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EVENTS
                                        
Engaged Journalism Exchange-AEJMC preconference: Toward an antiracist journalism education

August 3rd, 2021| 230PM ET

Around the U.S., news organizations have been reckoning with the structural racism that undergirds their newsrooms and the larger industry. At the same time, a number of scholars have been researching how racism and whiteness influence the field’s norms and practices. In this Engaged Journalism Exchange AEJMC preconference, we will explore where efforts seeking to push toward antiracist journalism have the potential to collide—in journalism education classrooms and beyond.

Register here
                  
API is leading a free training for newsrooms on Google Analytics 4

July 15th, 2021| 1PM ET

API’s Metrics for News team will host a virtual informational session on the next generation of Google Analytics.

The free session will help newsrooms prepare for Google Analytics 4. Google Analytics Universal data will not migrate to GA4, which is why it’s important that users set up a new property and begin collecting data as soon as possible. Otherwise, when GAU is turned off for good, users will be starting from scratch.


Register here
WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

“Propaganda Analysis Revisited:” Key Insights from a Recent Review of Misinformation Studies

By Anthony Nadler and A.J. Bauer 

 

Below is a summary of key ideas from a recent special issue we co-edited of The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review on “Propaganda Analysis Revisited.” This issue starts from the premise that the ongoing post-truth impasse in the US and abroad has deep historical roots. 

 

Scholarly, journalistic, and activist concerns with problematic forms of information provision are nothing new. History is littered with methods and practices for identifying and countering misinformation and propaganda. Historical research helps us recover these ideas and best practices to assess whether they might be of some use to us now. This issue situates contemporary concerns with misinformation within the context of popular and scholarly concerns with propaganda during the Interwar period in the United States and Europe.

 

For example, C.W. Anderson’s commentary places the study of misinformation in relation to modern and postmodern research investigating complementary and often conflated categories of problematic information—propaganda, ideology, and conspiracy. He urges researchers to reflect on the normative assumptions driving their study of misinformation and calls for more direct political and theoretical engagement among misinformation scholars.

 

Other contributors mine historical case studies, uncovering insights into definitions and genres of critique. Analyzing the public politicking of the A&P supermarket chain in the late-1930s, Tim Wood suggests that propaganda critics have relied too heavily on exposé as a way of labeling and counteracting propaganda. Instead, he calls on journalists and policymakers to develop means of opposing forms of propaganda that lie in plain sight. Renee Hobbs’ piece finds a possible path forward through revisiting the media literacy work of media ecologist Neil Postman. Postman’s vision of a media literacy capable of countering the power of propaganda involves developing a self-awareness of the interrelation of emotion with factual evidence. Following Postman’s lead, Hobbs prescribes dialogue and discussion as a means of combating propaganda by helping us engage information more critically.

 

As our current pandemic has made clear, sometimes the best defense against problematic information is a good offense. Sonia Robles explores the Mexican government’s public health campaigns in the early 20th Century, which illustrate the need for considering medium, genre, and audience in effectively communicating accurate information in the midst of rampant misinformation. Looking to other national contexts allows for imagining and validating state-oriented solutions to the misinformation problem–solutions often downplayed by the anti-statist biases in the US.

 

Several contributors to this issue further point to the value of research analyzing the political and social conditions that enable propaganda (or misinformation) to flourish. But they also explore why this type of study is less likely to receive funding and institutional support. Jefferson Pooley’s article traces the trajectory of two early 20th Century researchers—James Rorty and Theodor Adorno—who took part in the prestigious and influential Princeton Radio Research Project in the 1930s.  When they started to pose critical questions about the commercial basis of US radio though, support for their research was canceled. Pooley suggests that these past experiences might warn us about today’s misinformation studies if the field continues to valorize methods dependent upon access to data and other forms of support granted by social media companies. 

 

Victor Pickard goes on to ask why concerns about propaganda diminished in the field of communication research over the past several decades. The structural roots of misinformation in commercial media systems were a key subject of analysis in early communication research, but Pickard argues that the field took a “convenient turn” away from such questions in the 1940s and 1950s. In the field’s established centers of power, research shifted toward prioritizing positivist methods and experimental and survey studies, which led to approaches and theories that de-emphasized misinformation, systemic racism, and their connections to the concentration of media power. Aman Abhiskek argues similar tendencies persist in contemporary research on misinformation. He demonstrates that dominant research trends ignore questions that are particularly urgent in the Global South’s climate of misinformation. Tracing the historic flight from structural propaganda analysis through a meta-analysis of recent misinformation research relating to the Global South, Abhishek shows this literature overwhelmingly focuses on individual-level psychological and behavioral effects. Such a research agenda leads to an advocacy agenda narrowly attuned to media literacy efforts, deflecting away from scrutinizing the role Facebook and other media institutions play in propaganda-related violence. 

 

One reason scholars and critics today may be more apt to embrace the term “misinformation” rather than “propaganda” is due to the promise of greater objectivity (or less subjectivity). The former offers the hope of a clear definition without ideological presupposition. If “misinformation” is figured as factually inaccurate information regardless of the intent of the sender, some might hope to escape the normative questions and political knots bound up in the ethically loaded and elusively defined term “propaganda.” However, this issue tempers any confidence that a name change can shed these burdens. The histories our contributors offer illuminate tensions encountered by earlier propaganda researchers that continue to pose challenges for misinformation studies today.

STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
  • In an article exposing the potential misuse of campaign finances for personal expenses by former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided a key (but oft-missing) element to its reporting: the” 5 W’s and 1 H” of the story’s significance in plain terms. By adding a separate section at the end of the article explaining “Why this story matters” followed by a brief explanation of “How we got the story” and “Why publish,” AJC rounds out the article with a timeline of key events related to Reed’s alleged misuse of campaign funds. This article is an example of reporting and storytelling presented in accessible language and formats, which may be helpful in engaging audiences who otherwise glaze over news they perceive to be too “political'' or complicated.  

 
  • Summer Book Round Up: 
    New from Tow Fellow Christopher Ali: As much of daily life migrates online, broadband—high-speed internet connectivity—has become a necessity. The widespread lack of broadband in rural America has created a stark urban–rural digital divide. In “Farm Fresh Broadband,” Tow Fellow Christopher Ali analyzes the promise and the failure of national rural broadband policy in the United States and proposes a new national broadband plan. He examines how broadband policies are enacted and implemented, explores business models for broadband providers, surveys the technologies of rural broadband, and offers case studies of broadband use in the rural Midwest.

    New from Columbia University Press: In “News for the Rich, White, and Blue,” College of Media at the University of Illinois professor Nikki Usher recasts the challenges facing journalism in terms of place, power, and inequality. She illuminates how journalists decide what becomes news and how news organizations strategize about the future. Usher shows how newsrooms remain places of power, largely white institutions growing more elite as journalists confront a shrinking job market. She details how Google, Facebook, and the digital-advertising ecosystem have wreaked havoc on the economic model for quality journalism, leaving local news to suffer. Usher also highlights how the handful of likely survivors—well-funded media outlets such as the New York Times—increasingly appeal to a global, “placeless” reader.

    Coming out today: New York Times reporters Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frankel are out today with a deep dive into the inner mechanics–and failures–of Facebook, the social media company turned “world’s most voracious data-mining machine.” In “An Ugly Truth,” the reporters write about the explosive past five years in Facebook’s growth, documenting its “controversies and crises.” In the meantime, “it turns out that while the tech giant was connecting the world, they were also mishandling users’ data, spreading fake news, and amplifying dangerous, polarizing hate speech.” 

 
  • Last week former President Trump sued Facebook–along with Twitter and Google in separate suits–for alleged violations of his First Amendment right to free speech. Trump went on to claim that he “represent[s] the interests of other users of Twitter, Facebook, and Google's YouTube who allege they have been unfairly silenced.” The suits are unlikely to move forward as private companies are not bound to Constitutional amendments in the same way that government entities are. The Verge called the move by Trump “nonsensical.” This news comes amidst Trump’s rollout of a new social media platform. “GETTR” is being marketed “as an alternative to Big Tech.”
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