Old News vs New News
Journalism has a long history, but like many sectors of society it is becoming increasingly mediated by new technologies. Many of us are turning to the internet more and more as a source of news. Journalists find themselves competing with amateur reporters on the internet, and this poses a risk to the traditional goals and practices of institutional journalism.
In this blog post, we will examine the historical context that institutional journalism emerged from. Then, we will review a study by communications scholar Eun-Ju Lee called “That’s Not the Way It Is: How User-Generated Comments on the News Affect Perceived Media Bias.” Critical analysis of the implication of this study reveals that emerging practices of audience engagement and participation are undermining the traditional goals of journalism.
Traditions of the Fourth Estate
Institutional journalism has a long history, and over time particular practices and general goals have emerged.
When the printing press was developed in the 1400s, it disrupted widely held notions about the separation of powers. Before the press, medieval Europeans often distinguished between three forms of social hierarchy. For example, pre-revolutionary France was built on three estates of the realm: Clergy, Nobility, and Commoners. After the emergence of the press, the process of widely disseminating information became so intensified that it has since been recognized as a fourth estate. The influence of news itself can challenge religion, monarchy, and the masses. The power of journalism was, and continues to be, impossible to ignore.
Over time, usage of the press became institutionalized. Reporting news became a profession that had to be done with the support of large organizations which possessed the means to spread information. Journalism as a whole developed checks and balances, and has come to be seen as a necessary part of a healthy democracy. In Farewell to Journalism? Time for a Rethinking, Communications scholar Robert W. McChesney summarizes his perspective on a scholarly consensus regarding the four necessary components of healthy journalism:
- It must provide a rigorous account of people who are in power and people who wish to be in power, in the government, corporate and nonprofit sectors.
- It must regard the information needs of all people as legitimate. If anything, it should favor those without property, as those with wealth invariably have the means to get the information they need to run society.
- It must have a plausible method to separate truth from lies, or at least to prevent liars from being unaccountable and leading nations into catastrophes–particularly wars, economic crises and communal discord.
- It must produce a wide range of informed opinions on the most important issues of our times–not only the transitory concerns of the moment, but also challenges that loom on the horizon. These issues cannot be determined primarily by what people in power are talking about. Journalism must provide the nation’s early warning system, so problems can be anticipated, studied, debated and addressed before they grow to crisis proportions (p. 682).
Healthy journalism shifts control of information away from those who already have the most power in society toward those with the least. This bias against wealth, as some may see it, is functionally necessary because wealthy people inevitably have their own ways of access to and spreading of the information they need to run society. Journalism is successful when it provides those without individual access to public discussion a form of collective access. Journalism preserves democracy when it amplifies the information needs of the masses without fear of challenging the powerful.
Unfortunately, we are at risk of losing the fourth estate altogether. McChesney uses the phrase freefall collapse to describe contemporary journalism, because he believes that these goals are no longer being met. Instead, news in the digital area is becoming more and more focused on its consumer audiences.
Reacting to Online Audiences
News on the internet is becoming increasingly framed around audience engagement and participation. This implies a change in how we measure the success of journalism. Instead of evaluating the content of the news, such as with the framework outlined by McChesney above, journalists look instead to the consumers of the news. Journalists are now more motivated to report news that evokes strong reactions from consumers, because these are the stories that elicit the largest number of comments. Digital journalism thrives on large audiences, and large audiences can be created through ‘click bait’ strategies that prioritize emotional responses over impartial coverage of important issues.
In her study on perceived media bias, Lee conducted experiments to assess the impact of user-generated comments on Internet news websites. Her results show that these comments tend to be interpreted by readers of the news story as public opinion. This is an easy assumption to make, especially when we do not personally know the authors of the comments. Unfortunately, the specific comments we read rarely offer us an authentic view of the general public. Instead, we see a filtered subset of the population based on who has access and whose opinions are selected to be shown.
When you view a news story, the comments visible on the page itself or through a news aggregation website are calculated. Sometimes the order of comments is re-arranged based on number of replies, and sometimes unpopular opinions are hidden altogether. This programmatic selection process provides us with not the general public, but all sorts of calculated publics (Gillespie, pp. 188-189, in Lindgren p. 223). What may seem like innocent tidying of data has the ultimate result of amplifying some opinions over others. When these selection algorithms are also based on readers themselves, such as sites which show each reader a different set of personalized categories, then these calculated publics become fragmented and isolated from one another. User-generated comments only ever provide a narrow view of the much larger and complex public opinion.
Using the user-generated comments on an internet news story as a proxy for public opinion is risky. Lee’s study shows that the conflation of comments with public opinion leaves us vulnerable to the effects of ego-involvement and defensive processing. Basically, when you see yourself as directly impacted by an issue, your ego is ‘involved’ in how you perceive news about it. You are then more likely to see the news story as potentially having a negative impact when it appears to be ‘against’ you. The defensive processing happens when you base your sense of the news story’s impartiality on whether the reaction in the comments is positive or negative. When this perceived public opinion is negative, defensive processing leads to hostile media perception. This is a ‘fear of losing ground’ aggravated by user-generated comments, and it leads to an over-exaggeration of news bias. Basing perception of news bias on calculated publics leads to partisan hostility.
The ways we produce and read news are changing in the networked era. Institutional journalism traditionally focused on creating an informed public through the dissemination of important neutral information. Journalism’s effectiveness is challenged by the obsession of online news with audience engagement and participation. On the internet, the biases of news stories are obscured by the audiences that react to them and the value of neutrality is becoming lost amidst echo chambers.
- Gillespie, T. (2014). The Relevance of Algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, & K. Foot(Eds.), Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (pp. 167-193). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Lee, E. (2012). That’s Not the Way It Is: How User-Generated Comments on the News Affect Perceived Media Bias. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
- Lindgren, S. (2017). Digital Media & Society. London: Sage.
- McChesney, R. (2012). Farewell to Journalism? Time for a Rethinking. Journalism Studies. Vol 13, Nov 5-6, 682-694.