Editors’ Note

By Amy Schmitz Weiss, Ph.D. & Rosental Calmon Alves

Welcome to this 11th volume of the #ISOJ Journal! This issue takes a special look into the evolution of online journalism today: from algorithms to zombie news sites. The six articles included in this issue were selected from the blind-reviewed 2021 ISOJ paper competition. These six articles will also be presented at the 2021 International Symposium on Online Journalism conference in late April.

The first article, “The language of online news: How science and health reporting in English impacts Latinx audiences,” by Ryan Wallace, explores how U.S. science and health news coverage is limiting in the audiences it aims to reach. Wallace conducted a discourse analysis of four prominent U.S. newspapers and three popular science magazines. Wallace’s research showed that most of the science and health news coverage analyzed reflected an ”English first” ideology. Furthermore, Wallace notes that while the publications examined do translate their content in other languages and do aim to adapt to many socio-linguistic and cultural approaches, issues remain. According to Wallace, “This study illustrated that while many publications do have congruent content that is translated between languages, the salient topics of these publications differ between language editions. In addition, the ‘English first’ ideology seen across many publications had practical implications on the timeliness of news being communicated to different audiences. In spite of Latinx communities having a greater burden of illnesses and disproportionate susceptibility to infectious diseases, science and health-related news in Spanish often lagged days behind congruent content in English. And even more concerning was the abandonment of existing resources for communicating to Latinx audiences, particularly in a moment of global crisis.” This article points out an important gap of the lack of attention to and engagement with Latinx audiences with science and health news coverage that warrants further research in the academy and reflection about news practices in science and health news.

Another study featured in this journal looks at another aspect of Latinx media. Jessica Retis and Lourdes M. Cueva Chacón provide a comprehensive look at the growing Latinx news industry in the U.S. in their article, “Mapping digital-native U.S. Latinx news: Beyond geographical boundaries, language barriers, and hyper-fragmentation of audiences.” Their digital ethnographic work identified 103 Latinx digital-native news outlets in the U.S. Their research showed that most of the outlets offer their content in Spanish, are concentrated in a few states, are privately-funded, and have fairly small operations (15 or fewer on staff). There are many other key findings in the piece that help distinguish the evolution of Latinx media. Retis’ and Cueva Chacón’s research provides important documentation of an under-reported area of journalism scholarship. Their work provides an exciting step forward in assessing the role of Latinx media that can provide many pathways for more research in the academy and significant insights for the overall online journalism industry.

Mark Poepsel’s article, ”Thematic analysis of journalism engagement in practice,” provides a theoretical examination into what journalism engagement means in today’s digital era. He dives into specific case studies from the Gather database to explore how journalism engagement is being conceptualized today. His analysis showed that engagement was identified through three key themes: content collaboration, random acts of empowerment, and facilitating conversations. As the news industry faces many challenges, reflecting on how news organizations are engaging and connecting with their communities provides important insights for the sustainability of journalism in the long-term. Poepsel’s research provides an important look at how journalism engagement is being shaped and the long path the news industry still needs to go in connecting with the publics they serve.

Our next article, “Cued up: How audience demographics influence reliance on news cues, confirmation bias and confidence in identifying misinformation,” by Amber Hinsley, examines how demographic factors like age, race and gender may impact how the public assesses potential misinformation through the lens of social identity theory. The survey results showed that aspects of age, education and political ideology can factor into how people assess misinformation from visuals and headlines. Hinsley identifies that education in particular plays a crucial element. “The sustained influence of education in the regression analyses suggests it could be one of the most important factors in bridging partisan ideologies as individuals assess news. Education was the only demographic variable to have a significant influence on two key news cues: evaluating objectivity and conducting personal research.” Hinsley’s research offers new insights for newsrooms in the ongoing battle of misinformation and how news literacy efforts can be further developed when taking into consideration these additional demographic layers.

Another evolving area in online journalism today is the impact of artificial intelligence, specifically algorithms on the news practice. Silvia DalBen and Amanda Chevtchouk Jurno explore how algorithms are contributing to a new evolution in Brazilian journalism in their article, “More than code: The complex network that involves journalism production in five Brazilian robot initiatives.” DalBen and Chevtchouk Jurno explore how five AI robots in Brazil were created by crowdsourced or digital-native teams. Based on semi-structured interviews with the developers of the five AI robots, the authors note the following: the complexity of the creation of these bots, the continual developments with adjusting the programming of the bots, and the bots’ overall contribution to journalism production. They note that this form of automated journalism is not without human intervention when considering the developers and other professionals behind the bot production. Furthermore, they note that this creates new ideas about the bot’s role in journalism today. The authors state, “The Brazilian case studies described above demonstrate a plurality of applications of NLG software in journalism, which are shaped by the social, political and cultural context where they belong. By helping journalists automate repetitive everyday tasks, these five robots also manage networks (Van Dijck, Poell, & de Waal, 2018) and they are not mere tools journalists use in daily work. As technical objects, they ‘discover’ important facts, process information and act by posting it on Twitter, drawing attention to certain topics that could go unnoticed by journalists and other actors in the social debate.” This research helps to provide insight on the ongoing evolution of algorithms used in online journalism today.

And last, “What’s on your page, on your pa-a-a-ge: Zombie content and paywall policies in American community newspapers, 2015-2020,” by Burton Speakman and Marcus Funk, takes an important look at the recent past to see how community news sites and their paywall policies have endured (or haven’t) among a group of U.S. community newspapers. In their analysis of 400 community news websites, they discovered a substantial number of the news sites were no longer publishing in 2020 (thus the zombie metaphor) and many of the news websites that didn’t have a paywall in 2015 now do. Speakman and Funk present the question of how do these zombie news sites impact the local news ecosystem when a zombie news site is all that remains? Their content analysis provides context into the current state of community journalism and the significant challenges for the news industry when local news is needed more than ever.

Lastly, we would like to give a special thank you to Filipa Rodrigues and Ian Tennant for their journal production assistance in making this journal volume and issue possible!