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Dispatch from ICA 2017

by Efrat Nechushtai and Andrea Wenzel

Tow Fellow and Northwestern PhD candidate Jacob Nelson grapples with how to define engagement

The world was a different place when the presenters at this year’s International Communication Association conference first submitted their proposals back around November 1st of last year. Trump’s election cast a shadow across many of the sessions — particularly in the field of journalism. Numerous sessions centered on post-election challenges facing media like trust and news avoidance, as well as opportunities around engagement and new journalism models.

The scale of this 3,000-person conference, which took place in San Diego in the last week of May, makes it impossible to do it justice as a summary; there are many more scholars working on these areas than we are able to mention here. Nevertheless, we dipped our toes into a few sessions to share how scholars are grappling with these issues.

Trust and transparency

T-words like trust, transparency, and truth were at the heart of many panels. Trust in the media has been a concern for scholars for a long time, but their efforts to model and measure trust took on more timely significance, and raised questions around how audiences process the efforts of journalists.

A study testing the idea that more transparent reporting equals more trusted reporting found that readers did not necessarily recognize a newsroom’s efforts as transparency. This phenomena may be concerning for initiatives heavily invested in the value of transparency, such as Hearken’s Open Notebook or the interactive model of De Correspondent.

Another experimental study found that user generated content (UGC) lowered perceptions of trustworthiness of news articles. This could, they found, be mitigated by verification strategies to corroborate the content generated by users. However, this only seemed to work for political stories and it was not always clear that audiences interpreted journalists’ verification efforts as verification, something which may be noteworthy for groups like First Draft. Other scholars called for more non-experimental study of trust that accounted for complex and at times non-rational factors influencing user’s habits and processing.

Silence and news avoidance

Since November, more attention has been paid to divides, gaps, and inequalities in news consumption. Abstinence from the media was discussed in numerous panels, taking examples from multiple countries. Several focused on digital divides or inequality in access to digital media — a concept that for a time seemed less relevant and is now returning to the conversation. Others suggested a new conception of a “journalism divide” between those who benefit from robust news ecosystems in their communities and consume news regularly, and those bereft of this resource, who according to some scholars are now a sizable share of the population.

One study found that of the United States’ 210 Designated Market Areas, or regions that local media is targeting, DMAs with affluent residents typically have more developed news markets than those whose residents have lower socio-economic status. Others found that significant shares of the population in several countries do not consume news deliberately beyond incidental exposure in public spaces and social media. The complex strategies of silence, obfuscation, and avoidance employed by social media users were discussed as well, and much attention was paid to the value of reaching out to those demographics typically underrepresented in academic studies and tapping into popular sentiment with rich qualitative methods.

Temple University professor Soomin Seo shares her work on virtual foreign bureaus and coverage of North Korea

Defining engagement

While engagement is as much of a buzzword as ever, conversations around what it means increasingly acknowledge its complexity — and the range of practices it can include, from collaborative reporting and offline community outreach, to simple invitations to click and share.

Some elements of engagement can easily be quantified, but the meaning of social media practices for people and organizations gained noticeable interest in this conference. The difficulty of understanding audiences’ subjective experiences around supposedly simple behaviors was a recurring theme. Why do people employ different strategies on different platforms and regarding different topics? A survey of 210 non-users of Facebook found that plain disinterest was the prominent reason for their rejection of the platform, followed by privacy concerns.

Others suggested that the decline in sharing activity on Facebook stems from the very popularity of the platform — since users now expect a large number of unknown viewers for their posts. Similarly, willingness to express political views on social media was found to be affected by complex real-world considerations more than platform-specific elements. Scholars and practitioners collaborating on research agreed that engagement needs to be redefined to include these and other nuanced elements, and that rich metrics should be designed to serve editorial work as well as advertising.

New norms for new journalism?

From financial sustainability concerns to dissatisfaction with the state of journalism post-elections, a number of sessions considered the demand for new models for making, and paying for, journalism. Several panels explored whether new business models for journalism were changing journalism norms.

As one exploration found, while foundations may identify as innovative, the way their funding is structured reinforces the status quo production of media for an elite urban readership. By pushing non-profit media to seek sustainability, foundations in fact push them to narrow in on a cultural elite who can afford to subscribe. If foundations were truly progressive, they would offer longer-term funding that was not project-based. While clearly beneficial for news organizations’ bottom lines, paywalls, too, can have unintended exclusionary effects as well, keeping out non-elite audiences less inclined to pay for news — while false news stories, as one member of the audience deftly noted, are always distributed for free.

Others examined the complicated ways foundation funding can affect international coverage, and how journalists, including freelancers, define their role in relation to global non-profits. Finally, several studies examined journalism models, also largely foundation supported, that envisioned a more active, but not advocacy, role for journalism. Scholars shared preliminary research on constructive journalism, solutions journalism, and restorative journalism cases from the US, Europe, and the Global South, including how readers and viewers processed stories, and outlined future research paths.

Efrat Nechushtai is a Ph.D. student in communications at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Andrea Wenzel is a fellow at the Tow Center, an incoming assistant professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, and a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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