Were fears about the “infodemic” overblown?
Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab. This month, Nick Mathews, assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is filling in for Seth.
Ever since the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, we — and we do mean “we” as in “literally all of us” — have been deeply concerned about the quality of information that people were consuming on the issue. Conspiracy theories have abounded since spring 2020, and despite the urgings of the UN secretary-general and the WHO, among others, information about the pandemic in general and vaccines in particular has continued to resemble a minefield.
But the availability of junk information by itself does not an “infodemic” make. There are other steps in the influence of low-quality information that have often been assumed but perhaps not yet sufficiently empirically tested: To what degree are people consuming that junk information compared with higher-quality news? To what extent are people being cocooned in echo chambers reaffirming existing Covid-19 beliefs? And what influence is that information having on their support for pandemic mitigation efforts?
We’re starting to get some solid initial data to answer those questions, with three studies on those issues published in the past six weeks. The answers from those studies are complex and nuanced (as always), but on the whole, things may not have been quite as bad as we feared.
First, Sacha Altay and two colleagues at Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Richard Fletcher, published a paper (available for free from the Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media) that sought to quantify the share of web traffic that went to untrustworthy versus trustworthy news sites in the pandemic’s early days.
They tracked web traffic and Facebook engagement in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and France before and after the pandemic began and found that a vanishingly small proportion of traffic went to untrustworthy sites (as rated by NewsGuard). Those untrustworthy sites drew much more engagement on Facebook, but were still dominated by trustworthy sources there as well. Facebook engagement and traffic to news sites were up about a quarter from 2019 to 2020 overall, with most of that increase going to trustworthy sites, rather than untrustworthy ones.
There were some asterisks to that good news: The study didn’t measure traffic or engagement for non-news organizations, which may have been a major source of untrustworthy Covid-19 information. And the reach of untrustworthy information was significantly higher in the U.S. and France than in the U.K. and Germany.
In a second study, a team of 19 international researchers led by Alon Zoizner looked at COVID-19 information consumption as it related to like-minded information. In a study published in the journal Political Communication, they used a massive two-wave survey of 14,000 people across 16 European countries plus Israel to determine whether and why people were people were consuming information that challenged their political views.
Zoizner and his colleagues reasoned that the uncertainty produced by a crisis like the pandemic would lead to a more acute need for useful information, which would increase consumption of information countering one’s political views (i.e., “cross-cutting information”). The results of the study bore that rationale out: Both like-minded and cross-cutting information consumption increased after the pandemic, especially for those among whom concern about the pandemic was greatest.
The connection between pandemic concern and cross-cutting information consumption was higher in countries where Covid was more severe, where the government response was more permissive, and where democratic institutions were weaker. This, the authors suggested, indicated that when the need for quality information was truly greatest, people were most willing to go beyond their like-minded sources.
Finally, Andrew Anderson and Joshua Scacco published a study in American Behavioral Scientist looking at the effects of all this Covid information consumption. Specifically, how did people’s Covid information sources influence their level of support for Covid mitigation policies?
To find out, they surveyed 600 Florida residents in April 2020, measuring their consumption of COVID-19 information from legacy news, cable news, Facebook, government sources, and personal sources. They found that, even after controlling for partisanship, TV news consumption played a significant role in support for mitigation strategies — Fox News viewership was associated with opposition to Covid mitigation, and CNN, MSNBC, and network news were associated with support.
The control for partisanship is a key factor here. It indicates that the influence of Fox News is not simply a product of conservatives being more likely to oppose mitigation and also more likely to watch Fox News. It suggests, instead, that the cable channels (and network TV news) may have had an influence apart from simple partisan audience self-selection. On the flip side, neither Facebook nor government communication (e.g., press conferences by Donald Trump and other elected officials) were significantly associated with views on mitigation.
Taken together, the studies present a handful of emerging data points in our picture of what information consumption looked like in the early days of the pandemic. And the picture they paint isn’t as bleak as we’ve tended to fear: News consumption was way up (as we might have expected, and as other studies have shown), but it was largely trustworthy sources, and often cross-cutting sources, that got much of the attention. It may be, though, that as we’ve seen previously, the greater effect on attitudes may have been Fox News viewership than social media sources.
“Stories that don’t make the news: Navigating a white newsroom as a Black female reporter.” By Tyra L. Jackson, in Journalism Practice. This powerful article tells a vital story, critically examines newsroom culture, and demonstrates why we need autoethnographies in journalism and media studies. How rare are autoethnographies, such as Jackson’s? A search on the website for Journalism Practice finds just two autoethnographies, Jackson’s and another from 2007, the journal’s debut year. Jackson writes that the purpose of her autoethnography is to tell her story of workplace bullying to “better white newsroom culture” and to ask “newsrooms to consider how the actions and culture of white newsrooms can negatively affect Black female reporters.”
Explaining her methodological choice, Jackson writes that autoethnographies “help me and others share our encounters with discrimination.” Autoethnographies permit researchers to view oneself in relation to culture. As Jackson writes, “my experiences might be applicable to similar experiences Black female journalists have in white newsrooms, as my emotional recollections can help others provide meaning to their experiences via this method.”
Jackson uses the lens of critical race theory to examine her experiences in a southern newsroom. She weaves relevant literature and personal reflection to provide an inside story about unethical behavior, workplace bullying, and discrimination (including racial microaggressions). “Although the bullying I experienced was not explicitly racist (i.e., the bullies did not use racial slurs, hate speech, or have a blatant disregard for Blacks), it engaged my position as a Black woman in a white newsroom,” Jackson writes. “This type of bullying can be understood as racially motivated, even when the perpetrators may not perceive themselves as ‘racist.’”
Jackson progresses through her experiences, first recalling her enthusiasm in starting at the organization. Early on, she felt that her new co-workers “would run into battle with me.” Soon, though, it just became a fight. Jackson writes about how two white female colleagues bullied her, lied to and about her, and claimed she stole their story ideas and assignments. They called her unapproachable and played to the stereotype of the angry Black woman. The managing editor, a white man and friend of the two white female colleagues, ignored the bullying and dismissed Jackson’s attempt at diplomatically resolving the issue. Jackson felt isolated.
One of the most poignant anecdotes from the piece is when Jackson writes about sitting silently during a story meeting. She had ideas flowing through her mind, but she knew it was pointless to open her mouth. “I isolated myself because I did not feel welcomed,” she writes. Even a meeting with the editor-in-chief about her colleagues’ behavior did not resolve the issue. Jackson eventually left for a public relations job: “I was happy to have a stable job and leave the newspaper behind.”
“An intersectional analysis of U.S. journalists’ experiences with hostile sources.” By Kelsey Mesmer, in Journalism & Communication Monographs. Hostility toward journalists and journalism has long been a challenge around the world, including in the United States. As the author notes in this piece, newspaper offices in the 19th and early 20th centuries often were ransacked or destroyed. However, incidents of animosity and violence against individual journalists have increased in recent years, and so has the academic attention to these issues. Studies have examined online and offline harassment of journalists, but mostly from people outside the journalistic process (e.g., social media users, television viewers, etc.). Less is known about hostility directly from journalists’ sources — the people the journalists interview for news stories.
For this study, Mesmer draws on 38 in-depth interviews with journalists who have faced hostility from sources. Using the theory of intersectionality, she categories four forms of hostility from news sources and examines editor/manager responses to the hostility and how the hostility affected journalistic routines and news products. She identifies four forms of source-based hostility as (1) stemming from a general distrust of the news media, (2) source boundary crossing, (3) safety-violating hostility, and (4) microaggressions.
First, hostility stemming from general distrust was experienced by all by one participant, a 67-year-old white freelance writer who conducts most of his reporting remotely. Examples included claims of “fake news,” accusations of bias, and having interview requests denied because sources did not trust the media. Second, participants experienced situations of boundary crossing that broke professional norms of engagement and made them feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Such hostility only happened to female participants in Mesmer’s sample. Examples included sources repeatedly calling the journalists on their personal phones, going above the journalists to complain to their bosses, and posting defamatory content about the journalists on social media. Third, participants experienced cases of safety-violating hostility, either causing the journalists direct physical and/or emotional harm or threatening physical harm. Though rare, these were the most intense and dangerous examples of hostility. One female reporter faced unwanted sexual touching and advances, and another female journalist had a phone slapped out of her hand twice by a source. Fourth, journalists faced numerous examples of microaggressions, including condescending tone or being treated as inferior.
Mesmer also examined the journalists’ editors’ responses, which too often were a lack of response. Participants even said that when they reported threats and verbal abuses to their superiors, the leaders verbalized support but then did not take action or follow up on situations. In general, Mesmer found the news leaders did not “protect and defend their reporters” and that they “valued the story” more than the personal safety of the employees.
“How people integrate news into their everyday routines: A context-centered approach to news habits.” By Tim Groot Kormelink, in Digital Journalism. Since Bernard Berelson’s landmark 1949 study on what “missing the newspaper” means, the importance of audience habit has been explored by researchers. For instance, scholars have studied what compels people to subscribe to news, what news organizations do to promote habits, and how audience members’ habits change over time (for instance, during the pandemic). However, less is understood about the critical early days of a user’s new subscription and what that pivotal period means for potential habit creation.
Groot Kormelink, working with students from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, used a novel qualitative approach to address this issue. He conducted a qualitative study of 66 participants in the Netherlands who received a free three-week subscription (either print or digital) to a publication (ranging from national to regional publications) of their choice. Specifically, the study explores how participants adopt (or not) new subscriptions into their everyday habits and what assists or hinders this adoption in the early days of subscription. Or, put another way, Groot Kormelink explored why participants receive a free subscription yet do not use it.
The study’s key finding reveals visibility is vital. The study found participants, even those with positive initial experiences, tended to forget about their new subscription and that visibility, which generates repetition, is requisite for habit formation. Visual cues — app notifications, open browser tabs, social media posts, emails, or the printed newspaper — reminded participants to read their subscriptions. This was especially important for the digital formats, which lacked the obvious visual reminder of the printed newspaper itself.
Groot Kormelink found additional key obstacles for the participants in converting the free subscription into a habit. One obstacle is theirotherhabits. For instance, participants expressed a desire to form a new habit with the subscription but failed to do so because their existing habits (watching television or videos, etc.) were too strong and won their attention and time.
Another obstacle found was the cognitive commitment, the sheer mental work, of reading the newspaper — or even motivating yourself tostartreading the newspaper. Participants considered reading the newspaper a mental hurdle, viewing the process as a full commitment or one not to even attempt at all. In short, they found it hard to commit their time and energy to their free subscription. Ultimately, this research offers an insightful inside look at why initial news use either falters or fosters a potential news habit.
“War of the words: How individuals respond to ‘fake news,’ ‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation,’ and ‘online falsehoods.’” By Edson C. Tandoc and Seth Kai Seet, in Journalism Practice. As the authors write in this brilliantly straightforward and important piece of research, “the terms people use matter.” That idea is at the heart of this survey-based approach to studying “fake news” and similar terms.
The term “fake news” peaked in usage (per Google search) in November 2016, around the time that Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. The term remains widely used, but academics have argued that it lost its meaning as it became politicized and weaponized. This study examines “fake news” as a concept and how the public reacts to it compared with other terms, such as “misinformation,” “disinformation,” and “online falsehoods.” The latter term is particularly important in Singapore, where the government uses the term “online falsehoods” and defines them as “false statements of facts.”
The authors, both from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, used an online survey of 1,015 people with a nationally representative adult sample. The participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups based on the wording used in the questionnaire, split virtually equally between fake news, misinformation, disinformation and online falsehoods. The participants answered the same set of questions (with the different terms) based on their perceptions of falsity, intentionality, general concern, seriousness and need for solutions.
The study found that the term “fake news” had the highest level of perceptions of falsity and intentionality and also rated the highest in level of concern, perceived severity, and requiring a solution. “Disinformation” was rated the lowest across the board in all five categories.
“Running up against a brick wall: U.S. metajournalistic discourse of gender equality in newsrooms.” By Margaretha Geertsema-Sligh and Tim P. Vos, in Journalism Studies. Journalism literature, both mainstream and academic, long has chronicled the industry’s failures with gender equality. An endless stream of stories highlight the lowlights — for example, that women journalists are underrepresented and marginalized in U.S. newsrooms, in particular in leadership positions.
However, as the authors here argue, there is “much we do not know about how journalists process this knowledge.” To address that, Geertsema-Sligh and Vos, drawing on institutional theory and feminist critiques, examine more than 500 online articles and blog posts in U.S. news industry publications during a 17-year period (2002-2019). Overall, the authors argue that “knowing how journalists make sense of journalism’s poor record on gender equality tells us much about the institution of journalism itself.”
The findings confirm ongoing concerns about the disadvantaged status of women journalists — attributed predominantly to workplace culture and inflexible hours. The texts analyzed do signal a need for organizational change, but the study also shows how an underlying stress is placed on individual women journalists to play the most important role in this change. As Geertsema-Sligh and Vos write, “newsroom culture was recognized as a problem, yet some of the solutions read like individual self-help advice suggesting that women have to change, not the organizations.”
Encouragingly, the analysis found that authors of industry-focused online articles and blog posts, in general, tend to challenge the institution of journalism for perpetuating gender inequality in newsrooms. They tie gender equality to larger audiences, higher revenue possibilities, and a reflection of more diverse societies. However, as Geertsema-Sligh and Vos also write, “despite these calls for change, journalism as an institution seems limited in its response to gender inequality in newsrooms.”
An RQ1 Read: Journalistic Autonomy: A Genealogy of a Concept, by Henrik Örnebring and Michael Karlsson
This is part of an occasional series of summaries by RQ1 readers of notable recent books on news and journalism. This month’s summary is from Will Mari, an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at LSU. If there’s a recent research-oriented book on news or journalism that you’d like to write about, let us know!
In Henrik Örnebring and Michael Karlsson’s Journalistic Autonomy: The Genealogy of a Concept (University of Missouri Press, 2022), both authors tackle a tricky topic that has heretofore been either elusive or, at best, secondary to most journalism studies scholars and media historians. And while Örnebring and Karlsson point to some noteworthy exceptions (Helle Sjøvaag, Michael Schudson, Theodore Glasser and Marc Gunther, Michael McDevitt and John C. Merrill, among others), they are — though they would be reticent to say this themselves — exceptionally bold and clever (and winsome) in the hard work of carving out a new genealogical media history of the idea of autonomy — independence — for journalism and journalists.
They successfully make the case for its inclusion in the oldest Ur-terms (the “god-term” status of notions such as “facts,” “truth,” “reality,” “the public,” the “Fourth Estate” and, of course, “objectivity”) in journalism, building on the important scholarship of Barbie Zelizer, James Carey, David Mindich, and others. They are careful and historically grounded in making their case, and do so in intellectually rewarding and consistent ways. Their analytical approach is based on four vital ideas about the way autonomy works in journalism today, namely 1) that autonomy is relational, that 2) autonomy requires boundaries, 3) autonomy implies agency (and the use of that agency) and 4) that autonomy must have a reason — a purpose — for its existence, both within and without newsrooms, and in and out of the broader democratic, Western-centric, capitalism-funded context that it is often found.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Örnebring and Karlsson’s project. They engage with autonomy in relation to what they identify as its key attributes or aspects, including independence from the state, political interests and the market, but also from sources, how it acts in the workplace and what it means for and in relation to journalism’s audiences, along with how it functions with regards to technology — but also, crucially, they talk about what that independence should be for or to what end it should act in a world where privilege is uneven and power often wielded by elites at the expense of the weak.
In this effort, they are inspired by Isaiah Berlin. Journalism and its practitioners, its scholars and its audiences, and even, if they were more honest, its enemies, should pay attention to what will be regarded, rightly so, as a seminal work in journalism studies.
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