BuzzFeed has undoubtedly changed journalism but, according to a new study, journalists and researchers are still trying to understand exactly what impact the company has had on the profession – and whether they approve.
To understand how traditional news media see and frame BuzzFeed, researchers looked at how ten major legacy newspapers in the United States, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, reported on Jonah Peretti’s company over a four year period (2011-2015).
Their aim was to examine journalists’ perceptions of BuzzFeed and to shed light on traditional media reporting of the site’s army of lolcats, memes, gifs and, at the same time, excellent examples of investigative news. In total, 79 articles were identified and analysed.
The study: The Buzzfeedication of journalism? How traditional news organizations are talking about a new entrant in the journalistic field will surprise you! published by Journalism, identified four patterns that arose from the sample’s coverage:
1. the already mentioned ambivalence when it comes to the definition of BuzzFeed;
2. the defensive recalling of journalistic core elements while talking about it;
3. the problematisation of BuzzFeed economics and cultural capital;
4. a general positive upbeat concerning BuzzFeed’s arrival on the journalistic scene, as an agent for both transformation and preservation.
Researchers Edson C Tandoc (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) and Joy Jenkins (University of Missouri, United States), found that despite BuzzFeed’s recent move towards hard news, US legacy newspapers have focused extensively on its “viral” nature, while a significant number of articles defined the New York-based start-up as both a journalistic venture and a technological one.
Since the hiring of Ben Smith to lead the site’s hard news operations at the end of 2011, newspapers have generally started crediting BuzzFeed with a clearer place in the journalism realm but, as researchers note, it is kept at a certain distance, as BuzzFeed’s roots are generally considered different and part of the viral soul of the internet.
This scepticism drives the research analysis to its second layer, where a strong resistance from legacy media towards BuzzFeed has been discovered: for example several articles about the site stress that it is “playing at journalism’s rules”. Traditional outlets studied accuse BuzzFeed of not respecting traditional norms of journalism. This friction reached the top when a plagiarism controversy escalated in 2014. Reporting this case, traditional news outlets stressed how they are different to BuzzFeed, and tried to frame the site as “something different” that should refer to pre-existing norms in order to be fully accepted.
However, there is evidence that Buzzfeed is becoming better accepted in the journalistic field as it increasingly engages with “real journalism”.
BuzzFeed: financially successful but “frivolous”
While traditional outlets have certainly attributed BuzzFeed with overwhelming financial success, when it comes to cultural values, the vast majority of attention has been given to BuzzFeed’s ability to make its own content viral. Discussion of formats perceived as “frivolous”, such as the viral-nirvana “listicle”, have largely dominated the sample.
Research results also show how traditional media see BuzzFeed as an engine of possible innovation and disruption in journalism. Despite a fear that BuzzFeed would disrupt traditional journalistic ideas with a deluge of pictures of sarcastic cats and smiling little owls, traditional news outlets have clearly recognized a BuzzFeed influence on journalism itself.
What is still unclear, say Tandoc and Jenkins, is whether BuzzFeed will be a real transformative force or if it will have to gain a full place in the journalism theatre by deferring to the journalism “doxa” – the set of rules and principles that define a cultural field in the “field theory” jargon, to become a part of the status quo.
Looking at the research results, it seems clear how traditional news outlets have generally tried to define BuzzFeed according to existing journalistic norms, rather than pushing for new traits.
This is certainly a sign of resistance, the authors say, referring again to “field theory”, the theoretical background of their studies. It seems that legacy outlets have used BuzzFeed, by writing about it, to protect the traditional journalism discourse, rather than try to understand the BuzzFeed disruption.
That a BuzzFeed disruption actually exists it is clear even from the research title itself, (The Buzzfeedication of journalism? How traditional news organizations are talking about a new entrant in the journalistic field will surprise you!), which is pure BuzzFeed extravaganza.
It is also a confirmation that it is time for researchers to engage in a deeper understanding of BuzzFeed at large too: journalists and scholars should come terms with the fact that the next paper could likely be titled: 50 Scientific Reasons Why BuzzFeed Is Here to Stay.
TANDOC, Edson C.; JENKINS, Joy. The Buzzfeedication of journalism? How traditional news organizations are talking about a new entrant to the journalistic field will surprise you!. Journalism, 2015, p. 1464884915620269.
Pic credit: Flickr CC Tech in Asia