Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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4 November 2012
Filed under:Academia,journalism,research,teaching at1:13 pm

Habermas’ public sphere is vital for journalism undergrad students to understand (if only to critique) but in looking around for source texts I am disappointed to find not only is H himself rather hard to follow (obviously when translated into English) but the works I have been given in the past to summarise and discuss him (Calhoun 1992; Habermas 1974; Peters 1993) are themselves (in my view) rather too sophisticated to give to undergraduates.

A few months ago there was a discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers email list about good texts which mentioned quite a few – if you are interested you might want to go fish in those suggestions but my skim of some of the discussion led me to think they were also too sophisticated for my students.

Here are a few suggestions of mine:

There’s a good intro to the concept with references in (Franklin, 2005) but it’s only 550 words long.

It led me on to (Manning, 2001) which has a very good first chapter touching on the public sphere and critiques of it – the only problem with this is that it’s not designed as a ‘stand-alone’ argument – it’s in the middle of a longer text. Also, it isn’t freely available online. Which led me  on to a source that you may not know (Thornton, 2001). As a Masters student she put her thesis “Does the Internet Create Democracy?” up online in a sophisticated easy to navigate form and she was later published in Ecquid Novi and put the text of that up online too. It is a clear, well-referenced discussion of the public sphere with some clearly-written critiques and good early discussion of the limitations and potentials of using the internet as a means to revitalise the public sphere. Alas, she did not continue along an academic career path and she died young in 2010. I hope this post encourages other scholars to use her work to teach with.

I am still ‘in the market’ for other suggestions of good intro-level texts about journalism, the public sphere, and critiques of Habermas’ ideas, so please comment if you have ideas – preferably texts that are open access…


Calhoun, C. (1992). Introduction. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 1-48). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Franklin, B., Hamer, M., & Hanna, M. (2005). Key concepts in journalism. London: SAGE.

Habermas, J. (1974). The public sphere: an encyclopaedia article. New German Critique, 1(3), pp. 49-55.

Manning, P. (2001). News and news sources : a critical introduction. London: Sage.

Peters, J. D. (1993). Distrust of Representation: Habermas on the Public Sphere. Media, Culture & Society, 15(4), 541 – 572.

Thornton, A. L. (2001). Does the internet create democracy? Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 22(2), 126-147. Retrieved from http://www.zipworld.com.au/~athornto/

5 October 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media at7:39 pm

When I joined New Scientist in 1995 as Net Editor (and ever since) I wondered why it largely covers the natural sciences not the social sciences. I assumed this was something to do with the ongoing intellectual and ideological struggle between ‘hard’ sciences and ‘soft’ sciences and the related divide between qualitative and quantitative research. Imagine my surprise when thanks to the 3rd October podcast of Thinking Allowed, I discovered that the same people who launched New Scientist had launched New Society as well (50 years ago yesterday), explicitly as a social scientific publication.

I just remember New Society – it was merged with the New Statesman in 1988, a year after I arrived here in the UK (more detailed memories can be found on the podcast and in this recollection in the THES). Wouldn’t it be nice if on the anniversary of New Society’s birth New Scientist might be inspired to broaden its remit and introduce a New Society section? After all there’s no reason to keep off New Society’s patch now…

24 June 2012
Filed under:Current Affairs (UK),journalism at2:14 pm

I was listening to a BBC podcast – Newspod for 22 June which covered as its lead story Ed Milliband’s recent speech about immigration. Listen to how it was introduced by Andrew Peach – I’ve highlighted the key words. “It’s rare for politicians to admit they’ve got it wrong but today the Labour leader Ed Milliband, himself the son of immigrants, has done precisely that. He’s made a speech in which he acknowledges that millions of people have legitimate concerns and more needs to be done to address them.” The BBC is of course entitled to say that Labour’s immigration policy compared to that of the conservatives cost them votes but in this introduction using those words Peach is clearly stating that that policy was wrong and that anti-immigrant sentiment is legitimate and must be addressed. In my view this is a clear (if inadvertent) breach of the BBC’s duty of impartiality and provides a good example of how careful journalists must be in choosing their words (assuming no ill intent). Here’s the link if you wish to make a complaint to the BBC.

22 June 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media,research at12:55 pm

I’m writing a book chapter at the moment about the use of “user generated content” by journalists from the traditional media and to justify why I concentrate on the traditional media I thought I’d dig up a statistic or two about how dependent the public remains on traditional media for its news. I went looking for an update of Robert W. McChesney’s “The Titanic Sails On: Why the Internet won’t sink the media giants” written in 2000 and found his 2011 updated book The Death and Life of American Journalism. On page 17 I found this striking statement, “Harvard’s Alex S Jones estimates that 85% of all professionally reported news originates with daily newspapers and that he has seen credible sources place that figure closer to 95%”. Thinking this sounded like an interesting study I looked up the source and found Alex Jones’ book Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. On page 4 he says, “my own estimate is that 85% of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95%” (emphases mine). In other words either Jones has failed to cite his own research or (more probably) McChesney is reporting second hand and third hand guesswork.

This kind of thing really annoys me particularly when it takes me several minutes to get to the bottom of what turns out to be nothing more than a guess, and particularly when I know that there are a number of studies that discuss the sources of news with a greater deal of rigour. For example, there is How News Happens which argues that in Baltimore in 2009 95% of original news stories came from traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers (although its methodology has come under fire), or Paterson’s fascinating 2007 study showing that the leading online news sources (and to a lesser extent newspapers) are heavily dependent on news agency copy.

23 August 2011

It is certain that not enough children are reading books if by that you mean that children aren’t reading as many books as adults and particularly their parents would like but a BBC report of a new National Literacy Trust survey rather exaggerates and distorts the evidence.

The main problem is that it is a survey of 8-17 year olds but the statistics quoted aren’t broken down by age. Naturally eight year olds (who may not even know how to read adequately) are going to be significantly behind and will make the figures look worse. Also, the headline for the story given on the BBC News front page is “Pupils ‘prefer emails to books'” – a quotation that appears nowhere in the report. In the news piece and executive summary of the report it says “text messages, magazines, emails and websites were the top leisure reading choices of young people” which implies that’s what they like to read most but in fact the survey just shows that it’s what they read most often.

Lastly, I noted that the journalist said, “more girls admit they read text messages, magazines, emails, fiction, song lyrics and social networking message boards and poems than boys” – why “admit”?!

22 August 2011
Filed under:Current Affairs (World),journalism at10:42 am

The pictures that have been circulating for several months of the DIY weapons put together by Libyan rebels tell a great story about the plucky underdog but when I read “@tim_libert: these are the DIY weapons that won Libyan civil war, courtesy of The Atlantic” I was a little stunned. As he noted himself a few minutes later, “Libya also had a LOT of western air support”. Indeed. And it is worth noting that that air support is still presented, officially at least, as being merely “enforcing a UN resolution to protect civilians“. Surely after 7,400 sorties that’s a rather inadequate figleaf for NATO action by now?

This is not to say that I have any way of judging how things really played out in Libya, that the Libyan rebels were not valiant fighters or that NATO is unjustified in intervening as it did – it’s just an observation that as with any war press coverage is inevitably subject to spin.

6 July 2011

It’ll be interesting to see whether the great British public falls in love with this in the same way that Americans seem to have done with the HuffPo on its home turf. I suspect that since we already have a vibrant “opinion sphere” in our National press and (perhaps as a result?) the blogosphere here is rather less influential, it may struggle. I would have hoped that they could produce and highlight a few exciting exclusives for their first day but the page I saw this morning was reliant on the Press Association for several of the top stories, and aesthetically I found the layout much too garish and busy. That said, Tom Zeller’s feature piece on air quality in London was admirably thorough, the article about how you can print your own newspaper was interesting, and the story about the council who paid £100,000 to help schoolchildren get to McDonald’s was entertainingly quirky.

It’s early days–I look forward to seeing what the site comes up with and how its competitors react.

22 June 2011
Filed under:Interesting facts,journalism at5:37 pm

While doing  a little research into the state of the journalism industry globally (with a little help from “The Changing Business of Journalism and its Implications for Democracy“), I came across the following striking figures:

Between 2004 and 2008 newspaper circulation increased 16.4% in South America, 16.1% in Asia, and 14.2% in Africa according to a report by the World Association of Newspapers. afaqs!, an Indian media, advertising and marketing organisation, said print media readership in India rose from 232 million in 2000 to 302 million in 2007. The 2010 China Media Industry Report estimated the total value of the country’s media industries in 2009 was 490bn yuan (£47bn), up from 211bn in 2004.

Of course journalism faces well-publicised challenges from the internet and from the greying of its consumers in the developed world but across much of the developing world burgeoning middle classes, democratisation in many countries and an array of new communication technologies are contributing to major growth in the size of media industries. Not all of this by any means will get fed back into the kind of journalism publics need around the world but some at least should…

8 October 2010

Storyful is a news agency based on an interesting idea that a lot of journalism scholars are talking up – journalists as curators, bringing together and highlighting the best news from social media. It is still in beta, so it’s perhaps premature to criticize the product but when I registered and went to take a look at the first story which interested me it had some flaws which indicate some of the potential problems with this kind of service.

Having recently visited Cambodia, the story on Cambodian child prostitution caught my eye. So what do I get? A prominent photo and trailer from a documentary on the subject which is (as far as I can tell) a product of the mainstream media. An introductory paragraph of information and claims, some of them quite controversial but without sourcing of any kind. A tweet from a Chicago-based comedian pointing to a related story – from the mainstream media. “Some informed opinion on the Cambodian sex industry” is two comments selected out of 84 youtube comments found on a two year old Al Jazeera news item. And lastly there are links to and excerpts from the Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation and Human Rights Watch.

Leaving aside problems of design and implementation (which can be fixed) this suggests two linked problems. First, that because of digital divide and linguistic difficulties, it can be hard to find social media sources for news from outside the industrialized world and that as a result a lot of what one can find eventually links back to the work of (more or less) mainstream journalists rather than citizen journalists. Also see Gonzalez-Bailon (2009) on how the mainstream news organizations and those they link to get most online buzz and Paterson (2007) on how the online news environment is still dominated by output from two major news agencies.

This is not in any way to denigrate the work of those behind storyful and other projects – it’s just to point out that social media does not (yet?) provide would-be news providers easy-to-process rich seams of raw news material unless such material is on subjects that appeal to social media users (see Thelwall 2010) and in countries where social media use is widespread. What’s needed first is more citizen journalistic capacity building in developing countries by organizations like the World Service Trust, OneWorld and Global Voices and more and cheaper internet there (eg you can’t get decent citizen journalism out of the Central African Republic if broadband costs 40 times the average salary there).

PS UK readers may be interested that there is an (as far as I know unrelated) BBC Three programme about sex trafficking in Cambodia coming up next Thursday at 21:00.

24 September 2010
Filed under:Academia,journalism at9:27 am

An interesting article in the latest issue of Media, Culture and Society by Andrew Mullen suggests academics have systematically under-examined the Propaganda Model (sorry the article is behind a paywall). I have tended to think Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (PM) is one of the better known and more discussed recent theories, perhaps because of the critical media scholars I tend to hang out with or perhaps because at least the outlines of it are reasonably well known among the general public (at least those who are interested in the media). It seems however that in a sample taken from ten media and communication journals between 1988 and 2007 only 2.6% of the total “attended to” the PM model and according to Mullen most did little more than cite it. Similarly 43% of media and communication textbooks he surveyed didn’t mention the PM, and 22% only discussed it briefly.

Whatever you think of the PM it is reputable enough to at least be worth engaging for the benefit of students who will have encountered it, and if as scholars assert its tenets need updating and would need to be applied differently in different national contexts more work could usefully be done to try to gather the empirical evidence necessary to see whether and to what extent it remains applicable in different countries and since the advent of the internet.

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