As part of our ongoing collaboration with Nieman Journalism Lab, we’ve rounded up the latest in digital- and media-oriented scholarship — picking highlights from disciplines such as computer science, political science, journalism research and communications.
It’s hard to keep up with the increasing deluge of scholarship in digital media — and even harder to tie academic work directly to news industry decisions. But in one notable recent instance, scholarship has had a real influence on editorial policy — albeit in controversial fashion.
Popular Science announced that it is shutting down its comments section to push back against a perceived “war on expertise.” Debate over the move has been heated. The decision was partly informed by media research published earlier this year, in particular, the study “The ‘Nasty Effect:’ Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies,” in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. Do its findings trouble you enough to shut off comments? Judge for yourself (open versions here). One of the co-authors on that paper, Dominique Brossard of the University of Wisconsin, also just published an important paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “New media landscapes and the science information consumer.” Though aimed at scientists and science communicators, the paper offers insights useful to journalists reporting on difficult and complex technical issues such as biotechnology and climate change — certainly relevant as the new United Nations IPCC report is rolled out.
Other new scholarship might inform ongoing newsroom debates over comments, too. For example, a 2013 report “Journalist Involvement in Comment Sections,” from the Engaging News Project, run by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin, analyzes issues of participation and incivility. The research project, directed by Natalie Jomini Stroud, produces some empirical evidence that reporter involvement can reduce incivility.
The paper examines media industry patterns in the United States, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Despite predictions that we would see an increasingly homogenous media system across Western countries — convergence around a similar “Americanized” model — Nielsen finds surprising levels of divergence among media structures in different nations. He analyzes newspaper revenue, degree of emphasis on web platforms, changes in TV, and levels of public support for journalism, among other variables.
The paper offers many fascinating insights within the field of comparative media research, but for American readers, the big thing you might take away is U.S. exceptionalism: “The U.S. newspaper industry has suffered much more than its counterparts elsewhere. The U.S. commercial broadcasting industry is not only much stronger, in relative terms, than its European counterparts, but it has also grown at a faster pace. Internet use in the United States developed earlier than in many European countries, but dissemination seems to have stalled at a lower level than in other affluent democracies, and forms of use differ. Nonprofit and online-only news organizations have found some sustainable niches in the huge U.S. market, but few even in large Western European countries like France, Germany, and Italy…The American media system remains exceptionally exceptional (Hardy 2008) — there are no other systems like it, or even becoming very much more like it.”
The researchers set out to study gender differences in behavior on Twitter by analyzing some 78,000 messages among more than 1,700 pairs of persons. They conclude: “Gender differences revealed in our analysis have mostly confirmed observations in traditional settings; women use higher levels of [first person plural, or “we,”] [first person singular, or “I”], intensifiers, and emoticons in their speech, with levels escalating even more when they converse with other women, hinting at accommodation.”
The study catalogues the words that most distinctively characterize — that are most predictive of — female-to-female messages (“love”) and male-to-male interactions (“dude” or “man.”) Many of the old Venus and Mars clichés are at work, with some nuances: “These results suggest that, in their Twitter interactions, women tend to reference both themselves and others, more than men do…In general, the female linguistic style that was manifested in our study is more socially aware than linguistic style exhibited by men. This may be due to the fact that even when conversing with those they feel close to, in Twitter, women’s interactions are more about people and social happenings, whereas men prefer a style that is less personal.”
The study provides a window into just how rough-and-tumble the web is in China in terms of vigilante collective action — sometimes straight-up bullying — in pursuit of ostensibly “just” causes. The researchers look at four different varieties of activity within the “human flesh search engine” (HFSE) — really just a colorfully shocking metaphor for the no-holds-barred Chinese web as it does “target-punishing” of citizens and “fact-checking” of officials. Among the cases examined, Gao and Stanyer write, “Each starts with a trigger that emerged offline, presenting a certain kind of transgressive behaviour, followed by the revelation of the transgression — this is usually some form of hard evidence, a sound recording, photograph, document — or a questionable statement by an official.”
The study provides a fascinating window into brutally “democratic” tactics amid an authoritarian atmosphere, like a user-generated version of Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate. Any moral calculus is complicated by the weird mix of genuine citizen grievance and state acquiescence: “[T]hough there is strict control in Chinese cyberspace the Internet policy in China is fluid and calculating; the Chinese central government generally lets HFSE exist because it views the Internet as a channel to monitor and discipline its local departments and cadres. Of course if its legitimacy and stability are challenged by an HFSE then its response would be different…[B]ased on the HFSE we examined and as far we can tell, HFSEs were not [run] by central government and participants were not enlisted in response to a central government call for action. Underlying them is a genuine citizen anger and resentment at the transgression of particular norms by public officials and a desire to bring about some resolution.”
The study is among the first empirical examinations of exactly how new mothers use social media to communicate about their infants and experiences. It draws on data from 412 online surveys. The research provides insight into how mothers deal with communicating amid difficult issues such as postpartum depression and child developmental delays, and it debunks one big cultural stereotype. “Although pop-culture sensibilities, exemplified by the Facebook app unbaby.me…suggest that new mothers post incessantly and exclusively about their offspring, our findings indicate that this is a greatly exaggerated perception,” Morris writes. “Indeed, mothers of young children post far less often than they did before their child’s birth (at only half of their prior rate), and posts mentioning the child comprise only a small portion of their total posts.”
This column has already covered a fair amount of the scholarship on the Arab Spring and the Internet, but this new study adds important further nuance. It suggests that the facts around the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which touched off waves of revolutionary protest both in Tunisia and around the region, were bent by activists for public relations purposes — to create more accessible online narratives. Lim looks at why Bouazizi’s death and the demonstrations that followed weren’t as easily dismissed by the authorities as earlier events had been: In particular, his suicide was filmed; and his story was adjusted to frame the death in a way that appealed to a broad range of Tunisians.
The author makes a careful study of the diffusion of messages through a “hybrid” network: “The making of this network reflects the logic of media convergence which embodies not only a technological process where different types of media forms — old and new — collide, but also a cultural process with blurring lines between production and consumption, between makers and users, between formal and informal memberships, and between active or passive spectators.”