Towards self-informing news publics

26 10 2009

File under “statements that make me dance”.

Exhibit A.

A single person can now speak to millions of people without touching a reporter. In many cases, it’s thrilling, but for the most part the tools are primitive; we are at the utter beginning of what this means for news production.

Exhibit B.

Online, what a public needs, far more than reporters or endowed professional newsrooms, is a way for everyone to do this more effectively.

Cody “the LeBron James of news production” Brown, news visionary and future millionaire. Anyone with an interest in media and journalism, I suggest you read Cody’s latest blog post.

“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

Towards a process view of preformulation

21 05 2009

I recently received word that Discourse, of course, a textbook intended for graduate courses in discourse studies, has been published by John Benjamins. My supervisor Geert Jacobs was invited to contribute a chapter and he asked me to chip in, which I did. The result is a sampler of how press releases are written at PR agencies and how they are rewritten by journalists.

Jacobs, Geert and Van Hout, Tom (2009). Towards a process view of preformulation in press releases. In Jan Renkema (ed.), Discourse, of course. An overview of research in discourse studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Intro to Part I – News cultures in flux

9 05 2009

***This is an outdated version. Please do not cite or reproduce in any way.***

This is the second post in which I test the PhD waters. This time, I’m making a draft version of my introduction available (slightly adapted to a blog friendly format). A complete table of contents can be found here. Any and all comments are welcome. On a regular basis, I will post sections and outtakes until you are bored stiff. I am already way past that stage.

Introduction to Part I: News cultures in flux (version 9 May 2009)

The globalization of journalism is a two-faced Janus. The first face is abuzz with the creative promise and transformative potential of technological innovation. In essence, the development of ‘new media’ technologies such as content management systems, weblogs, feed readers, podcasts, news aggregators and other internet applications has revolutionized journalism and other forms of public communication such as public relations, advertising and politics. This digital revolution has paved the way for new journalistic practices like online and citizen journalism. It has also produced cultural shifts in news production and consumption. Read the rest of this entry »

1.1.2 News production and ethnography

9 05 2009

***This is an outdated version. Please do not cite or reproduce in any way.***

In Language and the news media: five facts about the fourth estate, Colleen Cotter (1999: 172) writes:

Behind news stories is a fairly predictable set of rules that affect both text and practices. These rules manifest themselves in genres and subgenres (the weather story, the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping story, and so on) and modes of practice (whom to call, dealing with deadlines, and what to do when). The rules of constructing stories are simple and shared, but because the process of information gathering is multifaceted and stories are compiled by many participants, their output becomes complex.

One of the central goals of my study is to examine how particular journalistic genres and modes of practice pattern in the process of news production. Specifically I will argue that the predictability of news production derives from the highly standardized institutional context in which it occurs. As Cotter points out, since news is unpredictable, news production involves “simple and shared” procedures and structures designed to make the process predictable and thus manageable. I will theorize this process as a linear trajectory (Briggs & Hallin 2007) through time, technology, space, knowledge and agency, starting from the identification of newsworthy events and their selection and negotiation during editorial meetings to their transformation into news texts and their eventual publication. Read the rest of this entry »

NT&T working paper series: nrs 2-7

1 04 2009

In addition to NT&T’s position paper, six other working papers are now available for your perusal. I’m shamelessly plugging them here, along with a mini abstract. More papers will be added in the near future.

Nr. 2 Writing news at warp speed: the case of Apple TV
Tom Van Hout (Ghent University)
Henk Pander Maat (Utrecht University) &
Wim De Preter (De Standaard)

This paper is a case study of reproductive newswriting, i.e. writing from sources. We offer a multimethod writing process analysis of a news article announcing the product launch of Apple TV on the Belgian market. By combining interview data, keystroke logging data, frame and corpus analysis, we reconstruct the discursive strategies a senior business reporter employs as he writes a news article from a corporate press release.

Nr. 3 Press conferences on the Internet
Geert Jacobs (Ghent University)

This paper contributes to the study of the discursive mechanisms underlying news production by focusing on a novel and hybrid type of online press conference, i.e. one which allows for both live attendance and participation through the Internet.

Nr. 4 The impact of BBC production strategies on news discourse
Leon Barkho (Jönköping University)  &
John E. Richardson (Loughborough University)

This paper explores the production strategies of the BBC and the impact they exert on the corporation’s news output, namely the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We argue that the newsroom strategies the BBC has in place for the reporting of this sensitive story help shape and inform the discursive and social practices of its discourse.

Nr. 5 Newspapers’ narratives based on wire stories facsimiles of input?
Lut Lams (Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel)

Variation in news narratives can provide the empirical testing ground for investigating news production processes, such as selecting and adapting input stories from external sources. In taking a comparative approach this paper maps changes between final newspaper output and original input supplied by news agencies as well as differences in dealing with the same source material by various news groups.

Nr. 6 “There are two different stories to tell here”- TV journalists’ collaborative text-picture production strategies
Daniel Perrin (Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel)

What do journalists do when they negotiate their work, solve their problems, and produce their multimodal news items? – In this article, a theoretical framework for analyzing newswriting processes as societal, organizational and individual activity is outlined and applied to one case study of a large ethnographic research project.

Nr. 7 Diversity awareness and the role of language in cultural representations in news stories
Colleen Cotter (Queen Mary, University of London)

To illustrate the relation of news reporting to values in the larger culture, I examine an aspect of US news coverage that is actively discussed within the profession: reporting on “diversity,” described as “issues of class, race, ethnicity, culture, abilities and sexual orientation” (Poynter Institute).

Towards a linguistics of news production

31 03 2009

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the inaugural installment of NT&T’s Working Paper Series (WPS). This series provides an electronic forum for the dissemination of work in press or in progress. All WPS installments are freely available as PDF documents. Our inaugural issue is now live. In this paper, we sketch the contours of a linguistics of news production. Our aim is to bring linguistic analysis to bear on the discursive processes that shape the news product, and, in this way, fill in a blind spot in news scholarship. Any and all comments are welcome.

This position paper is the collective writing effort of the NewsTalk&Text Research Group, including in alphabetical order: Paola Cattenacio (University of Milan); Colleen Cotter (Queen Mary University London); Mark De Smedt (Ghent University); Giuliana Garzone (University of Milan); Geert Jacobs (Ghent University); Felicitas Macgilchrist (Georg Eckert Institute); Lut Lams (Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel); Daniel Perrin (Zurich University of Applied Sciences); John E. Richardson (University of Loughborough);  Tom Van Hout (Ghent University); Ellen Van Praet  (Ghent University).

Negotiating neutrality in Wikinews

3 02 2009

My (ahem) empirical contribution to news scholarship lies in the computer-assisted, ethnographic analysis of desktop news production. In essence, I examine how business reporters write news from sources as they write. As such, my study of news production provides an empirically grounded contribution to academic and public debates about the quality of news, the impact and role of ‘information subsidies’ and the practice of desktop journalism.

Until fairly recently, analyzing the process of news production was very much a post hoc enterprise. At the risk of generalization, you could observe journalists at work, interview them, have them reflect on or document their practices. You could also compare source texts, style guides or memo with news articles. With the emergence of digital writing tools such as keystroke logging and screen recording software, it became possible to track and compare what journalists say they do to how they do what they say. The work of Daniel Perrin is groundbreaking in this respect.

An alternative way of analyzing the process of news production is exemplified in an article by Einar Thorsen in New Media & Society. Drawing on the editorial history of selected Wikinews articles, Thorsen studies how a micro-community of Wikinews editors and collaborators negotiate the website’s neutral point of view policy. As Thorsen (2008: 939) argues, this policy is best understood as

a dialogic interaction between various truth-claims, whereby ‘official monologism’ containing a ‘ready-made truth’ is rejected for a heteroglossic notion of reality. However, (…) anyone who does not agree with the community consensus, or at least the way in which this is being represented, is effectively positioned as an ‘ideologue’. This is an interesting problematic, as there is no clear definition of who is ‘rational’ or rather, ostensibly non-ideological.

Thorsen’s critique focuses on the operationalization of the neutral point of view policy in 5 Wikinews articles. In addition to editing source references and eyewitness reports, Wikinews contributors edit points of view by removing value-laden words. For example, this is how a point of view [POV] dispute is resolved by the Wikinews contributors (taken from Thorsen 2008: 943).

[POV] Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International made comments that inflamed U.S. officials by comparing the United States detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet-era gulag … Bush administration officials responded with disdain to this comparison.
[NPOV] Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International compared the United States detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet-era gulag … Bush administration officials condemned the comparison.

Thorsen finds inconsistency in the current implementation of the Wikinews neutral point of view policy and concludes that it more likely reflects “the individual contributors’ interpretation than a unified concept” of neutrality (2008: 951). What floats my boat about this article is that it illustrates how a linguistically sensitive form of news production analysis can be productively applied to citizen journalism, thus inviting more scholars to follow suit.

Thorsen, Einar (2008). Journalistic objectivity redefined? Wikinews and the neutral point of view. New Media & Society 10 (6): 935-954.

One for the money

2 09 2008

Had a formal ‘sitdown’ with my PhD committee today to discuss my progress and plan the final stages of the research process: writing up, submitting and defending. Here’s my strict timing:

  • 1 Sept 2008 – 31 Jan 2009: analyze, write, read, sleep, repeat
  • 1 Feb 2009: submit empirical chapters to PhD committee for review
  • 15 March 2009: process feedback, add intro & outro, layout
  • 15 April 2009: submit final version, rejoice, dine here
  • late June/early July 2009: defend, party, dine here

FYI, an outline of my thesis in poster format is available on All comments welcome. Heads up to Ellen, Luuk, Jef & Geert for their feedback, guidance and advice. All much appreciated.

A political economy of news production

13 02 2008

ResearchBlogging.orgInteresting article in the latest issue of Journalism Practice. Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008 provide evidence for the journalistic reliance on PR and press agency copy. The authors attribute this source reliance to an increased workload, a claim they back up with employment figures, profit margins and pagination patterns at UK national newspapers, interview data and content analysis findings. For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on their inspiring research article.

Read the rest of this entry »