New Media & Society has just published my article, “Automating judgment? Algorithmic judgment, news knowledge, and journalistic professionalism.” This article began as a paper for the Unlocking the Black Box conference hosted by the Internet Society Project by the Yale Law School in April 2016. At the time, I was thinking about the differences between journalistic professionalism and algorithmic journalism. As the conference paper grew into a journal article, the key theme that developed was that of judgment. As I argue, professional judgment is at the heart of being a journalist, yet actual claims to making judgments for the most part are not normatively supported by journalists. The tenets of journalism tend to externalize newsworthiness while stressing neutrality and objectivity, even as the news always involves subjecting judgments. In a way, this didn’t matter much, until a series of automated news practices began to arise over the past decade.
With the rise of algorithmic judgment–that is, the use of automated programs to sort, rank, and even author news–the question of judgment becomes paramount. Algorithms are preprogrammed judgments, and they are often lauded as escaping the fallibility of subjective humans.
What this article argues is that we need to differentiate human and algorithmic judgment. In so doing, we recognize the contingency of the latter on human decisions. But we also need to laud professional judgment as necessary and a social good and not something moved to the background of the news process.
I am pleased to announce that I am editing a special issue of Digital Journalism titled ‘Measurable Journalism: Digital Platforms, News Metrics, and the Quantified Audience.’ You can read the call here, but the gist of it is putting together an issue with several different ways of tackling what it means when journalism becomes ‘measurable’ in specific ways in the digital era. Measurable journalism introduces both new practices and ways of thinking about news that deserve the sort of critical attention I hope this issue will provide. Abstracts are due June 1, 2017, and you can shoot me an email with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Digital Journalism has just published my new article, “Facebook in the News: Social media, journalism, and public responsibility following the 2016 Trending Topics controversy.” This piece examines the dustup surrounding the Facebook’s Trending Topics feature (see the image for an example), which became news itself (see image again) after Gizmodo reported that Facebook had used human editors to make the feature work followed by accusations that these editors were biased against conservative news. This led to public outcry while the social media giant tried to address claims, assuage critics, and figure out how its features should work. Despite no evidence to back up claims of bias, the site nonetheless became apologetic and, ultimately, more automated.
What my study does is examine reactions to the controversy to expose competing discourses about just what Facebook’s relationship to news is. For the social media company, news is just content, part of the way the site gets used. Like any content, Facebook needs it to be sticky enough to keep users on the site. It also grants Facebook the patina of seriousness. This was evident in much of the discourse around news that the company produced before and after the Trending Topics controversy.
Journalists and others pulled Facebook into the news orbit, assigning the site with responsibility for its place in the news ecosystem. By favorably comparing the editorial judgment of professional journalists, Facebook is cast as delinquent in its duties of ensuring a vibrant public sphere.
Facebook, of course, is reluctant to adopt an overt place as a news publisher, lest it fall prey to the same criticism that befalls much of contemporary journalism. It sees itself as a platform rather than an editor.
But what is interesting after the fact is the context this research provides. The study covers May-August 2016, with the outcome of Facebook firing its human editors to rely instead on algorithms to figure out its top stories. Accompanying snippets of information written by humans was replaced by traffic updates of how many users were sharing the story. This led directly to the bigger controversy of Facebook and fake news, which has only deepened the criticism of Facebook for abdicating its role within news. Facebook has been prodded to do more, but the larger confusion over what Facebook ought to do and what it ought to be is far from settled.
I have a chapter in the new book Rethinking Journalism Again, edited by Chris Peters and Marcel Broersma and available from Routledge. This is a follow-up to Peters and Broersma’s first volume, Rethinking Journalism which has an amazing introductory chapter that they wrote. The new volume has a lot of great chapters by a great cast of scholars. My contribution, “Establishing the Boundaries of Journalism’s Public Mandate” pulls together a lot of different threads in my research, from my work on boundaries to my concept of metajournalistic discourse and my forthcoming work on journalistic authority. I am really drawn to the idea of a public mandate as a way of getting at journalism by starting from the outside. Rather than assume that journalism has some guaranteed, agreed-upon social role, it is more useful to start from the broader perspective of how this role is contested. In this view, mandate is a powerful term because it involves the active granting of some sort of approval rather than having it foisted upon us. This shift allows us to see the continuous negotiation of what constitutes news or what falls outside this boundary. I end the chapter with a discussion of what I think is much needed self-reflexivity within journalism studies. If we take nothing for granted and instead foreground continuous struggle, then we need to reevaluate where various voices stand in relation to each other. This is true for academics called to comment and critique the press, explain its trajectories, and teach future practitioners. As I argue in the chapter, we are all involved in defining what journalism is.
Just what do we mean when we call something a crisis? How does this interpretive frame interact with material circumstances? These are the guiding questions for a chapter appearing in The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered, edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Elizabeth Butler Breese, and María Luengo, just published by Cambridge University Press. My contribution, “Telling the crisis story of journalism: narratives of normative reassurance in Page One,” homes in on the larger questions of just what is happening to journalism through a particular text – Andrew Rossi’s 2011 documentary Front Page. The movie mainly follow the media desk at the New York Times as it covers the economic hardships engulfing the news media industry – including the Times. The movie presents an industry in peril with the threat to news not just one of change but of existential threat. But this is a particular vision with particular emphases and blindspots. That’s what is always important to remember about the application of “crisis” to a set of events. There is no denying that the news industry was suffering at the moment, but at the same time how this is understood matters. As I argue in the chapter, a particular diagnosis leads to a particular course of treatment (while excluding others). In this documentary, what emerges is a discourse of “normative reassurance” wherein journalists advocate for the retention of core values even as the media and platforms through which news is produced and circulated change.
Research takes time, books take time, and sadly between writing this chapter and its publication, the much-beloved New York Times media columnist David Carr passed away in 2015. Carr was very much the star of Page One. The film gets into Carr’s personal tale of redemption and his improbable ascension. Clips from the movie were on frequent display after his death. The importance of his place in how we understand journalism is hard to overstate, and the editors of the book rightly decided to dedicate the book to him.
My latest article, “Metajournalistic Discourse and the Meanings of Journalism: Definitional Control, Boundary Work, and Legitimation” is now available ahead of print on the Communication Theory site. I’ve been working with an idea of metajournalistic discourse–public talk about journalism–for some years now, applying it to deviance, the decline of newspapers, the manifestos of news startups, media criticism, and gatekeeping. This article steps back from specific examples to theorize what this discourse does. I argue that news discourse (i.e. what journalists produce) is always accompanied by discourse making sense of news. We can really only understand journalism as a cultural practice and a knowledge-producing activity by examining this larger context of metadiscourse the same way we study material structures, technologies, media policies, role conceptions, production and consumption practices, etc. In fleshing out these claims and identifying consequences, I associate metajournalistic discourse with definition-making, boundary work, and authority.
Articles are always journeys, and this one began as a presentation at the Qualitative Political Communication Research pre-conference at the 2014 ICA meeting in Seattle. I appreciate the opportunity this excellent pre-conference offered to work out the ideas that eventually became the Communication Theory article.
In a new article to be published in Digital Journalism, Nikki Usher and I look at how digital news startups talk about what they do by examining their “manifestos” — i.e. public-facing statements about who they are, what they do, and why they make journalism better. Although these manifestos are by no means uniform, they do share an effort to define not only what the news startup is doing, but why improvement is needed in the first place. In this way, they are examined as key moments of metajournalistic discourse that define appropriate practices, demarcate the boundaries of journalism, and establish arguments for what legitimate journalism looks like–or ought to look like.
One pattern we found was a reluctance to attack traditional journalism in any sustained way. Instead, these startups simultaneously rely on the authority of existing journalism while they also craft arguments for the improvements they offer. In being constrained from a full-throated attack, these sites instead emphasized two traits. First, they took an iterative stance in which they celebrated an attitude of experimentation, which they contrasted with static news forms. Second, they sought to collapse barriers between journalism and technology by advocating for closer connections between news workers and technologists.
Another thing we learned was that life often moves faster than academic publishing. As the article finished the revision process and entered the production stage, one of our news sites, Circa, ceased operations due to a lack of funds. To us, this underscores the precariousness of the digital news environment and the fine line between innovation and sustainability.