#46: divorcing the terms "journalist" and "news"
+ a sample taxonomy of news value to help us consider our own.
Time Spent is a series of letters exploring how and why we should read the news, do care work and spend our time.
Each letter includes 1) a thought, interview or tidbit from research and 2) a “how might we…” prompt to help us explore our own relationship with consumption and care.
It’s free, published about weekly (on Wednesdays this year!) and part of a book project I’m working on called Taking Back the News. (Hi, I’m Jihii.)
In This Issue:
📝 A case for divorcing two terms that aren’t interchangeable anyway.
💡 How might we build a taxonomy of “news value” in an uncategorizable age?
Paper: “What is News? News values revisited (again)” (Journalism Studies)
Today I want to make a case for divorcing the terms “news” and “journalist” because I think increasingly, news doesn’t come from journalists.
Let’s start with a quick story.
In December, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism published a report titled Unmasking Polarization: How Conservatives Make Sense of Covid-19 Coverage, an analysis of 11 in-depth focus groups with 25 self-identified conservatives, and follow-up interviews with 16 of them.
The purpose of the study was to try to understand the precise nature of the pervasive distrust of news media among American conservatives. And so they discussed news coverage of COVID-19 and other major events, following up on moments where interviewees express strong emotion or ambivalence.
They found that contrary to prevailing belief, it’s not actually misinformation or echo chambers1 that are the source of conservative alienation from mainstream journalism. Rather it is the interpretive framework they rely on for making sense of what they see in the media. The report explains:
Overwhelmingly, our interviewees expressed suspicion of the institutional aims driving mainstream news organizations. Emotions ran high in talking about this perception.
Drawing on these stories about news organizations’ motives, our interviewees approach news through an interpretive filter that casts suspicion on the choices journalists make. This way of engaging with news is not just an individual disposition. Rather, our interviewees belong to networked interpretive communities linked to conservative media and conservative social media influencers.
These networks construct narratives about news media that perform ongoing boundary work—placing news organizations in a category of liberal institutions at odds with the interests of participants’ communities. Individual news events are interpreted in ways that reinforce the broader argument: liberal media are trying to convince the world that American conservatives, and communities associated with conservatism, are morally defective.
In other words, journalists are only part of the story.
One specific detail from the report has stayed with me for the last several weeks. One of the questions interviewees were asked was to give “the media” a grade for their COVID-19 coverage. When asked to define “the media,” they fairly consistently defined it by citing CNN, MSNBC, network news, the New York Times, or the Washington Post.
However, as interviews progressed to address their reactions to particular news items, their responses conflated journalist with other actors:
They would weave in and out of talking about institutions such as academia or Hollywood, or talking about liberal politicians, as if they were representatives of mainstream media.
One person described the overarching problems with news coverage of COVID as follows:
There is a rabidly liberal Congresswoman who I think we all know named Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a.k.a. AOC.
So this was a tweet on her account in May of this year, it’s a very short tweet. Okay. She says, and I quote, “It’s vital that governors maintain restrictions on businesses until after the November elections because economic recovery will help Trump be reelected. A few business closures or job losses is a small price to pay to be free from this presidency #KeepUsClosed.” 2
So I think that in a nutshell kind of sums up the left-leaning media’s position on this, to acknowledge that it’s a real thing, yes. But also, to blow this thing out of proportion in an exponential way for political purposes is why I don’t put too much trust into what I’m hearing on any given news channel or on the front page of any given newspaper.
Thus the report’s takeaway that this type of boundary work is crucial to the interpretative filter people applied to news:
Though our interviewees can surely draw conceptual distinctions between journalists/journalism outlets and other occupations and institutions when it matters to them, this was not always the most salient boundary for them.
Instead, their responses suggest a map of a social world in which the distinctions that matter most lie not along an occupational dimension but instead separate powerful liberal institutions from their own communities.
(The rest of the piece is an interesting read if you want to keep going.)
I start with this story because it’s so human. I totally empathize with the consumers they interviewed. Setting aside the analysis of conservatives for the purposes of today’s discussion, the messiness of consumption is so real.
As a news consumer myself, I wholeheartedly accept that my consumption is usually an un-categorizable mess (and it’s also interpreted through my values and communities).
Are the scientists I follow on Twitter giving me “news”? Is the person doing an interview series on Substack doing “journalism”? Does the gossip I heard through my friend become news once I verify and disseminate it? If the New York Times, a TikTok influencer and WebMD all provide me with the exact same wellness information, which one is news? You get the idea.
Which got me thinking: how did we come to professional “journalism” anyway, and have we finally arrived at a moment where we need to update the purpose of professional news-gathering?
Consider it this way…
This is a pie chart of your news consumption. Some of it comes from professionalized media and some of it doesn’t. For me, the “everywhere else” news in my diet has been steadily growing year on year.
The "professional” journalism is governed (loosely, but still governed) by a set of principles around “newsworthiness” and responsible reporting. The '“everything else” section isn’t. Rather, it’s governed by your prevailing values at the time, be those the prevailing values of society or the interpretive filter your community applies to things.
I think if we divorce the terms journalism and news, we have a chance at coming up with new, modern language and ethics for news-gathering, be it done by a news organization or not.
To even begin to do that is no small feat, but one place I’ve begun looking is the past. For this, I highly recommend the book The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know, an extremely accessible history of journalism told through a long list of questions like:
When and where was the first newspaper published?
How is the US tradition of the free press different from other countries?
How did newspapers become mass market media?
When was the first interview?
Did people ever trust the press?
In discussing the present, the authors acknowledge:
…news is not necessarily journalism, in which newsworthy information and comment is gathered, filtered, evaluated, edited, and presented in credible and engaging forms, whether writing, photography, video, or graphics. At its best, journalism puts news into context, investigates, verifies, analyzes, explains, and engages. It embodies news judgment oriented to the public interest.
That too, I think, is an interpretive filter.
In practice, journalism has experienced a complex evolution.
As a profession, it remains forever embattled between its competing priorities of financial viability and public interest.
There’s a lot more to discuss here but let’s move into today’s “How Might We” instead.
So, if we were to divorce “news” from “journalism,” how might we build a taxonomy of news value for the “everything else” portion of our news consumption?
Here is some interesting food for thought.
In 2017, Tony Harcup and Deirdre O’Neill published a study titled “What is News? News values revisited (again),” which examined the extent to which news values within mainstream journalism have changed since their 2001 study on the same subject (which itself was an update on an influential 1965 taxonomy of news values).
Asked how they define news, journalists sometimes reply: “I know it when I see it.” Pressed on why something has been deemed newsworthy, a typical response is: “Because it just is!” Definitions relying on such “gut feeling” arguably obscure as much as they reveal about news selection, prompting academics to offer their own explanations, which can involve devising taxonomies of news values.
You can read the paper if you like (very interesting) but here is the taxonomy of news values they landed on in 2014, which we can use as a design prompt.
They explain: “Although there will be exceptions, we have found that potential news stories must generally satisfy one and preferably more of the following requirements to be selected.”
Note: I paste a screenshot of the list below because it’s a lot of text but if you need to listen to the text, you can find it on the last page of the paper linked here again.
So I leave you with a question: If you had to build a taxonomy of news value for the items you consume as news, what would you put on it?
On that note, if you’ve read till the end, please feel free to leave a comment! I’ve been getting some interesting emails from some of you that I think others would benefit from reading.
✨✨ P.S. Next week we’ll get more granular on all this with the story of an epidemiologist who started publishing Covid news in March 2020.
Andy Guess published a paper on this last year in the American Journal of Political Science that found most people consume moderately across the spectrum, and in his words, “If online “echo chambers” exist, they are a reality for relatively few people who may nonetheless exert disproportionate influence and visibility.”
They add: “This counterfeit tweet attributed to Ocasio-Cortez had been widely circulated in Facebook groups and other social media.”