8:30 AM — Coffee and Registration

9:00 AM — Welcome and Opening Remarks

9:30 – 10:15 AM — Session #1

Rod Benson, “Journalism and Inclusion”

What is the most pressing question for scholars concerned with media and public life? The most pressing research question today is how class inequalities shape the production and reception of media crucial to the functioning of democracy. This research program has at least three elements. First, we need to incorporate questions about income, education, profession, and family background into more media audience studies. Second, we need to search for patterns in the links between outlets’ audience demographics and the form and content of their media content. Third, we need to seek out cases of outlets, networks, or platforms that are succeeding in producing or circulating quality content that reach non-elite as well as elite audiences. These questions are all crucially important for news, but could also be asked of non-news media given that they also may provide “politically-useful, democratically-relevant” content (Williams and Delli Carpini 2011).

Private (Nielsen, Alexa, Comscore) and nonprofit/professional (Pew, American Press Institute) research organizations produce reams of audience data, but information about class is inconsistent, incomplete, or too expensive. Researchers could collectively advocate for inclusion of class questions in all audience surveys and pressure private agencies to make this data publicly available (for instance, after a reasonable delay when it is no longer of much use to strategic business decision-making). Of course, it is also useful to know race, gender, age, and geographic origin of audiences, but this data is less often missing than that of class.

This data can then be used to fill out our understanding of the contemporary media landscape: not just how many people are reading or viewing particular media outlets, but what is the social composition of these audiences in relation to regional or national averages? This data then can be linked to more systematic analysis of form and content of major media outlets to help us see better the particular mix of content consumed by various audiences. At the moment, there is an urgent need for more research on the characteristics of audiences and the content of subscription-based media versus non-subscription based media.

Finally, given the tendency of more and more media outlets to target their content to particular niche audiences or to even exclude audiences unable to pay for the content, we need to learn more about the gaps and exceptions to this exclusionary system. Which quality commercial media refuse to limit their content to only “quality audiences” and how do they do it? Which foundations or nonprofit media are concerning themselves not just with the question of making quality news available to proactively seeking out audiences without the inclination or resources to find it on their own? To what extent are social media serving to expose lower education/income audiences to quality media content?

In sum, in an era of increasing inequity in resources and opportunities across the globe, we need to put inequality at the top of the research agenda on media and public life. Greater attention is needed, in particular, to class inequalities and how these relate to the production and consumption of public affairs-relevant content and the distribution of public affairs knowledge across the citizenry.

Respondent: Margaret O’Mara (History)

10:15-11:00 AM — Session #2

Bilge Yesil, “Exploiting Subalternity in the Name of Counter-Hegemonic Communication”

Since the Brexit referendum and the U.S presidential election, there has been a consequential growth in scholarly analyses of the crisis of public communication linking the decline of liberal democracy, rise of right-wing populism and erosion of public trust in news media.

Mostly concerned with Global North contexts, these analyses have rightly pointed to the coalescence of various media-centric dynamics that have been fermenting for at least the past two decades, including but not limited to the profusion and fragmentation of information sources, diversification of media platforms and communication technologies, entry of masses into the business of media production and distribution, and deregulation of media markets and ownership structures. In addition to these technological and political economic shifts, one must also acknowledge the tempering of public communication through the nodes of identity and subjectivity, and consider the role of individual subjectivities in the creation and dissemination of content.

Based on my ongoing study about the convergence of communication, misinformation and propaganda in Global South contexts, what I want to discuss in this paper is concerned with the re-conceptualization of public communication along the axes of power and agency, and authority and legitimacy. First, I begin with a discussion of the role of national religious subjectivities in the construction of institutions, practices and spaces of global communication; and the splintering of global public spheres in terms of state/non-state actors, traditional and new media platforms.

Second, I focus on the production and dissemination of oppositional/alternative/counter knowledges in global public spheres. How are we to make sense of the politics of knowledge production in light of national religious subjectivities? Do these counter knowledges intimate the interrogation of dominant elite experts; the undoing of a managed and manufactured public opinion that Habermas lamented?

Last but not least, I ask how media and communication scholars can/should evaluate the emergent global public spheres in terms of the counter discourses they proffer and the national religious sensibilities they promote and/or exploit. Following Nancy Fraser, I discuss some potential responses to the question, what if counter discourses that certain social groups create and circulate are not virtuous, but agitational? How do we approach global public spheres that are not aimed at resuscitating democratic politics but are inherently anti-democratic? What new baselines can/should we use to understand the current moment we inhabit?

Respondent: Divya McMillin (Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences)

11:00-11:15 AM — Break

11:15 AM – 12:00 PM — Session #3

Nabil Echchaibi, “What Are We Fighting for? Academia or the Humility of Knowledge”

There is no doubt that the university today is under tremendous pressure to defend its values and prove how its work relates to public life. In our rush to respond to these ominous calls we have produced a new set of propositions that academics must make their work accessible to different publics, that their intellectual ‘aloofness’ is a handicap to an informed society, and that our desperate times demand engaged public intellectuals who can simply insert the value of context and reason in our reckless conversations. At the heart of these propositions is an apparent conceit that we in academia possess the deeper knowledge, the higher wisdom, and the better questions. Insisting that if only our work could circulate more and if only the larger public could become curious about what we do prevents us from confronting the core issue plaguing us today: why does our work remain inaudible to others?

Of course the answer to this pressing question is not simple, but our inaudibility will not be eased simply by the instrumental logic of circulation and dissemination, which mirror the hierarchical oppressions of the same metric models used in assessing academic work today. A different path would be to re-imagine our process of knowledge production as an open source of collaboration and deliberation across a diverse set of expertise and genres. We must embrace the obliqueness of knowledge with the hope of producing an “other” form of knowledge, one that opens up the archives beyond the intellectual boundaries and epistemic and linguistic limitations still dominant in our work.

I am not simply advocating for a new poetics of knowledge, although that is an effort fit for our time. Rather, I invite us to collectively think about a distributed model of academic work whereby the university is only one location of knowledge intimately dependent on multiple non-academic networks, connections, infrastructures, and institutions to create new forms and levels of knowledge about the world. This essay explores the value of this proposition through a reflection on a collaborative project between artists and scholars on the questions of immigration, borders, and frontiers.

Respondent: Ekin Yasin (Communication)

12:00 – 12:45 PM — Session #4

Hartmut Wessler, “How Can Communication Support Constructive Engagement Across Deep Divides?”

“Constructive engagement” is used here as an umbrella term for various forms of communication in which differences can be voiced, respected, and resolved. Much research in the field of communication has focused on the problems that lead to an absence of constructive engagement such as increased polarization of opinion, echo chambers, media bias towards conflict and scandalization, and populist communication strategies. While all of this is important I propose to reverse the perspective by engaging in a sustained search for the positive sources of constructive engagement both in institutional arrangements and communicative behavior, and for investigations into the precise mechanisms through which these conditions foster constructive engagement. Such a change in perspective brings into focus (at least) three aspects of communication across divides that I would like to elaborate on in the essay.

  1. From voice to listening. Much prior research focuses on problems of voice, particularly on how marginalized actors can gain voice in counter-publics and/or the mainstream public sphere. With the proliferation of possibilities for voice on the Internet, however, the counterpart, i.e. practices of democratic listening, have become the real issue. There is an instructive differentiation in the sparse literature on listening between apophatic listening, in which communicators try to understand all facts as well their counterpart’s emotions, and cataphatic listening, in which communicators only seek errors in each other’s utterances and focus on immediate tasks and quickly become impatient. Apophatic listening can be supported by specific institutions and practices in politics and the media as well as by particular mindsets. But much research is needed in this area.
  2. From disruptive to integrative conflict. Conflict has often implicitly or explicitly been juxtaposed with social integration, leading to an understanding of integration that hinges on harmony or the absence of conflict. But there is a lineage in social theory from Georg Simmel to Lewis Coser and Helmut Dubiel that highlights the integrative potential of robust but contained conflicts, which is echoed in more recent variants of agonistic pluralism (Chantal Mouffe). Knowing and acknowledging one’s opponent and embracing disagreement are steps in this direction. Again, I advocate systematically searching for the conditions that cultivate such integrative potentials of conflict. In social media-based communication this includes software design choices. If the functioning of social media algorithms can exacerbate polarization and conflict escalation, it stands to reason that it can also foster integrative conflict.
  3. From argumentation to self-transcendent emotions. Argumentative exchange has been hailed by deliberative theorists as the key procedure for constructive engagement and problem-solving. While argumentation is extremely helpful in this regard, its application is somewhat limited to more formally regulated arenas of communication. The free-flowing communication in open online and offline forums offers less incentives for engaging in proper argumentation. However, both argumentative and non-argumentative forms of constructive engagement have a common root, I contend, in the so-called self-transcendent emotions (such as compassion, gratitude or admiration) as well as other positive emotions like amazement and hope. My final suggestion, thus, aims at fostering systematic inquiry of these emotions in public communication as a breeding ground for constructive engagement.

Respondent: Michael Blake (Philosophy)

12:45 – 1:30 PM — Lunch

1:30 – 2:15 PM — Session #5

Dan Hallin, “Reflections on the Concept of Press Freedom”

The concept of press freedom is among the most fundamental in media studies.  It is also in many ways especially relevant in the current political conjuncture, when consensus on its value and on the kinds of institutional arrangements that can sustain it is in important respects breaking down.  We are now in a situation in which the US president–like populist leaders in much of the world–rejects press freedom as a cover for partisan interests and in which the spread of fake news and other forms of propaganda and increases in partisan polarization make liberal press systems look far from ideal.  Yet the literature on press freedom, either theoretical or empirical, is surprisingly thin.  In this paper I discuss some of the key conceptual issues I see as central to thinking about press freedom.  One of these is question of who is the subject of press freedom–the media organization (which in many cases would mean effectively the owner)? The journalist?  The public?  Another is the question of how press freedom is related, conceptually and empirically, to other values or criteria by which we might evaluate media systems, like plurality, openness, and orientation to truth.  In this discussion I draw heavily on recent research on media systems in Latin America.  Latin Americans are often skeptical of the concept of press freedom.  Many see it as an ideological rhetoric that protects the interests of dominant political, economic and media oligarchies, which are historically collusive with one another.  In contexts where media tend to be instrumentalized, journalistic professionalism is not strongly developed, and large parts of the population are marginalized from social and political participation, the meaning and significance of press freedom is not self-evident.  In these contexts in recent years “media accountability movements” and populist political leaders have in many cases aligned to propose reforms presented as initiatives to democratize the media system, setting off major debates about whether these kinds of policies should be seen as assaults on press freedom, or as genuinely democratizing reforms.  The standard press freedom ratings commonly used by social scientists typically show declines in these periods, but in many cases this raises as many questions as it resolves about how exactly the media systems are changing, how the distribution of power and voice society is changing, and what the implications are for democracy.  Many similar issues are likely to arise around the world as we try to think through such questions as how to regulate the circulation of news on highly centralized social media platforms.

Respondent: Katy Pearce (Communication)

2:15 – 3:00 PM — Session #6

Stephanie Craft, “The Pressing Problem of Noise in Journalism”

The current news landscape is crowded, chaotic and noisy. A pressing question, particularly for and about journalism, relates to how to manage, if not quiet, that noise. I am referring to “noise” in a few overlapping and interconnected senses: 1) the massive amount of information and mis/disinformation available in the news landscape, which makes it difficult to separate the signal of reliable information from the noise of propaganda; 2) the lack of proportionality in how news events are reported and discussed by journalism as a whole, which generates a kind of saturation that can make the experience of consuming news stressful and overwhelming; 3) the angry, sarcastic and/or uncivil pitch of much conversation in and about news, which tends to amplify the most polarizing viewpoints. That noise is a problem for journalism and for public life is not new. In fact, the idea that news “comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable confusion” is perhaps truer now than when Walter Lippmann offered that description nearly 100 years ago. What might be new, then, are the kinds of places producing the noise and its (seemingly ever increasing) volume.

Journalists have been attempting to adapt to the changing realities of the digital news landscape, which include things I have identified as part of the noise problem. But their efforts are neither extensive nor deep enough to confront the urgency of this problem. Besides, journalism is capable of—and responsible for—solving only parts of the problem. To say that contending with noise constitutes a pressing problem for journalism is not to advocate for a return to a romanticized “simpler” time of journalistic gatekeeping power and professional authority over news. Rather, I see it as a call to consider and perhaps rethink some basic premises of journalistic norms and practices. To offer a couple examples: Would coming to a new understanding of news judgment in which incremental developments in a story aren’t considered “news” or promoted as more than incremental reduce the noise? Would building a journalistic culture that values more collaboration and less competition among journalists and news outlets turn the volume down a bit? What it will take to address the noise emanating from the many and varied voices in the news landscape might be more than journalists—or the public—are willing to do. But I’m not sure we’ve yet acknowledged that we have any power over the volume control in the first place.

Respondent: Doug Underwood (Communication)

3:00 – 3:30 PM — Coffee

3:30 – 4:15 PM — Session #7

Lynn Clark, “Dissipating Publics.”

Many of us have spent a fair amount of time thinking about the ways publics and counterpublics come into being, exploring the constellation of factors that must coalesce to make collective or connective action possible. This has been a particular interest of mine in my studies of young people who are new to politics, as social media can serve as a venue through which young people become aware of the political activities of their friends as those friends share artifacts of their own political engagement online. We know that virality through social media plays an important role in these processes of priming and motivating people to become politically involved, and thus communication efforts often are designed to heighten attention through conflict. As we are living through a time in which misinformation is circulated and believed and, through its circulation, conflicts are heightened, it is important to consider how such escalation of conflict might come to be de-escalated, and how certain publics, particularly those that are fueled by misinformation, come to dissipate. By exploring dissipating publics, I mean to highlight what happens as young people come to disassociate themselves from publics that are misinformed. How do they utilize social media in such disassociating practices, if they do? Do they identify with other publics online? Do they become more cynical about all publics, whether on or offline? Such work is important and necessary, for tracing a contextually rendered theory of how publics dissipate may provide insights into how we might build bridges in the way forward for U.S. democracy.

Respondent: Annette Markham (Information Studies)

4:15 – 5:00 PM — Session #8

Mike Ananny, “The Partnership Press”

Reading media landscapes for operational, infrastructural, and tactical tensions

News organizations have historically formed strategic partnerships—with polling companies, universities, advertisers, wire services, and industry lobbyists—but new types of journalistic partnerships are emerging that suggest a changing landscape of press power, responsibility, and accountability. As news organizations collaborate amongst themselves, strategically partner with technology companies, and create niche operational initiatives, they leave clues about how they see themselves as like or unlike other organizations, and what they think their public missions are. What forms do these new partnerships take, what motivations drive their formation, and what do scholars need in order to trace not only their operational dynamics but also their normative power?

I want to sketch a typology of media partnerships and what is at stake among them. Specifically, at least three types of partnerships seems to appear on contemporary media landscapes:

  • Operational: partnerships in which news organizations collaborate on reporting projects, leveraging different skills and relationships in order to produce new news coverage and access complementary audiences (e.g., Panama Papers, New York Times-ProPublica projects)
  • Infrastructural: partnerships in which news and technology companies convene around data, distribution channels, and financial models, in ways that are largely invisible to general audiences, not always intentional, and that create contingent and sometimes controversial intersections (e.g., ProPublica’s sale of journalistically vetted data, Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP programs, and Facebook’s classification of promoted news content as political advertisements)
  • Tactical: narrowly strategic partnerships designed to produce targeted outcomes designed to advance particular, sometimes niche or short-term interests (e.g., Facebook’s partnerships with International Fact Checking Network news organizations, technology companies’ sponsorships of political debates, or the news industry’s alliance to lobby for anti-trust exemptions in its battle for online advertising revenue)

By no means are these categories or examples mutually exclusive. Together, they suggest new spaces of labor, resource allocation, and strategic investment that no single news or technology company creates alone. They open up new and complex questions about such partnerships mean and how scholars might make sense of them.

Specifically, what clues do such partnerships offer about what media organizations see as their core versus outsourced competencies, as they reach outside their organizations instead of building in-house capabilities? How is power distributed in such partnerships – as financial resources, brand identities, technological infrastructures all become commodities that are traded and valued through collaboration? What categories, definitions, and standards are assumed in such partnerships, when do the come into conflict, and how are such conflicts resolved? How

accessible are the details of such partnerships to the general public, media scholars, and even to partners themselves—are they locked down by non-disclosure agreements, operational segments, or cultures of protected proprietary advantage? What images of the public motivate or are produced by such partnerships, and what new models of public accountability might need to be created that span organizational and technological boundaries?

Satisfying answers to all of these questions are beyond the scope of this short essay. My aim is to argue that such partnerships are key to contemporary media landscapes, that they take different forms and have different stakes, and that they raise new issues that scholars and regulators alike might (continue to) take up and illuminate.

Respondent: Kirsten Foot (Communication)


8:30 AM — Coffee

9:00 – 9:45 AM — Session #1

Nick Couldry, “The Hollowing Out of the Social World: Public Knowledge and the New Data Colonialism”

In this essay I will draw on my forthcoming book, jointly authored with Ulises Mejias (SUNY Oswego), Colonized by Data: The Capitalization of Life without Limit (Stanford University Press, 2019). The core thesis of that book is that all the myriad developments of social media, big data, algorithmic processing and artificial intelligence applications need to be grasped as aspects of a larger phenomenon. We are living a new phase of colonialism, best called data colonialism, in which the appropriated resources are not land, land resources and bodies, but life itself, appropriated for value through the extraction of data traces, not least through social media platforms. This new data colonialism will pave the way for an eventual new phase of capitalism whose full shape we cannot know yet, but which will be built around not just labor relations (as Marx theorized) but data relations. Such data relations produce value through producing categorisations, that is, an alternative mode of knowledge of the social world. The result is a hollowing out of previous ways of knowing the social world, with potential profound implications for the politics of social justice. This, I propose, is the most pressing question that scholars of media and public life must today confront.

Respondent: Kate Starbird (iSchool)

9:45 – 10:30 AM — Session #2

Seth Lewis, “What is Communication Research For? Wrestling With the Relevance of What We Do”

Life has never been more mediated. From the smartphones that rarely leave our hands or stray far from our bedsides, to the seemingly insatiable public appetite for social media, binge streaming, video games, and always-on connectivity—life in the developed world is saturated with screens and the mediated experiences they provide. As more and more of human sociality becomes explored through and manifest in mediated expressions, what we study—communication and its implications for public life—should be more relevant than ever. In a sense, a growing number of research questions across the social sciences and humanities are, at bottom, communication research questions—or have elements that may be contextualized within what we know about human communication. And, beyond the academy, there has never been a more obvious moment for the study of media, communication, and technology to go “mainstream”—to become explainable, interesting, and ultimately informative for the policymaker and the every-person alike.

So, why isn’t this happening? In this essay, I explore the conundrum of the communication discipline’s two-way struggle for relevance: how it gets lost among the disciplines internally, and how it fails to connect with publics externally. The first half of the puzzle—communication’s poor reception in the academy—is easier to explain (as historians of communication have documented; see Pooley, 2016) and yet harder to resolve in the short run, given the inertia of the academy and the path dependency of institutionalized funding opportunities. Instead, I will focus primarily on the more approachable and more timely second half of the problem: communication research’s disconnection from everyday people. At a time when democratic liberalism is in retreat in many parts of the world, there is a pressing need to understand how, why, and with what effect our research has failed to speak to the lived experiences of more people—including not only the disaffected who are powering the ascendancy of populist regimes, but also marginalized non-elites, news avoiders, and others whose perspectives too frequently have either been misunderstood or ignored in communication research, for a wide variety of reasons.

This disconnection from people’s lived experience of media can be scrutinized in three ways: conceptual (what questions are we asking, or not? i.e., what assumptions, worldviews, and theories are driving our approaches?), methodological (how are we asking these questions? i.e., among which groups of people, gathering which types of data, etc.?), and communicative (for whom are we undertaking this work? i.e., how is it being communicated to multiple audiences, and with what normative aims?). I will discuss and illustrate these blind spots in light of three examples: the case of “media bias”—our field’s inability to provide a more satisfactory answer to a perennial and polarizing question; the case of information inequality—the distressing lack of research about media-related problems for the poor; and the case of religious faith—a topic too frequently ignored or misunderstood in studies of media and communication.

Respondent: David Domke (Communication)

10:30 – 10:45 AM — Break

10:45 – 11:30 AM — Session #3

Risto Kunelius, “The Systemic Question”

As we seem to living an era of historic transformations and challenges to democracy and public knowledge it feels useful to hunt down the specific, most pressing question that scholars (and citizens) should focus on. The point of this essay is question this intellectual strategy and argue that there is an urgent need to think about the current conjuncture as a systemic challenge to democracy as a communication system.

Democracies today face historically complex, intertwined, large scale challenges (environment, inequality, human mobility, security, just to name a few). Consequences of globalization are accumulating, and the communication infrastructures that have supported our ability negotiate reasonably legitimate policy options have been undergoing a fundamental shift. The communication transformation penetrates institutions and their practices — and shapes their relationships in unpredictable ways. This essay argues that media scholarship can help to develop a differentiated approach to better identify and tackle the ills and opportunities that appear at different moments of the democratic communication system as new dynamics on mediation and the complex problems of globalization intersect. Sketching out three elements of democratic communication system – representations, institutions and infrastructures – the paper will discuss examples of more focused problems, opportunities and needs for critical inquiry. This suggests an agenda of research to support democracy of viable public sphere, functional political institutions and journalism (which all a mutually facilitate each other) worthy of its promise.

Respondent: Stephen Groening (Comparative Literature, Cinema & Media)

11:30 AM – 12:15 PM — Session #4

Charlton McIlwain, “Controlling the Means of Disruption”

First – an acknowledgement.

1972 was, until recently, the last year U.S. citizens heralded racial issues among the nation’s most pressing problems. On the heels of the 2016 presidential election, race and racism ranked third on the list of Americans’ greatest concerns. Fewer whites today believe America’s criminal justice system treats whites and blacks equally, than they did when Ferguson, Missouri birthed what we know as the Black Lives Matter movement. In the years following Ferguson, Black Lives Matter remains a household phrase.

Black Lives Matter was, and in some ways continues to be, a disruptive movement, reflecting the most visible, persistent and concentrated demonstration of racial justice activism since the 1960s. But we must acknowledge that today’s racial justice activism wasn’t a spontaneous explosion. It required disruptive technologies and disruptive people to channel that technology towards disruptive ends. It necessitated an information infrastructure that both produced and distributed compelling, consumable, and usable content about race, racial issues, and racial politics. Social media organizing on this scale required a level of comfort with doing identity work, race work, organizing work in a digitally-mediated environment. And, it required the ability to fuse new and old media, and new and old principles of organizing in complimentary ways. In this sense, Black Lives Matter was practically fifty years in the making.

Focusing more narrowly, I argue that the necessary conditions for today’s increasingly visible, reinvigorated and technologically driven racial justice movement developed over three decades, through five overlapping phases. In the first, black hobbyists, gossips, tinkerers and racial uplift advocates hacked early computer networks to form racial interest-based communities. In phases two and three, an emerging digital elite (motivated by both educational, political and entrepreneurial interests) harnessed the Internet’s new connective power to produce new markets for racialized and racially targeted content. In phase four, journalists, intellectuals, celebrities, and activists of color leveraged the new forms of social media to create dense networks poised to heighten public attention to the new millennium’s most pressing racial issues. In phase five, this network flexed its collective muscle, bringing its power to bear on changing the political and public policy dynamics that continue to structure racial inequality.

Second, a reality check.

Despite its successes, however, today’s and tomorrow’s racial justice movement must transform itself in at least two ways. First, it must expand its influence. It must marshal media power to change public opinion. But it must also exert consistent external pressure to reform the system from within America’s legal and policymaking machinery.

Second, and more importantly, today’s movement must transform its relationship with technology. Continuing to rely on corporate, third party media platforms limits the movement’s ability to apply ample pressure to force change. Today’s new media vanguard mastered other people’s digital tools to accomplish its goals. Tomorrow’s must own, and control the means of disruption.

It is imperative that media and communication scholars work to communicate why we should, what it means, and how we must go about controlling the means of technological and political disruption to our current racial order. How do we begin to accomplish these objectives and do so at a scale that makes a difference?

Respondent: Mako Hill (Communication)

12:15 – 1:00 PM — Lunch

1:00 – 1:45 PM — Session #5

Melissa Aronczyk, “Public Communication in a Promotional Culture”

One of the most pressing questions we face as media scholars is how to reckon with the ways that private media companies take users’ personal data as a proxy for public life; and with what consequences for public knowledge.

As companies embrace the economic imperatives of data analytics, they create new patterns of legitimacy in the public sphere. Numbers of followers or likes, rankings, and other reputational metrics appear to evaluate their owners’ trustworthiness and reliability, even as they work to transform the practices in which their owners engage (Petre 2015, Espeland 2007). Industries of promotional intermediation (e.g., marketers, public relations or management consultants, lobbyists) are now supplemented by a secondary industry that mediates online content through analytics, directories, and management software (with a tertiary “shadow industry” of bots, troll account operators, and “black hat” PR strategists promoting what some scholars call “networked disinformation” [Ong & Cabañes 2018]).

Perhaps the most problematic implication of these transformations is the mounting perception that the personal data on which private media companies increasingly run constitutes the sum of who we are as public people; and that decisions about public policies should be decided on that basis. In our ongoing research on the uses of big data for action around climate change, for example, Maria Espinoza and I discovered that transnational organizations like the United Nations are appealing to private companies to “donate” their user data for the “public good.” Such “data philanthropy” is presented to business leaders as a form of corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability, benefiting society as well as the brand.

This perception relies on (at least) two discordant principles: One, that the data we provide as individuals in one context is transferable to another; and second, that the data we provide is reflective of actual demographics, politics, and priorities. The data collected for brand value may well not hold the same value for goals of public welfare. At the same time, what these outcomes suggest is the “brandification” of public life such that there is less and less difference between how brand value is assessed and how public concerns are valued.

These conditions challenge scholars to rethink their categories of analysis. Concepts such as public opinion, always already problematic in terms of constitution, access and equal voice, are further scrambled by various proxies for publicity that undermine arguments about democratic participation and deliberation. The task for critical scholars is to develop both theoretical and methodological principles to deal head-on with these patterns rather than seeing them as outliers or anomalies to a more legitimate system of representation.

Auletta, Ken. 2018. Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else). New York: Penguin Press.

Espeland, Wendy Nelson and Michael Sauder. 2007. Rankings and Reactivity: How Public Measures Recreate Social Worlds. American Journal of Sociology 113.1 (July): 1-40.

Ong, Jonathan Corpus & Jason Vincent A. Cabañes. 2018. Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines. The Newton Tech4Dev Network Report, 82 pp. Accessed at:

Petre, Caitlin. 2015. The Traffic Factories: Metrics at Chartbeat, Gawker Media, and the New York Times.” Tow Center for Digital Journalism Report. Accessed at:

Wacksman, Barry & Chris Stutzman. 2014. Connected by Design. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Respondent: Christine Harold (Communication)

1:45 – 2:30 PM — Session #6

Matthew Powers & Sandra Vera-Zambrano, “What Are Journalists For?”

Comparative insights on the maintenance of social order In order to propose a pressing question for scholars of media and public life, this paper proposes to re-think what journalists are for in terms of their incidence on the reproduction of the social order. Through an empirically based reflection, based on a comparative study of local journalism in Toulouse, France and in Seattle, US, we argue that the most pressing question of our work is not to know if two different media systems are converging or diverging due to a particular context of increasing professional precariousness, generalization of the use of technology and diminished belief in institutions. What we propose is to question how these systems produce practices, constraints and some stakes to journalists who will ultimately adhere, almost imperceptibly, to the political system: even if the two media systems defend democratic values and are based on similar economically- oriented objectives, French journalists will generally support statism, whereas Americans  typically defend more commercially oriented propositions.

Considering what journalists are for today allow us to unveil some fundamental assumptions journalism scholars have progressively integrated into their analysis. The first one is that digital technology has structurally changed the profession. For example, it is easy to find research on how social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…) have changed journalistic practices or roles. Even if it is totally true that digital technologies have brought some novelty, it is important to think them as part of a long process, where technology gets involved into a larger frame of traditional values and practices. The second one is that literature is heavily oriented to normative aspects of the profession. Many works focus on ideal models or on values of how journalists should be. Indeed, in the Anglo-Saxon literature (which is as well the most read), the fundamental assumption is that journalism should be liberal, based on democratic values and embodying a watchdog attitude. Third, in continuity to the last one, is that scholars who have oriented the debates into a normative level propose journalism as the unit of analysis, which actually screens the diversity in which journalists might actually react. Finally, many works about journalism or journalists have focused on questions of change and continuity, somehow forgetting how the social order is maintained and sometimes forgetting to show how the practices and the values are the result of mechanisms which are embedded in a particular system.

What we propose is to look back to the fundamental questions of communication scholars at the beginning of the discipline. Scholars from the “Mass Media Communication Research” from Parsons to Lazarsfeld, questioned, through the analysis of effects of the media, how social control was being established and social order maintained. Even if journalism as a profession was not their main concern, the role of journalists (as much as the role of academics) as the agents of the media, played an important role. Other examples of communication scholars thinking about the articulation between journalism and social order can be found in Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm (Four Theories of the Press), as well as the works of Gramsci and cultural hegemony,  Goffman (Behavior in public spaces) and the representatives of the Cultural Studies for their research on how the social order is maintained through day-to-day media exposure (e.g. magazines, music, television, etc), where journalists play a very important role.

We suggest that posing the question of what journalists are for can thus inform a range of debates within journalism studies and political communication while contributing to longstanding but recently neglected concerns about how social order is maintained.

Respondent: Sarah Quinn (Sociology)

2:30 – 3:00 PM — Coffee

3:00 – 4:30 PM — Concluding Discussion