(Un)certainty in health risk discourse

Combining linguistic ethnography with comparative & multimodal discourse analysis in a collaborative journalism case

Lecture by Sofie Verkest (Ghent University) | 22 January 2020

10:00-11:00 | Camelot Room | Boekentoren Campus
Invited by the Ghent University MULTIPLES Research Centre

Collaborative journalism – in which journalists work together with non-journalists, such as academics or citizen groups,  to produce news – is becoming more frequent (Houston, 2010).  It has become a way to perform rigorous investigative journalism in times that are not only financially challenging for news-outlets but also increasingly competitive as mainstream news-outlets are competing with semi-journalistic online ventures (like company or university blogs), “infotainment” and late night shows as well as private citizens sharing their own content on social media (Bruns & Highfield, 2012; Döveling, Harju, & Sommer, 2018; Houston, 2010; Moy, Xenos, & Hess, 2005).  Collaborative journalism creates an added value because it allows news-outlets to tackle increasingly complex issues by exploring large datasets and collaborating closely with data scientists and other experts (Heikkilä, Kunelius, & Ahva, 2010; Houston, 2010; Lewis & Usher, 2014).

It has been argued that outsiders entering the news production process can alter the way both journalists and collaborators view their own professional practice and identity  (Verkest & Jacobs, 2019). The goal of this paper is therefore to investigate how these collaborations affect the actual news production process by “following the story” in a collaborative journalism case (Boyer & Hannerz, 2006, p. 12; see also Van Hout & Jacobs, 2008, p. 60). More specifically, we look into a close-knit collaboration between a newspaper, university and government agency in which they set up a large-scale and highly mediatized citizen science project on air quality. Over the course of seven months the author conducted ethnographic fieldwork in which she was able to observe meetings between the collaborators and follow the making of a special newspaper edition devoted to the publication of the results of the citizen science project. On top of the data gathered during the ethnographic fieldwork, the author also gathered a corpus of 204 news items on air quality (on- and offline news articles, videos and podcasts) produced by the respective newspaper in- and outside of the collaboration over the course of two years.

In this paper we present a comparative and multimodal analysis between news items produced in- and outside of the collaboration and we demonstrate how aspects of collaborative journalism in the news production process are reflected in the news product. We do this by investigating which news values are fore fronted, how the articles are made up discursively, as well as looking closely at which news stories are (not) published.  We corroborate our findings with data gathered during the ethnographic fieldwork, in which we focus on how our informants negotiate key elements of the news production process such as news values and story construction elements like headlines, “boilerplate” and style (Cotter, 2010).

It is concluded that combining a linguistic ethnographic analysis of the news production process with a discourse analysis of the product and thus adopting both an emic and etic perspective in an iterative analytical process, allows us to dig deeper into the dynamics of collaborative journalism in the news production process.


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