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The rise of digital media and social media changes not only the way news is consumed, but also the way it is created. For her PhD, VUB scientist Iris Steenhout researched the evolution of crime reporting in the news articles, opinion pieces and reader comments of the Guardian’s website (www.theguardian.co.uk). She notes that citizen journalism is becoming increasingly important and that a variety of opinions and discourses creep into the reporting.
Steenhout analysed more than 39,000 online news articles and opinion pieces and more than 1.1 million reader comments on the Guardian website between 2011 and 2016. She found that the Guardian has adapted to modern times by actively mobilising its audience in a process of co-creation of news.
As a result, users have an increasingly important role in reporting. Through their comments and opinions, they often set the discourse around crime topics, which is then reflected in the newspaper’s coverage. Readers also often underpin comments with scientific sources, reports from official bodies and references to other articles. This reduces the influence of the media organisation in deciding for itself which news and which views are published. Journalists are also no longer recognised as the ‘crime defining elite’. Much more than before, the media organisation is driven by its external environment as the boundary between traditional news produced by journalists and other contributions by non-journalists on the website becomes increasingly blurred.
“Reporting is not simply accepted, but critically evaluated. Within this evolution, news should be seen much more as ‘giving an interpretation’ instead of objectively reporting facts. This also means the claim of these media organisations to the objective truth further fades away. With the method I developed for the analysis at the Guardian, it is possible to see whether these conclusions are a trend in other media,” says Steenhout.
A different view on the news
Steenhout also found that citizen journalists judge more quickly and question the functioning of the police and the legal system more often. People are dismissed more quickly as criminals. The tone of voice of the news changes as a result. The Guardian, for example, is traditionally left wing, but more right-wing ideologies can now enter the discussion via comments or opinion pieces. The variation is mainly present in reader comments – for example, how migrants should be portrayed or whether those who rioted in London in 2011 should be considered demonstrators or criminals.
Despite the increased polarisation, Steenhout observes that the extra voices in reporting also offer new perspectives, and as a result alternative visions are also addressed. “Just about the most important message of my work, and with this I agree with [German sociologist Niklas] Luhmann, is that society is communication and nothing but communication,” she says. “What is not communicated is irrelevant to society. In that sense, mass media has an immense impact because they are able to communicate on a large scale.”
And that shows the limits of traditional media organisations as we know them, she adds. “Of course, an organisation like the Guardian can still choose what it publishes as news and can help determine what we think about. However, these messages have a kind of semantic power that allows readers of different ideologies to interpret it differently and, in turn, to communicate about it.”