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Review of Advancing Journalism and Communication Research
New Concepts, Theories and Pathways 

By Cindy Royal, PhD
Professor and Director, Media Innovation Lab
June 23, 2020

In recent months, I have been encouraged by innovation and improvements embarked upon by academic journals in our field. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly (JMCQ) has introduced several features meant to improve the publication of meaningful and current research. In March 2020, the introduction to the issue discussed changes to the review process to allow for single-blind review of papers that had already been published in some form online (Ha, 2020). This recognition that scholars were anxious to share their research sooner than the journal review process would allow is an important step and helps encourage discussion of projects and results within the academic community.

JMCQ has also launched a new article format in which several authors contribute to an invited forum on a new and emerging topic, including artificial intelligence (Broussard, et al., 2019) locative-media ethics (Zeffiro, et al., 2020) and product management in journalism (Royal, et al., forthcoming 2020). These are excellent features that allow for diverse voices and perspectives and provide a space for addressing innovation in the field in ways that traditional peer review had been previously unable.

This is why I feel that the recent special issue of JMCQ on Advancing Journalism and Communication Research: New Concepts, Theories, and Pathways” is another strong contribution to moving communication research forward in addressing innovation, emerging issues and the dynamic landscape of digital media.

In this issue -- curated by Claudia Mellado, Myria Georgiou and Seungahn Nah, ten contributors tackle the “important challenge of engaging with and advancing theoretical and conceptual debates on current and future direction of journalism and communication studies in a rapidly changing media landscape” (Mellado, et al., 2020, p. 333). The introduction highlights the focus on effects of both globalization and digitization in a call for considering new conceptual frameworks in communication research.

The editors recognize that digitalization has “reinvented norms and practices associated with media institutions, professional practice, news and design” (Mellado, et al., 2020, p. 333). Citing a sharp increase in empirical studies focusing on digital and global change, the continuous cycle of ‘publish or perish’ that discourages more time-consuming theoretical work and the fast-moving nature of the media environment, these elements contribute to an academic ecosystem that is less focused on critical analysis than description. 

While some level of inquiry and description are required before analysis is undertaken to explore new and emerging topics, it is an appropriate time to reconsider and critique our directions, what we prioritize and what types of views are privileged and which are marginalized. “Dominated by a demand for speedy production, academic practice has marginalized its own-shared capacity to develop diverse and interpretative contributions to understanding the media, as well as politics and society” (Mellado, et al., 2020, p. 335).

The evolving nature of media and speed of digital and global change also make for an environment in which traditional models of publication often fall short. “It is fair to ask what specific theories and concepts should be advanced in journalism and communication studies to understand how media institutions have changed in global and digital times” (Mellado, et al., 2020, p. 336).

I feel this issue provides valuable insight on potential new approaches to and offers a variety of perspectives on how we advance scholarship in the field. I discuss a few of the contributions that I feel are relevant to my specific focus on digital media, but I highly recommend all contributions to this issue.

A Framework for Understanding the Influence of Technology
Qun Wang, a recent graduate of the doctoral program in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University, contributed the article “Differentiation and De-Differentiation: The Evolving Power Dynamics Between the News Industry and Tech Industry” (Wang, 2020). Wang was also part of the inaugural cohort of the PhDigital Bootcamp hosted by my program at Texas State University in 2018, a program to prepare future faculty to lead innovative curriculum.

Wang describes a framework for understanding the various phases of news media as influenced by the technology industry, the ways in which they exhibited and/or embraced similarities and differences and how their power dynamic evolved. She uses the terms “differentiation” and “de-differentiation,” as originated in the field of sociology. Institutions exhibit differentiation to enjoy unique positions in a social system, but also experience de-differentiation in establishing norms and routines in response to outside factors and interdependence upon them.

Recognizing that the boundaries of journalism have changed, Wang outlines several waves of differentiation and de-differentiation since the advent of digital media. The early ‘90s was characterized by what she termed first-wave de-differentiation, when news organizations mimicked technology industry practices to take advantage of the benefits of the burgeoning Web. “Media convergence became a trend in the first decade of the news industry’s digital transition” (Wang, 2020). This phase included media organizations creating a digital version of their product, and print and broadcast companies establishing collaborations. 

This led to first-wave differentiation in the early 2000s, in which new divisions of labor were introduced creating the positions of online journalists, web producers and data journalists and those functions being framed in contrast to the traditional skills of reporting and editing. 

Second-wave de-differentiation occurred in the mid-2000s, as media companies converged with digital platforms, including search engines, social media and mobile applications, and the public began to participate in media more broadly with blogs, user-generated content and social media postings. However, by the mid-2010s, the “platform era” was declared over (Wang, 2020) due to “heightened distrust” in the ways that platforms disseminated journalism and contributed to “fake news.” 

This led to second-wave de-differentiation of the mid-2010s to the present, characterized by media organizations attempts to regain control from the platforms by becoming more strategic in their usage. These waves are not completely discrete, as overlaps between each phase were influenced by internal and external cultural factors in transition.

Wang’s identification of this framework of pushes and pulls between news media and the technology industry resulted in three perspectives: institutional (representing social orders, changes and structures), relational (identifying interactions and reactions linked by power relations) and dialectic (recognizing the influence of power transformations). She concludes by recommending researchers use this framework of de-differentiation and differentiation to analyze, explain and critique the nuances of digital media.

Thoughts and Insights
As a journalist turned researcher, Wang was inspired to write this piece because of the digital transformations she has observed throughout her career. “The interrelationship between the news industry and tech industry is complex and evolving over the past few decades,” Wang said in an email interview about the project. “Now as the world enters the 3rd decade of the 21st century, I hope to use this opportunity to share some reflections on the changing trends about the two industries, as well as their implications to the news ecosystem in the digital age.”

As a fellow in the 2018 PhDigital cohort, Wang felt the topics under study in the program helped her focus on the influence of technology. “Many topics covered in the Bootcamp are relevant to discussions in this article, such as digital platforms, data journalism, and emerging technologies,” Wang said. “At the Bootcamp, I gained first-hand experience about these technologies and had the opportunity to think about their impacts on journalism and society.” 

“While this article focuses on theoretical reflections, I always believe conceptual understanding and practical skills are inseparable in order to better understand technology and its impacts,” Wang continued. .

Wang believes this JMCQ special issue is timely in its focus on new theoretical and analytical frameworks related to global and digital change. “Theoretical developments are important to strengthen empirical studies and to understand the complexities, dynamics and trends across individual cases in the rapidly changing media landscape,” Wang said.

Wang will join the faculty in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University this fall.

Personally, I have long touted that as media professionals, “we work in tech.” (Royal, 2014), recognizing that the roles and skills needed in the modern media environment needed to shift toward those being demonstrated in the tech industry: product management, design thinking, appreciation of interactive coding and data. However, as identified by Wang’s second-wave era of de-differentiation, media companies should be conceptualized as special kinds of tech companies, with different missions, values, ethics and revenue models, to reflect the responsibility to the public and democracy.

Design, Wonder, Post-Production and Critical Perspective
Several other contributions in the JMCQ special issue spoke to specific aspects that I found relevant in focusing media scholarship, curriculum and student preparation for professional practice. 

Krishnan Vasudevan’s article “Design of Communication: Two Contexts for Understanding How Design Shapes Digital Media” introduces two ways to understand how design informs journalism: frictionless design, in which media companies design interfaces to attract and keep users; and design of journalism, in creating personalized news products with journalistic values in mind. He takes a holistic view of digital interfaces, incorporating “color, gestalt and metaphor” (Vasudevan, 2020) in creating interactive experiences and identifies the role of user-centered and human-centered design techniques. His recognition of journalism framed within various “products” and how these products are designed with user needs in mind is consistent with recent positions on how product mind-set is infiltrating the mission and processes of media organizations (Royal, 2017; Royal et al., 2020). Vasudevan also identifies the shift from products made for audiences to those made for users. 

In Tamara Witschge and Mark Deuze’s article “From Suspicion to Wonder in Journalism and Communication Research,” the authors argue for “adopting a lens of wonder” to better understanding the digital environment, as opposed to a position of skepticism. “Here, we have suggested that with wonder, rather than suspicion, we gain more access to the rich diversity of experiences and practices already present in the field.” (ref)

Witschge and Deuze focus on understanding how journalism is “becoming,” but also make space for “becoming with” or how we, as researchers, are present in the process of transformation (Witschge & Deuze, 2020). They more broadly look at the ways in which journalists are described and the range of stories that can inform our understanding of their roles and positions, recommending moving away from the narrow classification systems that have been privileged in media scholarship.

The dominant tools of researching and telling stories in journalism studies are too restricted to do justice to the diversity of voices present in the field—as local, community, alternative, grassroots, minority, and independent media organizations tend to be all too often ignored in both journalism studies and education (Witschge & Deuze, 2020).

In “Post-Publication Gatekeeping: The Interplay of Publics, Platforms, Paraphernalia and Practice in the Circulation of News,” Alfred Hermida studies how issues rise to prominence and gain attention online in a post-production context. The four elements he describes – public (actions of individuals), platforms (institutional spaces for news), paraphernalia (objects of media consumption) and practice (routines, activities and events) – provide a framework for breaking down the influence of objects throughout the life of a news artifact (Hermida, 2020). 

C.W. Anderson’s contribution “Practice, Interpretation, and Meaning in Today’s Digital Media Ecosystem” addresses the “practice turn” of media research and calls for re-centering practice research beyond description to a more evaluative and critical perspective. 

"The simultaneous presence and absence of 'practice' within so much media and journalism studies research, I want to argue, has left the field ill-prepared to deal with methodical, political, and epistemological challenges, particularly those stemming from the growth of anti-liberal political sentiments, the rise of big-data social science, and the increasing importance of the visual objects within political communication" (Anderson, 2020).

Calling on the work of media scholar James W. Carey, Anderson reminds us that “communication is as much about interpretation, texts and meaning as it is about production, technology, audiences, agency, and social structure” (Anderson, 2020). He references other media scholars to make the case for a broad-based, cultural approach to media study.

"I draw the work of a variety of scholars as diverse as Michael Lynch, Bruno Latour, Jeffrey Alexander, and Alexander Hennion to make the argument that future studies of the media need to focus as much on cultural rituals as they do situated practices, along with the very artifacts of media texts themselves and the mediums these texts are embedded in" (Anderson, 2020).
Anderson concludes that his goal is not in swapping paradigms. His hope is “to draw attention to the ways that much of the most exciting research on digital journalism and news has adopted a particular point of view with regard to its understanding of the relationship of meaning to media content—one in which meanings come from practices” (Anderson, 2020).

Moving Forward
These are just a sample of the ten articles in this special issue and a bit of their insights, but represent what I found to be most relevant to my work and interests in digital media. They introduce a breadth of approaches that demonstrate the complexity and comprehensiveness of our current scholarly environment as it grapples with the effects of digital media. From describing product and design approaches to recognizing the post-production life of artifacts to tracking the relationship of news media and the technology industry, we gain an appreciation that media research must adapt to the systems that it is studying and that transformation is overarching and holistic, not superficial nor simply incremental.

I am encouraged by the breadth, creativity and even whimsy of these pieces and am hopeful that their presence in the academic canon signifies new ways of learning, knowing, teaching and sharing. 

Anderson, C. (2020, June). Practice, Interpretation, and Meaning in Today’s Digital Media Ecosystem. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(2).

Broussard, M., Diakopoulos, N., Guzman, A., Abebe, R. Dupagne, M., Chuan, C. (2019, September). Artificial Intelligence and Journalism. Vol. 96(3), pp. 673-695.

Ha, L. (2020, March). Online Posting, Single-Blind Review, Open Access, and the Future of Refereed Journals. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol 97 (1), pp. 5-12. 

Hermida, A. (2020, June). Post-Publication Gatekeeping: The Interplay of Publics, Platforms, Paraphernalia and Practice in the Circulation of News. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(2).

Mellado, C., Georgiou, M., & Nah, S. (2020, June). Advancing Journalism and Communication Research: New Concepts, Theories, and Pathways. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(2), pp. 333–341. 

Royal, C. (2014, April 28). Are Journalism Schools Teaching Their Students the Right Skills?. Nieman Journalism Lab.

Royal, C. (2017, Spring). Managing Digital Products in a Newsroom Context. ISOJ Journal.

Royal, C., Bright, A., Pellizzaro, K., Belair-Gagnon, V., Holton, A., Vincent, S., Heider, D., Zielina, A., Kiesow, D. (2020). Product Management in Journalism and Academia. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(3).

Vasudevan, K. (2020, June). Design of Communication: Two Contexts for Understanding How Design Shapes Digital Media. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(2).

Wang, Q. (2020, June). Differentiation and De-differentiation: The Evolving Power Dynamics Between News Industry and Tech Industry. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(2). 

Witschge, T & Deuze, M. (2020, June). From Suspicion to Wonder in Journalism and Communication Research. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol. 97(2).

Zeffiro, A., Hildebrand, J. M., Frith, J., Hjorth, L., McGrane, C., Weiss, A. S., & Goggin, G. (2020. March). Locative-Media Ethics: A Call for Protocols to Guide Interactions of People, Place, and Technologies. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 97(1), 13-29.