Emergent Journalism

Reports from the front line of journalism instruction

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Lazy news gathering through social media unhealthy for democracy

I posed a series of questions to one of my classes this week that brought out an interesting pattern of results.

I first asked them to report about their time spent on consumption of general news, instructing them to exclude time spent on things such as sports and entertainment news. The three options were: “spend a lot of time with general news” (defined as 30-plus minutes most days); “spend some time with it” (between 10 and 30 minutes most days); and “spend little or no time with it” (less than 10 minutes a day). They were about evenly split between “some” and “little to none.” Not a single student said they spend “a lot of time” with general news.

In the next class session, I asked them to agree or disagree with each of the following statements: “Living in a democracy is important to me” and “Self-governance (democracy) requires public awareness about the government.” Not surprisingly, every member of the class agreed with both statements.

Then we held a discussion about the discrepancy between their answers to the question about the importance of public awareness, and their own self-disclosed profile as a group that overall pays scant attention to general news. Pointing out the discrepancy seemed to make them uncomfortable, and many who offered an explanation fell back on lack of time as a rationale. (To which my response was: we all have busy lives, yet we all find time for the things that are important to us.)

The discrepancy gave me an idea for an analogy, which I also presented, as follows: This pattern of answers is like the person who says they want to be healthy and fit, yet won’t make the time and effort to eat healthy and exercise. Can people stay healthy if they can’t be bothered to engage in healthy habits? The obvious answer is “no.” Extending this as a teaching point, I asked whether a democracy could be healthy if half of the people within it pay little or no attention to the information they need to effectively govern themselves. *Crickets* as a response.

Engaging in this activity with the students, and especially the exercise analogy I came up with, helped me think about three other pieces of news this week from a different angle. Earlier in the week I had read both Charlie Warzel’s Buzzfeed piece about how easy it has become to manipulate reality (and the implications for that) and Wired magazine’s article about how Facebook got “gamed” in ways that manipulated campaign information during 2016. And just hours after the class discussion came news of the indictments from Special Counsel Robert Mueller illustrating just how manipulative Russian operatives actually had been during the 2016 campaign.

All of this prompted me to think that an obvious, if maybe unrealistic, solution to the problem of public opinion manipulation that threatens to damage democracy is to stop getting public affairs news from social media platforms and instead actually seek it out from organizations that Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan has referred to as “the reality-based press.” By all means keep your Facebook and Instagram accounts to post personal news and photos about vacations, family events, personal accomplishments, etc. But don’t post, or consume, news about politics, disasters, etc.

I realize it is unrealistic to think that this behavioral change will happen in a widespread way. Getting news from social media has become the default approach because it’s easier to let news find us than it is to go seek it.

I suggest it nonetheless because current patterns of news behavior are what made Facebook ill-equipped to stop Russian operatives from using it to flood the zone with campaign propaganda, as Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein describe in Wired. More frightening, it could allow the manufactured reality scenarios like those described by Aviv Ovadya in Warzel’s article to develop, too.

But in “outsourcing” our news-seeking work to our social media feeds, aren’t we much like my students who say they are “too busy” to pay attention to news at all? We just can’t be bothered to subscribe to local newspapers and other high-quality (i.e. “reality-based press”) outlets and get our news from them. It’s so much easier to let the Facebook tide of links flow over us, fake news and filter bubbles be damned.

Wouldn’t society be better off if more people made the effort to ensure that the information they are consuming is valid, verified, reliable and accurate? Getting it from trustworthy news organizations is perhaps the best way to do that, which is what I am suggesting here. (As an aside, I don’t for one second believe that Facebook’s effort to have users rate trustworthiness of news organization shared in feeds will work. It’s just another algorithm to be gamed.)

This isn’t a call to turn the clock back 50 years to Walter Cronkite being the nearly sole arbiter of “that’s the way it is.” But if effective self-governance does rely on the public having a shared set of verified facts about public policy and the activities of our public officials, then surely making the effort to get that information from the reality-based press instead of something shared on Facebook that may have reached a news feed courtesy of a Russian bot becomes a necessary first step.

People who want to stay healthy eat right and exercise. For democracy to stay healthy, we need more – and ideally all –  citizens to engage in news-gathering practices that keep accurate, reliable, verifiable information as the basis of our political decision-making. For as long as we keep taking the lazy way out of turning to Facebook for our news, that’s not going to happen.

Cross posted to my Medium account



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Project(s) update

I generally am uncomfortable with self-promotion and don’t engage in much of it. But when you’ve published a new book, have another one on the cusp of being published, and a third major project in the works, I guess these are the types of things people want to know about.

New Book

Out this week is the second edition of Applied Mass Communication Theory: A Guide for Media Practitioners, a theory/research text I co-wrote with Fisher colleague Lauren Vicker.

We published the first edition of the book  in 2009. When our original publisher  sold the title to Taylor & Francis/Routledge, the new owners were interested in a second edition, and we were happy to provide one.

The manuscript was finished last summer, production and proofreading continued over the fall and winter, and it’s available now from Routledge.

Incipient book

When I was working in Galway, Ireland for a semester last year (January to May 2016), I got the idea for a book about Irish community media. With a sabbatical scheduled this spring semester, I had the perfect opportunity to work on it.

Ireland has an interesting duality in its media structure with a relatively small number of national outlets (TV, radio, newspaper) augmented by a robust community media in the form of local and regional weekly newspapers and radio stations. However, the academic literature about Irish media lacks a comprehensive look at its community media and so I set out to fill that gap.

Even before the book contract was in hand, I made plans to visit Ireland for research, and did so for a few weeks in February and March. I interviewed more than 20 people, mostly journalists, about local media and what they bring to their communities. The results I got were fascinating, and form the heart of the book.

Shortly after I returned from the trip I did receive confirmation of the book contract, and have been working on it since. It’s very nearly complete, and should be published by fall. Right now, I am at the stage of trying to find colleagues who know something about Ireland or community media or both to critique a chapter or two for me. (If you’re interested in doing that, let me know.)

More work on journalism and democracy

Finally, in spare moments during the sabbatical I’ve been working on a third pretty significant project that continues the work I was involved with last year through the Kettering Foundation’s Journalism Educators Exchange. And with the books behind me, this project will now move to the front burner.

Kettering, for those who don’t know about the organization, is dedicated to research about making democracy work more effectively. The exchange is a group of (mostly) educators from around the country collaborating with Kettering on ideas for innovations in journalism education related to citizenship and democracy.

The group’s biggest project so far, which I helped to direct, was partnering with the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication on a series of research articles for AEJMC’s flagship academic journal. The results were published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly a couple of months ago

As a follow-up to that, Kettering has asked me to produce a white-paper report extending that project. The JMCQ research was focused on fairly detailed curricular ideas. The current project is meant to identify some of the more fundamental principles behind the nexus of journalism education, citizenship and democratic engagement that could be guiding future innovations in educational practice. It’s interesting and important work, and I feel privileged to get the assignment to work on it.


So, it’s been a busy and productive winter/spring on sabbatical, and I’m looking forward to keeping busy during summer as well. Although teaching is the largest and most important part of my job, research and scholarship also are important. It’s fun to report successes in that arena.

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Brexit: A cautionary tale for factual journalism

Editor’s note: This is cross-posted to my Galway Report blog because of its connections to my time spent there earlier this year.


On Friday I thought more about Ireland, the UK, and my friends there than on any other day since I returned from my semester in Galway seven weeks ago. The reason, of course, was all the news on the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union.

The immediate impact of the vote was turmoil in world financial markets because of the likely political and economic impacts of a British departure from the EU. The longer term impact is uncertain, but unlikely to be positive.

One interesting angle on the whole affair is a parallel between the Brexit vote and the rise and popularity of Donald Trump as a U.S. presidential candidate.  I’ve seen a number of stories about this; The Guardian did a good job of summarizing the connections as follows:

There are, admittedly, similarities between the populist and anti-immigration attitudes that motivated many to vote for Trump in the Republican primary and many to push the UK towards the door marked “Brexit”. Brexit voters were also whiter, older, less well educated and from areas that had not participated in the recent economic recovery. They were motivated by resentment towards immigrants and refugees and disdain for metropolitan elites.

(It’s worth noting that the general theme of the article is that the Brexit vote is not necessarily a bellwether for a Trump win in November because of substantial differences in the electorates of the U.S. and UK. A New York Times article this morning made a similar point for similar reasons.)

On the other hand, Amy Webb  in a column for Inc. magazine said the UK referendum outcome leaves her “gravely concerned,” and added:

I think about the Brexit vote within the context of our US election, where we see similarly misguided anger and resentment toward immigrant communities, not to mention a complete misunderstanding of how the economy actually works. It reminds me that our current media distribution channels–social and traditional–have shackled most of us within echo chambers that grow louder and more impassioned with every new political event. Those who were shocked to learn that the #Leave vote succeeded didn’t give credence to the very large, mobilized and powerful group of people who took advantage of such an ecosystem.

Either way, there is no escaping the parallels, on a few different levels including the role of the media in each and the way way both campaigns progressed (and Trump’s is still progressing) with utter disregard for the facts. Since this is an angle that I thought of, but others have stated better, I’m going to liberally use their thoughts here with credit. (As an aside, The Guardian has decided to go a level beyond fact checking to publishing articles that highlight Trump’s flat-out lies. They say it will be a regular feature. I predict they will have no shortage of material to work with.)

But with regard to Brexit, this comment from the Financial Times that I saw posted and re-posted a couple of times Friday on Twitter pointedly cast the outcome as people voting based on demagoguery with factual appeals absent or irrelevant.  comments3a

Although written about Brexit, it’s an apt description for Trump’s popularity as well. A similar comment, also found on Twitter but whose source I can’t ascertain because it was a retweet of a retweet, makes the point more sharply, across a broader context that explicitly includes the U.S. election. It also resonates with Webb’s observations:


Then, of course, there was The Donald himself, crowing about how positive the vote was. One problem, though, was that he made the comments while he was in Scotland for the re-opening of a golf course he owns there. And of all areas of the UK, Scotland voted most strongly to remain, by a 62-38 margin. That led to some choice reaction on Twitter.1

Speaking of a campaign based on something other than facts ….



1 I don’t endorse and generally dislike ad hominem insults in online discourse, but since Trump loves to insult those who disagree with him with names like “liar,” “loser,” and “moron,” turnabout seemed fair play in citing some people calling him similar names.

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Current innovations recall public journalism’s spirit and values

The following was posted as a comment to an article calling for a revival of public journalism written by Roy Peter Clark on the Poynter Institute website titled Can ‘public journalism’ reform campaign coverage? Clark’s article ends with the statements: “Let’s go retro. Someone call a meeting. How about in the bleachers at Camden Yards?” 

No real need to call a meeting given that initiatives are under way in the profession and the academy to develop ideas for revitalizing journalism in ways that support civic engagement.

Granted, none of these initiatives are likely to reform the ugly mess that coverage of the presidential campaign has become. They are centered on local news and journalism education.

But it’s worth noting that “classic” (or “retro”) civic/public journalism also was done by local newspapers about local issues in places such as Charlotte, NC; Akron, OH and Norfolk, VA. Even though reaction to the ugliness of the 1988 presidential campaign (cue Willie Horton ad) was one impetus for the development of the public journalism movement, there was no such initiative at the national, presidential level in subsequent campaigns. Public/civic journalism was about engaging with local publics to set the agenda for news coverage in their communities. It is in that spirit that some of these new initiatives are proceeding.

One is being presented by the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Education in partnership with the Kettering Foundation. Kettering, which supported some of the initial work in public journalism by Jay Rosen, has returned to the field to work with AEJMC on a program to foster research into new ways of doing journalism and new ideas for teaching journalism students to be more civic minded and engaged. The results will be presented at AEJMC’s annual conference in August; some background about it can be found in the association newsletter.  (See page 2 of PDF at that link) [Disclosure: I am the research director for this project.]

But other engagement projects are under way in myriad places, such as the Local News Lab in New Jersey. It’s Declaration of Dependence for newsrooms and their communities is very rooted in the spirit of public journalism. Others include the Hearken project, News Voices New Jersey and Solutions Journalism.

The point is that experimentation with alternatives to doing public interest journalism in collaboration with the public — recalling the spirit and values of public/civic journalism — is becoming popular and productive. But getting together with representatives of all of these initiatives at Camden Yards would be sort of fun.

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News Rewired, up close and personal

For a long time I have followed and learned a lot from Journalism.co.uk, a small-but-mighty British-based operation that does some great coverage of innovations in digital media.

A couple of times a year the organization hosts conferences called News:Rewired that explore the emerging digital arena. For years, I have followed these from afar, and been highly impressed with the quantity and quality of the speakers, the topics that are covered and the way it’s all presented.

But, alas, traveling to London for the conference just wasn’t feasible for me. Until this year.

Working on a semester-long visiting professorship in Galway, Ireland gave me the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to attend a News:Rewired event in person. It took only a bus ride to Dublin and short plane ride to reach London, where it was held on March 16 at the Thompson Reuters Building in Canary Wharf. As I quipped to several people at the event, “Being in the same time zone, there was no way I was going to miss this.”

I was not disappointed. I am not going to try and summarize the whole conference here; the team does a great job of that themselves. (Scroll toward the bottom of that link for summaries of the sessions written by a team of bloggers, links to many of the speakers’ slide presentations, photos and tweet collections, and more.) But a few things that stood out for me:

  • As digital journalists and journalism educators, we talk about the idea and goal of being “platform agnostic” — coverage must work correctly on multiple platforms to be effective, and different platforms have different technical demands and even different audiences. Several sessions did an outstanding job of exploring both best practices for multiplatform work and the rationale for its importance. Some of the examples were really impressive, such as the opening session on video practices and user engagement.
  • It was great to attend a conference that was not US-centric with regard to technology and media. A couple of speakers, including one who video-linked in from San Francisco, were American but most were European. They included presenters from Reuters, the BBC, The Guardian, The Economist and Sky News, among others. One of the implications of this a work-view and world-view that are literally more global, or at least multinational, than so much American journalism. I really enjoyed that different perspective on everything that was discussed.

That characteristic was in fact reflected in the session that I found most interesting and impressive, concerning virtual voiceover translation and production. Dmitry Shishkin, digital editor for the BBC World Service, emphasized at the outset of his talk that this isn’t robot-journalism. But by improving the speed and efficiency of both translation and voiceover recording, human capabilities can be extended and many more stories can be presented in more languages for the benefit of the BBC’s audiences.

And, a nice side benefit of attending this conference was a chance to meet Journalism.co.uk President John Thompson and some of the staff whose work I follow. I have connected so frequently with them through social media that I really felt like I already knew them, but it was nice to take that to the next level and meet in person.

John and his team did a lot of smart things in organizing this conference but one of the smartest was to build in a lot of networking time, which is when I got to know not only the organizers but several other attendees as well. I came away knowing a few more conceptual and technical items, but even if I hadn’t learned those things the networking would have made it worth the trip.

The next event is in July, and I’ll be five time zones away, again. But you can count on my wanting to follow the conference from afar, and trying to find a way to attend another one in person one of these years.