Spotlight on Research
The impact of mythology and technology on how journalists gather information
Questions with Zvi Reich and Yigal Godler
One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and in the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.
In an era where journalists can do much of their research on the Internet, how much on-the-ground “shoe-leather” reporting still occurs?
Zvi Reich, associate professor in the department for communication studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, along with Yigal Godler, assistant professor at the Department of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), sought to answer this question by studying journalists’ own perceptions of their work.
Using the term “legwork” for what has historically been called “shoe-leather” reporting, Reich and Godler determined in interviews with journalists that the tactic is used less than half of the time.
While legwork may not always be used to acquire information for news items, Reich and Godler found that the use of the evidence-gathering technique may be related to how journalists view each story, the risk for error, and factors such as perceived credibility and cross-verification. Reich and Godler performed the study in Israel, and say the country’s small geographic size suggests the results are likely transferable.
1. How did you become interested in this topic and research?
The genesis of our interest in the topic is twofold. Like many other scholars of journalism, we are interested in the correspondence between journalists’ mythology about their work and how they actually work. There is a lot of mythology about the role of shoe-leather reporting in journalism, which is reflected in Hollywood with the image of the legendary reporter who goes into the field and finds out important things.
More recently, there is a lot of discussion in journalism studies circles about how technology changes traditional journalistic practices with legwork being one major set of these practices. Technology is sometimes said to make reporting legwork unnecessary because you can research on the internet and because journalists now have access to images and footage that are spontaneously collected by people at a scene using their smartphones without the need for journalists to be present.
We wanted to see if these mythologies and theories were justified, so we ran a very detailed study of how journalists think about legwork and of the extent to which they actually perform it. We also have a deeper intellectual and philosophical interest in legwork as a direct experience of events and phenomena, because for a long time it’s been regarded as the highest grade of certainty among journalists and media scholars.
2. What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your report?
There have been two kinds of research. First, detailed studies of news practices, on the basis of face-to-face reconstruction interviews designed to recreate journalists’ work processes. There have been three rounds of this study so far over different intervals, so there is longitudinal perspective about the degree of change in journalistic practices in the digital age.
Second, we have conducted some exploratory research into the journalistic process of knowledge acquisition, as well as some research into journalists’ conceptions of knowledge. And this is the basis for our more abstract and philosophical interest in journalists’ standards of evidence.
3. What did you learn?
Clearly, the mythology of legwork as a predominant tool of news creation has little to rest on.
Legwork appears in less than half of the items in a random sample across all major Israeli media that we have studied. Nonetheless, most journalists do regard legwork as a primary tool of knowledge acquisition and evidence collection. Legwork is not there merely because editors feel that journalists have to be at the scene to satisfy some arbitrary format requirements. This does happen, but it does not seem to be the dominant trend.
Journalists have a view of direct experience that is similar to the traditional philosophical view, a knowledge-centered view, but legwork is used sparingly.
Only when journalists are really suspicious about what their sources are telling them and don’t have any alternatives to attending the scene do they then leave the desk.
This ties into a broader philosophical and theoretical argument about shifting evidential standards under changing conditions of the risk for error. It appears that the worse the consequences that reporters determine being mistaken to be, the likelier they are to raise the standard of evidence before gaining confidence in their prospective reports.
4. What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?
Methodologically, we are aware that much of our previous research had somewhat of a quantitative bias though it wasn’t exclusively quantitative. We could detect some interesting correlations between practices and circumstances, or sources and technologies; however, much of journalists’ thinking remained hidden from us. That’s why the upcoming round of the face-to-face reconstruction interviews study is much more reliant on qualitative questions that ask journalists to explain their reasoning behind individual news reports. The same is true of our other ongoing work.
Conceptually, we are working on developing theoretical connections between journalists’ concepts of knowledge and practices.
Even when journalists act automatically or without much reflection, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are basing themselves on some tacit conceptions of what knowledge is, what truth is and what satisfactory evidence is.
Our future empirical research will try to flesh out these practice-guiding conceptions of knowledge, truth and evidence, which we think is particularly significant in this age of post-truth, post-factual politics, fake news and alternative facts when journalists’ lack of reflexivity is exploited in order to discredit the very foundations of their enterprise.
Zvi Reich is a former journalist and has served as a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He has authored and co-authored four books and serves as a board member of the Israeli Press Council. The study, titled “Being There? The Role of Journalistic Legwork Across New and Traditional Media” can be found here.
Yigal Godler is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and a former post-doctoral fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Tel-Aviv University (Israel). He earned his doctoral degree from the Department of Communication Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva (Israel). Godler has previously co-authored a book about journalistic skepticism (with Prof. Zvi Reich) and published in international academic periodicals, including Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Journalism Studies, Critical Sociology and Journalism Practice.