Internet “in camera” – ECC 2010 presentation

Posted on October 15, 2010

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After a long hesitation, I decided not to write a full paper for my presentation at ECC 2010 (ECREA European Communication Conference). Or at least, not a full paper in English: I’m dealing with language issues and text analysis in the research I’m presenting, on the basis of a corpus of news stories that are in French. Therefore, it seemed awkward to translate the analysis, and I’ve chosen to write the paper in French. You can find all the needed lengthy developments about it, in French, on this blog (divided in four parts: a presentation of questions and methods, theoretical background about Facebook Twitter and journalism and on journalistic identities, as well as the analysis and discussion). However, I did not want to leave my ECC presentation unbacked, so here is a short summary.

In early February 2010, the francophone public radio broadcasters held an original event. Five journalists spent five days in an isolated cottage, in the South-West of France. Their cell phones were confiscated, and their laptops had very restricted Internet connections: they could only surf to Twitter and Facebook. This event was called “Huis-clos sur le net”, something we can tentatively translate as “The internet behind closed doors” or “the internet in camera”.

The goal of the event, as stated by its organisers, was to answer questions such as: “what kind of news arises from the social networks? How relevant is the worldview, in those conditions? Are we informed in the same way than with traditional media?” It was not even necessary to read between the lines to understand the ultimate goal, as they stated it clearly: “It may be an entire reflection on journalism”.

My ambition here is not to cast opinions at the event itself or its conclusions. The idea is not to assess the event itself, but to examine its media coverage. News stories about the event were abundant, and not only in the media taking part in it: I gathered and analysed 65 news stories about it, from the online version of French, Belgian, Swiss and Canadian traditional media (full list of news stories can be consulted).

On those bases, the research questions are: First, how is the topic – the whole “Internet behind closed doors” operation – approached? Why do the media talk about it? Secondly, How is the event presented and framed? Here I focus on two sub-questions: (a) How are the objectives of the events framed? (b) How is the event situated within journalistic identities and values?

Oviously, this is a basic framing study, and it aims at determining what are the main ideas, themes and aspects of the news stories analysed. So I opted for a qualitative approach and a thematic analysis, trying to stick to the texts as precisely as possible. The questions mentioned before were guidelines, and not strictly defined categories to fill, and there was room left for the emergence of other themes and framing.

I also need to say a word about theoretical backgrounds. There are three main trains of thought developed along this research project. And I don’t want to expand on them, but to summarize some essential assertions (by the way, a list  of full references used for this project and related readings can also be consulted).

First, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook matter for journalism. Not because they have an impact on it (maybe they do, I can’t say because it is not the point of this project), but because journalists seem to find SNS important enough to organize an event such as the one we are discussing now. However, literature about social network sites shows that news is of course not the only, nor the most important function of Twitter and Facebook.

Second constitutive train of thought: the discourse about technology matters for the constitution and maintenance of journalistic identities. And finally, journalistic identities can be conceptualized as a discursive field, where various core values can be identified. They are ideal-typical values such as objectivity, ethics, immediacy, credibility, accuracy, etc.

What about results, then? First, why do the media talk about the “Internet behind closed doors” operation? Two main reasons appear in the news stories: on the one hand, because it is something new, that has never been done before. On the other hand, because it is a media success. This second argument seems especially interesting: we have news stories telling us that it is relevant to talk about this particular topic because other media talk about it. This struck me as a nice example of what Bourdieu called the “circular circulation of information”, media bringing a topic to the forefront of news solely because other media are talking about it.

Then how are the objectives of the event framed? When it comes to presenting the “Internet behind closed doors” operation and its goals, there is one sequence of words that keeps repeating itself. Its all about “testing the worth of…” something. Here we can observe how meaning constantly slides. In some news stories, it’s about testing the worth of the news carried by Twitter and Facebook. In others, it’s about testing the worth of Twitter and Facebook themselves. And in others, it’s all about testing the worth of social media. Those are three different things.

The next question was: how is the event situated within journalistic values? Different values are brought in. Here, it seems interesting to underline that those values are attributed to different subjects or objects. For instance, the question of “relevance” appears often. But what exactly has to be relevant? Sometimes it’s the news, sometimes the social network sites, sometimes the so-called “new media”, and sometimes, the “network of contacts build by the journalists”. Those are different things, at different levels of abstraction. Something similar happens with every journalistic value mentioned; you find various levels of embodiment, in a continuum of possibilities between theoretical, abstract incarnation of the value, and a more concrete embodiment. Here I’d like to argue that what is at stake is also responsibility. Who or what is responsible for the value? Is it something abstract like the “news”, the “information” that has to ensure relevance? Something technical such as the “social-network website”? Or should the journalists themselves ensure the relevance of their “network of contacts”? In the stories I’ve examined, the meaning often slides towards the abstract.

Finally, I found two main contradictory metaphors framing the topic; through the whole set of news stories. First, there is a constant comparison with science. The “internet behind closed doors” event becomes an “experiment” that has a “methodology”. The goal is to “demonstrate” something to “measure” it or to “validate” it. The journalists are explicitly referred to as “guinea pigs”. As for the whole situation, it is a “laboratory” or a “digital test tube”.

The second main metaphor has something to do with superficiality, and can be divided in two main frames. First, you often find comparisons with reality-TV. The five journalists taking part in the event now become reality-TV contestants, the focus is on them being isolated in a cottage, and various popular reality-TV shows are mentioned. The second frame building that idea of superficiality is tourism. News stories insist on the geographic location: it happens in the picturesque South-West of France, a quiet countryside, well-known for its cuisine. Food is often mentioned, and typical dishes are brought up, as if the whole event was about eating truffle and foie gras.

So on the one hand, the event is science, and on the other hand it is reality-TV and gastronomic holidays. Those metaphors are not clearly separated, they are to be found in the same stories, and sometimes they crash into each other in the same sentences. I believe that those two contradictory metaphors are not in a dialectic relationship, where opposing forces would lead to a final, constructive synthesis. There is no resolution to this conflict.

In the end, I’d like to argue that this media coverage is a successful example of journalism as a “blurred professionalism” described by French author Denis Ruellan. When confronted with potential threats at its borders, journalism successfully occupies the field and intentionally maintains blurred boundaries. Here, what we are really talking about is blurred, sliding from one meaning to another (what are we assessing? News carried by Twitter? Twitter itself? The new media? We don’t know). The journalistic values are also blurred, in a constant hesitation between different levels of embodiment – and a tendency to escape towards the abstract. As for the essence of the debate itself – the “internet behind closed doors” event as questioning the role of Twitter and Facebook in journalism – it is not only blurred, but also emptied, neutralised and rendered harmless because it is trapped in a contradictory loop. In summary, what those news stories say is something like that: it is necessary to talk about the “internet behind closed doors” event and to reaffirm that journalists are experts in journalism and that they are competent to address questions related to the place of new media in their job, but it is not necessary to answer the real questions raised by the event: they have disappeared in the blurring process.

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