Matter matters – on the „Objects of Journalism“

On June 17, 2013, our project team member Nele attended the conference „Objects of Journalism“ in London, which was organized by Juliette De Maeyer and Chris W. Anderson (the Twitter stream is documented in a Storify). The one-day pre-ICA event took place at the prestigious „Frontline Club“, and brought together a bunch of renowned (journalism) scholars from many discplinary backgrounds (as regards methods, theories etc.) to discuss the role of actual things in the journalism production process. The aim of the conference was, in the words of the organizers, to enforce a move

away from perspectives focusing on overarching forces — be they of an economic, ideological or technical nature — as the main explanation of what happens in the making of the news. Without denying the existence of such forces, the approach advocated here tentatively explores the very material objects, sometimes seemingly innocuous or univocal, involved in journalistic production. It is an effort, in other words, towards fully embodying a vast set of heterogeneous objects that were or are enrolled in the making of the news: from the carrier-pigeon to Google algorithms, from Remington typewriters to robot-journalism.
Taking objects seriously strikes us as being an approach towards which some very challenging research and researchers are currently tending, but also as lacking a larger, unified framework for discussing potential items of research. We also aim, finally, to help to facilitate discussion between those who scholars who might embrace this “material turn” and those who might see it as a return to a realist ontology perhaps best left behind.“ (cited from the conference website)

The whole event consisted of three panels (with five minute presentations of previously shared papers) and one keynote session; very interesting was the first panel: It was dedicated to „Digital Objects“ with five papers discussing questions of what digital objects actually are, the processes related to the emergence and design of these objects (e.g. interfaces, news apps), how new digital features and options affect journalistic work (e.g. data-driven news reporting) and how we can analyze these influences and emergence of (material) affordances (e.g. via „trace ethnography“ as introduced by Heather Ford or genealogy as introduced by Kreiss/Anderson). The following discussion revolved around, for instance, the ideologies behind the decisions of designers and programmers, which can be understood as editorial ones, although it is not too easy to uncover underlying coded biases (e.g. certain imagineries of „user/reader experience“). The other panels discussed questions of the „defintion“ of newsrooms through certain (arrangements) of technological artifacts, the changing spaces and the relevance of (changing) temporal structures of news making (e.g. different „newsbeats“ and how they evolve through services such as Twitter), or the relevance and (dis-)continuities of the materiality of journalism from a historical perspective.

The last panel was dedicated to journalistic processes (such as fact-checking or „original reporting“) and how they are affect and (re-) shaped by new intermediaries. For instance, H. Bodker pointed out that the ways news content and information in general are nowadays disseminated might be best understood as „cultures of circulation“. Within the panel, Nele presented her paper on „bridging technologies“, where she discusses the role of technological objects within the journalism-audience relationship. She proposes a conceptual framework that includes the triangle audience/journalism/technology as a complex network of relations which are structured by cognitive, normative and performative aspects as well as concrete affordances of media communication technologies (e.g. interfaces such as comment areas). Hence, we need an inclusive conceptual framework that is sensitive towards the dynamics between the different actors, their characteristics as well as their interactions, which shape and structure the relation between journalism, audience and technological objects. If you are interested in Nele’s paper, please do not hesitate to send us an e-mail.

Altogether, the conference was very well organized and the concept of the event, mainly aiming at discussion, played out very well. Still, many open questions remain (which is a good thing), among them: How can we achieve a balance between techno- and socio-deterministic views in journalism research? How do historical aspects relate to contemporary developments and how can we „trace“ the traces and relevance of materiality within journalistic work? What is the (theoretical) contribution of journalism research with regard to (technological) objects and how can we appropriately adopt theoretical approaches from other fields such as actor-network-theory? The conference presents a first attempt to bring together empirical and theoretical perspectives from different fields to gather a more comprehensive understanding of what the materiality of newswork might mean. The whole event showed that, in the words of Gina Neff, „we should get back to looking at stuff“ and that, at the same time, we should be asking: „What sorts of things are thingy, and what sorts of thingyness are there?“ (Michael Schudson) Moreover, we need to reflect on the focus of our research: what do we perceive as relevant objects of study? Zvi Reich pointed out that few research is done on telephones which are still crucial artifacts within journalistic work. Hence, the presumed „sexyness“ of an object should not be a primary guidance in our research decisions. However, as Chris W. Anderson concluded, „we can study sexy objects but only by making them boring“.


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