Reinventing news values for data journalism and ‘clickstream culture’

How audience metrics and data storytelling affects the news


Data is flowing into (and out of) our newsrooms like never before -- I trust this claim will seem fairly uncontroversial to readers of this article. The numbers come in many forms; from audience metrics, to spreadsheets and databases hoovered up during news-gathering, to the converged formats we interact with on our smartphones.

But what are the consequences of these data flows on contemporary journalists and journalism? Trends in newsroom policies suggest that it is not good news.

In 2016 we learnt that 'contributors' (columnists, once upon a time) at City AM were to be paid by the pageview, rather than by the quality of their writing. Earlier in the year, management at Trinity Mirror were forced (by fear of industrial action) to abandon setting individual online growth targets for their journalists.

Arguably, this is merely the logical conclusion of a networked news culture. Back in 2009, a new expression was coined to describe this phenomenon: 'the culture of the clickstream'. In What's Happening To Our News, Andrew Currah offered anecdotal evidence that in the modern networked newsroom there is a "growing tension between editorial values and knowledge of what will actually generate revenue".

The danger appears simple: chasing numbers -- in this case, pageviews -- will doom journalism to what in Louis Brandeis' terms is a classic 'race to the bottom'. 'Proper journalism' will be inevitably crowded out by fluffy bunnies, listicles and psychologically manipulative headlines.

This is what the data Jeremiahs believe. So, are they right?

To understand what is really happening to our news, we must take a longer view than a single (largely anecdotal, and arguably technologically determinist) study. And, to truly unpack the formulation and structure of our news, we must turn to an area of academic research with a rich decades-old pedigree: news values.

What are news values? They are mythical subjective, largely unwritten criteria that guide journalists in deciding which of the countless potential stories they should cover, and which to prioritise in their coverage.

These things seem like second nature to journalists. However, academics have long observed that news values relate more to the adoption of institutionalised values and systems, than individual instinct and a 'nose for news’.

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News values

The earliest studies of news culture were conducted during an era when researchers in the social sciences took a hubristic approach to the objects of their study. For example, 'scientific' methods were employed to ‘capture’ culture.

These methods sought to drive out, rather than engage with, difference and nuance and often established an unequal relationship between researcher and subject.

The most celebrated of these early studies was carried out by Galtung and Ruge, who analysed content from four Norwegian newspapers in 1965 and formulated a list of 12 key factors.

Over the years, Galtung and Ruge’s theorisation of news values has been criticised for several reasons:

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Johan Galtung conducted a seminal study of news values in 1965 with fellow Norwegian social scientist Mari Holmboe Ruge. Credit: Galtung Institut.

  • Their approach does not account for the deliberative process that goes into formulating news values (so, it doesn't say much about the concept as we understand it today).
  • Their approach may tell us more about story treatment than it does about why stories are selected in the first place.
  • Their study only focuses on news values in print journalism.
  • These values are vulnerable to obsolescence over time, as with all normative approaches.
  • They didn’t consider audience effect.

To address some of these issues, a less structured and more consensual school of inquiry into news values emerged during the 1970s and 1980s. It took the form of organisational studies of the newsroom. This approach sought knowledge about news values through the ‘thick description’ of field studies of news culture, drawing from practices experiences in the newsroom. These studies identified a tension in news values; journalists are often torn between professional and organisational values -- each of which exert their own pressures on the actual processes of gathering, negotiating and publishing news.

This 'cultural turn' begat further studies of news values, giving rise to an ever-splintering range of competing voices and approaches to understanding the phenomenon.

As many developing nations established independence during the second half of the twentieth century, the western approach to reporting -- which had been imported in earlier times -- was increasingly found to be wanting. This, in turn, led to the emergence of the ‘development journalist’, whose news values were framed by ideals such as consensus, tolerance, partnership-building, and social improvement (as opposed to reductivism, over-reliance on news personalities, and the simplistic treatment of complex issues).

Research from 2004 suggests that female reporters express different values from their male counterparts; women tend to be more concerned with context and experience than end results. This approach is often at odds with dominant (male) news values in the newsroom.

So, if cultural issues influence news values, what is the effect of the contemporary culture of data journalism on our news? And how can we investigate it?

News values in data journalism

The 'culture of the clickstream' has found expression in various forms; the rise of automation and algorithms in our news, increasing ‘churnalism’, and, perhaps most controversially, the rise of clickbait.

But the problem with addressing these phenomena often lies with the terminology itself -- clickbait is a rather fuzzy concept.

Alternatively, the concept may be defined as: “online material (such as headlines) designed to make readers want to click on hyperlinks especially when the links lead to content of dubious value or interest”. But this definition is clearly premised upon subjective interpretation; what is of ‘dubious value or interest’ is, frankly, anyone's guess.

In a departure from the approaches taken above, clickbait could also be conceived of as: “...a primary technique used to make phishing communications attractive to the unwary recipient".

These three definitions span a spectrum of ethical behaviour, ranging from the common-sense approach wherein journalists seek to maximise the yield of their online labours, right through to behaviour that may be denounced as criminal, let alone unethical.

Beyond definitions, there are further problems inherent to studying clickbait as a manifestation of news values -- a story’s visibility tells us little about the process of selection and negotiation that is central to determining what our news is, and how it is prioritised.

Those who fail to learn from history…

Some of the arguments that arise in debates about ‘the culture of the clickstream’ simply re-visit discussions raised long before the rise of online news.

Tabloidization is now recognised as a global phenomenon -- it is: “the transformation of news, literature, etc., into a popularized, lurid, and sensational form”.

Concerns about this phenomenon first found voice in the late 1990s, when the concept was defined to encompass processes relating to both the subject matter and treatment of news.

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Though some reject the term on the grounds that it is sociologically unsound, and thus better suited to newspapers than serious academic study, two competing approaches to the phenomenon emerged nevertheless. On one hand, it is argued that tabloidization represents a 'dumbing down' of journalism's public function; a squandering of its fourth estate legacy. On the other hand, it may be countered that such hostility to the form merely represents snobbery against popular culture.

Does ‘the culture of the clickstream’ represent a contemporary manifestation of tabloidization?

Perhaps this question is best answered in reference to an even wider historical context. Let’s go back through various iterations of (essentially) the same debate about standards in news since the rise of 'new journalism' in the late 19th century. There are, arguably, four phases in this process. Each one is predicated upon binary comparisons of 'good' and 'bad' journalism:

  • 1880s–1920s: Sensational 'yellow' journalism versus the old-style 'Top Hat' journalism
  • 1920s–1950s: Mass circulation news versus the elite press
  • 1960s–1980s: Unscrupulous tabloids versus virtuous tabloids
  • 1980s–2000s: Mass-market (image-based) television versus (text-based) broadsheets.

It may be helpful to think of the 'culture of the clickstream' as a fifth phase in this recurring theme. By framing it this way, we can broaden the debate about data in our news. It requires that we acknowledge and consider a countervailing form of online news culture. In decrying clickbait (and 'the culture of the clickstream’), it is possible to lose sight of the value in using data to inform newsroom functions.

In my study of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) in newsrooms, I found that SEO practice is circumscribed by existing professional norms and organisational routines. SEO was only found to influence editorial decision-making directly in one of the four news organisations I studied; even then, it was of little value in terms of day-to-day traffic. It is feasible that ‘hard to find’ stories may become non-privileged when SEO becomes the prevailing influence on the way online news is sourced, produced, and disseminated. The pressure that SEO may exert over news style and news values -- on behalf not of readers, or news organisations, but according to the algorithms of third party news aggregators -- requires that we check regularly. Nonetheless, these findings represent a challenge to the notion that the 'culture of the clickstream' is an existential threat to news values. The idea that the 'culture of the clickstream' is a reaction to the influx of data into modern newsrooms also says little about the importance of innovation in today's news.

In a newsroom study of interactive graphics, I found that some non-journalistic professional values represent a challenge to decision-making in the networked newsroom, and that non-journalists (including graphic designers and programmers) openly question the coverage and treatment of certain stories. Interactives are infinitely adaptable in news and features content; their use confounds those classificatory distinctions established between news 'types' found in communications studies literature.

In a recent interpretation of these findings, it has been proposed that the audio-visual nature of interactive news represents an emerging news value. But I believe it is possible to take this argument further still. Data journalists sometimes opt for graphical forms of lesser numerical integrity than 'best practice' might otherwise permit; in-house research often suggests that by doing so media stand to alienate less of their audience, and so may communicate the story more effectively (to a wider audience). This surely suggests that there is potential here to engage the public in civic and political matters in ways that may benefit society more generally, something that requires further study.

Might data become a news value in the modern newsroom? Studies have shown that the news values of TV journalists are driven by the availability of news footage.

Is it possible that the future prioritising of news will be determined by the availability of data? If so, what might this mean for areas of life that are under-represented by data? Or those that are un-audited? Or analogue?

The explosion of interactive graphics in online news may offer an opportunity within civic and political communications. The idea of Picture Superiority Effect, which emerged from empirical studies in cognitive psychology, proves that concepts learned using pictures and text are recalled more easily and more frequently than their word-only equivalents. Thus, data visualisation can bolster the reach of journalists. When the public are able to remember numbers in the news for longer, news becomes much more enduring than tomorrow's fish and chip wrappings. Might this affect how well informed our citizenry, and the political realm more broadly, are in the future? Only time will tell.

Conclusion

Is data making our news better or worse? We simply don't know.

At a 2015 conference at Cardiff University, keynote speaker Professor Stephen D. Reese from the University of Texas, Austin, called for further ethnographies of the networked newsroom to clarify the effects of data on our news.

This idea is all well and good, but it comes at a time when researchers are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to newsrooms. My own experience is that access is often partial; some questions and lines of inquiry -- especially those to do with commercial matters -- were blocked outright, and each interaction had to be carefully negotiated. This sometimes means offering to share information with journalists as collaborators and partners, or offering skills and advice in a technical specialism. In the end, the information I would miss came secondary to understanding decision-making within the newsroom. Nevertheless, it speaks to a wider issue -- we need a new settlement between media and academia, based on mutual respect.

More collaboration between academics and newsrooms is vital. As academics, we must justify and make good on requests for access, rather than treating journalists as if they are an ideological problem, or mere matter in a petri dish (as has happened all too often in the past). We need more participant observations that involve academics with useful transferable skills. This will enable news media to benefit from knowledge in the academy, just as academics benefit from these studies. We also require more practitioner academics whose research is based on the principle of collaboration, mutual help, and respect.

So, while it is too early to ascertain the effects of data on our news, if we can establish a new settlement between media and academia, then future studies will hopefully take us closer to the truth.

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