Media welcome comments, but journalists ignore the crowds


Obviously, journalism is supposed to be done in the public interest. But what about journalism research?
How can academia support practical journalism, and vice versa? How does journalism research relate to the public interest? Questions like this were discussed in late November in Winterthur, Switzerland, at a conference hosted by the local Institute of Applied Media Studies. Many of the scientific insights presented in Winterthur directly impact day-to-day journalistic coverage practices.

In her opening keynote, Pennsylvania University professor Barbie Zelizer set the sceptical tone that was to become a leitmotif of the entire conference.

She criticised journalism science for having “overstated notions of journalism as independent and revolutionary,” failing to account for the complexity of factors that play into media production and media coverage of reality. Serious journalism, she added, cannot be separated from the ecosystem of its co-creators: graphics designers, technicians, research assistants, secretaries, typographers and so on. Nor must journalism be examined outside the context of how it interacts with public relations, advocacy, activism, or, indeed, satire (just think of how Jon Stewart has become a leading figure of critical journalism in the US).

According to Zelizer, the need for a big picture affords an opportunity for journalism science. People looking at the news business from the sidelines may actually be better equipped to critique it – if only because they have more time and can escape the immense economic pressure journalism faces today.

She called for more forums of direct interaction between scientists and practitioners, where academia could help contextualise and deflect the influence of commercially or politically-intended communication for the benefit of the public sphere. Linda Kay from Concordia University in Canada took the same line, pointing out how journalism research into the often reckless coverage of traumatised communities after shootings or disasters contributed to self-reflection within the industry and eventually led to a code of standards (to which, however, only a few journalists adhere voluntarily).

A recurrent topic of the two-day event was the relationship between professional journalism and user-created content. Findings fell mostly in the category of bad practice.

Julia Lönnendonker and Annika Sehl from the Technical University of Dortmund, in Germany, for instance, set out to examine whether user comments to newspaper articles provided more diversity to the coverage of the Georgia-Russia conflict in 2008. With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes startlingly apparent how biased Western media were. The vast majority of all Western European press articles surveyed supported Georgia and criticised Russia. Yet by now we are aware that responsibility for the war was shared equally between the two countries.

One could argue that the situation at the time was unclear and it was hard to see behind the conflicting parties’ propaganda, even for well-trained journalists and editors. However, the user comments paint a strikingly different picture: They expressed support for Georgia and Russia in roughly equal measure. Georgia came under criticism at times. Hence, this seems like a pretty good example for the wisdom of crowds.
Of course, it is hard to assess how reliable such user comments actually are, and it is not immediately apparent who posted them. For all we know, Russian PR people could have attempted to exonerate their country. However, a newspaper’s webmaster has some instruments to check the plausibility of user contributions. If the users are registered with the newspaper website, they may have a track record pertaining to their credibility. Or, if all else fails, analysis of the originating IP addresses will at least reveal the geographical location of the contributors and show whether a suspiciously high number of comments originate from only a few computers or within a very limited time frame.

If journalists and media organisations covering the Caucasus conflict had taken user comments about their articles more seriously, they might at least have thought of conducting some proper, more comprehensive journalistic research. Journalists would possibly even have been able to then put the then prevailing opinion into perspective. (For a contrasting good practice example, please consider the BBC’s Peter Horrock’s landmark blog post.)

Particularly in the light of what we know now, this journalistic mishap appears like a thoroughly missed opportunity. It should give pause to the media establishment which just jumped on a convenient bandwagon, failing to analyse the situation as deeply and impartially.

This phenomenon is not limited to cases such as Russia vs. Georgia; as the EJC’s recent conference Covering the Crisis indicated, the blogosphere contained early warnings of the financial breakdown. These were ignored by the conventional media. Even much less spectacular cases like the coverage of Mobile TV exemplify how the press too frequently lets the powers that be dictate not only the agenda, but the content and bias of articles too.

Why? Journalists often feel threatened by user-created content; many accept it only grudgingly. Another study by aforementioned researcher Annika Sehl indicates that as per 2008, German newspapers remained pretty much closed off to audience participation even in their online editions. While many allowed users to comment on articles (a merely perfunctory concession to the modern times, as we have seen), Sehl could not detect many other forms of interaction. Readers were neither allowed to suggest topics nor to help filter and rate information in order to facilitate and improve journalistic work.

Another contributing factor for such media inertia might be that its leaders – managing directors, chief editors, desk editors – run the risk of getting too close to the people they are supposed to report about. Uwe Krüger from Leipzig University stunned the Winterthur audience with examples of a network analysis concerning selected head honchos of German quality and tabloid newspapers. He showed that high-ranking editors of would-be independent media outlets actually consort with politicians on a regular basis.
Notably, his analysis was not about the fact that, naturally, a journalist covering a particular political portfolio will eventually become personally acquainted with relevant ministers. Conducting interviews, being in the audience during a speech, or even attending the same party does not count. That is part of good journalistic practice, observation, and fact-finding. No, Krüger revealed that many journalists actually directly collaborate on boards and committees with the exact same politicians and economic leaders they are supposed to critically report about, and pass common resolutions.

The very least such journalists should do is furnish their articles with disclaimers to this effect. In reality, however, Kai Diekmann, chief editor of the German tabloid BILD, had himself actually photoshopped out of a group picture that illustrated an article in his very own newspaper about some Euro-Asian communiqué he co-signed and probably even co-authored.

To quote Barbie Zelizer again: “Journalism is bigger than the ‘here and now’ moments that drive it.”

Flickr images from users malias, bartb_pt, amodiovalerio verde