Saturday, 10 December 2011

Journalism as an Information Study (by Scott Eldridge II, Journalism Studies)

As a brief means of introduction, my name is Scott, I'm a PhD student in the Journalism Studies department, and if you're wondering what I'm doing here, a student of ink-stained wretches and hacks set adrift in the unfamiliar Information School blog, I won't begrudge you that curiosity. If the curiosity extends to 'What does a journalism studies PhD do?', you are not alone. This blog posts comes as a follow-up to some initial conversations between our respective departments, much of which revolve around 'what is it exactly you do in journalism studies?'.

And it's a fair point.

Most people seem to know what 'journalism' is, or at least they seem to have a picture in their head of something vaguely 'journalistic'. And, as with all great things, journalism was a far easier thing to define in the ever-nostalgic simpler times when we knew that something in a newspaper or a radio broadcast or early years of the BBC was 'journalism'. On the heels of those simpler times are the turgid waters in which researchers in the Journalism Studies Department now swim, times where it can't be said that journalism is so readily defined. Increasingly as researchers we stare for long hours out over the landscape trying to clear that confusion ourselves.

But in that shift and change between knowing journalism and perhaps what can be called wondering journalism, we in Journalism Studies find ourselves confronting an expanded range of just what it is we research and study and teach. It is a time when muddied waters also hold a great deal of opportunity for clarity. 

For journalism researchers and academics, this has meant attempting to understand a whole world of information and data that has enriched the research that journalism academics do, and can do, on the one hand, and enriched the ways journalism is performed, on the other. Huge challenges have also emerged contrasting information access with information understanding, and addressing sourcing data in journalism, as well as understanding how information changes news dissemination. It goes beyond just creating a 'how-to' for journalists in the Internet era towards sating an academic curiosity to understand the potentials and pitfalls of more-readily available information and data and forums, and harnessing that for the development of better journalism (however we eventually define it).

In the end, it is all about information. And in the end, as titled above, journalism is largely an information study. And, to that point, journalism studies is a study of information flows and sources and patterns of use.

Overwhelmingly the changes of the past 20 years have meant tangling with what the technologies of the 'information age' are doing to journalism not only in terms of how news is gathered, but how its shared, and who gets to say what and with what authority. Speaking from my own research, and its focus on attempting to understand WikiLeaks and its effects on journalism, there is research going on in journalism studies that would not exist without the changes to how we understand and access information over the past decades. Beyond purely technological changes (though not discounting them) journalism studies is constantly contending with ways to approach and adopt better data management and analysis, understandings of information flows that extend far beyond the typical purview of journalists and the texts they're raised and trained on. The same could be said for my colleagues who are researching Internet censorship, news media in online environments including social networks as news outlets and those who are trying to suss out how mobile technologies fit into analyses of news media online. 

In many ways, the rise of the information society (with due acknowledgment to Castells) has brought about more obvious overlaps between what we once thought of as the provenance of information studies, and what we once considered the realm of journalism studies. I see it as a burden of riches, the torrent of information we have in front of us now washing over levees that used to acutely define journalism studies. Overflows that touch on both our schools of interest.

There is a lot to be learned between those of us who spend their days in Journalism Studies, and our neighbors across the road in the iSchool. These areas extend beyond what it is we each do in our particular offices, but ultimately it involves understanding that we're both looking at information, and hope to better understand how best to use it, evidence it, share it, retrieve it, and draw it from its darker confines into the light of day.

To draw this missive to a close, over the course of the coming weeks and months and hopefully years, it will be exciting to see where and how this shared study of information  can lead to a better understanding of the ways we communicate information to the world. 

After all journalism is in many ways an information study.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Samples of convenience and feedback forms

It was nice to learn in last month's discussion of Amazon's Mechanical Turk.  It seems that it's old knowledge amongst the programmers in the department, but its existence was news to me.  Research ethics is always a good topic around which to generate heated discussion, and Mark succeeded - though his ethical dilemma (as expressed in his blog entry) was not one that others in the group shared.  The discussion did however, take a (to me) more interesting angle when it switched to the influence of samples of convenience on research outcomes.

One of Mark's concerns was that participants were being paid significantly below the minimum wage.  Given that responses were being elicited from around the world however, the question was asked: "Minimum wage for where?"  In some parts of the world, the return for effort was (by the local standards) excellent.  These parts of the world were, indeed, highly represented in the results.

Given the extent to which IR research findings have been based on western (usually English speaking) volunteers, studies such as Mark's may help to redress the balance and produce more robust findings.

I found myself guilty of drawing inappropriate conclusions based on an unrepresentative sample earlier this week, when I looked through some student evaluation forms.  I collected the forms in after a seminar.  It was the second of two that I had taken, and I was pleased to read on a number of the forms that the respondents enjoyed the seminars and felt that there should be more of them.  What I failed to consider was that most of the students failed to turn up.  The absent students had not completed forms, so the feedback reflected only the view of the minority.