Reviewed by Guido Keel
The internet has become a core research instrument for journalists over the last fifteen years. To start with, many questions were asked about how this new information medium should be handled in journalism. But online research is now so ubiquitous and online communication has become so institutionalized in connection with public organizations and actors, that such questions are of little interest.
An exception to this is social media – a much faster-moving, more chaotic world in which it takes little time or organization for almost anyone to publish information. This fast, unreliable transmission of information offers journalists an infinite wealth of information and stories. Yet at the same time, there is considerable uncertainty when it comes to how trustworthy this information is.
This brings us to the topic and the research question that Florian Wintterlin attempts to answer in his dissertation: What role do social media play as sources in journalism, and to what extent do media professionals trust this type of source? Wintterlin refers to these sources as »distanced sources« – a somewhat unusual name by which he means sources for which journalists »do not have the opportunity of (or interest in) meeting the actors in person« (17). This type of source comprises both unknown private individuals and professional communicators from organizations. On the one hand, this definition of the object appears a little generalized, including as it does a wide range of types of social media source. On the other, it is not sufficiently clearly differentiated, as it initially remains unclear whether actors who are contacted by telephone, for example, rather than social media, are also included under distanced sources. Only later does it become clear that Wintterlin means exclusively social media sources.
In the theoretical part of the book, the author first describes journalism in general as a social system, before moving on to the importance of sources in journalistic work. This is followed by the first empirical investigation, in which he uses eight events dating from 2011-2015 to explore the significance of social media as a source for journalistic reporting.
As the author himself notes, these are events at which no correspondent was present on the ground and about which little information was available. Apart from an attack in Paris and political protests in Turkey, all the events took place outside Europe – making social media even more significant as a source. The author examines nine media outlets: three television channels, one radio station, one online magazine, two daily newspapers, one weekly newspaper, and one weekly magazine. Unsurprisingly, he finds that the online magazine relies most heavily on social media, while radio uses this source the least (cf. 54). He goes on to discover that social media play the greatest role as a source in the case of political crises. Time considerations also play a part in whether social media are contemplated as a source: Information from social media sources is used more often for breaking news, but is less important in the case of latent topicality, such as during the Ukraine conflict (cf. 63).
In order to answer the question of the extent to which journalists trust social media as a source, the author spends more than sixty pages of the second theoretical section presenting findings and models from trust research (largely in sociology), thus explaining how trust in sources can be explained in general. Based on these considerations, he goes on to compose seven research questions on the topic of trust in sources. To answer them, he then conducts guided interviews with twelve media professionals from all types of media and in a range of roles. Compared with the extensive theoretical preparatory work put into this part of the empirical investigation, the findings are limited. The author finds that »risk perception« (184) when dealing with sources from social media depends on four factors: the relevance of the topic, the availability of other sources, the uniqueness of the event being reported on, and the type of source, by which he primarily means what experience has been gained of this source in the past.
Finally, the author conducts a third empirical investigation using an online survey of journalists on Germany and England – a country in which social media plays a significant role as a source for journalism. The survey asks the journalists about how they use social media as a source and, in particular, which factors influence how they assess its trustworthiness. Somewhat surprisingly, given that he has spent the first two hundred pages of the book focusing on common theories and models of journalism research, the author draws on Bourdieu’s lesser-known field theory to compose his hypotheses. In doing so, he attempts to identify influencing factors that have a decisive effect on how the trustworthiness of sources is assessed.
As the author himself writes at the end, this book comprises an explorative study (in fact, there are three) that attempts to explain systematically how journalists handle distanced sources and social media as sources. By taking trust theory into account, he allows a view of the way potential influencing factors work and interact. The study is not purely explorative, however, but instead largely descriptive: The findings from the three empirical investigations are barely subjected to critical discussion, nor are they linked to the normative requirements of journalism and how effective it can be. In terms of its thoroughness, the book does meet the requirements and characteristics of a dissertation. It may inspire other researchers to launch their own investigations based on its findings. But it is less suited to application-oriented academic work with a normative dimension, or even to journalistic practice. For this, the work remains too general in its description of the reality it finds.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, February 3rd 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/22603
About the reviewer
Prof. Dr. Guido Keel leads the IAM Institute of Applied Media Studies at the ZHAW. The focuses of his research include quality in journalism; change in journalism; and journalism in non-European contexts.
About the book
Florian Wintterlin (2019): Quelle: Internet. Journalistisches Vertrauen bei der Recherche in sozialen Medien. [Source: Internet. Journalistic trust when researching on social media.] Baden-Baden: Nomos, 280 pages, EUR 54.