‘Bashtags’ against journalists

“Damn you, media”. “Journalists are liars”. “You suck!”.

These are some of the criticisms against the mainstream media that all too often appear on social media today. They may be offensive, rude, libellous, candid or even sensible, but they all seem to suggest one thing: there is a problem with the media and journalists today.

The ‘problem’ is in fact not new at all. It is as old as the media itself. It consists a host of complex issues that touches on credibility and transparency of the media as well as responsibility of journalists, matters that have been subjects of research in journalism studies for many years.

Indeed in journalism studies today, the spotlight is slowly moving to media criticism online. Scholars studying media accountability are interested in understanding how citizens can be integrated into different ways of watchdogging the media through criticism of media organisations on blogs, Twitter or Facebook.

All too often—and in mostly crude ways on social media—citizens attempt to raise issues to do with unethical practices by journalists, factual errors on news media, newsroom corruption, political bias, misrepresentation of groups, etc. They are matters that are supposed to be addressed through media accountability mechanisms such as press councils, news ombudsman or code of ethics for the journalism profession. The traditional instruments of keeping journalists accountable are however now being seen as ineffective.

In the attempt to understand how citizens’ watchdog role could be formalised or utilised, there are a host of challenges which researchers today seek to address. Among them are two, which inform the discourse in media accountability research.

Firstly, it has been difficult to establish whether the criticisms of the traditional media on blogs, Twitter or Facebook affect journalists at all. In fact, the big question in media accountability studies today is whether citizen criticism online transforms the journalism practice. Journalists do not seem to agree they are influenced by tweets or Facebook posts to be ethical or to report fairly, at least going by surveys on European journalists conducted by MediaAcT (Media Accountability and Transparency) researchers. (MediaAct, a project funded by the European Commission, was a comparative study of media systems in 12 European countries between 2010 and 2013). Even though journalists could deny influence from citizens, it could also be argued that they cannot anyway be expected to be sincere about “external forces”. They have a professional ‘territory’ to protect!

Secondly, it has not been that easy for researchers to study media criticism. Citizen criticisms on news websites, blogs, Twitter or Facebook are so diverse. They range from genuine, but amateurish analysis of the news media, to trolls and comments that seek to propagate political or commercial interests. Apart from the diversity of criticisms, there is the complex and arduous process of collecting data on media criticisms as well as tracking media-critical citizens as possible subjects of research. However, blogs have proved to be the better platforms in research into media criticism even though they are not always reliable as their content is inconsistent and some often have a short life.

In his 2006 book, Watching the Watchdog, Stephen Cooper wrote that American blogs were nearing “maturity” at the time and could collectively be considered a possible “social institution” that could be useful in keeping media in check. However, over the past few years, media criticism has shifted to micro-blogging platforms, mostly Facebook and Twitter.

Media accountability scholars interested in media criticism can therefore no longer ignore social media. Twitter, in particular, has become an interesting platform for media criticism. Although previously many users could tweet critical views about individuals and organisations, they were isolated and proved difficult for researchers to collect for specific studies. The hashtag changed that.

Twitter hashtags tell us a lot about a key topic of conversation by a group of audiences online, globally or at a specific geographical area. The hashtag drives users to consistently address the subject of the hashtag and these comments are easily searchable and tracked on Twittersphere.

There have been popular Twitter hashtags that have attracted citizens to criticise media organisations or journalists. One of the media-critical hashtags that has trended worldwide a few times is #SomeoneTellCNN, which has been used to criticise CNN over stories deemed to portray Africa in bad light. #SomeoneTellCNN was trending for a few days in July after CNN broadcast a news story claiming US President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya at the time was likely to be dangerous as the country was a “terror hotbed”.

Another recent example is #PrayforParis, which was initially used by Twitter users to share messages of support for the victims of a terror attack in France on November 13. To protest against the western media organisations’ interest in the Paris attacks over other terrorist killings around the world, some Twitter users started #PrayfortheWorld, which equally became popular. The BBC News Online reported that social media users were unhappy with the bias against other terror victims in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Kenya and Nigeria.

With such examples, it could be interesting to research the content of media criticisms against media organisations and perhaps analyse the competence of Twitter users in addressing critical issues as regards journalism practice. Indeed, this is an opportunity researchers in media accountability studies may need to consider in broadening the understanding of citizen participation in media watchdogging.

There are of course numerous studies about Twitter and the use of the hashtag in certain areas of the journalism field such as audience studies. The criticism of organisations has also been studied in the marketing field. In particular, several studies so far published in various marketing journals are proving interesting in addressing the use of the term “bashtag”.

‘Bashtag’ is generally used to describe scathing attack of an individual or organisation on Twitter. Somehow ‘bashtag’ has come to be associated with the criticism of McDonald through the hashtag #McDStories, following its marketing campaign for positive comments from its customers. The term seems to have became popular after news organisations like Forbes used the “bashtag” to refer to critical tweets that were meant to detract MacDonald’s marketing campaign through another hashtag #McDHorrorStories.

Researchers in media accountability studies therefore could benefit from the growing Twitter studies in various disciplines. But even with ease of collecting tweets that consistently address a specific issue in journalism practice, there will still remain the complex issue of linking citizen criticism online to viable means of keeping the media accountable today.

This article was first posted on NODE blog.

Life after death (of journalism rhetoric?)

How can journalism education still be relevant after the death of the profession? Well, that’s a difficult question for practitioners, researchers and educationist alike. Of course the question on the death of journalism (a pessimistic view common in the journalism practice today) is a moot point. But maybe the diversity of research on ‘the ‘future of journalism’—like that of NODE—is in itself an indication that there is optimism in a field that has been facing its greatest challenge of remaining relevant in the digital age.

There was optimism on the future of journalism education shared among educationists and researchers in Barcelona during the conference, ”Shaping the Future of News Media”, from June 17-19. The conference was organized under the auspices of the Integrated Journalism in Europe (IJIE), a teaching innovation project funded by the EU that was launched in 2011 by Pompeu Fabra University, the host.

What stood out at the conference were the discussions by researchers as well as panelists on the future of journalism education. Most discussants highlighted the challenges and possible solutions as well as new opportunities for journalism education in Europe’ institutions in Europe today. In his concluding remarks, for instance, panelist Dr. Jacques Guyot from Université Paris 8 (Paris, France) argued for ”dynamism of journalism education in Europe” in order for journalism institutions to be adaptive in a constantly changing media landscape. Other panelists and discussants noted that in current and past research, elements that have been key drivers of journalism practice as well as research and education, have mostly been overlooked. Dr. Radu Meza from Babes-Bolyai University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania) cited ”innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship” as vital pillars of the future of journalism that should define journalism programmes today.

Apart from the discussions on J-education at the three-day conference, there were a variety of presentations in key areas of journalism research today such as algorithmic Journalism. The paper, Theoretical, economic and technological implications of automated news production in journalism was presented by Konstantin Dörr from IPMZ – University of Zurich. (NODE’s Christer Clerwell is also involved in research into algorithmic journalism, sometimes referred to as ‘robot journalism’).

Two Node research papers were also presented at the conference. They were, Points, badges, and news. A study of the introduction of gamification into journalism practice by Raul Ferrer and Do bloggers who criticize the press matter now? (Re)defining media accountability in the age of citizen participation (David Cheruiyot). They are being considered for possible publication on Comunicació. Revista de Recerca i d’Anàlisi, a journal edited by Societat Catalana de Comunicació (Catalan communication council) in Barcelona.

This article was first posted on NODE blog.

‘We are Al Jazeera, not Charlie!’ Who then are the citizens?

In January 2015, leaked emails of Al Jazeera journalists revealed that the attack at Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was more than just a tragedy to the ‘journalism world’.

The attack sparked a polarising debate in the newsrooms of Al-Jazeera pitting journalists uncomfortable with the French satirical magazine against those believing in its unrestricted freedom to publish controversial cartoons. But what is perhaps more interesting in journalism research was a debate online that followed the raid’s coverage by the Middle East-based international news outlet. The debate started after the National Review published the contents of leaked emails of Al-Jazeera journalists in the wake of the deadly attack. (Alleged Muslim extremists killed ten employees of Charlie Hebdo, including cartoonists who had been instrumental in the newspaper’s publication of controversial drawings of Prophet Muhammad.)

The emails had detailed a clash over the guidelines on the coverage of the terrorist attack issued by Salah-Aldeen Khadr. In his memo, Khadr had opposed an open support of an editorial policy sympathetic to Charlie Hebdo, and signed off with a declaration: ”We are Al Jazeera!” The UK’s Guardian wrote that the Al Jazeera emails exposed a rift between journalists over the question whether the news organisation should support a campaign under the banner ‘Je suis Charlie’— I am Charlie. The aim of the campaign was to protest against a perceived threat to freedom of expression through the attack on Charlie Hebdo by Islamic extremists.

What followed the exposé by the National Review were thousands of comments on Twitter, blogs and online news forums. The sudden interest in Khadr’s Al Jazeera edict degenerated into a debate on media freedom and responsibility of journalists. One thing stood out in this debate: it was citizen-driven. Views of journalists and politicians were buried in the floods of comments by online users, and it is likely very few scholars offered to give their views on social media platforms.

Indeed, media organisations and journalists are today increasingly becoming subjects of scrutiny of ‘armies’ of online users who question ethical practices and editorial judgments. Journalists face criticism from citizens who now seem to be interested in the workings of traditional media more than ever before.

But is the increasing interest in the journalism practice by citizens important to media scholars today? Yes! The field of media accountability in journalism studies has for decades defined the debate on how to find the middle-ground between journalists’ responsibility and media freedom. As Web 2.0 technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs increase platforms through which media coverage and the journalism practice are evaluated and questioned, it is important to understand what this new level of participation means for journalism.

The possible transformation of media accountability is what has inspired my doctoral research (see more under Node researchers). I am particularly interested in bloggers who criticize the traditional media by pointing out unethical practices of journalists or errors in editorial judgments. Hopefully, the research will throw more light on how the increasing citizen participation is changing the way journalism scholars should understand media accountability.


This article was first posted on NODE blog.