More questions: inevitable constraints of journalism?

Last week I spoke with WBEZ’s Torey Malatia about the station’s Pritzker Fellowship program whose first two fellows, nominated by community organizations, will soon begin intensive practice at the station.  Malatia said one of his hopes for the program was to counteract a dynamic where reporters would hit up the same sources again and again for recent developments in areas of ongoing coverage such as CHA tenant issues.  Perhaps, he said, bringing in reporters from different communities or without the training and mentality that comes with a j-school education, would lead to more varied sourcing or different ways of approaching, framing or identifying a story.

One thing that I thought was particularly interesting about Malatia’s analysis of the shortcomings of WBEZ’s reporting was that tight deadlines led reporters to go to the database for sources rather than finding new sources or framings for the story.  This led me to two questions: is there a way to alleviate some of the pressures of deadlines or is this an inevitable constraint of journalism?  Do newsrooms have to make a trade-off between timely coverage of news and in-depth reporting?  How much time does it take to prepare a segment on a show like 848 anyway?  Could someone develop a database that helped avoid using the same sources over and over or helped reporters find the most relevant sources?

Photo by tronixstuff via Flickr.


Since writing my proposal for my independent study, I’ve realized that I need to contextualize and re-frame my inquiry a bit.  First, I want to add a little historical context of the fragmentation of contemporary media that I’ve picked up, then I want to describe some of the mis-assumptions that I’ve made about the nature of audiences in Chicago.  Finally, I want to lay out a new direction for my inquiry.

Fragmented Media, Fragmented Audiences, Fragmented Communities

In his book “Post-Broadcast Democracy“, Markus Prior wrote:

“Accepted generalizations about political behavior – that the actions of politicians and the reporting of the news media affect what people consider to be important political issues, that people can reach meaningful voting decisions even in the absence of comprehensive political knowledge, that party identification is a major determinant of vote choice, to name three – become ingrained in the literature as invariant patterns.  Yet as the environment changes, so might the behavior. “

One critical change in the media environment that Prior identified is the movement away from watching network news broadcasts as cable television brought more viewing choices for media consumers.  This shift, Prior wrote, made political information less accessible to those who didn’t neccessarily seek political information from the media they consumed.  He described this shift this way:

“It is more difficult for the same signal to get through to people who take advantage of increased media choice to avoid exposure to political information.  From the point of view of these entertainment fans the flow of political information has become much weaker in recent years as media choice has increased.”

Changes in the media environment, Prior writes, have polarized information consumers between news junkies and entertainment fans, which in turn affects electoral turnout and voting behavior resulting in more polarized elections.

Even before the nightly network news lost its role as a central point for American consciousness, changes in the media environment split apart more diverse audiences.  In “Audience Economics: Media Institutions and the Audience Marketplace“, Philip Napoli wrote:

By the same token, advertisers may, for various reasons, transfer their advertising dollars away from a certain medium, which may undermine its financial viability.  For instance, the introduction and rapid diffusion of television led many national advertisers to abandon radio as an advertising vehicle (Baughman 1997; Dimmick and Rothenbuhler 1984).  As a result the overall structure and function of the industry changed dramatically.  Radio stations abandoned their efforts to appeal to broad diverse audiences, because television had become the mass-advertising vehicle of choice.  Instead, radio stations focused on appealing to narrow audience segments, thereby cultivating relationships with smaller or more specialized advertisers seeking niche audiences.  In doing so, radio station content changed dramatically, moving away from broad appeal to content with more narrow appeal (Baughman 1997; Napoli 1998a).  Thus today few radio stations attempt to program to different audience segments at different times of the day or to appeal to a broad audience base throughout the day.  Instead, individual radio stations maintain the same, narrowly targeted program format all day (MacFarland 1997), which reflects their focus on delivering a narrow and specific audience demographic to advertisers.

Many new media innovations that dramatically increase the amount of available information and its pervasiveness and technologies such as the The Huffington Post’s Social News, which helps users identify relevant news content based on the news consumed within their social networks, seem to continue this trajectory of media and audience fragmentation.

In the context of this media fragmentation, what then are its implications for media trying to meet the information needs of a city like Chicago that is fragmented along racial, economic and geographic boundaries (to name a few)?  Even with these barriers, reporting happens.  Stories about violence in neighborhoods on one side of the city get filed by reporters living on another for readers, viewers or listeners in the suburbs.  The plight of the homeless gets covered, even if the majority of those getting the report are unlikely to be directly affected.  These reports seem to reveal an underlying truth not always reflected in the social construction of the city: it is filled with millions of people with diverse experiences who must live together, whether their interests are competing or shared.

Why does this reporting across geographic or social boundaries happen?  Some would say “because it’s news.”  Even if this is the case, the information carried with the news is more than just the who, what, when, where and how.  Along with these things comes a framing of how the audience member understands their city and other people in it.  The news helps people make decisions about how they will (or if they will) vote, what they buy or use, where they live or even how they interact with their neighbors.

As a new journalist, I am told time and time again how these are exciting times,  how the media environment is wide open or malleable.  Given the huge responsibility of media to meet information needs, now must be a time for journalists, particularly new journalists to ask (and hopefully answer) some tough questions about how we report across boundaries.  I’ll get to these questions soon, but first, I want to address a misunderstanding in my original independent study proposal.

Audiences vs. Demographics

In writing my original proposal, I made the mistake of thinking of and referring to audiences and demographics as the same thing.  This is an easy thing to do.  If one views media in terms of an audience marketplace, where audiences are bought and sold to advertisers, there is a tendency to identify audiences by their demographics rather than their purchasing goals.  Napoli wrote, “One study found that when media buyers had access to product-purchasing variables, they largely ignored the information in favor of traditional demographic variables” even when “a growing number of studies show that demographic data in fact do a poor job of predicting purchasing patterns, accounting for as little as 2 percent of the variance in consumers’ purchasing behavior.”

So audiences are best thought of as those looking to do something.  For advertisers, their desired audience is people looking to hire their product.  For journalists, it should be people looking to hire the journalists’ information to do some useful work in their lives.

Even with this clarification, reports across demographics aren’t transparent (or self-aware) about the work the information can do, and who is employing it.  Again, new journalists need to be aware, not only of the utility of the information they create, but also to whom it is useful.

Big Questions

These are the questions whose answers I hope will help me understand why reporters report across social boundaries, the implications of this reporting and how it can do it better.  I hope to write a story around each of these questions this quarter.

Who do we think we are?  Who do we think you are?

Who is Chicago media?  Who do the different pieces of Chicago identify as their audience?  How did they measure this audience?  When and why have they reported about those outside their audience?  Who reports for these media players?  How has the background or experience of these reporters affect the stories?  What information do communities need and how do they get it?

I intend to spend the next week looking into these questions.  I’ve asked a few professors about the existence of a “map” of Chicago media with little success, but I’m going to try to check on the IMC side to see if anyone has anything like this.  I found that Community Media Workshop has created a Chicago Online Ethnic Media Database that I also want to review.  It looks like some folks tried t0 map Chicago media, from an activist perspective, but it seems like the project is likely out of date.  Still, it might be useful to contact the map’s original compilers.  I don’t have very much interest in trying to create or update this work, because of how quickly the information becomes stale, but I do want to look at this to get an idea of who to interview for my inquiry.

What are the hazards (or merits) of reporting across boundaries?

How do reporters report on communities that are not their own?  How do they remain accountable to those communities?  Do different communities think the media does a good job of reporting the things happening in their community to others?  What interest do communities have in this kind of reporting?  How does the format of contemporary media products impact reporting across boundaries?

My interview with Torey Malatia of WBEZ brought up a very obvious, but often overlooked and interestingly circular impact:  he said that a study by the station of non-listeners found a common complaint is that reporters just didn’t get the stories right.  If reporting about an issue or community in a way that doesn’t capture the depth of the issue keeps people from that community or connected to that issue from tuning in, it seems like it will be harder to have accountability and feedback for future reporting or access to broad and diverse sources.

Father Bruce Wellems spoke to one of my classes last quarter and described the impact of MSM reporting about gang violence and teen pregnancy as amplifying those dynamics in Back of the Yards.  I need to review my notes from my initial questions for him and get back in touch to see if he can clarify or put me in touch with youth who can tell me about their experience with media and their community.

I know some folks who have worked with Community TV Network and Street Level Youth Media and these might offer additional perspectives as both organizations aim at empowering youth to produce more relevant independent media.  Why is there the need for such media?  What work should this media do?

Finally, my colleague Zak Koeske did a lot of reporting around an event looking at how the media covered youth violence.  Revisiting some of these sources might be helpful for my study, as would talking to Zak about what he learned.

Many of these leads are youth-oriented.  There seems to be a lot of traction for youth media, but I don’t think youth are the only ones in Chicago who feel misrepresented in the media, or aren’t getting served by media that’s available to them, but other groups don’t seem as visible or vocal.

What does the future look like?

What might a media that does a better job of connecting people through stories and information look like?  What challenges exist in the current media environment for realizing these new models?  What place does existing media (if unchanged) play in new models?

On Thursday, I interviewed WBEZ’s General Manager Torey Malatia, ostensibly about the station’s new Pritzker Fellowships.  Though I have not yet been able to synthesize and transcribe the interview, the conversation did help me clarify how some media organizations frame the questions I hope to explore.  Interestingly, the conversation touched on some of the same themes as a 2008 interview with Malatia reported in this article about Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo project.

Brad Flora of Windy Citizen seems forward thinking (especially with the recent News Challenge win), but I’m not sure if WindyCitizen represents the future that I’m curious about (since the current version of the site still seems to privilege controversial news rather than illuminating news).    Still, I think its still important to talk with him. I wonder what a Windy Citizen mashup with something like News Mixer or  Stack Overflow (which feature different models of interacting with articles or building reputation) would look like?

Finally, Community Media Workshop seems to have spent a lot of time around some of these issues, though their model seems to be more about connecting communities with journalists or amplifying the voices of communities rather than transforming journalistic practice (although I could be wrong about this perception, perhaps reading their New News report will help).  I’m definitely curious about who they see as their audience for the News Tips blog.

Photo by Leonski via Flickr.

Independent study

This is my independent study proposal.  It’s a little messy, but I’m posting it here to get feedback and to connect with other journalists and others invested in communities who have similar concerns about media narratives across social boundaries.

There is great focus in the Medill curriculum on audience. However, information and cultural narratives often gets transmitted beyond the intended audience of a story. Furthermore, the experiences and perspectives of a reporter, the community being covered in a story, and the audience of the story can be dramatically different with regards to race, class and other dynamics that divide a city like Chicago. For instance, does media coverage of youth violence in Chicago help lead to solutions to end violence or does it only solidify incomplete perceptions of different groups of youth and different neighborhoods in the city?

How is the way a story is reported by journalists or interpreted by the audience mediated by these divisions? Are there stories whose impact spans different communities in Chicago? How does one report these stories in a way that resonates across social divisions? How do current publishing models limit broad-reaching resonance of a story? How might emerging models better reach socially segregated audiences? How do people who don’t consume traditional news media get information to answer questions and solve problems in their lives? Can reporting help erode social divisions?

This independent study will explore these questions through monitoring and analysis of the Chicago media ecosystem and documented conversations (meta-reporting) with professional journalists, community-based media and community advocacy or activists groups.

While my experience at Medill has thus far helped me build a solid foundation of reporting skills, I feel like I am not much closer to understanding how journalism can help meet the information needs of communities in overcoming challenges facing them. This is an important personal, academic and professional goal for me and I feel this study can bring me closer developing vision for new models of journalism.

Proposed Syllabus

Required Reading

Students will be expected to consume media from across the breadth of Chicago’s media ecosystem every week from papers like the Tribune or Sun-Times, to broadcast nightly news, to public media such as WBEZ’s 848, to independent media such as The Chicago Reporter, local papers such as the Skyline or Austin Weekly News and blogs and Twitter feeds from community groups and members. Special attention should be paid to responses to media including comments, letters to the editor and blogging about media coverage.


All assignments will be submitted as public blog posts that will allow other Medill students, instructors and readers in the community at-large to comment on the student’s observations.

Every week students must submit a 300-word or longer response to a story from the student’s readings in the Chicago media ecosystem. The response should explain how explain how the story either effectively or problematically frames a community issue for different groups of people across a variety of experience or how the reporter acknowledges or balances her personal experience and culturally-mediated perceptions (or fails to) in reporting the story.

Throughout the quarter, the student will have conversations with professional journalists, independent media makers, community media organizations, and community action groups about reporting stories across different social experiences. The student will be required to approve the people to be covered with the faculty advisor twice in the quarter.

Students must submit five stories documenting these conversations. Print stories should be at least 500 words long. Two of the five stories must be multimedia stories (audio, photo slideshow, video or other interactive) of 2 minutes or comparable depth for non-linear formats.


The faculty mentor will evaluate media responses based on the clarity of argument, consideration of multiple perspectives and relevance and uniqueness of the story and media outlet selected.

The stories documenting conversations with participants in Chicago’s media ecosystem will be evaluated for quality, originality, relevance and media production in a manner similar to second quarter MSJ reporting courses.

The mentor should post responses as comments on the blog to help encourage other responses.

Week 1 Conversation proposal for weeks 1-5 due
Media response post due
Week 2 Media response post due
Story #1 due
Week 3 Media response post due
Week 4 Media response post due
Story #2 due
Week 5 Media response post due
Conversation proposal for weeks 6-10 due
Week 6 Media response post due
Story #3 due
Week 7 Media response post due
Week 8 Media response post due
Story #4 due
Week 9 Media response post due
Week 10 Story #5 due