Discoveries: Ananny and Thorson research modern news consumption

Editor's note: USC Annenberg doctoral student Mina Park blogs about the research and discoveries made by the school's faculty. This is the first post in the "Discoveries" series. By Mina Park 9475399262_83f170f0a2In the era of technology, news organizations have been trying to develop software to deliver the latest news online, and these different platforms have been changing people’s news consumption habits. Dr. Michael Ananny and Dr. Kjerstin Thorson are working on research about news and technology in order to understand this phenomenon. Dr. Ananny’s research mainly focuses on the very first process of combining news and technology: the design decisions for making technology for newsrooms. Basically, news technology reflects the designer’s idea about what public participation means, what the value of news is, what the public sphere should look like, or who gets to participate in conversation. The designer’s research looks at how online news systems are designed to let people engage, in order to understand how journalists who design technology for newsroom think about the public. People who are called ‘interstitial designers’ are designers who live partly in the world of software design and partly in the world of journalism. For example, they are making news as journalists, reporters, or editors and, at the same time, they are building news systems at the New York Times, Google news, Yahoo News, etc. as software engineers. As time goes on, their design decisions are becoming more important since the decisions change how people are being exposed to news and how people use the information. By interviewing interstitial designers, Annany is trying to understand the tools they use to create software. As part of understanding interstitial designers, his latest work focused on designers of mobile news reader apps, such as Flipboard, Fluent, Pulse, Zite, etc. He found designers had different ways of seeing what online news is than journalists had. For example, they mostly focus on organizing information when they design news reader apps. They want to present information in a way that is clear and readable, since there is so much information on the Internet and it is too much for people to sort through to find the information they need. Also, designers want to meet the demands of the readers. Since they want to serve their readers as customers, they want to highlight stories that readers are interested in. Journalists think, however, that who they are serving is the public, not an individual reader, and news organization should provide news about the world that it is important for the public to know.  Annany said he would like to be able to use these findings as evidence to show that designers and their organization’s priorities were not particularly in line with what journalists value. Based on the analysis, he expects that designers can make improved algorithms that reflect the values of journalists in their work. Ananny is also working to understand what it means to create a record of witnessing an event for journalists who are working with Google glass.  Some journalists try to represent what audience members would want to see if they were in the scene, while other journalists believe their job is to interpret and make sense of an event. He said one of the motivations in doing this type of research was to try to have public conversations about the ethics and the public value of brand new technologies at the same time they were becoming popular. Dr. Thorson, on the other hand, is working on outcomes of combining news and technology: the effects of new digital media. Her research mainly focuses on understanding how social media are changing the way that young people engage in politics and how political content travels across media platforms. Broadly speaking, politics has become an optional life style. For example, we see some young people who are inventing a new kind of activism such as starting their own NGO or posting about politics on Twitter. Other young people ignore political content and are not involved in any sort of political participation. Unfortunately, according to Dr. Thorson, people who are getting news online and participating in politics are not in the majority. How does it happen? How does one person consume so much political news content and another see none at all? In Thorson’s recent research, twenty young adults on Facebook who were not politically active were interviewed.  Many of them had no news and no political content on their Facebook page although at the time it was just weeks until the presidential election. Even though people in academia tend to think there is a quite a lot of news contents in online spaces, that is not the case. Professor Thorson tries to understand how we can understand social platforms as a place for politics. What she found is that Facebook is not a good place for political content because young people do not like to offend their family, friends, or coworkers by saying anything partisan. She also interviewed twenty young adults who were politically active and found that many of them were posting funny political contents because they did not want their ‘friends’ to think they were trying to push their opinions on them. On Twitter, on the other hand, young adults’ exposure to news content and politics is less accidental because they choose whom they want to follow. They do not follow people who post political comment if they do not want to see it. Thus, there is a lot of complexity with respect to social media platforms as social spaces.  Professor Thorson said she needed to understand this complexity including interpersonal relationships in order to understand the media effects. In another recent study, she tries to lay out some of the contingencies that affect media exposure. Since we get exposed to news articles through so many different routes, it is important to map out what kinds of people get exposed to what kinds of articles under what conditions. For example, I can see a story about Obama from the New York Times posted by the NYT because I follow them. I can also see the same story in my timeline because my friend posted it on Facebook.  Or, I can see the same story because I follow Obama.  Professor Thorson is trying to figure out different ways to map out these media contingencies by building an app on Facebook. Using the app, she conducted a survey including questions about knowledge, political participation, political conversation, etc. Also, she was able to collect information about whom respondents follow, what pages they follow, what news stories they liked, etc. from the Facebook data. By doing so, she is trying to discover the relationships between different outcomes (political participation, political conversation etc.) and media flow that people are embedded in.