Medical Reporters Say 'No' to 'Pack' Journalism

Article excerpt

This survey asked reporters who cover medical topics at U.S. newspapers about their opinion leaders. More than 75 percent said they are lone wolves, unaffected by the work of any other journalists. Of those who reported some influence, most named only one or two other reporters.

The development of online technology has encouraged the growth of virtual pack journalism-a collaborative form of reporting in which journalists emulate each other at a distance. "The new 'pack journalism' is not people literally looking over each other's shoulders, [media critic Tom] Rosenstiel says, "but watching each other and saying, 'That's what people are talking about. That's what we need to focus on.'"1 The current paper aims at examining this phenomenon in the context of medical journalism at U.S. newspapers.

Some scholars have associated pack journalism with agenda setting, the process in which the coverage patterns of media shape the issues that media consumers view as salient.2 But agenda setting is focused on general parameters of news coverage-which categories of stories are covered and how much-and agenda-setting theory offers no insight into the selection of particular stories within a category.

By contrast, opinion leadership appears to be a useful tool for understanding virtual pack journalism. The notion of opinion leaders arose in the work on opinion formation by Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet as further expanded by Katz and Lazarsfeld.3 This work envisions a two-step flow of communication, in which mass media primarily influence opinion leaders in the public, and the opinion leaders then shape the opinions of a circle of people over whom they have influence.

Breed adapted the concept to include opinion leaders among journalists themselves, in an attempt to understand that nominally competitive newspapers tended to cover the same stories. He suggested that journalists may seek guidance from elite newspapers such as The New York Times because of the lack of any absolute measures of newsworthiness.4

It appears that the proclivity of most journalists to follow the examples of a few arises as a response to the uncertainty that they face in their work.5 Indeed, emulating others is a common response to uncertainty:

When people are unsure, when the situation is ambiguous, they are more likely to attend to the actions of others and to accept those actions as correct.6

In encountering a stressful workplace, journalists are not alone. Karasek proposed a "job strain model" that held that the psychological strain of a job reflected the interaction of the demands that a job places on a worker and the extent to which the worker had freedom to address those demands. Karasek et al. subsequently validated a series of measures of job strain, collectively called the Job Content Questionnaire. Karasek's research, which included surveys of a large number of occupations, indicated that reporters indeed fell into the category of "active" occupations.7

One key decision that journalists face-and therefore a key area of uncertainty and stress-is in story selection. The central tension is that, as much as journalists say that they seek scoops, scoops are risky. If other media organizations converge on a different story, the scooping organization may feel that it looks like it missed the story that everyone else had, no matter how big its scoop was.

Research Question and Hypotheses

The foregoing discussion leads to the following research question and hypotheses:

RQ1:

Can opinion leaders be identified among journalists?

If the opinion-leadership paradigm is correct, the behaviors of individual journalists are influenced by the behavior of other journalists in the stories they choose to cover and how they cover them. In turn, it is possible that these opinion leaders are themselves influenced by another tier of opinion-leaders. Study of the leading-following relationships among journalists should reveal the structure of the pack, indicating how newsworthiness is transmitted from one member to another. …

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