A Tow Center Year in Review

It’s been a prolific year for publishing at the Tow Center as we produced enterprising work on digital journalism, social media platforms, dark money in news and much more, which all can be read at the Columbia Journalism Review. It’s hard to pick out highlights of the year, but this week’s newsletter is a round-up of work the Tow Center has compiled as we pause to reflect ahead of the new year.

The war in Ukraine

When the first Russian bombs hit Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Tow Center quickly responded with coverage on how the Ukrainian press was battling for its future amid harrowing logistical and financial hardships. Shortly after, we released a definitive timeline on actions taken globally by platforms, publishers, and governments that affected the information ecosystem in Russia and Ukraine – such as Meta (formerly Facebook) banning ads and monetization by Russian state media across its platforms and Russia clamping down on outlets using words like ‘war’ and ‘invade’ within its borders to describe its invasion of Ukraine.

Tow later spoke with researchers who studied the radical transformation but enormous resiliency of Ukraine’s independent, local news landscape since the full-scale war began and published a conversation with the Kyiv Independent’s chief executive officer, Daryna Shevchenko, on running a newsroom in wartime Ukraine.

 

Deception and disinfo ahead of the midterms

Building on the Center’s multi-year investigations into pseudo-local news networks, Tow computational fellow Priyanjana Bengani unearthed previously unknown links to a dark money news network from a much wider right leaning network of funders that received a $1.6 million pre-midterms boost from PACs backed by oil-and-gas and shipping magnates.

Similarly, Tow’s research director Pete Brown published case studies exploring the utility that these operations provide to political candidates during elections. In the spring, Brown used Facebook data to look at how Jim Renacci, an Ohio gubernatorial hopeful, leaned heavily on supportive Metric Media ‘news’ articles for self-promotion in the months prior to his unsuccessful challenge to incumbent Mike DeWine.

As the 2022 midterm elections inched nearer, these networks’ attention turned to Darren Bailey, the Republican candidate for Illinois Governor who had received positive coverage in political pamphlets produced by Local Government Information Services (LGIS). Analysis of LGIS sites and Facebook’s Ad Library showed how a steady stream of Bailey-orientated attack pieces had peaked in August, when he was facing negative press in the mainstream media, and that Bailey’s campaign had paid to promote a stream of LGIS ‘news’ stories centering around his policy positions – despite not having paid to promote news articles before. Both Renacci and Bailey were comfortably defeated in their respective elections.

When Jem Bartholomew joined Tow as a reporting fellow in July, he immediately dove into the rise and rise of partisan local newsrooms, outlining some of the major players in “pink slime” journalism and astroturfed newsrooms. The trend, exemplified by the Metric Media network of over 1,200 outlets, sees sites filling news deserts, posing as legitimate local news while pushing often extremist right wing agendas.

As these trends continued to play out in Illinois and extremist newspapers turned up on doorsteps across the state, Bartholomew published a deep dive into the anatomy of a disinformation campaign. The piece revealed for the first time that Gannett, the nation’s largest local news publisher, is printing through its commercial division both these “pink slime” LGIS papers and the conspiracy theory title the Epoch Times. Gannett refused to respond to criticism.

While there’s been plenty of investigation into where and how these dubious influence networks operate, a recent Tow report by former senior research fellow Sara Rafsky noted that little attention has been paid to understanding how local news audiences negotiate and interpret these sites. Rafsky found that a sizable minority of participants “formed positive initial impressions of their assigned sites,” which highlighted some level of success for operators in mimicking the appearance of traditional news websites.

Politically-motivated ‘news’ networks take many different forms. Tow’s Steve Coll post-graduate research and reporting fellow, Sarah Gotfredsen, who joined the Center in September, published a deep dive into Courier – a progressive media company that has local newsrooms in eight swing states and is supported by Democratic funders. Gotfredsen visited the Michigan-based newsroom, The Gander, to learn more about their editorial decision-making and discovered that Courier used The Gander’s content to influence voters’ views on re-criminalizing abortion in the lead up to the midterm elections.

 

Platforms and publishers

The Tow Center continued to build on nearly six years of research about Google and Meta’s influence on the news industry.

At the beginning of this year, senior reporting fellow Gabby Miller looked into how local newsrooms were turning to different tech platform-run initiatives, such as the Meta Accelerator Program and Substack Local, to expand digitally – and the potential pitfalls of these relationships. Similarly, in a report for Tow, Knight News Innovation Fellow Shira Zilberstein explored how individual journalists are experimenting with digital platforms, particularly newsletters, as an alternative media model and economic lifeboat.

Tow traveled to Perugia, Italy in the spring for the annual International Journalism Festival to chronicle the latest debates swirling around platforms and publishers––a conference partially funded by Google and Meta themselves. Tow director Emily Bell, as well as now-former fellow and columnist at Folha de São Paulo newspaper, Patrícia Campos Mello, both appeared on a number of panels. Bell spoke primarily on the platform duopoly’s role as two of the largest funders of journalism and the pandemic’s global impact on journalism whereas Campos Mello, who has persistently been targeted by former President Jair Bolsonaro’s “hate cabinet,” appeared on a panel dedicated to online violence against women

The Center later turned its attention to percolating platforms and publishers legislation around the globe. When Canada’s Online News Act, or Bill C-18, which borrows heavily from Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, was taken up by the House of Commons in the fall, it quickly laid bare deep schisms on how, and if, governments should intervene in the news industry.

In response, Tow reviewed thirty two opening statements from outside witnesses across seven House committee hearings on Bill C-18, which resulted in an overview outlining the major positions and takeaways. Tow also published a database and accompanying timelines tracking platform investments that were made parallel to legislative developments in Canada specifically.

Other countries will undoubtedly pay close attention to Bill C-18, which looks likely to pass early next year, as they eye legislation of their own. However, as Bell recently wrote, the regulatory landscape in the US suggests a similar bill, like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, would be difficult to pass here.

 

Journalism and technology

Earlier this year, Knight News Innovation Fellow Nicholas Diakopoulos, who is an assistant professor at the Northwestern University School of Communication and author of Automating the News: How Algorithms Are Rewriting the Media, published a report on predictive journalism for Tow. He found several examples of how value can be yielded from predictive journalism, such as explaining complex systems or helping journalists find new reporting angles, and recommended a number of responsible approaches to these practices.

More recently, Knight News Innovation Fellow Maxwell Foxman, assistant professor of media studies and game studies at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, authored a report for Tow on how journalists should write about, and even use, virtual technologies. Foxman analyzed nearly 400 news articles to evaluate journalists’ shifting views on virtual worlds, such as online gaming, VR, and livestreaming platforms like Twitch.

 

The Tow Center in the world

Dhrumil Mehta, now the Tow Center deputy director and associate professor in data journalism at Columbia’s Journalism School, joined us from FiveThirtyEight. Since arriving at Tow, Mehta has published an academic paper in the Journal of Women, Politics & Policy in collaboration with a team of political scientists at various universities that analyzed descriptions of female candidates during the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. Their paper is part of a research agenda that focuses on designing new methods of computational tools like natural language processing algorithms to better understand the language and framing of news stories.

Joel Simon, who formerly served as the executive director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, joined Tow as a fellow at the beginning of this year. He’s since completed research for White Paper on press freedom and public interest that will be published by Tow in early 2023. As part of a partnership between Tow and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Simon is also producing a report on the leading legal threats to press freedom worldwide. Finally, in his role as a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute, he is finalizing a report on threats to journalists covering protests and demonstrations in the US, also to be published early next year.

Patrícia Campos Mello joined Tow to map out disinformation campaigns in the run up to the 2022 Brazilian presidential elections. This year, while at Tow, she exposed how antidemocratic groups were raising funds and organizing protests through messaging apps and social media and flagged illegal political ads circulating on Facebook and Google that showed the platforms were not enforcing their own ads policy or local laws, among other research and reporting Campos Mello published.

It’s been a great year at the Tow Center and we’ll be back in 2023. Feel free to reach out with tips and stories. Happy holidays!  

Tow Center research is made possible by generous support from the Tow Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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