News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance

News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance

by Pablo J. Boczkowski

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Before news organizations began putting their content online, people got the news in print or on TV and almost always outside of the workplace. But nowadays, most of us keep an eye on the headlines from our desks at work, and we have become accustomed to instant access to a growing supply of constantly updated stories on the Web. This change in the amount of news available as well as how we consume it has been coupled with an unexpected development in editorial labor: rival news organizations can now keep tabs on the competition and imitate them, resulting in a decrease in the diversity of the news. Peeking inside the newsrooms where journalists create stories and the work settings where the public reads them, Pablo J. Boczkowski reveals why journalists contribute to the growing similarity of news—even though they dislike it—and why consumers acquiesce to a media system they find increasingly dissatisfying.

Comparing and contrasting two newspapers in Buenos Aires with similar developments in the United States, News at Work offers an enlightening perspective on living in a world with more information but less news.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226062785
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Pablo J. Boczkowski is associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and the author of Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers.

Read an Excerpt

News at Work

Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06280-8

Chapter One

Studying Imitation in the South

The arguments made in this book are intellectually animated by a particular set of theoretical concerns made empirically possible by resorting to specific methodological strategies. The arguments are both enabled and constrained by features of the temporal and spatial context in which the inquiry was conducted. This chapter offers further elaboration of the theoretical, methodological, and contextual issues that were succinctly addressed in the introductory chapter.

Theorizing Imitation

Imitation not only is a common feature of social life but has also been one of the most fruitful concepts across the biological, behavioral, and social sciences and the humanities. As such, it has garnered the attention of scholars in fields as varied as neurobiology, animal behavior, developmental psychology, social stratification, public opinion research, international relations, and cultural and business history (Baller & Richardson, 2002; Goldsmith, 2005; Hurley & Chater, 2005a, 2005b; Noelle-Neumann, 1993; Orvell, 1989; Westney, 1987). In light of the diversity of goals for which imitation has been studied and the wide array of how it has been understood, it is essential to delineate what it means in the context of this book, in the fields that are most directly engaged in the analysis, and for the theoretical contributions this study aims to make.

The canonical source on imitation in classical social theory is the work of Gabriel Tarde, in particular The Laws of Imitation (1903 [1890]). Tarde's work has experienced a recent revival in studies of media (Katz, 2006), science and technology (Latour, 2002, 2005), and economic action (Barry & Thrift, 2007). Tarde proposed a highly inclusive conception of imitation that is captured in the idea that "all resemblances of social origin in society are the direct or indirect fruit of the various forms of imitation" (Tarde, 1903 [1890], p. 14, emphasis in original). Recent work based on this idea often treats imitation as shorthand for different forms of relational influence. I adopt a more restricted notion of imitation that is conceptualized as the act that occurs when one actor, based on knowledge of another actor's behavior or output, decides to completely or partially reproduce this behavior or output instead of pursuing a different course of action.

As stated in the previous chapter, I look at imitation in work, organizational, and economic activities, with a focus on the media industry and mindful of the potential role of technology. In light of these foci, I do not address two cognate traditions of inquiry that concentrate on what could be broadly construed as the representational dimension of imitation. The first consists of humanities scholarship on the notion of mimesis in literary criticism (Auerbach, 2003 [1953]; Gebauer & Wulf, 1995; Girard, 1966), the theory of aesthetics (Halliwell, 2002; Lacoue-Labarthe, 1989), and cultural studies (Jenson, 2001; Taussig, 1993) that looks at how symbolic works mirror or construct reality. Because I examine imitation in the production of symbolic works and not in terms of these works' "world-simulating" or "world-creating" (Halliwell, 2002, p. 23) character, this valuable tradition of inquiry in the humanities is not of direct relevance to the present inquiry. The second stream is represented by social-scientific research in psychology, communication, and epidemiology that analyzes whether consumers imitate violent (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994; Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003; Paik & Comstock, 1994) and suicidal (P. Jamieson, Jamieson, & Romer, 2003; Pirkis, Burgess, Francis, Blood, & Jolley, 2006; Stack, 2000; Weimann & Fishman, 1995) content provided by the media. Because I am concerned with how people consume increasingly similar news content rather than whether their actions imitate this content, this important stream of social-scientific research is not directly relevant either.

I develop an interdisciplinary framework on imitation that builds on communication studies of pack journalism and the homogenization of news, sociological accounts of interorganizational mimicry, and economic analyses of herd behavior. Despite the divergent intellectual character of scholarship about these fields, or perhaps precisely because of this divergence, their respective analyses of imitation have complementary strengths and shared limitations. In the remainder of this section, I elaborate on the key ideas that each of these fields brings to the analysis and their common blind spots. On the basis of this elaboration, I present the main elements of the framework advanced in this book and outline how the book contributes to scholarship on imitation.

Communication studies have long analyzed imitation in journalism (Graber, 1971; Halloran, Elliot, & Murdock, 1970; Noelle-Neumann & Mathes, 1987; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). In his dissertation research on social control in the newsroom, conducted more than fifty years ago, Breed already noted "the tendency of many papers to feature the same stories atop their front pages, to the exclusion of others" (1955, p. 277). Two decades later, Crouse published The Boys on the Bus, an account of news making on the campaign trail during the 1972 presidential elections that has since become the locus classicus on imitation processes in news production. Crouse offered a detailed portrait of "the notorious phenomenon of 'pack journalism,'" in which "a group of reporters were assigned to follow a single candidate for weeks or months at a time, like a pack of hounds sicked on a fox" (2003 [1972], p. 7).

A separate line of research on the media asserts that the news is strongly homogenized (Bennett, Lawrence, & Livingston, 2007; Bourdieu, 1998; Cook, 1998; Gans, 1980; Glasser, 1992; Hamilton, 2004). Moreover, a number of scholars argue that it has become even less diverse in the past couple of decades (Gans, 2003; García Aviles & Leon, 2004; Klinenberg, 2002, 2005; Norris, 2000; Rosenstiel, 2005; Schudson, 2003). However, there is often a disjunction between these assertions about the homogenization of news products and the accounts of imitation in journalistic practice. In addition, only a few studies provide systematic evidence about the degree and kind of similarity in the content of news products. Reflecting on this matter, Cook recently concluded: "I fear the homogeneity hypothesis is too often treated as a matter of faith rather than a starting point for empirical analysis" (2006, p. 164). Moreover, the available empirical analyses focus on "a single medium at a single point in time" (Boczkowski & de Santos, 2007, p. 169), thus limiting their value in shedding light on evolutionary dynamics across media. In sum, communication and media scholarship has focused on the practices whereby journalists imitate their peers—often providing an engaging depiction of the situational factors that shape these practices—and called attention to the homogeneity of news content. However, it has often not integrated studies of imitation practices with those on the homogeneity in news products and failed to furnish systematic evidence of the concerns regarding these product effects.

Sociological studies have increasingly underscored the pervasiveness of imitation in organizational life (Abrahamson, 1991; Conell & Cohn, 1995; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; Greve, 1996; Strang & Macy, 2001). Rivkin maintains, "The profound influence of imitation on industrial dynamics is, by now, well established" (2000, p. 824). Perhaps the most developed research area on this phenomenon has been the study of interorganizational mimicry. Inspired by DiMaggio and Powell's (1983) seminal work on "mimetic isomorphism," scholars have theorized how factors such as uncertainty, status, legitimacy, social networks, and ecological processes lead a firm to imitate others in its organizational field or market (Davis & Greve, 1997; Galaskiewicz & Wasserman, 1989; Haunschild, 1993; Haunschild & Miner, 1997; Haveman, 1993).

Economics also examines imitation dynamics, in part in recognition of its ubiquity in social life (Bernhardt, Hughson, & Kutsoati, 2006; Chamley, 2004; Choi, 1997; W. Cohen, Nelson, & Walsh, 2000; Levin, Klevorick, Nelson, & Winter, 1987). Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, and Welch write, "One of the most striking regularities of human society is localized conformity" (1992, p. 992, emphasis in original). Perhaps nowhere has imitation been studied more within economics than in finance, where the analysis of "herd behavior" has blossomed (Avery & Zemsky, 1998; Bikhchandani & Sharma, 2001; Trueman, 1994; Welch, 1992; Wermers, 1999). To Devenow and Welch, this is due to the "belief, not only among practitioners but also among financial economists—when asked in conversation—that investors are influenced by the decisions of other investors and that this influence is a first-order effect" (1996, p. 603). Research on herd behavior conceptualizes the information, reputation, and compensation forces that make it rational for an actor to mimic other market players instead of deviating from the perceived consensus (Banerjee, 1992; Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer, & Welch, 1992, 1998; Drehmann, Oechssler, & Roider, 2005; Scharfstein & Stein, 1990).

Despite their differences, the studies in sociology and economics converge in furnishing the opposite view of those in communication. On the one hand, they infer the existence of imitation from systematic analyses of the outcomes of mimicry and theorize the role played by an array of structural factors in shaping those outcomes. On the other hand, they feature a disregard for the practices that generate those outcomes and the situational factors that might affect these practices. For instance, Barreto and Baden-Fuller note that "most research on interorganizational imitation has tended to adopt indirect measures of the existence of mimetic behaviour" (2006, p. 1566). Moreover, for Cipriani and Guarino, "the problem for the empirical research on herd behavior is that there are no data on the private information available to the traders and, therefore, it is difficult to understand whether traders decide to disregard their own information and imitate" (2005, p. 1428).

Together, the analyses in communication, sociology, and economics provide major insights about the situational shaping of imitation practices and the structural factors that affect the resulting product outcomes. However, these analyses usually split production practices from product outcomes and look at only one side of the imitation coin. Even the examination of news homogeneity in communication scholarship enacts this production-product divide: news production scholars concentrate on the practice side, and content analysts on the product outcome side. To Lawrence, the former "are (appropriately) often more interested in studying the social organization of news production than in analyzing the product itself. Yet studying the product—news content—is where the rubber hits the road: Elegant conceptualizations of inter-organizational fields don't matter much if we cannot link them to what news organizations actually produce" (2006, p. 228).

Looking at only one side of the imitation coin hinders theory development by making it difficult to ascertain whether the production practices have any systematic effects on the resulting products. This approach also makes it hard to distinguish between the mechanisms that lead to the observed product outcomes or to adjudicate between competing explanations. Dobrev argues that, in sociology scholarship, "theoretical arguments explaining the specific mechanism that triggers imitation have been scant" (2007, p. 1271). Manski contends that in the economic analysis of social interactions—including imitation—the "outcomes of the population can usually be generated by many different interaction processes or, perhaps, by processes acting on individuals in isolation. Hence the findings of empirical studies are often open to an uncomfortably wide range of interpretations" (2000, p. 117).

In addition to looking at only one side of the imitation coin at a time, scholarship in communication, sociology, and economics shares additional shortcomings that arise from their lack of regard for technology and consumption issues. I will examine each of these shortcomings in turn.

To overlook the potential role that the development and use of artifacts might have in imitative practices and their resulting outcomes goes against widespread evidence that artifacts are consequential in news production, in particular (Boczkowski, 2004; Domingo, 2008a; Heath & Luff, 2000; Klinenberg, 2005; Sumpter, 2000), and in work, organizations, and markets, in general (Barley, 1986, 1990; Braverman, 1974; Knorr Cetina & Bruegger, 2002; Pinch & Swedberg, 2008; Rosenkopf & Tushman, 1994; Zuboff, 1988). In addition, recent studies provide examples of technology and imitation that resonate with phenomena examined in this book. The introductory chapter presented one such example from the account of online electoral campaigning provided by Foot and Schneider (2006). Shifting from politics to finance, in his account of the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), MacKenzie notes the following episode at a critical turning point in the fund's demise:

On September 2 [1998], [hedge fund head John] Meriwether faxed LTCM's investors its estimate of the august loss. [the] fax, intended to be private to LTCM's investors, became public almost instantly: "Five minutes after we sent our first letter ... to our handful of shareholders, it was on the internet." [One consequence of this dissemination was] an immediate effect on the prices of assets that LTCM was known or believed to hold.... the price of hurricane bonds fell 20 percent, even although there had been no increase either in the probability of hurricanes or in the likely seriousness of their consequences. (2006, PP. 233–234)

Beneath the diversity in the social worlds studied by Foot and Schneider and by MacKenzie lies a shared pattern that is central to understanding why any account of imitation is potentially incomplete without an examination of technology. Actors took advantage of the Web's capabilities for easy access to and rapid dissemination of information to constantly monitor their competitors. In turn, knowledge acquired through monitoring was often utilized to imitate the actions or products of these competitors. Without the combination of these technical capabilities and the decision by the actors to take advantage of them, imitation would not have taken place in the way it did in either case—and perhaps not at all. This means, not that technology always plays a role in imitation, but that it can. In other words, neither the presence nor the absence of this role should be taken for granted. Therefore, rather than the indirect omission that characterizes the existing scholarship, a direct consideration of whether technology is implicated in the particular imitation phenomena examined better serves the analysis of imitation.

Scholarship about imitation also neglects the role of consumption. Accounts of the production and products of imitation remain silent about how consumers appropriate these products and experience a situation in which they are exposed to a decreasing variety of options. In addition to presenting an incomplete depiction of the imitation life cycle, overlooking the role of consumption has important drawbacks in terms of explaining how and why imitation happens and assessing its broader cultural and political consequences. To begin, most studies on imitation assume explicitly or by omission that the factors that explain the variance in production or products are not related to consumption trends. Perhaps it is mostly the case, as Darnton claims when describing his days at the New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger, that journalists "really wrote for one another" (1975, p. 176). H. White argues more generally that "producers watch each other within a market.... Markets are not defined by a set of buyers, as some of our habits of speech suggest, nor are the producers obsessed with speculations on an amorphous demand" (1981, p. 518). But to assume that journalists and other kinds of economic actors are always self-referential and that consumption trends do not contribute to shape their behavior runs the risk of turning what should be an outcome of the inquiry process into one of its premises. Furthermore, communication scholarship often adopts a normative perspective on the negative consequences that a homogenized news supply has for society. This perspective yields important views, but it fails to anchor them in an analysis of how people actually appropriate homogenized news. In turn, this hinders the analyst's ability to reconcile normative claims with the possibilities and constraints of everyday life, thus limiting not only the assessment of consequences but also the conception of realistic reform strategies.


Excerpted from News at Work by PABLO J. BOCZKOWSKI Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
Preface Introduction: When More Becomes Less 

1: Studying Imitation in the South
2: The Divergent Logics of Hard- and Soft-News Production
3: Monitoring and Imitation in News Production
4: The Homogenization of News Products
5: The Consumption of Online News at Work
6: The Consumption of Increasingly Less Diverse News Content
7: The Work of News in an Age of Information Abundance
Appendix A: Research Design
Appendix B: Supplementary Studies

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