The Whitespace Press: Designing Meaningful Absences into Networked News (from Remaking the News)

The following is an excerpt from an essay appearing in Pablo J. Boczkowski’s and C. W. Anderson’s new collected volume, “Remaking the News: Essays on the Future of Journalism Scholarship in the Digital Age”  from the MIT Press.

The press’s democratic challenge is to create not only speech, but structures for listening. If “listening is to be understood as a political rather than a private phenomenon, then it must somehow appear in the world” (Bickford 1996, 153). How might the press enact its political mission by helping listening appear—by creating, making visible, and valuing the absences that accompany listening? Since silence and whitespace are rarely cultivated in journalism, it is worth tracing how other disciplines understand and create meaningful absence. How might we understand their whitespaces as inspiration for an institutional press that values a self-governing public’s right to hear?

Sources of Absence in the Networked Press

For the contemporary, networked press to be a listening institution, it must carve out silences with public value amid the forces governing online publishing. News now emerges not from news organizations alone but from a hybrid system of “technologies, genres, norms, behaviors, and organizational forms” (Chadwick 2013, 4) that, taken together, define a field of forces (Benson and Neveu 2005) within which human and non-human actors alike (Anderson and De Maeyer 2015; Boczkowski 2014) vie for the power to access information, create new knowledge, govern attention, and monetize audiences.

I highlight five sources of absence in the networked press: professional norms, media avoidance, invisible audiences, organizational openings, and infrastructural holes. While not an exhaustive typology to be sure, my aim is to sketch sites of absence in the networked press, to illustrate the origins, complexities, and opportunities of networked, journalistic whitespace.

Professional Norms

Many networked journalists engage in a “discipline of verification” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2014, 98)—but such discipline creates absences that must compete with unceasing social media. Even in the context of high-profile breaking news, some news organizations stay silent. For example, immediately after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the New York Times chose not to follow other news organizations in reporting “that an arrest had been made or that a suspect was in custody” (Sullivan 2013). Breaking News (2013) waited until at least two other news organizations confirmed information before it repeated specifics; WNYC’s Brian Lehrer turned into a kind of meta-reporter creating and filling silence as he talked about what he would not report (On The Media 2013); and the European Journalism Center used the bombing coverage as a case study in how journalists and social media users alike should resist interpreting police scanner feeds or social media videos during crisis situations (Silverman 2014). Coverage of the bombing served as a kind of master class in journalistic self-restraint with news organizations that initially stayed quiet ultimately emerging as the most mature and reliable sources. Their lack of publishing was calculated caution—professional restraint amid noisy networks that were quick to broadcast rumor and ridicule silence (Ananny 2013a).

In contrast, during the Arab Spring uprisings, NPR’s Andy Carvin (2013) openly shared information he could not verify, enlisting his followers as a verification network and calculating that the harms of staying silent outweighed the risks of circulating false information (Hermida, Lewis, and Zamith 2014). For Carvin, silence and caution lost out to transparency, speed, and trust of his network. Indeed, each new crisis seems to reveal new dynamics between professional journalists and social media (Brandtzaeg, Lüders, Spangenberg, Rath-Wiggins, and Følstad 2015) with individual reporters figuring out whether they have the time and professional standing required to endure the silences that come with verification. Silence seems to be a privilege and luxury available only to reporters who can resist their organizations’ time pressures (Reich and Godler 2014) or who are part of an emerging “slow news” movement (Le Masurier 2014) that rewards tempered publishing. Finally, patterns seem to be emerging for deciding when news is “over.” Few online stories are updated two hours after their publication (Saltzis 2012) and fewer still indicate that reporting continues—for example, KPCC appends some of its online stories with the phrase “this story will be updated.” And the New York Times closes comment threads after a “discussion has run its course and there is nothing substantial to gain from having more comments on the article” (Sullivan 2012).

Silences are fertile ground for understanding journalist–audience relationships since the significances of such absences are unclear. They may represent: careful, unseen reporting by those privileged enough to slow time and resist social media; the lack of a trusted network capable of developing or verifying a story; a story’s conclusion or shift to other topics; or the expectation that more information is coming.

Media Avoidance

Writing for the Guardian, Jesse Armstrong (2015) ended a month-long, self-imposed ban on news consumption observing that “what you read and watch is just a reflection of what you’re interested in and who you are, and that’s quite difficult to escape.” Indeed, researchers are increasingly studying the purposeful non-use and avoidance of media and media technologies. Many television watchers actively avoid the news, agreeing with statements like “there is so much on TV that I seldom watch news” and “there is always a program that interests me more than the news” (Ksiazek, Malthouse, and Webster 2010). Such news avoidance is less common among Internet users but still prevalent among those interested in entertainment news, who tend to avoid current affairs reporting (Trilling and Schoenbach 2013). This finding agrees with the observation that whereas “journalists exhibit a strong preference for public-affairs news in the articles they consider most newsworthy, consumers lean toward non-public-affairs subjects in the stories they click most often” (Boczkowski and Mitchelstein 2013, 16).

There are similar patterns in the non-use of networked technologies—the tools and platforms that increasingly deliver news. Some people never adopt digital technologies (Oudshoorn and Pinch 2003; Selwyn 2003) or social media (Hargittai 2007) in the first place; others intentionally and conspicuously refuse them (Portwood-Stacer 2012); and others are caught in cycles of technological fasting, departure, and return (Brubaker, Ananny, and Crawford 2014; Lee and Katz 2014). People disconnect from technologies for a variety of reasons—for example, concerns about privacy, seeing social media as banal, fighting Internet addictions, trying to regain productivity (Baumer et al. 2013)—but the patterns reveal that people see “carving out quiet” (Plaut 2015, np) as an essential part of communication that entails avoiding media technologies.

Such non-use is a new challenge for news organizations. They may fail to reach audiences—and thus fail to ensure a public right to hear—not because of what they produce, but because the platforms they use to circulate news are caught up in complex patterns of avoidance, non-use, refusal, departure, and return.

Though Armstrong quickly returned to his regular news routines because his career depended on following the news, others avoid media and media technologies because disconnection is crucial to their identities. Some people cultivate “rational ignorance” (Downs 1957)—why educate yourself about politics if your vote is only one of many?—and an emerging field of agnotology finds that people resist knowledge in a variety of ways: a “native state” of unknowing (a blank slate), a “lost realm” of knowing (benign disinterest in correcting acknowledged ignorance), or a “deliberately engineered and strategic ploy” to stay ignorant (active resistance to learning) (Proctor 2008, 3). Instead of seeing a lack of knowledge or non-use as careless disengagement or a failure to reach an audience—Spanish researchers recently developed a system to push BuzzFeed content to mobile phone users when it detected that users were “bored” (Owen 2015)—the press might engage and actually support the various reasons people resist media and media technologies precisely because part of its mission is to help ensure the public right to hear that, sometimes, needs silence. Non-use, avoidance, and seeming nonparticipation may be evidence of cultivated ignorance or a press that is losing readers or revenue—but it may also be evidence of people creating space to listen and reflect upon what they have already received.

Invisible Audiences

Absences may also come in the form of audiences who exist but never appear. Most social media users leave few obvious traces (Hampton, Goulet, Marlow, and Rainie 2012) and are often still pejoratively referred to as “lurkers” (Nonnecke and Preece 2000) with secretive or asocial intentions. However, conceptualized instead as “listeners” who encourage “others to make public contributions” (Crawford 2009, 527), they are the imagined others who make social media platforms spaces for dialogue versus monologue. Though they rarely appear anywhere but in database logs, without them the Internet—and networked news—lacks the relationships that discourse requires. In the rare moments, when a media event is so captivating that it renders social media’s vocal minority silent, we get a glimpse of what active receptive looks like—for example, Twitter fell largely silent during the shootouts that decided the 2014 Brazil vs. Chile World Cup match as those who usually tweet the most stopped to watch (Rios 2014).

Audiences may also be invisible because technological, social, and legal conditions fail to surface them. For example, Twitter news audiences are transient and fragmented in time (Lehmann, Castillo, Lalmas, and Zuckerman 2013); they exist briefly and are virtually impossible for news organizations to reconvene, update, or correct as a unified whole (unlike broadcast evening news or the morning newspaper). Online audiences may also seem much larger than they actually are: people routinely self-report consuming more news than they actually do (Prior 2009) and some issue-specific audiences dissolve into untraceable venues if they think the State is surveilling their online opinions or presence (Hampton et al. 2014; Rainie and Madden 2015). Finally, some news audiences run the risk of being more visible than others: in some jurisdictions, the identities of those who comment on online news stories are protected by journalistic shield laws while other jurisdictions guarantee no such anonymity (Bayard 2009).

These absences—listening, fragmenting, dissolving, dispersing, lying, relocating, anonymizing—show audiences navigating, and being buffeted by, political, social, technological, and legal forces that make them more or less visible—forces that might be supported or resisted by a networked press focused on ensuring a public right to hear.

Organizational Openings

Sometimes, online news organizations purposefully create absences and disconnect in order to achieve their missions. Subscription-based paywalls (Pickard and Williams 2014) sequester content in spaces that not all audiences can see but, sometimes, news organizations selectively breach these walls to strategically manipulate the scarcity that paywalls create (Ananny & Bighash 2016). For example, the New York Times now limits nonsubscribers to 10 (down from 20) articles per month on nytimes.com—other stories are effectively invisible beyond that limit—except if readers encounter articles through unspecified “search engines, blogs, and social media” (articles are accessible through such channels even if users have reached the monthly limit) (New York Times 2015) or are at Starbucks (allowing for 15 free articles per day) (Soper 2013) or if an event like Hurricane Sandy or Election Day warrants a temporarily dropped paywall and unrestricted reading (Beaujon and Moos 2013). The strategies of scarcity driving paywall designs reveal a networked press experimenting with how and why to sometimes make its stories inaccessible to audiences.

News organizations also control the visibility of their work through technological infrastructures. The New York Times, the Guardian, and NPR all use Application Programming Interfaces—software toolkits that selectively let outsiders access newsroom content through a system of licenses and keys—to both reveal and conceal data (Ananny 2013b). These strategic openings and closures leave clues about which information news organizations will share, and which is to stay hidden from public view. The Guardian’s “Open Newslist” was one of the boldest experiments in revealing not just data but practices. It briefly used a publicly accessible Google document to show reporters’ topics, stories, and sources while they were working, before publication (Roberts 2011)—but the project is now largely defunct with such background work once again concealed. The New York Times’s “Times Insider” (2015) similarly offers behind-the-scenes accounts of how and why news is produced—but only to premier subscribers.

Finally, akin to the Vaca Valley Star’s use of whitespace to protest prison censorship, several online news organizations including Wired.com blacked out their websites to protest against the proposed 2012 SOPA/PIPA legislation (Wortham 2012). They simulated their complete absence to show what they thought the Internet would look like if the legislation passed.

From strategically designed paywalls to APIs, premier subscriptions, and protest blackouts, news organizations use absences to achieve organizational missions. Such absence can become a powerful way to understand how and why news organizations create whitespace that orients readers, generates revenue, and regulates access.

Infrastructural Holes

Other whitespaces result not from strategic, organizational intention, but from a confluence of intertwined and largely hidden forces that add up to absence. A particularly powerful type of silence emerges when news encounters social media personalization. Computational rules of platform algorithms can systematically include and exclude people or ideas (Gillespie 2014) that news organizations might want their audiences to consider—but they are effectively invisible because news algorithms fail to surface them (Ananny and Crawford 2014). News organizations may even purposefully place their data beyond the reach of search engines by using a robots.txt file to prevent crawlers from indexing their sites. “Big data” journalists are also susceptible to infrastructural absences. They risk creating stories that echo their data sets’ exclusions if they fail to account for people whose “information is not regularly collected or analyzed, because they do not routinely engage in activities that big data is designed to capture” (Lerman 2013, 55). Such algorithmic exclusions are even creating physical whitespace, as the manufacturers of drones that news organizations are beginning to encode no-fly zones into their hardware, e.g., automatically landing a drone if it veers too close to the White House (Sydell 2015).

Without explanations for why such absences exist, people create folk theories (Mills 1959/2000) of whitespace—saying things like “I always assumed that I wasn’t really that close to her” (Eslami et al. 2015) to explain someone’s absence from their Facebook newsfeed, instead of attributing it to complex infrastructural intersections. Part of a whitespace press’s responsibility ideally includes explaining why content fails to circulate on its partner platforms.

Social media absences can also be created because of how infrastructures organize time. Users might visit Twitter at a suboptimal time (12 p.m. and 6 p.m. if you want clicks, 5 p.m. if you want retweets [Bennett 2015]). News organizations might write tweets that decay too quickly—BBC tweets last longer than other news organizations’ (Bhattacharya and Ram 2012)—but most news tweets are effectively invisible two hours after posting (Asur, Huberman, Szabo, and Wang 2011). The popularity of postings on Digg tended to stabilize quickly, but the same content is just as popular on YouTube about 30 days later (Szabo and Huberman 2010). Given how increasingly attuned news organizations are to metrics (Petre 2015; Tandoc 2014) and the influence they have on how editors conceptualize their audiences (C. W. Anderson 2011; Vu 2014), a lack of social media activity might reflect not only as disinterest or failed circulation, but intersecting platforms with nonsynchronized publication rhythms. Indeed, some online news never surfaces on social media at all, instead staying in privately circulated “dark social” domains like email and instant messaging (Madrigal 2012).

Finally, some content may be published but effectively absent from public discourse2 because laws or policies explicitly prevent it from appearing on third-party, para-journalistic platforms. For example, though the content remains on their own websites, the BBC (McIntosh 2015), the Guardian (Ball 2014), and the New York Times (Cohen and Scott 2014) have all had stories removed from Google’s European search index to comply with the European Union’s “Right to be Forgotten” legislation. And Twitter blocked the account of Independent journalist Guy Adams after, as part of his critique of NBC’s 2012 Olympics coverage, he tweeted the publicly available email address of a senior NBC executive, in violation of Twitter’s privacy policy (Sherman and Womack 2012). Such absences—stories, links, reporters—are not the result of algorithmic accidents or platform idiosyncrasies but the private governance of infrastructures that news organizations rely upon but that are beyond their control.

Conclusion

Many of the networked press’s relationships to absence are about including or excluding people, beating competition, avoiding errors, struggling for visibility, manufacturing scarcity, overcoming information overload, and hiding from surveillance. Absence is largely seen as a chance to add new content, an algorithmic error, an oppressive silence, or a failure to move quickly—and not a necessary ingredient of democratic self-governance. To help this shift in perspective, designers and scholars of the networked press might create: criteria for trusting or challenging absences; institutions and infrastructures that create generative absences; and design languages for making and experimenting with absence.

 

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