experience with this: her photo and name appeared in a Norwegian newspaper as a future Member of Parliament, even though she is not actually a candidate in the upcoming election.

But such mistakes and errors in the news are not the central definition of 'fake news'. Instead, the term is used by authoritarian leaders to attack unfavourable mainstream media coverage, and by media critics to describe various forms of political propaganda. Some also see 'fake news' as crafting true or partly true elements into a misleading message, out of political or commercial motives; common to many of these definitions is the fact that such content seeks to deliberately mislead or fool its readers. Motivations for this may be monetary, political, or trolling.

Norwegian media have covered this phenomenon in a number of ways. Bente has observed this coverage across 429 articles in ten newspapers: stories about its political influence identify villains, victims, and countries involved, focussing especially on the U.S. and Russia, particularly in the context of the 2016 election, and highlighting the role of hackers and conspiracy theorists. Trump and Putin, as purported perpetrators, and Clinton, as victim, appear prominently.

Norwegian media debate focusses on trust, verification, framing, and selection, and discusses the impacts on the overall public sphere; it highlights cases of 'fake news' production in Norway. Further discussion focusses on the role of social media in disseminating 'fake news', and explores potential industry or regulatory responses (pointing for example to recent legislative initiatives in Germany).

Suggestions for fighting 'fake news' include media literacy education; technological debunking solutions; moves to destroy the 'fake news' ecology; more subsidies for investigative journalism; and defences of mainstream editorial media. But overall, these divergent approaches also mean that 'fake news' is becoming an empty expression that means a variety of different things as it is being used by differing interests.


Forms of 'Fake News' in U.K. Media

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 11:32:31 +0000

The next Future of Journalism 2017 session starts with Julian Petley, who begins by noting the problems with the term 'fake news'. Some such news is deliberately made up as clickbait; some is overt or covert political propaganda; some is not made up but simply seriously biased or inaccurate; and some is deliberately made up for the purposes of media critique or satire.

But fake news also has a very long history. In 1835, for example, the New York Sun reported the discovery of life on the Moon by Sir John Herschel, purporting to reprint an article from the Edinburgh Courant; other papers circulated the story further, including even the New Yorker and the New York Times. Many such stories are collected at the Museum of Hoaxes, incidentally. Such a hoax would not have been possible before the advent of the steam-powered printing press, Julian suggests; it relies on effective mechanisms for the mass circulation of the story.

But 'fake news' in its more recent forms is also unevenly distributed around the world: U.S.-style 'fake news' has not been so prominent in the U.K., for example, because its domestic tabloids are already highly partisan and sensationalist, and not particularly committed to the truth.

What drives the circulation of 'fake news', both from new sources and from conventional tabloids, are headlines: titles that stick and generate clicks. In the U.K., stories about Brussels (and the EU), human rights, the "loony left", "scroungers", Islam, refugees and other hot-button issues generally do the trick. Euromyths – a term proposed and promoted by U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, then a correspondent based in Brussels – are especially effective here.

Some such stories deliberately manipulate genuine news footage, and aim at making their content go viral; once they are criticised and debunked for deliberate bias, they are often taken down again from online news sites – but by then the damage is already done.


Categorising News Aggregator Services

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 10:15:58 +0000

The final speaker in this Future of Journalism 2017 session is Concha Edo, whose focus is on the impact of news aggregators (and especially those beyond the major services). Such services now play a crucial role in channelling audience attention to news sources; research here has largely focussed on the impact of the major services on news industry business models.

Aggregators employ a range of algorithms to connect news and its audiences, yet such algorithms are usually obscure and intransparent; most aggregators then offer the headlines and ledes of news stories, along with an indication of the sites from which they were sourced, and this potentially reduces the advertising revenue of news sources if it means that audiences are less likely to click through to the actually news site itself.

Further, this algorithmic selection of which news stories users see on aggregator platforms also constitutes a form of gatekeeping that supersedes the editorial gatekeeping practiced by the news sites themselves: the additional selection process that such aggregators impose might be based on user access metrics to existing stories, or on users' personal interests, rather than on conventional journalistic news values. In doing so, aggregators may actually reduce the value of their own services, if we assume that users are interested in a journalistic rather than purely metrics-based selection of the stories they should see.

There are a number of news aggregation models that implement such selection choices in different ways, and this study examined some 30 different aggregator platforms and apps; the present study examined them by using some 47 different categorisation criteria, as well as conducting interviews with aggregator staff.

Common to each of them is the sourcing of content from a wide range of sites and sources, and the categorisation into different themes and topics; business models vary between subscriptions, freemium offers, sponsorship, and advertising. 40% worked across a wide range of languages, while the rest were available only in English; only 23% employed journalists to support the content selection, while for most the selection is purely algorithmically driven. This is one of the key points for which news editors criticise these aggregator services, too.