The first step

The first stage of my phd research project concerns the content analysis of social news sites. I use the term “social news site” referring to websites that act as aggregators or filters of content on the internet, built around the idea that the community of users submits various pieces, and selects – through voting – the ones that are the most worthy of attention. (Examples include Digg and Newsvine.)

There are two basic entry points to examine the relations between the public sphere and social news sites. First, social news sites seem interesting because they accommodate public discussion – and, by the nature of this discussion (ie. it takes place in writing, and it creates its own archives (=is documentated instantly)), it is technically feasible to retrieve and analyze this discussion. What is it about, is it reasoned, critical argumentation, or just shouting abuse at one another? How do participants cope with the fact that they argue with total strangers, hiding behind screen names? (Does this anonymity actually help the conversation?) I plan to study this problem in the second part of the research project.

Second, social news sites are peculiar because they also provide the material about which discussion takes place (at least on the surface); notably, the articles themselves. Social news sites are, well, news sites (even if they only process previously released material). In this sense, they are part of the media. The question here is how they compare to organs of the established, mainstream media.

The point is this: the editorial community of social news sites is a loose, egalitarian, supposedly meritocratic community, as opposed to the small, profit-oriented and hierarchy-based editorial staff of a traditional media organ. The question is, whether this helps the case of a more democratic public sphere – especially taking into consideration all the other differences between these two types of editorial communities; most importantly, that one actually has the resources and ability to produce news content, while the other can (by and large) only pick and mix previously published pieces.

Are social news sites truly “parasitic” on the mainstream quality media, as Habermas said? Are they successful in providing a broader, multi-faceted, more balanced representation of issues? Do they strengthen civic journalism? How does the narrative of social news sites compare to that of the established media?

These are the question I’m trying to answer in the first phase of the research. Here’s how I’m going about it: I’m analyzing the contents of selected social news sites, focusing on the US presidential election campaign as a case study.

…which might of course give rise to a string of questions, most prominently – why?

I decided to focus on the (pre-)election campaign because they embody what is undoubtedly one of the most important events of our little planet – at least as far as the practice of democracy is concerned. The elections take place in the US – a country with an 80% internet penetration rate (online attention and discussion is guaranteed). In addition, the campaign includes a fixed set of events (fixed in the sense that their taking place may not be affected by what happens in the media): for example, whatever the media in general or a given newspaper in particular thinks, there will be Democratic primaries held in Pennsylvania on April 22. In fact, that’s the point: certain events in the campaign are predictable and fixed – thus the way these events are covered in various media organs can be compared.

In the content analysis of the selected social news sites – Digg, Reddit, Propeller and Newsvine – I’m asking four questions from the editorial communities.

1.) Is the election campaign important – newsworthy – at all?

2.) How does the narrative offered by social news sites compare to that of the established media? Do social news sites contribute to the agenda-building of their mainstream counterparts? , and

3.) what kind of sources do social news sites use? (It is expected that the large number and variety of sources is, if not a pre-requisite, an important contributor to the quality of social news sites – because the more sources, the more alternative views / issues can be presented.)

4.) Finally, in preparation to the second stage of the research, I also plan to ask certain questions related to the technical practicalities of the sites, such as to their speed (how much time does it take for an article to reach the front page) and the number of votes needed for a prime spot.

(Importantly, the first stage of research does not include research of framing – dealing with how particular issued are represented. There is no measurement of bias or objectivity here – this is the task of the forthcoming phases of the research project.)

I try to answer these questions above through carry out agenda setting analysis on the first and second level, the analysis of sources, and content analysis with reference to the “technical details” of the posted articles, such as the speed with which they arrived at the front page, the number of votes they received, etc.

(First level agenda setting analysis concerns what issues and topics are represented in a particular media organ. In this case, such analysis concerns both the topic of the elections in general (how important this is in the newswhole?), and sub-topics within (what particular themes set the agenda of the campaign itself?). In second-level agenda setting analysis, the unit of analysis is particular attributes of an issue; i.e. the question is which characteristics of an issue are emphasized in talking about them. (For example, when writing about a candidate, is it his / her personal qualities that the article focuses on, or his campaign program – or something else?)

However, in my understanding the second-level agenda setting analysis does not equal framing, because framing involves the analysis of the attributes of presentation too; from what kind of pictures were used as illustration, through the perceived bias of the author, to the question of what claims are implied or hinted at in the article.)

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