Freek Staps, branded content and the task of journalism

This week’s article by Tandoc & Thomas ‘The Ethics of Web Analytics’ (2015), the authors pose important and interesting questions about the role journalims ought to play in society. In their view, journalism should function as a ‘steward’ of the public interest, serving the greater good of democracy. Too big a focus on web analytics and audience preferences might prevent journalists on functioning as a steward. They tend to become ‘butlers’ providing ‘what the public is interested in.’ (Tandoc & Thomas 2015: 248)

The article reminded me of a discussion (sort of, at least) between De Correspondent’s Rutger Bregman and our ‘own’ Freek Staps. Staps now works for media bureau Second Degree for which he makes ‘brand-journalism’ (as he calls it). In an interview he tells: ‘It’s not independant, but it is journalism.’ Second Degree makes content upon request. By brands, NGOs or governments for example.

Given this Facebook-post (tried to embed it, didn’t work), colleague Rutger Bregman obviously did not agree. The problem? Probably the same problem Tandoc & Thomas identify: the journalist not functioning as a steward, but rather as a butler. Or perhaps as a chef in this case: cooking up what is being requested.

Discussions about these topics (analytics/brands/money) are fundamental. They touch upon the core of journalism and the self-image of the journalist as independent and autonomous. It seems this image is fading, given pressure from the audience and the market. Both Bregman and Tandoc & Thomas perceive this as a negative development, but I wonder if this is really so.

I think they tend to have a romanticized image of journalism back in the days. As if all forms of journalism back then was investigative and thorough. A lot of journalistic productions are not meant to contribute to a democratic ideal and that’s fine with me.

Bibliography

Edson C. Tandoc Jr. & Ryan J. Thomas (2015), “The Ethics of Web Analytics”, Digital Journalism (Vol. 3: 2), pp. 243-258.

‘Trees’, reaching a young audience in times of growing distrust in media

Today I learned about a new Dutch media startup called ‘Trees‘ a blast from the English ‘trace’. Trace will be an interactive app for investigative journalism. It offers stories in the form of podcasts with additional photos, graphs and infographics. Moreover, the reader can trace each step the journalist made in the production of the article/podcast.

From the text at VPRO.nl, Trees appears to be a reaction to the waning of public trust in media. Initiators VPRO and HUMAN consider investigative journalism an ‘important public task’ in times of fake news and growing media distrust.

As Deuze and Prenger write in their chapter ‘The structural history and theory of innovation and entrepreneurialism in journalism’: “In this context [the context of growing distrust and a fragmentend media landscape] there is room for innovation in niche media, specialized and personalized media, and media that provide particular services to specific people.” (2016: 12-13)

Trees recognizes the room for these forms of innovative journalism. Although the app is available yet, it specifically aims at a young public that ignores ‘traditional media’ more and more. Trees thinks it can reach and, perhaps more importantly, engage this part of the public through mobile phones and headphones.

I’m curious to see how Trees will play out in 2018. The idea itself is revolutionary, will its practice be so as well?

Bibliography

Deuze, M. & Prenger, M. (2016), “The structural history and theory of innovation and entrepreneurialism in journalism”, forthcoming in Boczkowski, P. & Anderson, C., Remaking the News, (Cambridge: MIT Press).

Placemaking: how rappers are capitalizing on ghetto imagery

Everyone slightly familiair with American hiphop will know the typical ‘ghetto’ music videos. The ingredients? Gang signs, suburbs, great piles of money, a lot of weapons and a group of African-American men. If you really have no clue (and want do dive into some hiphop) check these videos by A$AP Ferg, SahBabii and/or Bobby Shmurda.

All the images noted above were used in the video for ‘Drill Time’, a song by rapper Slim Jesus. In the video he shows of his money and firearms, while rapping about his gang (among others). A true highlight of culture.

The rapper got heavily critiziced for the way he portrayed himself and his surrounding in the musicvideo. The criticism focused on the fact that Slim Jesus does not come from the ghetto at all, so he is appropriating a place and its imagery for his own benefit.

This is what Vicki Mayer (2016) would probably describe as an example of ‘placemaking’. Slim Jesus chose this particular place, because it is associated with hiphop. ‘The ghetto’ (or ‘the hood’) is not one real place, but it stands for the poor American suburbs. The video should make his claims more authentic, giving him more ‘street credibility’.

The thing is: it is not authentic, since this part of hiphop-culture and imagery, is not his own. It’s a case of ‘placemaking (…) dovetailed with media industry needs’ (Mayer 2016: 716). Slim Jesus (and other rappers) is capitalizing on this placemaking: he uses the stylized ‘hood’ to his producing need, ‘using’ inhabitants as free figurants who receive nothing in exchange.

By Muus Visser

Bibliography

Mayer, V. (2016), ”The Places Where Audience Studies and Production Studies Meet”, Television & New
Media
17.8: 706-718.

The news world is changing, but the newsroom not so

To what extent are newsrooms adapting to the new era of online content and social media management? According to a new study carried out by the International Center for Journalists, many newsrooms are lagging when it comes to new technology and a ‘digital-first’ mindset.

As Mierzejewska and Shaver (2014: 47) note in their article ‘Key Changes Impacting Media Management Research’: ‘the ecology of media industries has evolved in startling and unpredictable directions as a result of technological innovations’. They observe 10 changes within media which affect the way media is being studied. Newspaper editors are not just writing for the paper version anymore, they write for the website and the social channels as well.

However, the ICFJ-study suggests newsrooms are not fully adapting to these media changes. Journalists do not get the training they want (in datajournalism for example) and hardly use social media insights or analytics. Moreover, newsrooms are hardly using technologists or analytics editors to monitor their online success. In short: newsrooms do not keep up with the changing media landscape.

To me this is proof of the tension within written journalism between on the one hand a nostalgic look at the newspaper and on the other the urge to find new ways of distribution and revenue. Or, as Lampel et. al. (2000: 266) put it, the tension to remain loyal to editorial values, but also deal with market economics and a new digital reality. Mierzejewska and Shaver make it appear in their article as if this tension does not exist; as if the media landscape has changed. To me, this landscape is still in flux, it is ever changing and media outlets are still trying to get a hold of this new reality.

Bibliography

Lampel, J., Lant, T. & Shamsie, J. (2011), ‘Balancing act: learning from organizing practices in cultural industries’, Organization Science (vol. 11.3): 263-269.

Mierzejewska, B. & Shaver, D.’, ‘Key Changes Impacting Media Management Research’, International Journal of Media Management (vol. 16) (2014).

When ‘the audience’ stopped being an audience, but became just you

To what extent can we still speak of ‘audiences’ when we are considering online content? This question crossed my mind when I read an article on Nieman Lab about the New York Times ‘experimenting with personalization to find new ways to expose readers to stories’.

The Times is performing ‘subtle’ experiments aimed at the story selection of the individual reader. Based on for example location, the website offers readers stories based on their location; people in New York get stories about that city. Other example: some people still get the editor-picked front page stories, whereas others get stories based on their reading behavior.

Warren Breed (1995 in Turow & Draper 2014, 649) argued that the audience played a minor role in mass media production and the preferences of editors and publishers tended ‘to govern the content appearing in the newspaper’. This might still be true for the paper version of a newspaper, but looking at online content, the role of the audience is getting bigger, while the audience itself is becoming smaller. With their own, personal reading behavior, readers of the New York Times are becoming editors and readers at the same time. By reading an article, they (intentionally or not) are ‘governing’ the content that will appear the next time.

Question is then, does the audience still exist in times and terms of the internet? Or have we all become individual audiences, where ‘newspapers are printed in an edition of one’? (Negroponte 1995 in Turow & Draper 2014, 648) I think it’s a missed opportunity this question did not get adressed, especially in the article of Turow & Draper who note that the idea of ‘individuals reiging over their own media destinies’ (2014: 648) got popular in the 20th century, but don’t use their 21st century knowledge to address this idea.

Muus Visser

Bibliography

Turow, J. & Draper, N., “Industry Conceptions of Audience in the Digital Space”, Cultural Studies 28.4 (2014).

Referendums: highly democratic or highly susceptible to framing?

There will be no need to change the Dutch Constitution; the bill to come to a binding referendum most probably won’t pass the Parliament since the initiators are not supporting it anymore. The initiators ‘are shocked’ about the referendums on Brexit and Ukraine. Considering the study ‘Framing Theory’ of Chong & Druckman (2007) would a referendum be an ultimate democratic instrument or rather a framing instrument?

Chong & Druckman make a strong case for competition and deliberation in their article. According to them ‘most voters may be partially susceptible to competing messages’. Later they add that deliberation and discussion can raise the quality of public opinion (Chong & Druckman, 114-118). In this sense, the referendum would be a great democratic instrument. In anticipation of a referendum, information is being shared, opinions exchanged and frames challenged. This would make for a better informed (and therefore better ‘opinionated’) public.

However, results of a referendum are not solely determined by opinions; the frame through which the referendum is discussed, might be just as important. As Chong & Druckman (111) state: ‘Strong frames should not be confused with intellectually (…) superior arguments’. If you can frame the referendum the way it fits your arguments, you’re making a strong case.

To illustrate this perhaps vague statement: take a look at the Ukraine Referendum. The imagery used (see the image and video) and the geopolitical frame (‘the unrelenting expansion of the EU’) were easily accessible (‘memory tags’) to a lot of voters which partially explains the win for the con-party.

According to Chong & Druckman, this may be harmful to the public opinion. They value informed arguments democratically higher than frames and imagery. To me, this idea of democracy/public opinion is too idealized; framing, ‘imagined communities’ and images are inseparable to democracy.

Muus Visser
Word Count: 289

Bibliography

Chong, D. & Druckman, J.N. (2007), ‘Framing Theory’, Annual Review of Policitcal Science (vol. 10), 103-126.

Why Oscar Pistorius keeps making headlines

Today (Tuesday, September 19th) the news broke that the South African prosecution wants Oscar Pistorius’ jail term to be extended. Why does Oscar Pistorius keeps making headlines?

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If we look at the ‘news values’ put forward by Harcup and O’Neil (2001) in their article ‘What Is News? Galtung and Ruge Revisited’ it shouldn’t be much of a surprise this story keeps popping up. The story meets multiple requirements to become (and remain) news.

First of all, it’s a bad news story, a tragedy. If you don’t recall: Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steinkamp in 2013 while she was in the bathroom. Pistorius later explained he thought it was a burglar hiding in there. Since the story broke, tons of follow-ups have been written on the case and the trial. This is the second news value.

Thirdly, it’s a story about celebrities, people who were already famous. Pistorius used to be a succesful athlete, Steenkamp was a model. Which brings us to the fourth and possibly most important news value within this story: the ‘entertaining’ factor.

Although ‘entertainment’ sounds wrong in this case, in the definition of Harcup and O’Neil, the story has a highly entertaining news value. It’s a story about an unfolding drama, including a showbizz couple. Moreover, the victim was a highly attractive woman, which especially in crime cases gives higher news value according to Harcup and O’Neil (2001: 247).

So is it really surprising Pistorius still makes headlines? Given the story’s news values above and the picture of Steenkamp below, I would say ‘not so much’.

Muus Visser

Bibliography

Harcup, T. & O’Neill, D. (2001), ‘What is News? Galtung and Ruge revisited.’ Journalism Studies, 2(2), pp. 261-280.

Fake news and swayed elections: Should Zuckerberg be held accountable?

Following recent scandals around Facebook (fake Russian accounts that may have swayed the 2016 elections in the US and the fact that Facebook promises to reach more Americans than actually exist), questions have been raised about who should be held accountable for the information that spreads over the social network. These questions touch upon the concepts in the literature this week, like algorithms as editors and the influence of algorithms on the public sphere.

As Caplan and Boyd state in their article ‘Who Controls the Public Sphere in an Era of Algorithms’ algorithms are more and more functioning as editors, actively shaping what audiences get to see. These algorithms however do not function as human editors: they don’t care about right, wrong, truth and ethics, but about what content gets the most clicks, about what ‘spikes’ the system (Caplan & Boyd 2016: 5). Given Facebook’s enormous reach, this poses questions about who is in fact responsible for what content audiences get to see.

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In an article for The Intercept, journalist Sam Biddle argues that Facebook-owner Mark Zuckerburg is accountable and should ‘openly testify’ about the company’s capabilities to influence the political process. In his opinion American Facebook-users have the right to know in what manners they may have been manipulated during last elections. As we’ve read in Caplan and Boyd elections can be swayed by ‘Facebook nudges’ (2016: 1), so some sort of accountability would be fair. The form of this accountability would be problematic though.

Problem here is twofold. Firstly, Zuckerberg won’t be eager to share the secrets and algorithms behind Facebook for competitive reasons (Caplan & Boyd 2016: 4). Secondly, both Zuckerberg himself and the audience probably won’t be able to understand the algorithm and the dynamics behind the Facebook-timeline.

So should we hold Zuckerberg accountable? Or is time to take accountability ourselves, and revise our position concerning tech giants like Facebook, making them less central to the way we live?

Muus Visser

Bibliography

Caplan, R. & Boyd, D., ‘Who Controls the Public Sphere in an Era of Algorithms?’ Data & Society (2016).

Biddle, S., ‘Make Mark Zuckerberg Testify’, The Intercept, September 11, 2017.