“How Journalists Think While They Write”

15 10 2009

There is a relative paucity of academic scholarship on news writing across the social sciences. This is remarkable because (i) the news mediascape has changed dramatically over the last five years; and (ii) specialized tools are now (freely) available to study news production. So when an article appears that promises to reveal how “journalists think while they write”, my interest is sparked.

In their Journal of Communication article, Bu Zhong and John E. Newhagen (2009) present a model of news decision making. Using an experimental design, the authors examine how 120 (one-hundred-twenty!) U.S. and Chinese journalists make news decisions while writing a breaking news story from a “fabricated” press release. Zhong and Newhagen argue that their results point to a globalized, shared occupational ideology of objective news reporting. Lovely conclusion, but I don’t see how the authors arrive at this conclusion.

Theoretically, I do not understand why the authors fail to acknowledge the growing body of literature in cognitive psychology on writing process analysis that attempts to model exactly those cognitive processes that Zhong & Newhagen make claims about. Moreover, within journalism studies, the issue of reproductive writing (i.c. writing from press releases – which the Zhong & Bu elicit in their experiment) is en vogue. Nick Davies thinks it is the nail in the coffin of quality journalism, Lewis et al. 2009 provide a political economic account for this phenomenon.

Methodologically, I fail to grasp how the news values of conflict, importance, proximity and drama measure “cognitive information” (p597). And also, the authors seem to suggest that how journalists think can be “found out” by asking them in a post-experiment online survey. That seems a bit optimistic, at best.


Zhong, Bu and Newhagen, John, E. (2009). How Journalists Think While They Write: A Transcultural Model of News Decision Making. Journal of Communication 59 (3): 587-608. DIO: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01439.x

On E-ager beavers and First Lifers

13 10 2009

According to a Digital Anthropology Report, Britons use digital technologies in six distinct ways. The ‘six tribes of homo digitalis’ think, use and behave differently: “Some of these tribes have embraced technology and put it at the centre of their lives. For other tribes, “the internet” is a rather frightening jungle.”

According to Social Anthropology Professor David Zeitlyn, people’s willingness to embrace digital technologies will define your (professional) success in life – more so than your social class: “the extent to which people use social networking and promote themselves online will become more important in determining their careers than what school or university they went to”. Read the full report here (.pdf) or click the image to find out which tribe you belong to.

[H/T: John Postill @ antropologi.info]

Personas: How the internet sees you

28 09 2009

File under jaw-dropping: Personas

Personas is a component of the Metropath(ologies) exhibit, recently on display at the MIT Museum by the Sociable Media Group from the MIT Media Lab. It uses sophisticated natural language processing and the Internet to create a data portrait of one’s aggregated online identity. In short, Personas shows you how the Internet sees you.

Enter your name, and Personas scours the web for information and attempts to characterize the person – to fit them to a predetermined set of categories that an algorithmic process created from a massive corpus of data. The computational process is visualized with each stage of the analysis, finally resulting in the presentation of a seemingly authoritative personal profile.

Source: personas.media.mit.edu (via Michel Smekens)

The Economist: Shift happens

26 09 2009

“So what used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket
what fits in your pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years”

Ray Kurzweil

Life begins at 40 and other clichés

2 09 2009

The greatest communication tool we have ever had celebrates its 40th birthday today according to the Associated Press.

Few were paying attention back on Sept. 2, 1969, when about 20 people gathered in Kleinrock’s lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, to watch as two bulky computers passed meaningless test data through a 15-foot gray cable.

That was the beginning of the fledgling Arpanet network. Stanford Research Institute joined a month later, and UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah did by year’s end.

The 1970s brought e-mail and the TCP/IP communications protocols, which allowed multiple networks to connect — and formed the Internet. The ’80s gave birth to an addressing system with suffixes like “.com” and “.org” in widespread use today.

The Internet didn’t become a household word until the ’90s, though, after a British physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the Web, a subset of the Internet that makes it easier to link resources across disparate locations. Meanwhile, service providers like America Online connected millions of people for the first time.

[H/T: Philipp Budka]

ReCaptcha: digitizing books word by word

28 07 2009

Raise your hand if you are familiar with the work of Luis von Ahn, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Luis is one the masterminds behind ‘Captcha‘, the program that protects websites from automated spamming. Captcha is nerdspeak for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart’ and looks like this:

Luis has recently come up with ReCaptcha, a two-flies-with-one-stone program that not only stops spam but also helps to archive human knowledge by digitizing “books, newspapers and old radio shows”. Oh, the brilliance.  Here’s how it works. ReCaptcha uses words that cannot be read correctly by Optical Character Recognition (OCR, the standard way of digitizing human knowledge) as Captchas.

Each new word that cannot be read correctly by OCR is given to a user in conjunction with another word for which the answer is already known. The user is then asked to read both words. If they solve the one for which the answer is known, the system assumes their answer is correct for the new one. The system then gives the new image to a number of other people to determine, with higher confidence, whether the original answer was correct.

To see how fast ReCaptcha works, about 20 years of the New York Times archive was digitized in only a few months. 20 years. Read more about it here or watch Luis do some splainin’. I don’t think I have ever been this excited about a computer application since Tetris came out.

[H/T: Judy Sims]

Language and media session @ J21C

17 07 2009

A small but interested turnout at yesterday’s session on language and media at the Journalism in the 21st Century conference at the University of Melbourne (Law Building – fantastic venue for a conference). Nice diversity of papers, great discussion afterwards. Here are a few of my impressions.

1. Van Hout, Tom, Ghent University, Belgium
Quality Churnalism: Ethnographic Insights into Business News Production
Here is my presentation – adapted slightly at the last minute to fit the 15 minute presentation time slot.

2. Burger, Marcel, University of Lausanne, Switzerland
Conflicting Journalistic Styles and Textual Production: The Oral Negotiations Preceding the Inscription of Media

Marcel really impressed the audience with his data. Recurring question during the discussion afterwards: how in the world did you get this sort of access?

3. McKay, Susan & Fitzgerald, Richard, The University of Queensland, Australia
News Language in Contemporary Media Environments

How do broadcast news media target niche audiences? Answer: by converging production formats with consumption formats. The news studio has become a domestic space of consumption, complete with arm chairs, dinner tables and sofas – and the conversationalized register that these settings elicit.

4. Owen, Thomas, Massey University, New Zealand
Representations of Global Governance in Press Coverage of the Access to Medicines Debate

A corpus analytical study of a (quintessentially) globalized public discourse: access to medicines. Thomas is a very talented speaker and his data speak to issues of governance, agency, equality and nation-states.

Two observations:

  • 15 min. presentation time and 5 min of Q&A is really short. I’m much more comfortable in the traditional 20min-10min format.
  • I would like to blog about another presentation I saw, but honestly, it is beyond my descriptive abilities.


SBS Radio and @UOMmedia are providing excellent live coverage of the J21C conference.

IPrA panel on collaborative news writing

14 07 2009

Takeaways from the 11th Int’l Pragmatics Conference in Melbourne:

  • Don Bysouth’s research on ‘teasing’ by American service personnel in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan – oh, the boredom of warfare
  • Val Williams’ inclusive research – empowering people with learning disabilities: feel-good applied linguistics research
  • Conference clichés: “So when did you arrive?”, “That’s really interesting, thank you”, “So what part of the States are you from, Tom?”, “And how’s your PhD coming along?”
  • Daniel Perrin’s social skills and networking expertise – in a class of his own
From L-R: Aloxe Jetlag, Daniel 'I flew business and slept 8 hours on the plane' Perrin, Lut Baten, Val Williams

From L-R: A still jetlagged yours truly, Daniel 'I flew business and slept 8 hours' Perrin, Lut Baten and Val Williams @ the IPrA conference opening reception

  • Marcel Burger’s jaw-dropping data – turning the process of television journalism inside out
  • the thematic coherence of and audience response to our panel on news production – thank you

Collaborative news writing: A discursive perspective on news production
Convenors: Daniel Perrin, Ellen Van Praet & Tom Van Hout

Panel line-up

  • Daniel Perrin – “Let the pictures do the talking” – Investigating TV journalists’ collaborative text production strategies
  • Tom Van Hout & Ellen Van Praet Buy or sell? The role of consumption and authorship in financial news writing
  • Ellen Van Praet & Tom Van Hout – Competence on display: negotiating status during editorial meetings
  • Marcel Burger – Dealing with conflicting journalistic styles to achieve texts: oral negotiation of written media discourse
  • Inés Olza – The role of metaphor in news production: Political metaphors in “preformulated” media texts
  • Jasper Vandenberghe – New Spanish conquistadores? Newspaper articles and press releases on Spanish foreign investments in Argentina.

Practice is the new black in social science

10 06 2009

In his introduction to his forthcoming book, Theorising Media and Practice (available here), John Postill takes a stab at the ubiquitous yet seldom defined use of the word ‘practice(s)’ in media anthropology. He has point; social science loves the term but is slow to point out what social/cultural/discursive practices actually refer to.

I did a quick search of my own usage of the word ‘practice’ in my introduction to my PhD and found no fewer than 48 instances. I talk about situated, discursive, interpretive, journalistic, professional, representational, sense-making, (re-)entextualization, new media, news production and intertextual practices without defining the word practice. That’s poor terminology.

John’s definition is surprisingly simple and perhaps sufficient for my own purposes:

“Practices are the embodied sets of activities that humans perform with varying degrees of commitment, competence and flair”

How do you understand/use the term ‘practice’ in your research?

Postill, John (forthcoming). Introduction: Theorising media and practice. In Birgit Bräuchler and John Postill (eds.), Theorising Media and Practice. New York: Berghahn.

Tim Ingold, the disciplinary liberator

7 06 2009

Enough with political talking heads; elections coverage is incredibly strenuous. Interwebs, talk some sense to me. Let’s see, there’s a quality Gil Scott-Heron tribute available on sixmillionsteps.com (love the Brian Jackson bit), an interesting discussion on history in media anthropology and then there’s a programmatic but very verbose paper by Tim Ingold on anthropology and ethnography.

My real purpose in challenging the idea of a one-way progression from ethnography to anthropology has not been to belittle ethnography, or to treat it as an afterthought, but rather to liberate it, above all from the tyranny of method. Nothing has been more damaging to ethnography than its representation under the guise of the ‘ethnographic method’. Of course, ethnography has its methods, but it is not a method. It is not, in other words, a set of formal procedural means designed to satisfy the ends of anthropological inquiry. It is a practice in its own right – a practice of verbal description. The accounts it yields, of other people’s lives, are finished pieces of work, not raw materials for further anthropological analysis. But if ethnography is not a means to the end of anthropology, then neither is anthropology the servant of anthropology.

Ingold, Tim (2008). Anthropology is Not Ethnography.  Proceedings of the British Academy 154: Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology, 69-92.