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June 26 2013

16:48

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: A generation gap in online news, and does The Daily Show discourage tolerance?

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

We’re at the halfway mark in our year-long odyssey tracking all things digital media and academic. Below are studies that continue to advance understanding among various hot topics: drone journalism; surveillance and the public; Twitter in conflict zones; Big Data and its limits; crowdsourced information platforms; remix culture; and much more. We also suggest some further “beach reads” at bottom. Enjoy the deep dive.

“Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013: Tracking the Future of News”: Paper from University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, edited by Nic Newman and David A. L. Levy.

This new report provides tremendous comparative perspective on how different countries and news ecosystems are developing both in symmetrical and divergent ways (see the Lab’s write-up of the national differences/similarities highlighted.) But it also provides some interesting hard numbers relating to the U.S. media landscape; it surveys news habits of a sample of more than 2,000 Americans.

Key U.S. data points include: the number of Americans reporting accessing news by tablet in the past week rose, from 11 percent in 2012 to 16 percent in 2013; 28 percent said they accessed news on a smartphone in the last week; 75 percent of Americans reported accessing news online in the past week, while 72 percent said they got news through television and 47 percent reported having read a print publication; TV (43 percent) and online (39 percent) were Americans preferred platforms for accessing news. Further, a yawning divide exists between the preferences of those ages 18 to 24 and those over 55: among the younger cohort, 64 percent say the Web is their main source for news, versus only 25 percent among the older group; as for TV, however, 54 percent of older Americans report it as their main source, versus only 20 percent among those 18 to 24. Finally, 12 percent of American respondents overall reported paying for digital news in 2013, compared to 9 percent in 2012.

“The Rise and Fall of a Citizen Reporter”: Study from Wellesley College, for the WebScience 2013 conference. By Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj.

This study looks at a network of anonymous Twitter citizen reporters around Monterrey, Mexico, covering the drug wars. It provides new insights into conflict zone journalism and information ecosystems in the age of digital media, as well the limits of raw data. The researchers, both computer scientists, analyze a dataset focused on the hashtag #MTYfollow, consisting of “258,734 tweets written by 29,671 unique Twitter accounts, covering 286 days in the time interval November 2010-August 2011.” They drill down on the account @trackmty, run by the pseudonym Melissa Lotzer, which is the largest of the accounts involved.

The scholars reconstruct a sequence in which a wild Twitter “game” breaks out — obviously, with life-and-death stakes — involving accusations about cartel informants (“hawks,” or “halcones”) and citizen watchdogs (“eagles,” or “aguilas”), with counter-accusations flying that certain citizen reporters were actually working for the Zetas drug cartel; indeed, @trackmty ends up being accused of working for the cartels. Online trolls attack her on Twitter and in blogs.

“The original Melissa @trackmty is slow to react,” the study notes, “and when she does, she tries to point to her past accomplishments, in particular the creation of [a group of other media accounts] and the interviews she has given to several reporters from the US and Spain (REF). But the frequency of her tweeting decreases, along with the community’s retweets. Finally, at the end of June, she stops tweeting altogether.” It turns out that the real @trackmty had been exposed — “her real identity, her photograph, friends and home address.”

Little of this drama was obvious from the data. Ultimately, the researchers were able to interview the real @trackmty and members of the #MTYfollow community. The big lessons, they realize, are the “limits of Big Data analysis.” The data visualizations showing influence patterns and spikes in tweet frequency showed all kinds of interesting dynamics. But they were insufficient to make inferences of value about the community affected: “In analyzing the tweets around a popular hashtag used by users who worry about their personal safely in a Mexican city we found that one must go back and forth between collecting and analyzing many times while formulating the proper research questions to ask. Further, one must have a method of establishing the ground truth, which is particularly tricky in a community of — mostly — anonymous users.”

“Undermining the Corrective Effects of Media-Based Political Fact Checking? The Role of Contextual Cues and Naïve Theory”: Study from Ohio State University, published in the Journal of Communication. By R. Kelly Garrett, Erik C. Nisbet, and Emily K. Lynch.

As the political fact-checking movement — the FactChecks and Politifacts, along with their various lesser-known cousins — has arisen, so too has a more hard-headed social science effort to get to the root causes of persistent lies and rumors, a situation made all the worse on the web. Of course, journalists hope truth can have a “corrective” effect, but the literature in this area suggests that blasting more facts at people often doesn’t work — hence, the “information deficit fallacy.” Thus, a cottage psych-media research industry has grown up, exploring “motivated reasoning,” “biased assimilation,” “confirmation bias,” “cultural cognition,” and other such concepts.

This study tries to advance understanding of how peripheral cues such as accompanying graphics and biographical information can affect how citizens receive and accept corrective information. In experiments, the researchers ask subjects to respond to claims about the proposed Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero and the disposition of its imam. It turns out that contextual information — what the imam has said, what he looks like and anything that challenges dominant cultural norms — often erodes the positive intentions of the fact-checking message.

The authors conclude that the “most straightforward method of maximizing the corrective effect of a fact-checking article is to avoid including information that activates stereotypes or generalizations…which make related cognitions more accessible and misperceptions more plausible.” The findings have a grim quality: “The unfortunate conclusion that we draw from this work is that contextual information so often included in fact-checking messages by professional news outlets in order to provide depth and avoid bias can undermine a message’s corrective effects. We suggest that this occurs when the factually accurate information (which has only peripheral bearing on the misperception) brings to mind” mental shortcuts that contain generalizations or stereotypes about people or things — so-called “naïve theories.”

“Crowdsourcing CCTV surveillance on the Internet”: Paper from the University of Westminster, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Daniel Trottier.

A timely look at the implications of a society more deeply pervaded by surveillance technologies, this paper analyzes various web-based efforts in Britain that involve the identification of suspicious persons or activity. (The controversies around Reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing suspects come to mind here.) The researcher examine Facewatch, CrimeStoppers UK, Internet Eyes, and Shoreditch Digital Bridge, all of which had commercial elements attached to crowdsourcing projects where participants monitored feed from surveillance cameras of public spaces. He points out that these “developments contribute to a normalization of participatory surveillance for entertainment, socialization, and commerce,” and that the “risks of compromised privacy, false accusations and social sorting are offloaded onto citizen-watchers and citizen-suspects.” Further, the study highlights the perils inherent in the “‘gamification’ of surveillance-based labour.”

“New Perspectives from the Sky: Unmanned aerial vehicles and journalism”: Paper from the University of Texas at Arlington, published in Digital Journalism. By Mark Tremayne and Andrew Clark.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or “drones”) in journalism is an area of growing interest, and this exploration provides some context and research-based perspective. Drones in the service of the media have already been used for everything from snapping pictures of Paris Hilton and surveying tornado damaged areas in Alabama to filming secret government facilities in Australia and protestor clashes in Poland. In all, the researchers found “eight instances of drone technology being put to use for journalistic purposes from late 2010 through early 2012.”

This practice will inevitably raise issues about the extent to which it goes too far. “It is not hard to imagine how the news media, using drones to gather information, could be subject to privacy lawsuits,” the authors write. “What the news media can do to potentially ward off the threat of lawsuits is to ensure that drones are used in an ethical manner consistent with appropriate news practices. News directors and editors and professional associations can establish codes of conduct for the use of such devices in much the same way they already do with the use of hidden cameras and other technology.”

“Connecting with the user-generated Web: how group identification impacts online information sharing and evaluation”: Study from University of California, Santa Barbara, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Andrew J. Flanagin, Kristin Page Hocevar, and Siriphan Nancy Samahito.

Whether it’s Wikipedia, Yelp, TripAdvisor, or some other giant pool of user-generated “wisdom,” user-generated platforms convene large, disaggregated audiences who form loose memberships based around apparent common interests. But what makes certain communities bond and stick together, keeping online information environments fresh, passionate, and lively (and possibly accurate)?

The researchers involved in this study perform some experiments with undergraduates to see how adding small bits of personal information — the university, major, gender, or other piece of information — to informational posts changed perceptions by viewers. Perhaps predictably, the results show that “potential contributors had more positive attitudes (manifested in the form of increased motivation) about contribution to an online information pool when they experienced shared group identification with others.”

For editors and online community designers and organizers, the takeaway is that information pools “may actually form and sustain themselves best as communities comprising similar people with similar views.” Not exactly an antidote to “filter bubble” fears, but it’s worth knowing if you’re an admin for an online army.

“Selective Exposure, Tolerance, and Satirical News”: Study from University of Texas at Austin and University of Wyoming, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. By Natalie J. Stroud and Ashley Muddiman.

While not the first study to focus on the rise of satirical news — after all, a 2005 study in Political Communication on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” now has 230 subsequent academic citations, according to Google Scholar — this new study looks at satirical news viewed specifically in a web context.

It suggests the dark side of snark, at least in terms of promoting open-mindedness and deliberative democracy. The conclusion is blunt: “The evidence from this study suggests that satirical news does not encourage democratic virtues like exposure to diverse perspectives and tolerance. On the contrary, the results show that, if anything, comedic news makes people more likely to engage in partisan selective exposure. Further, those viewing comedic news became less, not more, tolerant of those with political views unlike their own.” Knowing Colbert and Stewart, the study’s authors can expect an invitation soon to atone for this study.

The hidden demography of new media ethics”: Study from Rutgers and USC, published in Information, Communication & Society. By Mark Latonero and Aram Sinnreich.

The study leverages 2006 and 2010 survey data, both domestic and international, to take an analytical look at how notions of intellectual property and ethical Web culture are evolving, particularly as they relate to ideas such as remixing, mashups and repurposing of content. The researchers find a complex tapestry of behavioral norms, some of them correlated with certain age, gender, race or national traits. New technologies are “giving rise to new configurable cultural practices that fall into the expanding gray area between traditional patterns of production and consumption. The data suggest that these practices have the potential to grow in prevalence in the United States across every age group, and have the potential to become common throughout the dozens of industrialized nations sampled in this study.”

Further, rules of the road have formed organically, as technology has outstripped legal strictures: “Most significantly, despite (or because of) the inadequacy of present-day copyright laws to address issues of ownership, attribution, and cultural validity in regard to emerging digital practices, everyday people are developing their own ethical frameworks to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of reappropriated work in their cultural environments.”

Beach reads:

Here are some further academic paper honorable mentions this month — all from the culture and society desk:

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

July 25 2012

15:12

Who should see what when? Three principles for personalized news

I really don’t know how a news editor should choose what stories to put in front of people, because I don’t think it’s possible to cram the entire world into headlines. The publisher of a major international newspaper once told me that he delivers “the five or six things I absolutely have to know this morning.” But there was always a fundamental problem with that idea, which the Internet has made starkly obvious: There is far more that matters than any one of us can follow. In most cases, the limiting factor in journalism is not what was reported but the attention we can pay to it.

Yet we still need news. Something’s got to give. So what if we abandon the idea that everyone sees the same stories? That was a pre-Internet technological limitation, and maybe we’ve let what was possible become what is right. I want to recognize that each person not only has unique interests, but is uniquely affected by larger events, and has a unique capacity to act.

If not every person sees the same news at the same time, then the question becomes: Who should see what when? It’s a hard question. It’s a question of editorial choice, of filter design, of what kind of civic discussion we will have. It’s the basic question we face as we embrace the network’s ability to deliver individually tailored information. I propose three simple answers. You should see a story if:

  1. You specifically go looking for it.
  2. It affects you or any of your communities.
  3. There is something you might be able to do about it.

Interest, effects, agency. These are three ways that a story might intersect with you, and they are reasons you might need to see it.

But turn them around and they say: if a story doesn’t interest me, doesn’t affect me, and there’s nothing I could do anyway, then I don’t need to see it. What about broadening our horizons? What about a shared view of unfolding history? The idea that we will each have an individualized view on the world can be somewhat unsettling, but insisting on a single news agenda has its own disadvantages. Before getting into detailed design principles for personalized news, I want to look at how bad the information overload problem actually is, and how we came to believe in mass media.

Too much that matters

A solid daily newspaper might run a couple hundred items per day, just barely readable from cover to cover. Meanwhile, The Associated Press produces about 15,000 original text stories every day (and syndicates many times that number) — far more than one person can consume. But the giants of journalism are dwarfed by the collaborative authorship of the Internet. There are currently 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, which now houses more video than was produced during the entire 20th century. There are 400 million tweets per day, meaning that if only one tweet in a million was worthwhile you could still spend your entire day on Twitter. There are several times more web pages than people in the world.

All of this available information is a tiny fraction of everything that could be reported. It’s impossible to estimate what fraction of stories go “unreported,” because there is no way to count stories before they’re written; stories do not exist in nature. Yet from the point of view of the consumer, there is still far, far too much available. Ethan Zuckerman has argued that the limiting factor in foreign reporting is not journalistic resources, but the attention of the consumer. I suspect this applies to most other kinds of journalism as well; raise your hand if you’ve been carefully following what your city council is up to.

Compared to the news, there is simply very little attention available.

For the single-issue activist, the goal is attention at any cost. But editors have a different mission: They must choose from all issues. There is a huge number of potentially important stories, but only a tiny fraction can be “headlines.” Most stories must languish in obscurity, because you or I cannot hope to read a thousandth of the journalism produced each day. But even the flood of global journalism is a tragically narrow view on the world, compared to everything on the Internet.

How, then, should an editor choose what tiny part of the world to show us? Sometimes there is an event so massive, so universal, it demands attention. Natural disasters and revolutions come to mind. For all other stories, I don’t think there is an answer. We can’t even agree on what problems are important. No single set of headlines can faithfully represent all that matters in the world.

There is more than one public

The Internet is not like broadcast technology — print, radio, TV. But the routines and assumptions of journalism were formed under the technical constraints of the mass media era. I wonder if we have mistaken what was possible for what is desirable.

The first technical limitation I want to consider was this: Everyone had to see the same thing. This surely reinforced the seductive idea that there is only one “public.” It’s an especially seductive idea for those who have the ability to choose the message. But there’s something here for the rest of us too. There’s the idea that if you pay attention to the broadcast or read the daily paper, you’re informed. You know all there is to know — or at least everything that’s important, and everything everyone else knows. Whatever else it may be, this is a comforting idea.

Media theorists also love the idea of a unified public. Marshall McLuhan was enamored with the idea of the global village where the tribal drums of mass media informed all of us at the same time. Jürgen Habermas articulated the idea of the public sphere as the place where people could collectively discuss what mattered to them, but he doesn’t like the Internet, calling it “millions of fragmented chat rooms.”

But the idea of a unified public never really made sense. Who is “us”? A town? A political party? The “business community”? The whole world? It depends on the publication and the story, and a few 20th-century figures recognized this. In The Public and Its Problems, written in 1927, John Dewey provided an amazing definition of “a public”: a group of people united by an issue that affects them. In fact, for Dewey a public doesn’t really exist until something affects the group interest, such as a proposed law that might seriously affect the residents of a town.

We can update this definition a little bit and say that each person can belong to many different publics simultaneously. You can simultaneously be a student, Moroccan, gay, a mother, conservative, and an astronomer. These many identities won’t necessarily align with political boundaries, but each can be activated if threatened by external events. Such affiliations are fluid and overlapping, and in many cases, we can actually visualize the communities built around them.

The news isn’t just what’s new

There was another serious technical limitation of 20th-century media: There was no way to go back to what was reported before. You could look at yesterday’s paper if you hadn’t thrown it out, or even go to the library and look up last year on microfilm. Similarly, there were radio and television archives. But it was so hard to rewind that most people never did.

Each story was meant to be viewed only once, on the day of its publication or broadcast. The news media were not, and could not be, reference media. The emphasis was therefore on what was new, and journalists still speak of “advancing the story” and the “top” versus “context” or “background” material. This makes sense for a story you can never go back to, about a topic that you can’t look up. But somehow this limitation of the medium became enshrined, and journalism came to believe that only new events deserved attention, and that consuming small, daily, incremental updates is the best way to stay informed about the world.

It’s not. Piecemeal updates don’t work for complex stories. Wikipedia rapidly filled the explanatory gap, and the journalism profession is now rediscovering the explainer and figuring out how to give people the context they need to understand the news.

I want to go one step further and ask what happens if journalism frees itself from (only) giving people stories about “what just happened.” Whole worlds open up: We can talk about long-term issues, or keep something on the front page as long as it is still relevant, or decide not to deliver that hot story until the user is at a point where they might want to know. Journalism could be a reference guide to the present, not just a stream of real-time events.

Design principles for personalized news

If we let go of the idea of single set of headlines for everyone based around current events, we get personalized news feeds which can address timescales longer than the breaking news cycle. Not everyone can afford to hire a personal editor, so we’ll need a combination of human curators, social media, and sophisticated filtering algorithms to make personalized feeds possible for everyone.

Yet the people working on news personalization systems have mostly been technologists who have viewed story selection as a sort of clickthrough-optimization problem. If we believe that news has a civic role — that it is something at least somewhat distinct from entertainment and has purposes other than making money — then we need more principled answers to the question of who should see what when. Here again are my three:

Interest. Anyone who wants to know should be able to know. From a product point of view, this translates into good search and subscription features. Search is particularly important because it makes it easy to satisfy your curiosity, closing the gap between wondering and knowing. But search has proven difficult for news organizations because it inverts the editorial process of story selection and timing, putting control entirely in the hands of users — who may not be looking for the latest breaking tidbit. Journalism is still about the present, but we can’t assume that every reader has been following every story, or that the “present” means “what just happened” as opposed to “what has been happening for the last decade.” But for users who do decide they want to keep up to date on a particular topic, the ability to “follow” a single story would be very helpful.

Effects. I should know about things that will affect me. Local news organizations always did this, by covering what was of interest to their particular geographic community. But each of us is a member of many different communities now, mostly defined by identity or interest and not geography. Each way of seeing communities gives us a different way of understanding who might be affected by something happening in the world. Making sure that the affected people know is also a prerequisite for creating “publics,” in Dewey’s sense of a group of people who act together in their common interest. Journalism could use the targeting techniques pioneered by marketers to find these publics, and determine who might care about each story.

Agency. Ultimately, I believe journalism must facilitate change. Otherwise, what’s the point? This translates to the idea of agency, the idea that someone can be empowered by knowing. But not every person can affect every thing, because people differ in position, capability, and authority. So my third principle is this: Anyone who might be able to act on a story should see it. This applies regardless of whether or not that person is directly affected, which makes it the most social and empathetic of these principles. For example, a politician needs to know about the effects of a factory being built in a city they do not live in, and if disaster recovery efforts can benefit from random donations then everyone has agency and everyone should know. Further, the right time for me to see a story is not necessarily when the story happens, but when I might be able to act.

These are not the only reasons anyone should ever see a story. Beyond these principles, there is a whole world of cultural awareness and expanded horizons, the vast other. There are ways to bring more diversity into our filters, but the criteria are much less clear because this is fundamentally an aesthetic choice; there is no right path through culture. At least we can say that a personalized news feed designed according to the above principles will keep each of us informed about the parts of the world that might affect us, or where we might have a chance to affect others.

Photo of zebras in Tanzania by Angela Sevin used under a Creative Commons license.

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