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Faculty Spotlight: Pablo Boczkowski

Comparative media scholar says creating space for dialogue is key to the media’s future

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I have long been fascinated by the media’s ability to gather the public and shape social conversations. The media gives me a stage in which I see human dramas or social dramas unfold.”

Pablo Boczkowski
Professor of Communication Studies and an IPR Associate

IPR associate Pablo Boczkowski studies media, the consumption of news, and technology.

Pablo Boczkowski can remember the exact date he became interested in studying the media—March 30, 1996. He was sitting in front of a screen communicating in real time with other newspaper readers in a chatroom for the newly launched website of "Diario Clarin," his favorite newspaper in his home country of Argentina.

“I was 10,000 kilometers away from where the chat session was taking place, and I was still able to ask questions and get them answered,” said the media scholar and IPR associate. At the time, Boczkowski was a graduate student at Cornell University and decided to shift focus to examine the transformation and consumption of online media, giving him the opportunity to study digital journalism in its infancy.

Since joining that first chatroom, Boczkowski’s research has followed the transformation of online journalism—from the early days of news websites in the 1990’s to social media’s influence on today’s news consumption.

“I have long been fascinated by the media’s ability to gather the public and shape social conversations,” Boczkowski said. “The media gives me a stage in which I see human dramas or social dramas unfold.”

A Comparative Approach

In addition to his research and teaching at Northwestern, Boczkowski co-directs the Center for the Study on Media and Society based in Argentina. Examining the media behaviors of more than one country allows Boczkowski to take a comparative approach to media analysis, which he says has given him a more nuanced understanding of social processes and dynamics.

Take President Donald Trump’s hostility toward the press. Boczkowski compares the president’s animosity to the press, not only to former U.S. presidents like Richard Nixon, but also to South American leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, both of whom treated journalists as the opposition. Populist leaders from countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina, though left-leaning, also adopted a similar strategy to Trump, Boczkowski said.

“If you put things in a comparative perspective then you are less prone to make the mistake that this is a tactic of the right or the left and understand that this is a tactic of a certain type of leader—a populist anti-system type leader who is not dependent on an ideologic orientation,” he explained.

Trump and the Media

Boczkowski’s latest book, Trump and the Media, co-edited with Zizi Papacharissi from the University of Illinois-Chicago, was written to explore the changing media landscape that journalists face under the Trump administration. A week after President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Boczkowski and Papcharissi decided to put together the book and rushed to compile essays from their academic peers in just six months. The book was published in March of 2018. Boczkowski explains that they turned it around quickly because they wanted to add to the conversation in real time.

“We felt that in the weeks after the [2016] election there was a lot of turmoil in the field—among academics and those interested in studying the media,” Boczkowski said of the book’s urgency. He wanted the volume to act as a “gathering point” for scholars, students, and the public on this pressing topic. 

Boczkowski co-authored one of the book’s essays with Seth Lewis from the University of Oregon, in which they propose that media organizations take a more relational-based approach to journalism, rather than a traditional news-gathering approach where media organizations produce the news largely detached from the people they cover. They suggest that media outlets collaborate with one another, use social media audiences to gain insight for reporting, and listen to the public and build meaningful relationships with their readers.

As a few examples of a successful relational-based approach, he cites the collaboration between news organizations analyzing the Panama Papers in 2016 and Hearken, a Chicago-based consulting firm that works with news organizations to incorporate audience feedback to build engagement.

Creating a Space for Dialogue 

Boczkowski believes media outlets can take audience engagement a step further by hosting platforms that allow readers to communicate with one another. In a recent Nieman Lab column, he encouraged media to create a space for dialogue.

“In a world in which billions of people spend a major portion of their days not only informing but also expressing themselves on social media, media organizations might want to explore a shift from solely providing news accounts to also hosting the conversations that those accounts—and the perhaps alternative ones generated by a portion of their audiences—might trigger,” he wrote.  

To put this idea in historical context, Boczkowski pointed to the first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences, a four-page pamphlet published on September 25, 1690 by Benjamin Harris. Three pages of the publication were filled with news of the day. The final page was intentionally left blank for readers to write on and share—in what could be considered the first comment section.

“The public has, for a long time, manifested an interest in using media to communicate among themselves,” Boczkowski said. “If you really focus on what people want—what they say they want and how they spend their time—you see that a lot of what they want isn’t just to inform themselves, but they also want to have something to share with others and to learn what others are sharing.”

Pablo Boczkowski is a professor of communication studies and an IPR associate.

Published: March 18, 2019.