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Questions with Zvi Reich and Yigal Godler

Spotlight on Research

The impact of mythology and technology on how journalists gather information

Questions with Zvi Reich and Yigal Godler

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and in the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

In an era where journalists can do much of their research on the Internet, how much on-the-ground “shoe-leather” reporting still occurs?

Zvi Reich, associate professor in the department for communication studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, along with Yigal Godler, assistant professor at the Department of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), sought to answer this question by studying journalists’ own perceptions of their work.

Using the term "legwork" for what has historically been called “shoe-leather” reporting, Reich and Godler determined in interviews with journalists that the tactic is used less than half of the time.

While legwork may not always be used to acquire information for news items, Reich and Godler found that the use of the evidence-gathering technique may be related to how journalists view each story, the risk for error, and factors such as perceived credibility and cross-verification.

Reich and Godler performed the study in Israel, and say the country’s small geographic size suggests the results are likely transferable.

1. How did you become interested in this topic and research?

The genesis of our interest in the topic is twofold. Like many other scholars of journalism, we are interested in the correspondence between journalists’ mythology about their work and how they actually work. There is a lot of mythology about the role of shoe-leather reporting in journalism, which is reflected in Hollywood with the image of the legendary reporter who goes into the field and finds out important things.

More recently, there is a lot of discussion in journalism studies circles about how technology changes traditional journalistic practices with legwork being one major set of these practices.

Technology is sometimes said to make reporting legwork unnecessary because you can research on the internet and because journalists now have access to images and footage that are spontaneously collected by people at a scene using their smartphones without the need for journalists to be present.

We wanted to see if these mythologies and theories were justified, so we ran a very detailed study of how journalists think about legwork and of the extent to which they actually perform it. We also have a deeper intellectual and philosophical interest in legwork as a direct experience of events and phenomena, because for a long time it's been regarded as the highest grade of certainty among journalists and media scholars.

2. What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your


There have been two kinds of research. First, detailed studies of news practices, on the basis of face-to-face reconstruction interviews designed to recreate journalists’ work processes. There have been three rounds of this study so far over different intervals, so there is longitudinal perspective about the degree of change in journalistic practices in the digital age.

Second, we have conducted some exploratory research into the journalistic process of
knowledge acquisition, as well as some research into journalists' conceptions of knowledge. And this is the basis for our more abstract and philosophical interest in journalists' standards of evidence.

3. What did you learn?

Clearly, the mythology of legwork as a predominant tool of news creation has little to rest on.

Legwork appears in less than half of the items in a random sample across all major Israeli media that we have studied. Nonetheless, most journalists do regard legwork as a primary tool of knowledge acquisition and evidence collection. Legwork is not there merely because editors feel that journalists have to be at the scene to satisfy some arbitrary format requirements. This does happen, but it does not seem to be the dominant trend.

Journalists have a view of direct experience that is similar to the traditional philosophical view, a knowledge-centered view, but legwork is used sparingly.

Only when journalists are really suspicious about what their sources are telling them and don't have any alternatives to attending the scene do they then leave the desk.

This ties into a broader philosophical and theoretical argument about shifting evidential standards under changing conditions of the risk for error. It appears that the worse the consequences that reporters determine being mistaken to be, the likelier they are to raise the standard of evidence before gaining confidence in their prospective reports.

4. What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

Methodologically, we are aware that much of our previous research had somewhat of a quantitative bias though it wasn’t exclusively quantitative. We could detect some interesting correlations between practices and circumstances, or sources and technologies; however, much of journalists' thinking remained hidden from us. That's why the upcoming round of the face-to-face reconstruction interviews study is much more reliant on qualitative questions that ask journalists to explain their reasoning behind individual news reports. The same is true of our other ongoing work.

Conceptually, we are working on developing theoretical connections between journalists' concepts of knowledge and practices.

Even when journalists act automatically or without much reflection, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are basing themselves on some tacit conceptions of what knowledge is, what truth is and what satisfactory evidence is.

Our future empirical research will try to flesh out these practice-guiding conceptions of knowledge, truth and evidence, which we think is particularly significant in this age of post-truth, post-factual politics, fake news and alternative facts when journalists' lack of reflexivity is exploited in order to discredit the very foundations of their enterprise.


Zvi Reich is a former journalist and has served as a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He has authored and co-authored four books and serves as a board member of the Israeli Press Council. The study, titled “Being There? The Role of Journalistic Legwork Across New and Traditional Media” can be found here.

Yigal Godler is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and a former post-doctoral fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Tel-Aviv University (Israel). He earned his doctoral degree from the Department of Communication Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva (Israel). Godler has previously co-authored a book about journalistic skepticism (with Prof. Zvi Reich) and published in international academic periodicals, including Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism Studies,
Critical Sociology and Journalism Practice.

Questions with Matthew Weber

Spotlight on Research

Podcast: The 21st Century Newsroom

Questions with Matthew Weber

Matthew Weber

Matthew Weber

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Over the last decade, there have been significant shifts in how news is packaged, how news is consumed and how news is paid for or sold. But, how have hiring practices of newsrooms changed -- if at all -- in the face of such disruption? A new project wants to find the answer, provide strategies for helping newsrooms adapt and create sustainable solutions.

Matthew Weber, his collaborator, Allie Kosterich (Pace University) and their team collected employment histories, educational backgrounds and skill sets of employees of a variety of news organizations. They found that the print news industry tended to hire from within and did not seek people with different abilities. Weber sees this as a barrier to bringing new ideas into the newsroom and failing to be truly innovative.

Matthew Weber is an associate professor of communication and co-director of Rutgers’ NetSCI Network Science lab. Weber's research examines newsroom adaptation amidst a dynamic media environment. Most recently, Weber coauthored “Imitation in the quest to adapt: Lessons from news media on the early Web” to be published in the International Journal of Communication.

Weber’s project is called Newsroom 21: New Hiring Practices and the Challenge of Building a 21st Century Newsroom. This podcast is a part of our Spotlight on Research series. Listen to the six-minute podcast below.



Questions with Dr. Annika Sehl

Spotlight on Research

How Can Public Broadcasters

Become More Digitally Savvy?

Questions with Dr. Annika Sehl

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Public broadcasters such as the BBC have historically played an essential role in informing citizens, but many have struggled to adapt digitally. Most recent studies focus on the external challenges confronting public broadcasters, such as funding, but fail to consider how internal factors can stymie or accelerate digital innovation. Dr. Annika Sehl, a trained newsbroadcaster and co-author of a book on digital journalism in Germany, tackles these questions as part of the “Digital News Project,” housed at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

For a recent report, Sehl and her colleagues conducted 36 interviews across six European countries to probe for challenges and solutions facing organizations historically known as public service broadcasters, such as the BBC in the UK or ZDF in Germany. They highlight differences across the European countries. The BBC reaches 68 percent of 18-24 year olds with news across online and offline platforms, compared to a paltry 24 percent of Germany’s ZDF.

Drawing on the interviews, Sehl, Cornia and Nielsen identified four factors necessary for successful development of new forms of digital news creation and delivery. Public broadcasting organizations must have strong support from senior leadership, buy-in from the wider newsroom, cross-functional, autonomous teams and an audience-centric approach. Sehl and her colleagues argued that all four factors are crucial, not substitutable. An organization must have all of them to implement transformative change.

Beyond these factors, they found that these organizations can bolster their chances of success by having a development department specifically for news, bringing in new talent and working with external partners. In the below interview, Sehl discusses how she grew interested in this topic, its implications and what’s next on her research agenda.

This report is the second in its series: Sehl in 2016 assessed the challenges and opportunities of public broadcasters. , including how they have restructured their organizations and newsrooms and have developed approaches to mobile news and news delivery on social media platforms. The same team under the led of Alessio Cornia, recently published a report applying the same framework to private sector news organizations.

1). How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

Public service broadcasters have enjoyed a strong position in European countries for decades but they are struggling in many cases to be online news providers. They face many external challenges including discussions around the funding, remit, and role of public service media, pressures from private sector media competitors, the rise of platform companies, and continued changes in media use. I work with Alessio Cornia and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen to address and analyse challenges and solutions public media organizations approach in six European countries: Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Poland.
2). What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your study?

Our research builds on previous studies from the early 2000s on how both private sector and public service media organizations are adapting to digital media. Studies analyzing private sector media are largely focused on the interplay between internal organizational factors and external structural factors but studies on public service media tend to focus only on external changes in funding and governance, largely ignoring internal factors.

With our research, we aim to contribute to the field by examining both internal organizational and external institutional factors and their interplay for adapting to an increasingly digital media environment from a comparative perspective. We realize that public service media have similarities and differences from private sector media, which is why we have divided our studies into two separate reports.

3). What did you learn?

We learned that there are four external conditions and two internal conditions that relatively high performing organizations in our sample have in common. The four external conditions are: (1) they operate in technologically advanced media markets; (2) they are well-funded compared to many other public service media organizations; (3) they are integrated and centrally organized and work across all platforms; (4) they have a degree of insulation from direct political influence. The two internal conditions are a pro-digital culture where new media are seen as opportunities rather than threats and senior editorial leaders who have clearly and publicly underscored the need to continually change the organization.

In terms of specific news products, we learned that there are foundational and facilitating factors to develop new products. These are: (1) strong and public support from senior leadership; (2) buy-in from the wider newsroom; (3) the creation of cross-functional teams with the autonomy, skills, and resources to lead and deliver on projects; and (4) an audience-centric approach. We also found three facilitating factors: (1) having a development department specifically for news; (2) bringing in new talent; and (3) working with external partners. While the first four foundational factors cannot be substituted, the last three factors represent specific solutions.

4). What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

Our research shows that public service media, despite being dependent on external factors like funding, have a responsibility and opportunity to change their internal conditions to adapt to an increasingly digital media environment. To stay relevant, they have to change and to develop their digital offerings. They need to try new things, take risks and have the freedom to fail. Development is a process, not an end result.

Recently, in September 2017 we also published a report on private sector media, led by my colleague Alessio Cornia. At the end of our project we will be able to present a comprehensive cross-national and cross-organizational comparative analysis of news organizations' digital strategies, examining public service and private sector media across six European countries.

Questions with Seth Lewis

Spotlight on Research

A Broader Framework

for the News Industry

Questions with Seth Lewis

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Who and what shapes the news stories that are ultimately published or broadcast?  Seth Lewis and Oscar Westlund explore this question and to try to capture the full range of forces shaping the media industry in their article: “Actors, Actants, Audiences and Activities in Cross-Media News Work.”

Rather than focusing primarily on the decisions made during the editing process in news organizations, Lewis and Westlund use the “4 A’s” framework to study how human and non-human actors explain recent shifts in the gathering, marketing and dissemination of news and information. Their framework gives equal weight to a variety of factors, including financial and technological ones.

In addition to his “4 A’s” research, Lewis, the Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, has published articles on journalism in the era of big data. He is currently studying how artificial intelligence will shape the future of journalism. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin.

The full text of the article can be found here.

 1). How did you become interested in your “4 A’s” research?

Over the last five years, I’ve conducted research on how forms of journalism have changed in relation to emerging technologies. In journalism research, there has been a lot of emphasis on how journalists have adapted their routines or incorporated new devices and approaches. However, we haven’t seen a more holistic perspective on the interplay among journalists and other key stakeholders in news organizations. The “4 A’s” is a way to study the different social actors and update our perceptions of the news production process. This helps us uncover some blind spots, so that we are not focusing exclusively on journalists, media marketers or computer programmers. Each of these constituents may have very different understandings of what the audience can and should do, which shapes how media is produced.

2). Within your framework, do you see a hierarchy among the stakeholders?

Traditionally, the editorial side has been dominant. However, I think we are entering a moment where news companies see themselves as media and technology companies, not just news organizations. I see this as a growing recognition that successful enterprises will be blended. The media industry has had longstanding concerns about mixing the editorial and business sides, which may have actually deterred useful conversations. I think this is starting to change. Journalists are recognizing that they need to be aware of the business side of the enterprise. In turn, I think technologists are emerging out of their more service-oriented role and playing a greater part in improving user experience.

3). What are some of the implications of your work for community journalism?

The New York Times and other leading organizations have built large teams of developers with programming skills. This is obviously much harder for smaller news organizations. They recognize technology is a key aspect of their present and their future. However, technology is not paying the bills.  Smaller newspapers don’t have the scale to carry out a digital revolution, nor do they always have the need to establish a strict pay wall. Over time they will need to transition to developing a pay-model online. However, the bigger challenge - for news organizations large and small - is the extent to which social media is the entry point for news. Google and Facebook have not only taken away the advertising revenue, they have also taken away the audience attention share.

4). What is next on your research agenda?

The next big thing I want to understand is how artificial intelligence fits into the future of journalism. I want to look at the broad array of machines intended to act “smart.” This will help answer how artificial intelligence can free up journalists’ time in ways we haven’t yet considered. There is an opportunity to consider what machines can do for journalism. This is really exciting but also daunting and potentially compromising because it raises a range of ethical questions.