Cross-examining the network: The year in digital and social media research

There’s never a shortage of fascinating scholarship in the digital news/social media space. This year, we’re spotlighting 10 of the most compelling academic articles and reports published in 2017, which delve into meaty topics such as venture-backed startups, artificial intelligence, personal branding, and the spread of disinformation. We conferred with a small group of scholars to pick the ones we think you’ll want to know about — and remember, this is just a sample. A big thank you to everybody who contributed suggestions on Twitter.

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A Tough Message for News Organisations: Change or Become Irrelevant

It is currently one of the most pressing questions in journalism: how can legacy media successfully master the digital environment and flourish in a world dominated by the Internet and social media?

So great is the interest and the demand for answers that the Web is filled with think-pieces, best practice guidelines and conference talks on the topic yet, until recently, there has been little empirical research available.

A new report by Lucy Kueng, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of strategy and innovation in media organisations, tries to address this gap. Continue reading “A Tough Message for News Organisations: Change or Become Irrelevant”

In 2017, the one thing every digital-native news outlet needs is a newsletter (not an app)

Newsletter > Apple News > podcast > app: In terms of how digital-native news outlets get their information out, the newsletter wins. That’s according to a digital news fact sheet from Pew Research Center, released Monday. It looks at 36 news outlets that originated online and have at least 10 million unique visitors per month (list of outlets, from to, here).

Sites do not appear to be increasingly building native apps: The percentage of top digital-native news sites with an app remained steady between 2016 and 2017, at 61 percent:

This does not appear to include responsive sites: “For mobile apps, researchers searched the Google Play and iOS App Store for each site,” according to the fact sheet’s methodology.

Other publishing methods are more popular:

Fully 97 percent of these outlets offer newsletters, and 92 percent have an official presence on Apple News. Three-quarters, meanwhile, release podcasts and 61 percent allow comments on their articles.

The full fact sheet is here. Pew also released two other new fact sheets — one on public broadcasting, one on Hispanic and African American news media — on Monday. (These fact sheets, with staggered releases, have taken the place of what was once Pew’s giant annual State of the News Media report.)

Who Sets the Agenda in the Internet Age?



Fragmentation: Multiple channels and sources allow individuals to create their own, personalised agenda.

Media agenda-setting theory assumes the public receive news from a limited set of sources and that this encourages a shared agenda. In the digital age, however, there are now multiple channels and sources, allowing individuals to construct their own, personalised agenda.

The growing number of information channels, each with fewer readers, is dividing audiences.

Increasing fragmentation has been compounded by the way individuals access news: as the number of news sources increases, audiences use technologies to filter and customise access to information, according to personal likes and interests.

So, who sets the agenda in the digital age? The audience or the media?

The audience….?

Just over 20 years ago, Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder, suggested the concept of ‘Daily Me’: a computer screen with news and a button that, like a volume control, would allow the user to increase or decrease personalisation. Other controls could include a slider that moves both literally and politically from left to right to modify stories about public affairs.

The same idea gives the critical tone to the recent 2.0, a book in which Cass R. Sunstein assumes that technology has greatly increased people’s ability to ‘filter’ what they want to read, see and hear.

With the help of the internet, we are able to design our own newspapers and magazines. We can make our own schedule, featuring the movies, games, sports, shopping and news programmes of our choice. We mix and match. When the power to filter is unlimited, people can decide, in advance and with perfect precision, what they will and will not find.

Many examples demonstrate that the media market follows this direction.

Digital newspapers encourage levels of personalisation that result in the creation of the reader’s own, individualised version of the newspaper, with the promise that it will contain exactly what concerns him and exclude everything that does not.

Other applications enable sites to automatically display information which, based on observation of the user’s previous habits, seems to be the most relevant. The same logic goes through television recording devices or radio subscription systems in RSS – the idea of control and personalisation of the agenda.

… or the media?

Another line of understanding continues giving the mainstream media a determining power in setting the agenda. Some of the arguments supporting this interpretation start from one of the promoters of the classical hypothesis of agenda-setting. In 2005, at a time when the impact of the internet was beginning to be felt, Maxwell McCombs, of the University of Texas, made the implementation of the previous proposals depend on two conditions, yet to be empirically validated.

The first refers to the number of people who frequent sites searching for information. If the classic media agenda-setting function tends to be diluted as the audience begins to distribute attention through the vast array of subjects available on the internet, the question is whether an audience so wide and fragmented can be said to exist at all.

The second condition is perhaps more difficult to achieve: online information agendas would need to be quite different from each other, as opposed to the relatively redundant agendas of traditional media.

Studies comparing the audience of the most-read paper journals with the most-consulted information sites showed that attention on the Web is even more concentrated than in the printed world. They also showed that many online sources are subsidiaries of traditional media sources, resulting in redundancy between the agendas of the two environments.

The citizen’s agenda?

Let us consider social media. Through the involvement of a large number of users, it is possible to create an agenda of themes alternative to those selected by mainstream media editors. The agenda-setting role played by YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has often been described in recent years, especially after the protests following the Iranian elections in 2009, (also dubbed the Twitter Revolution). In most cases, those are stories first brought by new media, then contextualized and validated by mainstream media.

In any case, imposing the re-evaluation of the agenda-setting concept.

This re-evaluation needs to consider that the gatekeeping function is now largely shared with media users, who furthermore aggregate and curate the information they consume. In Jim Hall‘s expression, they construct their own informative “diet”.

The result of this process has (or rather shares) the risks associated with much of the communication through the new media. Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of the digital news portal BuzzFeed, recently denounced our tendency to live in filter bubbles, especially through our activities on social media. Anyone who works with information, he says, has spent the past year observing how social media affect people’s opinions about the world, and how they can close this world to dissenting opinions.

The return to the necessary social glue

The past clearly reveals the damage caused by the old agenda-setting operators, relentless in refusing arguments they considered outside the mainstream or political consensus. It is possible today to notice how the absence of a minimum standard of discursive order hinders, in a different way, the inter-comprehension and the understanding of questions of common interest. Diversity and plurality are conditions for the proper functioning of the civic life. They were precisely two of the values socially institutionalised by journalism, which social media seems to be threatening.

A multiplicity of fragmented agendas will not result in a platform for political discussion.

Without common experiences and concerns, a heterogeneous society will have much more difficulty identifying and responding to social problems. As Sunstein points out, it is these shared experiences, including those made possible by the media, which provide the social glue. As a result, a communication system that radically reduces the number of such experiences will create the conditions for the emergence of all the problems that result from social fragmentation.

In recent times, we have heard a lot about them. At stake is the emergence of a virtual pseudo-community that replaces the real community. Whether such dangers will materialise will ultimately depend on the aspirations that, on democratic terms, organise our practices.


Pic credit: Evan, The Beginning, Flickr CC licence

The post Who Sets the Agenda in the Internet Age? appeared first on European Journalism Observatory – EJO.

Smarter Journalism: The Dark Side of Artificial Intelligence in the Newsroom

Can the reality of Artificial Intelligence live up to the extensive hype surrounding its development?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in newsrooms has a lot of potential for smarter journalism. Yet, as newsrooms increasingly experiment with new technologies, such as machine learning and natural language processing, they also run into practical and ethical challenges. Exploring some of these issues was the motivation behind a recent conference at Columbia University in New York.

When AI fails

Success is built on failed experiments and these are certainly part of the current AI experience. Marc Lavallee, head of the Research and Development team at the New York Times, recalled one recent AI experiment that did not go according to plan.

Speaking on the panel “AI in the Newsroom: Technology and Practical Applications” Lavellee described how his team trained a computer vision programme to recognise members of Congress at the inauguration of President Donald Trump. “For some reason,” Lavallee said, “[the programme] thought all the old white dudes in the audience looked like (U.S. Senator) Al Franken.” In light of such experiences, he added, “We’re approaching this with a healthy dose of scepticism.”

Can the reality of AI live up to the hype?

Other panellists regretted that given the current hype around AI powered technology, the actual applications can’t keep up with these expectations. Sasha Koren, editorial leader of the Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab, noted that she found chatbots an “underwhelming experience.” Despite all their promises “that they will chat with you as if they are human,” she said, all they are “really doing is querying a database.”

As AI in the newsroom gains more attention, so does the influence of commercial companies trying to sell tailored products to newsrooms. Meredith Whittaker, who leads the Google Open Source Research group and is a co-founder of AINow, detected a tendency to “naturalize the technology,” so as to make it seem inevitable, when in fact it’s always designed by people. The actual capabilities of these programmes may not be always clear, especially as some developers are unfamiliar with the particular characteristics and standards of journalism.

What’s missing in this conversation, Whittaker said, was the question of whether, and to what extent claims by commercial companies live up to their promises. That’s of concern because these AI developers are salespeople “who don’t give us access to the algorithm, who legally and for a number of good reasons can’t give us access to the data, who assume that our input data matches whatever the data they used to train these algorithms and who are making claims about the efficacy in a field they may or may not understand…”

Artificial Intelligence and ethics

The ethical questions around AI took centre stage at the panel “Exploring the Ethics of AI Powered Products.” Some of the panellists touched on the ethical challenges at the core of AI applications—developing abstract measurements for real life problems. “We have a lot of things that we’d like to measure,” said Jerry Talton of Slack.

Talton mentioned the example of Slack trying to build predictive models that help important pieces rise to the top of online conversations between co-workers. But, he added, as predictive models can only offer correlations, the ethical challenge lies in “figuring out that gap between the things that we can actually predict and what we’re using those things as proxies for.” Implicit is the danger that predictive models give a false security of what piece of information is important.

This sentiment was echoed by Angela Bassa, of iRobot. “Math doesn’t care,” she said, indicating that mathematical models are not biased in any particular way. What makes a difference, however, is how data is being gathered. Bassa pointed out the false allure of clean data. “We’d like to imagine that it gets collected in these hermetically sealed, beautiful ways where you have these researchers in hazmat suits going into the field and collecting. That’s not how it works.”

The limitations of AI

Recognising limitations of AI was a general theme in this panel discussion. Madeleine Elish, a researcher at Columbia University and Data&Society, emphasised that just because AI technology is automating certain tasks, it should not be considered fully autonomous.

“It’s important to realise that right now deployed AI … is automating a task but in a very particularly prescribed domain.” This becomes an ethical question, she added, “when we start to assign too much power to the idea of a software program we forget all the kinds of agencies humans have over the different aspects that go into building these systems.”

Do you have any examples of artificial intelligence in the newsroom? Please share them with the EJO via comments or our Facebook page.


This article is the second in the EJO series on artificial intelligence in the newsroom. You may also be interested in reading: Smarter Journalism, Artificial Intelligence in the Newsroom

Image: Binary damage code, Markus Spiske, Flickr CC licence


The post Smarter Journalism: The Dark Side of Artificial Intelligence in the Newsroom appeared first on European Journalism Observatory – EJO.

Attacks On The Press: How Technology Is Changing Censorship


Attacks on the press

Attacks on the Press, 2017: 20 essays from around the world outlining the impact of technology on censorship.

Technology is transforming the way journalists work, but it is also changing the way governments are able to censor the media, according to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Launching the 2017 edition of the CPJ’s annual publication, Attacks on the Press, in Oxford this week, Simon said that technology has enabled governments and non-state actors to “innovate around censorship”. This has led to the development of increasingly insidious and subtle methods of controlling media.

“New information technologies – the global, interconnected internet, ubiquitous social media platforms; smartphones with cameras were supposed to make censorship obsolete. Instead, they have just made it more complicated,” Simon argues in the book’s introduction.

Attacks on the Press, 2017, is a collection of articles subtitled: ‘The New Face of Censorship’. Its 20 chapters cover issues such as fiscal blackmail in Kenya, where the government uses advertising revenue to ensure newspapers remain uncritical; collusion between elements of Turkish media and the country’s authoritarian government; and the use of twitter bots and copyright laws to curb criticism on social media in Ecuador.

Controlling the internet and journalists

One article details how Russia has been inspired by the Chinese model of internet control. It describes how, until six years ago, Russia’s internet was an open and relatively uncontrolled space. However following 2011 anti-government protests, partly driven by social media, the Kremlin introduced new laws designed to block online content.

Another chapter, Discredited, examines the latest attempt to intimidate journalists by the Chinese government. It has drawn up plans to link journalists’ financial credibility to their online posts. This means a journalist whose posts are considered inflammatory or critical could face financial repercussions.

“A journalist whose social media post is deemed a ‘rumour’ by the government could see her credit score lowered, resulting in her being denied a loan or saddled with a high interest rate.”

The impact of ‘technology capture’

The book highlights a number of new threats to press freedom created by ‘technology capture’ – where technology that allows information to circulate is also used to stifle free expression. These include online harassment, the monitoring and surveilling of critics and deliberately sowing confusion and mistrust through propaganda and false news.

Other concerns include the gradual erosion of established protections, the targeting of journalists by terrorists to limit news coverage, the imprisonment of reporters and photographers who refuse to toe the official line, withholding access to officials and public documents and the wielding of financial leverage such as advertising and credit scores.

International contributors

Twenty journalists and experts from around the world contributed to the book, including Christiane Amanpour, Karen Coates, Alexandra Ellerbeck, David Kaye and Alan Rusbridger. The writers expose nations that violate press freedom with impunity, provide potential guidance on how to ensure the safety of journalists and their sources, and also on how to fight against the powers that seek to silence criticism and call into question the media’s credibility.


The post Attacks On The Press: How Technology Is Changing Censorship appeared first on European Journalism Observatory – EJO.

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