Researching for news: why the academic publishing model isn’t fit for purpose in the study of journalism

This morning I spotted a tweet from a colleague at the University of Northampton.

And, as people always do on Twitter, I felt the need to respond with a weak joke.

That felt appropriate, as this morning I spent some time reviewing a copy editor’s comments on a book chapter I wrote on the 2017 election.

I first wrote a draft of this chapter in August 2017 for a conference the following month. That was just a couple of months after the June 2017 election.

While the paper has developed during the past two years, with editorial supervision and guidance, the core concepts and structure are little changed.

As anyone who has published academic papers will know, the peer review system means that publication is slow. Academics review each other’s work on an unpaid basis; publishers set long lead times to allow an unhurried analysis of the paper; and articles often go through several drafts before publication.

It is a thorough process, widely viewed as the gold-standard in academic publication.

But it’s not at all useful in the fast changing world of journalism.

Journalism academics are prone to complaining at international conferences that no-one in the industry is interested in using their research to shape new tools and services.

That’s true. I know from my own experience of designing new services for users that the last person I’d ask for advice would be a journalism professor.

That is because when most academic research is published, if it has value to journalists it is as the basis for a story.

Aside from the trade press, mainstream journalists are not that interested in publishing stories about journalism unless there is a wider political or cultural significance. And that implies timeliness in publication.

If we do think there is value for industry in our research, then we have to find ways of getting it in front of journalists more quickly than academic publication currently allows.

At the moment, I think most academics think the answer to this is blogging.

But perhaps there is a more sophisticated system of knowledge transfer that could be developed? I’ve written previously about the way BCU and Lincoln have developed partnerships to create new courses, perhaps that is an indication of the path researchers also need to follow.

I hope and expect that the book chapter I wrote back in 2017 will still have value once it is finally published next year. But I can’t help but worry that its impact will have been diluted by the passage of time.

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Crossing the divide? BCU and Lincoln offer a glimpse of the future of journalism education

As a journalism teacher in higher education I am used to getting it in the neck from both industry and academics.

Neither of them really believe journalism is a university-level subject.

Old hacks like to complain that a degree doesn’t teach shoe-leather reporting or how to handle a death-knock.

While academics moan that it is all skills and little research. And even when journalism academics do produce research, industry doesn’t really care for it anyway.

There is a little truth in all of this. But only a little.

The usual moans of “it wasn’t like that in my day” tend to obscure the good work that universities do in teaching journalism skills, media literacy and critical thinking.

But two developments this week may show a future path for industry and academic collaboration.

Today, Birmingham City University have announced the HuffPost School of Journalism, a tie-up with the digital publisher. Driven forward by BCU’s dynamic head, Sarah Jones, and HuffPo’s Executive Editor, Jess Brammar, this is an ambitious idea that tries to tie academic journalism teaching closely to real world experiences. Brammar writes : “The journalists at HuffPost will set students real-world challenges in modules, because it’s important for them to experience some of the pressures (and excitement!) of working in an actual newsroom. We’ll lead masterclasses and tutorials focused on news, lifestyle, politics and entertainment, and host talks to give students access to the best talent. There will also be the opportunity to spend time with the editorial team and the offer of work experience in the newsroom.”

That’s also the ambition of the University of Lincoln’s new MA International Journalism, which has been developed in conjunction with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I sat on the validation panel for the MA this week and think it is a brilliant development. It clearly bridges the academic and industry divide. It has teaching both in Lincoln and at TRF’s headquarters in London. And a mix of educators, both academics and experienced international correspondents. There’s also the added incentive of paid internships on offer to the best graduates.

What do these developments tell us? Firstly that there is a desire from big brands to access the best students coming out of universities, that they want to shape the training that’s given to future journalists and to ensure that it reflects their needs.

But it also tells us that journalism education has established its place in the pantheon, providing a link between university and industry to hot-house the future stars of a dynamic and ever-changing profession.

The #GE2017 Corbyn surge and the TV impartiality myth that will not die

I try and avoid arguing about politics on Facebook.

It is bad enough getting dragged into discussions on Twitter and being snarked at by complete strangers, but at least the consequences are short-lived.

Falling out with people on Facebook, where I actually know my connections, can spill over into real life.

Nonetheless I did get caught up in a minor Facebook argument about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party and why he performed much better than polls suggested at the start of 2017’s General Election campaign.

The original poster suggested it was because of election rules on broadcasting, meaning TV and radio news had to give Corbyn a fair hearing and cut back on distorted reporting, which misrepresented his positions.

This is a popular explanation. Indeed, it has been put forward as a theory by some of Corbyn’s outriders in the media.

But, like the Youthquake theory, it is almost certainly not true.

In elections broadcasters do have to obey some quite strict regulations that are covered by the Representation of the People Act of 1983 and the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.

But these aren’t as onerous as some people seem to imagine.

There is a duty to be duly impartial, of course. But that exists at all times, not just during election periods.

There is also a stipulation to give due weight of coverage to major political parties.

That can have big benefits for parties such as The Greens or UKIP, which struggle to get TV news bulletin coverage in non-election periods but are guaranteed free hits for manifesto launches and dedicated campaign reporters.

But that would be unlikely to affect Labour in the same way. Political correspondents will seek comment from both Labour and Conservatives as a matter of routine.

The other rules are more concerned with fairness in constituency reporting, rather than in national reporting

It also stands to reason that if broadcasters were routinely biased against the Labour party, you would expect it to win complaints to the regulator Ofcom or, in previous years, the BBC Trust.

Naturally, there are complaints but it is very rare for them to be upheld.

According to Ofcom, from March 2017-April 2019, more than 500 complaints of political bias or inaccuracy were made against BBC News but not one was upheld. In the same time period, just one complaint was upheld against Sky News.

Why then does this myth continue to keep being trotted out as an explanation for the Corbyn surge?

It is, I think, that it flatters Labour’s supporters who view Corbyn’s leadership as a radical insurgency against the establishment.

It is a comforting image: the media hoist by its own petard. Impartiality rules forcing the media to come to heel and be honest for once. And when people see the unmediated truth, they see that Jeremy Corbyn is a much more attractive figure than they had previously thought and understand his policies are sensible solutions to modern Britain’s problems.

But I don’t believe it is true.

While I’ve written elsewhere of the importance of the digital campaign in disintermediating Labour’s message, like so much of British politics at the moment, the surge is explained by Brexit.

Labour successfully managed to remain ambiguous enough about its Brexit intentions to satisfy a range of voters, including Remain voters who were voting against the explicit Leave messaging of Theresa May’s Conservatives.

All these things are nuanced, of course, May’s poor performance as leader, the unravelling of the Conservative election manifesto, Jeremy Corbyn’s positive campaign, and the terror attacks, will all have played a part in the result.

But the great political schism of our time, Brexit, seems to me to be the biggest motivator in driving Remainers sceptical of Corbyn’s leadership to back Labour at the ballot box.

Publish and be damned? Why we shouldn’t play the terrorists’ news game

The news that 49 people have been murdered in two mosques in New Zealand is appalling.

It is hard to imagine a worse crime.

But this media-literate killer decided to not only live stream the killings but produce a “manifesto” of his ideas too.

This presents a dilemma for news organisations – should they use material created by the killer?

On the one hand it may help explain why the crimes took place, what the motivation of the killer was, and why he chose to act as he did.

On the other, it is clear that he wanted this material transmitted and shared in order to spread his poisonous theories around the world. By using the material journalists risk doing his bidding.

In a breaking news situation, there is an immense temptation to throw on-screen any material from a terror attack.

Footage of dramatic events is the essence of visual news.

But, as I’ve written before, we all have a duty to think twice about using this kind of material.

And that’s not just professional journalists but also social media users who find it troublingly easy to share horrific content.

All of us have to play a part in not spreading hate. And that includes those social media platforms who’ve recently discovered that they do have consciences and a role to play in society.

Top posts of 2017

Time to look back at the year’s top five most read articles on my blog.

I’ve not counted the homepage to keep it simple.

In reverse order:

5. Digital still the poor cousin at the RTS Awards – a reflection on the very traditional nature of “Oscars” of TV news.

4. George Osborne’s Evening Standard dilemma in Jeremy Corbyn’s city – a linking post to an article on the election for the Huffington Post.

3. Why Theresa May will take part in a televised debate – well, she did, kind of, sort of, ish…

2. My Media Predictions for 2017 – my annual predictions for the coming year. Homework marking coming soon.

  1. Facebook and the UK General Election – post summing up a research paper I presented at a conference in Cyprus on political Facebook.

A lot of politics this year. But I suppose it has been that sort of a year.

 

Explaining Labour’s Facebook success at #GE2017

I’ve written a post for the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog on the Labour party’s use of Facebook at the General Election. It’s another piece based on the data-set I created and presented in Cyprus in September. I’ve submitted a longer, more academic piece for publication in a book next year, assuming it passes the peer review.

Greens and the environment at #GE2017

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme had an interesting couple of pieces on the Green Party this morning (starts 2h30mins in), looking at how Labour squeezed the Greens and asking whether the party needs to go back to focusing on its single defining issue – the environment.

Jonathan Bartley, the party’s co-leader, sounded rather exasperated at having to explain that they do nothing but speak about the environment.

But looking at the data from the party’s Facebook feed, the environment was not clearly prioritised above all else.

green policy areas

While the environment was a big issue, in fact the party spent a large amount of time talking about other things too. A range of policies came up – for example the importance of taking a positive approach to immigration, opposition to Brexit, and the importance of LGBT rights, something the Greens spoke about far more than other parties.

However, what they really spent time talking about was the horse race, the likely jockeying for position after the election, the feeling that they were discriminated against by the BBC in comparison to UKIP, and the desire to create a progressive alliance to oppose the Conservatives.

They also spent a lot of time talking about Theresa May’s failures as a leader, especially in ducking the TV debates.

Jonathan Bartley’s personal Facebook account tells a similar story.

Bartley policy areas

As does the account of the party’s other co-leader and only MP, Caroline Lucas.

Lucas policy areas

Now, of course you can argue that protection of the environment and opposition to climate change is the base-line from which all other Green party policy is developed but to suggest that they spoke about it to the exclusion of all else really isn’t accurate.

The existential challenge for the Greens is to find a distinctive offer that ensures at least some electoral support and doesn’t see them out-flanked by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

If they can’t, then what is the point of the Greens?