The most interesting digital and social media research of early 2018 »...

The most interesting digital and social media research of early 2018 » Nieman Journalism Lab

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Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry.

Here, JR’s Denise-Marie Ordway sums up some of the top papers in digital media and journalism from the first quarter of this year.

As we enter 2018, academics continue to focus on the problem of fake news, working to understand who seeks it out and how to keep various types of bad information from spreading online. But there’s plenty to keep researchers busy in the ever-changing realm of digital media. Below is a sampling of studies published or released in recent months that offer insights into important topics such as fake news sites, media bias, and using virtual reality to tell stories that evoke empathy. Everybody interested in audience analytics and other aspects of “measurable journalism” should check out this special issue of Digital Journalism.

Plenty of reports over the years have highlighted the news media’s problems securing public trust. Scholars are curious about how that relationship may change as journalists increasingly rely on social media platforms to gather information, interact with audiences and promote their work. In many ways, these platforms offer an open window into the reporting process. They also allow the public to witness conversations between journalists and the people they cover — dialogue that can be interpreted in many ways.

This paper aims to gauge how social media affects public perceptions of journalists. The researchers analyzed survey data collected in the U.S. to find out how people expect journalists to use social media and who is most likely to engage with journalists on Twitter. They also considered how those two factors might influence someone’s feelings about media bias. Here’s what the authors found: People who expect journalists to use social media in a positive way — to foster conversations, for example, and help contextualize news events — are more likely to interact with them on Twitter. Social media experiences “set standards for a type of reciprocity between journalists and their audiences,” the study suggests. “Overall, a closer relationship with journalists on Twitter is associated with lower levels of perceived media bias.”

To date, research on the spread of rumor and fake news stories indicates they are difficult to stop and that, under certain circumstances, people confronted with the truth will hold even more firmly to false beliefs. This new article investigates whether social network relationships can help stem the flow of bad information.

These researchers performed two studies, both of which looked at how Twitter users correct one another. For the first study, the team analyzed tweets posted between January 2012 and April 2014 that were sent in reply to a user who had made an incorrect statement about U.S. politics. Researchers focused on how the people who received these tweets, which often pointed out the error and made reference to one of three fact-checking websites, responded.

For the second study, the researchers manually scraped Twitter for tweets posted between October 31, 2015 and February 3, 2016 that contained hyperlink references to Snopes.com. Again, they scrutinized interactions between Twitter users who made inaccurate statements and those who pointed out mistakes. This time, the researchers compared users’ responses based on whether the incorrect statement was related to U.S. politics or another subject.

The findings suggest Twitter users are more likely to accept corrections from friends and individuals who follow them. But they’re less likely to accept corrections to an error related to politics than another topic.

In this paper, a group of high-profile academics from a range of fields offers a strategy for better understanding fake news in order to prevent its distribution and influence. The group briefly outlines what’s known to date about the challenges of stopping fake news and the limitations of fact-checking. The scholars focus on two types of intervention: helping people better recognize fake news when they see it and making structural changes that lower the public’s exposure to false content that mimics legitimate news coverage.

The article is essentially a call to action, urging internet and social media platforms to work with scholars to evaluate the problem and design and test interventions. “There is little research focused on fake news and no comprehensive data-collection system to provide a dynamic understanding of how pervasive systems of fake news provision are evolving,” the authors write. “There are challenges to scientific collaboration from the perspectives of industry and academia. Yet, there is an ethical and social responsibility, transcending market forces, for the platforms to contribute what data they uniquely can to a science of fake news.”

Speaking of fake news, we don’t know much about those who seek it out or the types of fake news preferred by individuals who frequent fake news websites. This paper offers new information on both fronts.

Guess, Nyhan, and Reifler examined two data sources: (1) the results of an online survey taken by a national sample of 2,525 Americans and (2) web traffic data collected from their computers, with their approval, in the weeks leading up to and immediately after the 2016 election. Their study surfaced a bunch of noteworthy details. For example: About 1 in 4 adults visited a fake news site — mostly Donald Trump supporters looking for pro-Trump content. An estimated 15 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters read at least one article from a pro-Clinton fake news website. Interestingly, the findings suggest that “fake news consumption seems to be a complement to, rather than a substitute for, hard news — visits to fake news websites are highest among people who consume the most hard news and do not measurably decrease among the most politically knowledgeable individuals.”

And what about fact-checking efforts? Did they reach consumers of fake news? According to this study, almost never.

Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism does a lot of research on how technology is changing the way journalists present the news. This white paper from Tow offers important insights on how audiences respond to material presented as a 360-degree video. Archer and Finger teamed up to investigate whether virtual reality can prompt users to feel empathy toward a subject and whether head-mounted or desktop-based VR equipment provides a more interactive experience.

The team uncovered some interesting trends, although it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the people who participated in the study were between the ages of 18 and 34. Some of the main takeaways: Stories presented in the format of a 360-degree video prompted people to report feeling more empathy toward the stories’ subjects compared to stories presented as written text accompanied by screenshots of a video. Also, video stories featuring one protagonist who guides viewers through their VR experience were considered more enjoyable. The researchers found a “negligible difference in perceived levels of interactivity between the head-mounted and desktop-based virtual reality treatments, suggesting head-mounted displays (HMDs) aren’t a deal-breaker.”

Academics and journalists differ in their assessment of the media’s role in Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency. This paper offers important — and fascinating — insights into how journalists evaluate their work and its shortcomings. “Much is at stake in how journalists make sense of their contribution to Trump’s success,” the authors write.

McDevitt and Ferrucci conducted a textual analysis to compare the discourse of scholars and news media professionals in the days after the 2016 election. They analyzed commentary from 86 academics who contributed to a volume titled US Election Analysis 2016: Media, Voters and the Campaign, produced by Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom. They also examined 212 articles published in top newspapers that discussed the press’ role in the election.

The big takeaway: Reporters and columnists argued that a host of factors contributed to Trump’s success, while academics largely credited the media. “Journalistic discourse generally asserted that Trump’s victory occurred due to media illiteracy in the public; social media propagation of fake news and allowance of filter bubbles; and failure of the press to understand the depth of voter anger. Scholars viewed the rise of Trump as predictable, when considering long-established routines of the press; journalists’ misunderstanding of both the public and populism; and the dire economics of legacy journalism.”

This paper looks at how newsrooms’ increasing focus on audience analytics and metrics has influenced news production. Zamith examines impacts in five key areas, including news content, media ethics, and newsroom behavior. He suggests we are entering a third wave “toward the rationalization of audience understanding that is both distinct and in some ways a continuation of pushes in the 1930s and 1970s to use scientific methods and technological innovations to better quantify audience preferences and behaviors.”

Zamith also points out numerous questions that scholars have yet to answer. For example: Do journalists who rely heavily on analytics see their audiences as more or less intelligent, participatory, rational, reasonable, or thoughtful? Also, as changes in news consumption make news organizations’ homepages less important, how do metrics affect the way content is presented on chat apps or promoted through social media?

We’ll be watching out for that research.

Photo of the Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart by Nordseher.

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