Reviewed by Hektor Haarkötter
Journalist and university lecturer Peter Welchering published a volume on digital research in the »Essentials« series by Springer VS. In a compact brochure format, Springer Essentials provide concise overviews of a variety of topics, often practical or pragmatic. At the same time, according to the publisher’s own description, these booklets reflect the »state of the art« in current specialist debates. This claim needs a review, for trying to cover as vast a topic as digital research on just 37 pages is a lofty standard to meet.
Just the definition of »digital research« could easily take up the entirety of such a small booklet. As per its subtitle, this Essential even claims to include »Verification and Fact Checking«. Does this mean that »digital research« is mostly about these two techniques? Or is the booklet trying to cover, on its few pages, digital research as well as the field of verification and fact checking? A bit of definitional work would be useful here. But the author does not waste much time on definitions. He gets straight to the point with the story of a specific case, namely research into the watch lists that US tech giant Facebook is said to have kept on its alleged opponents (cf. 1 ff.). And that is also perhaps the greatest strength of this book: The fact that we hear from a teaching practitioner who can enrich his findings with experiences from everyday journalistic life.
After this practical hors d’œuvre, the actual textbook section begins rather helter-skelter, diving right into the research world with some explanations about Twitter (cf. 5 ff.). Whether this social network is socially significant enough to merit such prominent placement is doubtful, even to the author himself, who, in the very same chapter, recommends the »Fediverse Mastodon« as a place for »exciting discussions«, because Twitter is only for people who »work professionally in communication«, anyway (6).
Fedi-who? Masto-what? Exactly. It is also irritating that »Facebook Graph« is recommended as a useful tool for research on Facebook, since this service was discontinued in late 2019. For a book published in 2020 that claims to represent the »state of the art«, this is a little, well, out of date.
The following chapter devotes some detail to research on the »darknet« and the »deep web«. The fact that this book neither defines one nor the other, or how they might be connected, seems to be part of the agenda. This topic is afforded a seven-page chapter in a 37-page booklet, so it must be important. That is surprising, though, because in the preface, the author himself notes that the »hype made about the so-called ›darknet‹« is starkly exaggerated (p. VII). It’s almost ironic when he later writes in reference to the darknet: »Anyone who wants to report comprehensively on relevant social, economic, and political events cannot avoid researching these networks.« (12)
The chapter on search engines is comparatively brief (cf. 17-20), although the author himself notes that for many journalists, »digital research equals launching a search engine« (17). Top dog Google, in particular, is heavily criticized and addressed rather briefly, not to say: dismissed. In doing so, however, the author robs himself of the opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities and limitations of digital research. After all, Google’s founders were the first ones to establish indexed keyword search based on Boolean operators, which almost all other general-interest search engines emulate. Google would thus be the best way to exemplify what any search engine can do – or cannot do, keyword: ›the end of keyword search‹.
Instead, Peter Welchering considers the manga and nerd platform 4chan essential for digital research, dedicating a lot of space to it (cf. 18 f.). This chapter then also refers, once again, to the »darknet« and the search engines available there – a strange emphasis on a phenomenon that the author deems overrated.
Ample space is given to the topic of »analysis of photos and videos« (cf. 21-31), which the author places under the header »verification«. Here, he lists a whole number of web services and programs, which can be useful, and also presents some quite interesting »life hacks« on how private individuals can verify images. Yet it is doubtful whether the somewhat awkwardly explained »single frame analysis« (26) really helps »instantly« detect copied frames or images.
The author devotes the following and last chapter to »fact-checking«, by which, however, he apparently exclusively means verifying image files and other digital documents. It would have been better to call this »document check«, because a fact check involves certainly more than that. Here, too, the title of this Essential promises more than it can deliver.
Some statements just trail off mid-sentence, only to continue disjointedly and abruptly on another page (cf. 13/14). Sometimes, the same story is simply repeated in two successive paragraphs (cf. 18) – all this to say that this volume, for all its compactness, would have deserved a little more formal accuracy. And perhaps the same is true for its content.
About the reviewer
Prof. Dr. Hektor Haarkötter, teaches communication science with a focus on political communication at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences. He publishes on online journalism, media ethics, and public sphere theories. He serves as honorary executive chairman of the Initiative Nachrichtenaufklärung (INA) e.V., which researches and publishes each year’s top ten forgotten news stories.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 18 October 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23012
Translation: Kerstin Trimble
About this book
Peter Welchering (2020): Journalistische Praxis: Recherche. (Journalism practice: research) From the series: Springer Essentials. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 40 pages, 14.99 Eur.