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Submit a Manuscript to the Journal
Digital Journalism

For a Special Issue on
Opening the Black Box of Code in Journalism: Materiality, Manufacture and Methods

Abstract deadline
15 March 2022

Manuscript deadline
01 September 2022

Cover image - Digital Journalism

Special Issue Editor(s)

Jan Lauren Boyles, Iowa State University
[email protected]

Eddy Borges-Rey, Northwestern University in Qatar
[email protected]

Raul Ferrer-Conill, University of Stavanger and Karlstad University
[email protected]

Matthew Weber, Rutgers University
[email protected]

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Opening the Black Box of Code in Journalism: Materiality, Manufacture and Methods

In its most instrumental sense, “software consists of lines of code—instructions and algorithms that, when combined and supplied with appropriate input, produce routines and programs capable of complex digital functions” (Kitchin and Dodge, 2014, p. 3). However, as a socio-technical entity, code embodies a complex, cultural text that can be read by both humans and machines (Marino, 2020) to form insightful depictions of spaces, relationships, organizational structures, transactions and/or behaviors. Certainly, code is the backbone of digital media and communication technologies, but it often remains an opaque black box to ordinary users (Manovich, 2013). It should be noted that code itself is not neutral, as the values embedded by its designers can ultimately shape the information outputs produced by information mediators (Bucher, 2017; Bastian et al., 2021). This is particularly true for news organizations, where code—and the values imprinted in it by journo-coders and developers—can significantly shape both the epistemological contours of news outputs and the informational experiences of media audiences.

Journalistic programming code specifically refers to computer code that is used in the production and distribution of news. Beyond its instrumental function as material lines of programming language that outline algorithms’ actions, journalistic programming code could also be conceptualized as a socio-cultural agent with secondary agency, responsible for mediating a wide range of journalistic practices and outputs. The exact nature of this code can vary greatly. For instance, code could take the form of complex Python scripts written to retrieve and transform data from Twitter, or could be as simple as tags embedded in a news story to optimize online traffic.

To date, journalism and media studies have generally studied the code embedded in digital news outputs through a pair of lenses. On the one hand, a highly sophisticated body of work has looked at the socio-technicalities of code in news outputs and how the ever pervasive process of codification in newswork impacts news routines, cultures, logics and organizations. In this sense, code acts as a mediator of a multiplicity of newsroom dynamics: including algorithmically filtering information (Weber & Kosterich, 2018), promoting collaboration among journalists, technologists (Lewis & Usher, 2014) and other non-legacy actors (Borges-Rey, 2016), as well as arguably reinforcing knowledge claims and public perception around transparency in the age of mis/disinformation (Haim & Zamith, 2020). On the other hand, computing sciences and the digital humanities use code as its corpus of analysis to generate insights (Chun, 2011) and to develop applied research and product prototyping (Diakopoulos, 2015; Broussard, 2016). Because developers and programmers are driven by a work-in-progress ethos, code is an ephemeral, fluid object that evolves as bugs and fixes take shape (Boyles, 2020). Understanding code generally requires specialized, computational fluency (Broersma & Harbers, 2018) or at least a competent level of data literacy (Borges-Rey, 2021). Code, in some cases, is programmed outside of the newsroom—but later employed by journalists to make news products. Taken together, a gap exists between how code is manufactured and how code functions as an object of news. Given code’s outsized importance in practice (Lewis & Westlund, 2015), more scholarship is needed on how code functions as an object and actor in newsmaking (Dierickx, 2021).

Building on the lineage of prior studies looking at code, programming, computerization and datafication in practice and scholarship published in Digital Journalism, as well as scholarly works examining the materiality of news objects (Anderson & De Maeyer, 2015), this special issue aims to create a platform where scholars from diverse disciplinary traditions can identify and establish methods and approaches in researching and theorizing how code mediates newswork and how it affects news routines and newsworkers. It also aims to enrich contemporary conversations on code within journalism and media studies by inviting contributions from computing and data sciences, algorithm/software/code/platform studies, media archeology and digital humanities, to name a few. We encourage submissions from diverse disciplines across the globe. We invite contributions of theoretical, methodological and empirical manuscripts, which may include (but are not limited to) the topics on code as a mediator of news, as listed below:

  • How are individual, organizational and cultural values embedded within journalistic programming code?
  • In what ways does journalistic programming code shape the public’s engagement with the news?
  • What are the hallmarks of successful versus unsuccessful journalistic programming code?
  • What legal or ethical issues exist around journalistic programming code?
  • What dynamics does the use of journalistic programming code create in news organizations?
  • In what ways does journalistic programming code alter notions of practitioner authority, legitimacy and knowledge/expertise?
  • What experimental approaches and/or use cases have demonstrated how code can impact the journalistic process?
  • What are the routines for writing, storing and updating journalistic programming code within news organizations?
  • How and to what extent do audiences understand the role of journalistic programming code in shaping news products? What initiatives can journalists take to promote journalistic programming code literacy among news audiences?
  • What tools or approaches can be leveraged by scholars to study journalistic programming code?
  • In what ways can peer review and/or promotion & tenure systems better acknowledge and accommodate scholarship that creates or critiques journalistic programming code?

Submission Instructions

Authors should submit a 500-word abstract (excluding references) to the editorial team at [email protected], along with a short 150-word bio and contact information (institutional affiliation, email) for all contributors. Authors of accepted abstracts will be invited to engage in a virtual workshop in Summer 2022, in which special issue contributors will share updates on their work-in-progress. This convening will allow special issue contributors to refine their manuscript submissions based upon feedback from the guest editors, while also enabling special issue contributors to exchange ideas. Once finalized and submitted, all manuscripts will then undergo full blind peer review. To heighten code’s visibility as a material component of newswork, the guest editors strongly encourage submissions that include the code itself. Making the code accessible for Digital Journalism readers comports with the open source orientations of coding communities (Coleman, 2012), while also aligning with recent shifts toward open science methods in journalism and communication research (Fox et al., 2021). We believe this submission structure will ensure that the resultant special issue will be both cohesive and collaborative, addressing code through multiple vantage points. Prior to abstract submission, prospective authors are encouraged to reach out to the guest editorial team with any questions.

Instructions for AuthorsSubmit an Article