Digital Keywords Workshop – essay on “democracy”

My friend Ben Peters has organized a terrific workshop on “Digital Keywords” hosted at the University of Tulsa October 10-11 (check out the Twitter account and the hashtag #digitalkeywords for discussion).

I’ve written a draft entry on democracy. It is more an essay on how we might think about the relationship between digital technology and democracy than an overview-type etymology/conceptual history etc (Raymond Williams entry in his original Keywords provides that (PDF here), those looking for a history can look at John Keane’s rich and sprawling book “The Life and Death of Democracy”).

The whole entry is available here, the excerpt below gives an indication of the thrust of it—

“…much of the discussion around the relationship between digital information and communication technologies and democracy has focused too little on the question of what connections exists between digital technologies and actually existing, minimalist-vision democracy and too much on extensive discussion of the possible connections that might potentially be established between digital technologies and alternative, maximalist visions for democracy.”

I couldn’t make it to the workshop in person but Skyped in for two hours of discussion, and got tons of useful feedback and comments, especially from Guobin Yang who served as my discussant.

My idea of a great Saturday night (skyping into conference)

My idea of a great Saturday night–Skyping into Tulsa conference 9pm-11pm my time.

This is all work-in-progress and as Julia Sonnevend rightly noted in the discussion, given the equally minimalist thrust of my presentation on journalism in Groningen in June (which I’m also revising and elaborating on) there is a bit of a theme emerging here.

Nice new review of “Ground Wars”

New review out of my book Ground Wars: Personalized Political Communication (Princeton University Press, 2012).

Dennis W. Johnson writes very kindly:

This is a groundbreaking study; I have learned much from it and believe it will be an important addition to the field of campaigns and elections. It will be just as valuable as Green and Gerber’s Get Out the Vote, with its analysis of various communications techniques and ground-war activities. The Obama presidential campaigns set the gold standard for technology and ground-war effectiveness, and many other state and localcampaigns have followed suit. As campaign technology becomes more sophisticated
and the ground war becomes more of a strategic tool, other scholars should be looking into this important field as well.
Full review (in the International Journal of Press/Politics) here.

Taking over as editor of the International Journal of Press/Politics

January 1, 2015, I’m taking over as editor of the International Journal of Press/Politics after Silvio Waisbord.

I regard IJPP as the premier journal for genuinely international and comparative work focused on the intersection between news media (broadly conceived) and politics (equally broadly conceived) and as a journal dedicated to publishing theoretically and methodologically diverse social science work of high quality focused on substantially important problems.

At least that’s what Sage has published so far under Silvio and other previous editors, so now I have something to live up to. An “important but tough job” as one experienced colleague told me. I’m looking forward to it.

Nice review of “Political Journalism in Transition”

LSE Review of Books has a nice review of Political Journalism in Transition: Western Europe in a Comparative Perspective (I.B. Tauris) which I’ve edited with Raymond Kuhn.

The final verdict by Joseph Peralta:

Political Journalism in Transition remains one of the most comprehensive, interdisciplinary comparative analysis of political journalism that is currently in print. Any analysis that features these confounding and intersecting historico-political elements could have easily resulted in a heady, impractical work, but this bipartite anthology offers a complete resource that is straightforward and digestible. It is a handy, relevant resource for scholars of political journalism and critical media studies worldwide, as well as for news and public affairs practitioners who stand to gain from a nuanced understanding of the factors, both obvious and overlooked, that are shaping political journalism today.

Whole review here. Book also available on Amazon.

New article out “Political communication research: New media, new challenges, and new opportunities”

A new special issue of MedieKultur has just been published.  It includes an article by my based on a keynote lecture I gave in November 2012 at the Danish Association of Media Researchers’ Annual Meeting.

The talk and the article deals with how the field of political communication research might benefit from embracing the theoretical and methodological diversity that characterize the broader field of media and communications research, including intellectually adjacent and overlapping “sibling” fields like journalism studies and audience research.

It builds on the same line of thinking I’ve developed with David Karpf and Daniel Kreiss elsewhere (including our chapter in this book, based on our paper from ICA 2013) and that was part of the motivation for the preconference on the role of qualitative methods in political communication research that we organized with Matthew Powers for ICA in 2014.

As always, I’m grateful for our ongoing conversations.

Abstract below–full text (PDF) here.

Political communication research: New media, new challenges, and new opportunities

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen


The rise of new media and the broader set of social changes they are part of present political communication research with new challenges and new opportunities at a time when many think the field is at an intellectual impasse (e.g., Bennett & Iyengar, 2008). In this article, I argue that parts of the field’s problems are rooted in the way in which political communication research has developed since the 1960s. In this period, the field has moved from being interdisciplinary and mixed-methods to being more homogenous and narrowly focused, based primarily on ideas developed in social psychology, certain strands of political science, and the effects-tradition of mass communication research. This dominant paradigm has contributed much to our understanding of some aspects of political communication. But it is struggling to make sense of many others, including questions concerning people’s experience of political communication processes and questions concerning the symbolic, institutional, and technological nature of these processes—especially during a time of often rapid change. To overcome this problem, I argue that the field of political communication research should re-engage with the rest of media and communication studies and embrace a broader and more diverse agenda. I discuss audience research and journalism studies as examples of adjacent fields that use a more diverse range of theoretical and methodological tools that might help political communication research engage with new media and the new challenges and new opportunities for research that they represent.

Keywords:political communication, new media, digital politics, theory, method

“The Unlovable Press” – Schudson goes to Groningen

Just back from Groningen and “The Unlovable Press”, a two-day event with more than forty scholars presenting work that builds on and engages with the work of Michael Schudson, my PhD advisor at Columbia.

I was a proud part of a panel with three other Schudson-Columbia alumni, C.W. Anderson, Julia Sonnevend, and Lucas Graves (the center of attention on the picture below), moderated by Silvio Waisbord, who worked with Michael at UC San Diego.Schudson

Each of us talked about a piece of Michael’s work that had been particularly important for us, Chris about the Origins of the Ideal of Objectivity in the Professions (parts ofwhich later became Discovering the News), Julia about Watergate and American Memory, Lucas about The Good Citizen, and myself about Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press.

As so often before, I found it extremely useful to go back and read Michael before taking a stab at staking out a clear position on a big topic—here making the case for a “minimalist approach” to the role of journalism in democracy (outline below).

It was a great event, no doubt slightly uncomfortable for Michael, who never seems entirely at ease when the center of attention, but a real testament to his scholarship, which was also honored by the University of Groningen awarding him an honorary doctorate for his work.

There is a nice video of Michael talking about the “Saving Grace of Journalism” here, made for the occasion. The conference line-up is here.

Our (Anderson/Sonnevend/Graves/Nielsen) panel outline is below.

“Four Approaches to Michael Schudson”

CW Anderson, Lucas Graves, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen & Julia Sonnevend

Panel proposal for “The Unlovable Press: Conversations with Michael Schudson”


In his introduction to The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson analogizes his approach to political history to that of a child learning the game of baseball for the first time. The point, he explains, is to understand past modes of citizenship not through timeless democratic theory, or even long-­‐standing political institutions, but by “directing attention to the instructions of the game itself”: the values and habits and rules, written and unwritten, that have guided everyday citizens today and in the past. This is a characteristic metaphor from a scholar who wears theory lightly but probes deeply into abiding questions of democratic life and culture. And it suggests a fitting approach to understanding the course of Schudson’s own scholarship, and how it fits into in the world of ideas — by setting aside broad labels to try to read the values and concerns reflected in three decades of writing on the media and the public sphere.

What is the “Schudsonian” approach to doing sociology and history? This panel offers four provisional answers to that question, each an attempt to define and then respond to the wider theoretical framework or political commitments one may read in Schudson’s work. The presenters, all former advisees, will organize the discussion as engagements with four key texts from Schudson’s work on the media and politics: his doctoral dissertation, “Origins of the Ideal of Objectivity in the Professions: Studies in the History of American Journalism and American Law, 1830-­‐1940” (originally 1976); Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past (1993); The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (1998); and the essay “Six or Seven Things News Can Do For Democracy,” in Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press (2008).

These four texts span more than three decades of thinking about the press, politics, and public culture in the United States and more broadly. As entry points along that span they illuminate the range of methodologies and literatures that have informed Schudson’s scholarship — as a sociologist of public institutions, as a social and cultural historian, and as an observer of political life whose views incorporate classically liberal notions as well as the many critiques liberalism has invited. These texts offer a window onto Schudson’s engagement with questions at the center of intellectual inquiry: How should we as citizens and scholars understand the status of objective truth? What is the relationship between individual events and wider social forces, in a day’s news or a nation’s history? And finally, how should we read the long bend of democratic history, and the possibilities it suggests for meaningful action today by citizens, journalists, and scholars?


Schudson as a Sociologist of Knowledge: Revisiting the Origins of Objectivity in Journalism (and Law)

CW Anderson

Excavating a doctoral thesis — even a published one — is a dangerous business for both thesis author and archaeological digger. Nevertheless, this paper revisits Schudson’s original doctoral work, “Origins of the Ideal of Objectivity in the Professions: Studies in the History of American Journalism and American Law, 1830-­‐1940,” half of which became Discovering the News. In part drawing on interviews with Schudson, this paper argues that “The Origins of the Ideal of Objectivity” places Schudson more firmly in the sociological tradition and serves as a useful, though occasionally problematic, resource for the current wave of studies on digital expertise.

On the Social Significance of the Statistically Insignificant: Michael Schudson’s Social Theory

Julia Sonnevend

In Watergate in American Memory, Michael Schudson argued that the social sciences avoid history, both the exceptional and the small-­‐but-­‐memorable moments of human existence. In contrast, Schudson’s writings carefully observe and somewhat anxiously admire the power of the singular, the earth-­‐shattering as well as minor events in public life. But is it possible to build a social theory dedicated to the “social significance of the statistically insignificant?” This is the central challenge of his scholarship and the topic I will explore in this paper.

The Monitorial Citizen in the Age of Fact-­Checking

Lucas Graves

In The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson argues that the politics of past eras have to be understood in their own terms — while also painting a picture of broad progress towards a democratic citizenship that is both reasoning and humane. This paper uses Schudson’s “monitorial citizen” to consider recent changes in the media-­‐political world, particularly the rise of professional fact-­‐checking groups. These developments are analyzed in light of two large questions: How does the monitorial citizen fair in a moment of abundant information but little consensus? And, what language does Schudson’s work give us for talking about moments or ways in which things seem to get worse?

The One Thing News Might Just Do for Democracy

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

In an influential essay in Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press, Michael Schudson outlines “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy”. In this paper, I will suggest that Schudson — who is more often attacked by radical democrats and critical theorists for being a timid liberal who demands too little — is in fact far too ambitious. I will argue that journalism, especially in its (in the Western world) increasingly diminished institutional state, can probably do only one truly distinct and important thing for democracy, namely make relatively accurate, accessible, relevant, and timely independently produced diverse information available about public affairs.

2014 Tietgen Award

20140527_235111(1)At a splendid event Tuesday May 27, I was the proud recipient of the 2014 Tietgen Award.

It is awarded annually by DSEB in recognition of a significant contribution to by young researchers in the field of business-oriented humanities and social science. It has been awarded since 1829 and is the oldest prize in the social sciences in Denmark.

The award is accompanied by the splendid Tietgen Gold Medal, funds to support international research work, and was celebrated in style with a very nice dinner in central Copenhagen where HRH Prince Joachim presented me with the award.