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September 28 2010

16:00

“The news we get is McDonald’s”: Communications scholar Pablo Boczkowski on imitation in the news

As journalists, and as users of the web, we have ample opportunity to be creative. There are tons of stories out there — many more than there are, at any moment, journalists to cover them. In fact, the most common worry you hear in our little future-of-news sphere has nothing to do with a dearth of stories…it’s that important stories might go uncovered.

Why, then, is there so much imitation — repetition — redundancy — in our professional media ecosystem?

Pablo Boczkowski, a communications studies professor at Northwestern, has literally written the book on that question. News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance explores the matter (more accurately: the problem) of redundancy. And at a talk yesterday at Harvard’s Kennedy School, part of the STS Circle series of interdisciplinary discussion, Boczkowski highlighted one particularly fascinating element of the book: the paradox that an increase in the volume of information available to us is occasioning a decrease in diversity of news’ content. We’re increasingly getting from news organizations, and producing, what Boczkowski calls “homogenized news.”

Boczkowski’s research, I should note, was limited to two mainstream newspapers, Clarín and La Nación — in Argentina. And its content analyses, which examined 927 print and 1,620 online articles, were conducted between 2005 and 2007, as was its ethnographic study of the newsrooms and consumers in question. So, grain of salt, etc.

Still, though, the study and its findings highlight a phenomenon we see implicitly, if anecdotally: a kind of group-think among journalistic brands, imitation and replication. “Pack journalism,” as it were, applied to content itself. As Pew’s State of the News Media report put it in 2006, “The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories.”

Boczkowski attributes this phenomenon to factors both structural and situational. While, in the past, news organizations were, for the most part, aware of their competitors’ stories only after they were published, the web allows news organizations to monitor each others’ content in real time. The increase of their online presence has occasioned a “lifting of the veil of opacity in the social field,” Boczkowski put it; news organizations now have a window into the workings of competitors that is pretty much always open.

And they’ve instituted processes to keep their gaze trained on those competitors. The papers Boczkowski studied have introduced a role in their staffs that they call the “cablera” (loose translation: “the cable guy”): someone who sits in the center of the newsroom, all day (lunch eaten at desk), and whose job it is to monitor the web, radio transcripts, cable feeds, and, of course, competitors’ websites. Constantly. The cablera then sends relevant updates, via IM, to staffers — resulting, Boczkowski said, in a kind of “constant bombardment” on all sides. And staffers, in turn — with the help of the information provided by the cable guy — are expected to produce six to eight stories a day, in addition to updating the existing ones as needed.

It’s an environment, in other words, that lends itself implicitly to story imitation — as, really, a matter of pure pragmatism. Creativity requires time; the brand of “churnalism” (or, more recently, “hamster-wheel journalism“) that the studied papers seem to expect of their reporters, Boczkowski argues, drives content replication — and, thus, homogenization. Add that to the cultural incentives toward imitation — essentially, there’s a downside risk in missing a story that competitors have, without a countervailing risk for being repetitive — and you have an environment the encourages cross-outlet homogeneity. And, conversely, discourages creativity, enterprise, and innovation.

Which is particularly unfortunate, Boczkowski said, because — in addition to the obvious structural problems that encroaching homogenization creates for and among news organizations — audiences want variety. Particularly now, when the web allows readers to create for themselves a self-selected buffet plate of content to consume, redundancy seems…redundant. “You get everything from the same wool,” Vanina, a 40-year-old teacher, lamented to Boczkowski during an interview. She sensed “something monopolistic” in the news, she told him…which led in turn, she said, to a sense of claustrophobia and confinement. As Boczkowski put it yesterday: “The news we get is McDonald’s.” Sure, we might get some local variation among publications…but “the underlying principle, and the underlying food, is more or less the same.”

September 13 2010

15:00

When journalism meets academia: Reporter teams up with the Carr Center to research violence in Juárez

[Our sister publication Nieman Reports is out with its latest issue, which focuses on the current state of international reporting. There are lots of interesting articles — check out the whole issue — but we're highlighting a few that line up with our subject matter here at the Lab. Here's Monica Campbell, a veteran journalist and former Nieman Fellow, on how her partnership with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard allowed her to continue her work researching and reporting on the drug trade in Juárez. —Josh]

Eight o’clock Monday morning in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Federal cops, their high-powered weapons pointed outward, packed pickup trucks and patrolled the city’s streets. Women waited at a bus stop to head to factory jobs. A newspaper’s front page featured grisly crime scene photos. It was July, searing hot, and I headed to my first interview.

Unlike my previous trips to Juárez, I was not there on a traditional news assignment. On this reporting project my partner was the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This opportunity arose during my Nieman year when I noticed a growing interest among academics in Mexico’s escalating drug cartel-related violence. Having reported from Mexico for several years, I developed a proposal for research that would focus on citizens’ response to the violence in Juárez, the epicenter of Mexico’s bloody drug war.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

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