Infrastructure, news and impartiality

Can news media be regarded as infrastructure? And if so, how useful might Star and Ruhleder’s eight dimensions of infrastructure be as used an analytical tool for tackling the medium of news (Star and Ruhleder, 1996)? I tackle two of their eight dimensions; embeddedness and transparency. For empirical data I rely on work as a commercial researcher studying the EU referendum during June 2016.

I start with embeddedness, which is described as infrastructure that is “sunk” into the inside of other structures, social arrangements and technologies’ (Ibid, 113). A key insight from our research was that in the run up to the EU referendum people were consuming more news, but there was a tendency to repeat engrained news habits. People that primarily watched rolling Sky News on TV, simply watched more Sky News. People that used news apps simply refreshed the top stories more often. When we analysed this data we came up with the term recursive news, particularly in reference to repetitive habits that some people exhibit when using news apps on smartphones. And it’s a concept that other social researchers concerned with news have also noticed. As Alain de Botton explains, “we put our lives on hold in the expectation of receiving another dose of critical information about all the most significant achievements, catastrophes, … to have befallen mankind anywhere around the planet since we last had a look.” (De Botton, A, 2014)

These recursive habits show how deeply news consumption is embedded in everyday lives. It is not just the news being imposed on the general public; it is the interplay of technologies, social practices and other structures such as presentation formats and editorial policies.

Indeed, editorial policy segues very neatly onto the second dimension of transparency. Star and Ruhleder define transparency as negating the need for an infrastructure to be ‘reinvented each time or assembled for each task’ (Star and Ruhleder 1996, 113). In terms of news apps this re usability could manifest in how news is formatted. For example, article layouts, short scannable paragraphs, navigation to top stories. On TV news it might refer to the most important headlines being read out as Big Ben chimes. All of these very reusable formats might seem relatively neutral and transparent. However when infrastructure brings editorial or design practices into play, the above notion of transparency loses its impartial qualities.

Consider the voting data that came out of the EU referendum vote. This data displayed in a spreadsheet might look neutral.

data.jpg

Yet when news outlets design voting result maps, notions of invisibility and standardisation vanish. In these examples the Guardian emphasises urban populations, and the Daily Mail depicts depth of feeling by shading leave and remain areas in various shades of green and red.Untitled.jpgThese visualisations of the same data present very different imaginaries of the British nation (Anderson 1983). They also suggest that political allegiances themselves might be considered a form of embedded social practice and that the news media is rarely, if ever, transparent.

495 words

Tags: News, Recursive News, Brexit, Maps, Editorial Policy, Embeddedness

References

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities. 1st ed. London: Verso.

De Botton, Alain (2014). The News: A User’s Manual. London: Hamish Hamilton.

BBC News. (2016). EU Referendum Results – BBC News. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum/results [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017].

Franklin, W., Holder, J., Osborn, M. and Clarke, S. (2016). EU referendum full results – find out how your area voted. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2016/jun/23/eu-referendum-live-results-and-analysis [Accessed 20 Apr. 2017].

Star, S. and Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps Toward an Ecology of Infrastructure: Design and Access for Large Information Spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), pp.111-134.

 

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