“It wouldn’t make sense to study news sharing quantitatively when we don’t even know what it is” –QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Lucas Graves and Magda Konieczna are working a paper called “Sharing the News: Specialization and Symbiosis in the Emerging Media Ecosystem”.

The paper presents fieldwork and interview-based research into how contemporary versions of the age-old and often informal practice of “news-sharing” amongst journalists is being professionalized and institutionalized through for example fact-checking groups in a changing media ecosystem. They argue a qualitative approach is necessary both because these practices are not always obvious and visible from the outside and because they are changing today–and we need to know how before we can even begin to approach the phenomenon in any other way. As they say “It wouldn’t make sense to study news sharing quantitatively when we don’t even know what it is.”

The paper will be presented at the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research. The full abstract is below the jump.

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with them about their research.

RKN: You work on news sharing, how different journalistic actors produce news together. How would you say this connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

One reason we find news sharing as a behavior so interesting is that it draws attention to the relationships among news organizations, and so to the wider landscape or “ecology” of news which includes journalistic and political actors, and all manner of hybrids. A landmark here is Page’s Who Deliberates, which examined what he called the “totality” of coverage to follow public discourse around controversies like the Zoe Baird nomination of 1993 and the riots after the Rodney King verdict. Page argued that to understand the mediated public sphere in a holistic way you have to pay attention to the entire class of “professional communicators”—not just journalists but also politicians, pundits, PR specialists, and other organized political voices. (Walter Lippmann was less hopeful but probably would have agreed that it doesn’t make sense to study journalistic and political actors in isolation.) One way to understand what’s been changing since the 1980s might be to say that the fields (or institutions) of journalism and politics, always intertwined, are becoming less differentiated. This obviously has consequences for journalism studies and for political communication research.

RKN: Your work is explicitly rooted in journalism studies through reference to the work of for example Daniel Hallin. But did you feel you had to go beyond mainstream media and communication research for theoretical and methodological inspirations for your work, and if so where did you find it?

The other reason news sharing is interesting is that it cuts against both everyday and scholarly assumptions about how journalists behave. It reminds us not to use the New York Times as a proxy for the entire media landscape, because that landscape includes many different kinds of news organizations in economic and professional tension, and sometimes in a kind of symbiosis. The entire subject of “intermedia” relationships and effects seems to be hiding in plain sight in communications research: It makes an appearance in various forms in a lot of influential work (e.g. Herbert J. Gans) but rarely receives the spotlight. A few exceptions, based mostly on content analysis, are Reese and Danielian’s paper on coverage of the 1980s crack “epidemic,” Shaw and Sparrow’s article about cue-taking across newspapers, and Boczkowski’s work on “imitation”—and of course an abundance of research on the ecological links between bloggers and journalists.

RKN: Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings based on, for example, ethnography and interviews can be generalized. Do you see your own findings as generalizable? If so, how and under what conditions? If you don’t, does it matter to you, or do you think about the reach of your work in different terms?

A useful way to think about qualitative work is that in the best cases it provides a window onto phenomena or processes that can also be measured in the aggregate. Obviously we need both. You can’t generalize from one case study to an entire class of organizations; but neither can you generalize from an attenuated quantitative measure to a full account of organizational behavior or change. Very often what’s being measured in broad quantitative studies — in experiments and even surveys—is an intermediate analytical concept that shouldn’t be confused with something existing “in the wild.” Nina Eliasoph gets at this very well in Avoiding Politics: People don’t carry attitudes or beliefs around like change in their pockets, they produce (and reproduce) them in social contexts, including the context of being asked questions by a stranger on the phone.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or frame effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research on news sharing relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

Qualitative research is especially useful for analyzing emergent phenomena and specifying concepts; that opens the door to asking the types of questions that quantitative studies can examine and explain. Framing took shape largely in qualitative work and helped to define a rich new area of quantitative research. Our paper on news sharing aims to nail down the concept; it wouldn’t make sense to study news sharing quantitatively when we don’t even know what it is. But there’s clearly an opportunity for scholars who are interested to start to measure this phenomenon through larger-scale network or content analysis.

Full paper abstract below the jump.“Sharing the News: Specialization and Symbiosis in the Emerging Media Ecosystem”

By Lucas Graves and Magda Konieczna (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Paper for ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research, Seattle, May 2014

“Nothing could be less competitive than a group of reporters on the same story,” historian Robert Darnton (1975) has written of his years as a police reporter in the early 1960s. From the exchange papers that facilitated the flow of news bulletins in eighteenth-century Europe and North America, to tacit everyday cooperation among reporters working a beat together, organized journalism in every era offers examples of what is here called news sharing: the stable though often informal routines and mechanisms for coordinating journalistic work and news content among competing media organizations. While news sharing has a long and well-documented history, it has gone mostly unacknowledged by journalists and has received only occasional attention from journalism scholars. Today, however, this behavior is being professionalized and institutionalized by news organizations in response to the technological changes and economic challenges confronting journalism. This paper develops the concept of news sharing through close ethnographic studies of two contemporary outlets that practice it with unusual openness: the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism nonprofit, and PolitiFact, a dedicated fact-checking group. Drawing on interviews and participant observation with each group as well as with other outlets in their respective specializations, the authors construct a working taxonomy of news sharing practices. News sharing encompasses both reporting and distribution — in practice the two can be difficult to disentangle — and runs a spectrum from formal investigative or production partnerships, to informal routines for promoting original newswork to other organizations, and tracking its spread across media networks. We document both the practice of news sharing and the sometimes contradictory discourse around it, underscoring how this approach to newswork unsettles traditional journalistic norms. We argue that the mostly tacit news sharing practices of US journalism in its high-modern era (Hallin 1994) have become increasingly overt, and increasingly basic to the mission and the self-understanding of professional reporters working in a complex and variegated news ecosystem. We explain that fact-checkers and self-standing investigative outlets are at the forefront of institutionalizing news sharing because, as small organizations producing specialized content, they are highly sensitive to their position in a wider news landscape whose most important gatekeepers remain traditional, often commercial newspapers and broadcasters. Understanding this sharing behavior is key to grasping how news production and circulation has changed as news organizations adapt to the economic crisis in journalism — in part by leveraging that crisis to increase the influence and impact of their own work across an increasingly interdependent news ecology.