What is journalism studies studying? (ICA 2018 edition)

I am at the International Communication Association 2018 annual meeting in Prague. It is arguably the single most important international academic conference for communications research, media studies, and, by extension, work on journalism.

This year, 130 individual papers have been accepted for presentation by the Journalism Studies Division after peer review (the acceptance rate is normally less than fifty percent, this year 45% for full papers).

The ICA papers, most of them work-in-progress, fresh, recent, up-to-date work by a wide range of academics studying journalism from a range of perspectives, from a range of backgrounds, from a range of countries, can provide the basis for at least a partial answer to the question of what journalism studies is actually studying today.

So I did a quick and subjective categorization of all the paper titles by topic, following a similar post I did at the 2017 Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff. (This is not a formal content analysis, and I did this on my own. For a more rigorous recent meta-analysis of the field, see this piece by Laura Ahva and Steen Steensen.)

The results are below. I categorized the 130 accepted papers by their title, and collapsed all topics with less than 5 papers into “other”. Because most codes have only 1 or 2 papers, this account for a large share, almost half.

The results I think are quite interesting – they give a sense of where academic research overlaps with pressing civic, professional, industry, and policy-maker concerns (and where it does not), and provides an illustration of how the academic community collectively gather around certain topics in bottom-up ways with little in terms of explicit, coordinated discussion of what “the field” “should do”.

ICAJS

Please note I coded only the full papers, not panel submissions—if we take these into account, including four full panels more or less directly related to discussions around “fake news” and “post-truth” etc, the overall picture is different, with various “fake news”-related papers then constituting the single largest group.

Because panel submissions are based on short abstracts, I would say they constitute expressions of academic intent, whereas full papers, which require a whole lot more work, constitute revealed preference, what academics have spent months of effort on. Crudely put, panels are what we’d maybe like to do, papers is what we have actually done.

In line with the thrust of the field at large, inequality and other barriers means that the bulk of the presentations are from and focused on high income democracies, so there are a whole range of issues around state censorship, freedom of expression, violence against journalists, media capture, and other very pressing issues that are largely absent.

Beyond that, some stand-out take-aways for me—

  • Has the “fake news” and “post-truth” moment passed already? (Or not found favour with reviewers?) At the 2017 Future of Journalism conference, 17% of all papers including some mention of these terms in the title, at ICA, the figure for full papers is 6%. (As noted above, the picture gets more complicated if we count the panels on this theme.) Perhaps this, like for example “citizen journalism” before it, will be a short boom driven by public and professional interest in a particular word more than something clearly anchored in academic work? Given how little empirical research we actually have on disinformation in many countries, and how urgently such work is needed to inform policy-making and industry responses (whether from the European Commission or from private companies like Facebook), if the moment has passed it may have passed too soon?
  • A lot of work on social media (most of it on Twitter, perhaps because of the availability bias, much less on Facebook and Instagram, a few on Chinese social media platforms). Most of this work is focused on social media content and social media use by professional journalists (for distribution, sourcing, audience engagement, etc). Very little work as far as I could see on the institutional implications of the rise of platforms. This is an issue I am personally very focused on and think is a defining issue of our time (see for example here).
  • Compared to the Future of Journalism papers, many more of the ICA papers are directly and identifiably rooted in established, long-standing areas of work in journalism research, including various forms of content analysis (discourse analysis and especially framing), news production, and professionalism, are much more explicitly evoke theoretical approaches (deliberation, mediatization, etc.), or directly and explicitly connect with other established areas of academic research like audience studies.

Some conspicuous absences?

  • Apart from one paper with the phrase “political economy” in the title I could not find any work on the business of journalism. I find that extraordinary, and extraordinarily troubling. The business models that funded most of journalism as we knew it are being fundamentally challenged by the move to digital media, the proliferation of choice for both audiences and advertisers, and the rise of platform companies, and yet while this underlying structural change influences so much of what journalism studies study, very few seem to study the change itself, how it plays out in different countries, or indeed how research might inform how the industry and the profession responds to this change. Many countries are looking into the sustainability of professional news production, for example in the UK through the governments’ Cairncross review of the sustainability of high quality journalism. If we want to be part of such important policy discussions, we need to engage directly with the underlying questions and bring independent, relevant, and robust evidence-based work to bear on them.
  • There are other issues, including around trust, partisanship, and information inequality, as well as forms of discrimination around for example gender and race, but on the whole I found more ICA papers on this than I saw at the Cardiff conference.
  • More broadly, journalism studies as a field overall seems more focused on studying journalists themselves, their work routines, their professional identity and role perception, and the content they produce than the institutional relations — with audiences, with business, with technology, with politics, etc — that constitutes journalism.

I’d be curious to hear what people think about this attempt to provide a rough overview.

I think we as a field produce some terrific research.

I think we probably also

  1. should argue more “outwards” (engaging with other fields, and other disciplines, as those connecting audience studies with journalism studies do) than “inwards” (talking most to and with other people who identify with journalism studies),
  2. would benefit from being less newsroom-centric and supplementing research on the actions and output of journalists with attention to the institutions that sustain and constrain journalism
  3. and could bring a lot more to public debate, public understanding of the issues of our time, and policymaking if we more often tackled these issues more directly on the basis of independent, relevant, evidence-based work.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt for sharing a spreadsheet with all accepted papers and some further context, including pointing me to the four panels on “fake news” and “post-truth”. She bears no responsibility for the analysis or the post.

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