Who decides what is news?

Posted on June 03, 2010 by Janet Coats

Last week, Pew’s Project on Excellence in Journalism published a report focused on how new and old media interact with each other. While the report has a lot of interesting material in it, a single statistic grabbed most of the headlines.

PEJ reported that its research showed that 99 percent of the stories linked to by bloggers came from traditional, legacy news organizations, such as newspapers and broadcast television.

This statistic has been cited over and over again in the week since the report appeared to bolster the long-running argument that bloggers aren’t really doing journalism, that all they are doing is taking a cheap ride on the coattails of mainstream news organizations.

I have disliked this conversation for a couple of reasons. First, I find this whole “us and them’’ debate among “new’’ media journalists and “old’’ media journalists to be growing increasingly tiresome and singularly unhelpful. But even more to the point, there was something in that statistic that just didn’t seem right to me. I made a note to myself to spend some more time digging into the PEJ report, to better understand their methodology.

Lucky for me, Amy Gahran did the work for me. Among the many hats she wears as a journalist, researcher and teacher, Amy is senior editor at Oakland Local, a very ambitious community news startup (I highly recommend following their work for a glimpse into what local news without a legacy news organization can look like. It is amazing).

She posted her view into the PEJ study at the Knight Digital Media Center’s Leadership 3.0 blog. I found it particularly interesting, given my recent musings about the importance of defining our terms.

When she looked at the PEJ methodology, Amy found that the researchers relied on two websites that monitor millions of blogs and social media posts. Those sites, Technorati and Icerocket, both published lists of the “most linked to’’ news stories each day. The folks at PEJ captured those lists and used them to analyze what “news stories’’ were being linked to by bloggers.

There were at least a couple of problems with this methodology. First, Technorati stopped publishing the relevant list early during the research period, leaving Icerocket as the only source of data. But more importantly, both lists were, by definition, biased toward traditional news organizations, Amy found.

“Icerocket says its Top News Stories showcases ‘Top stories posted in the blogosphere, measured by news links to Offical News Sources in the last 48 hours.’ In other words, this is a list of links to stories published by mainstream news outlets that are getting the most links from recent blog posts,’’ she wrote.

So it is not all that surprising that 99 percent of all blog links were to mainstream sites, when the only source you are consulting for your data is not much more than a table of contents showing only mainstream sites.

What felt wrong to me about the statistic from the moment I read the definition question: what is news? Something in my gut told me that a lack of clarity in defining our terms had led to a conclusion that was, at least, misleading and, at worst, a gross misstatement of what is actually happening in the news ecosystem.

As Amy eloquently put it:

“We’ve all been immersed in a culture where, for more than a century, when most people said ‘the news’ they really meant ‘content produced by news organizations.’ That’s an easily discernible category – but it’s circular reasoning to basically say, ‘news is whatever news organizations do.’’

It is hard work, defining what we’re creating in this new age of journalism. But, as this one instance shows, definitions matter. We can’t assume any longer that everyone comes at the question of what news is from the same perspective – if we ever really could.

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