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Sunday, September 28 • 10:21 - 10:40
"#ReputableNewsSource? How Twitter and an Online Community of Sources Contributed to the Legitimation of Andrew Breitbart"

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Background: Traditional news organizations exist within an apparatus of accountability, held together by their reputation and the professionalization of the occupation of journalism. Legitimacy in journalism has been solidified over time, but with the emergence of online media, traditional journalistic standards have been challenged as online news organizations attempt to create a new standard to define the different kinds of journalistic practices that are occurring online and the role played by social media in this process. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1998), the standards that define whether a news organization is legitimate are based on whether those occupying dominant positions in the field recognize it as such. Recognition by someone who is considered legitimate grants legitimacy.

Objective: This paper explores the changing nature of the profession of journalism as a space of contested power relations and networked communities, focusing specifically on how a controversial online news organization – Breitbart.com – became a legitimate source for news. Using both the Anthony Weiner and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) scandals, this paper highlights Breitbart’s reliance on his online community, a distinct group of followers which I have termed “outlier sources” - individuals who have experienced or been part of a news event and can provide a first-hand account of what took place. With the mainstream media fearing Breitbart, it was clear that he was never going to receive press releases and tips from the establishment. As a result, he needed access to sources that could provide him with “the goods”. He positioned himself in the field as an outspoken critic of the left, encouraging like-minded individuals to reach out to him as sources, gaining legitimacy initially amongst the extreme right, later from mainstream media.

Methods: Ethnographic research was used to gain a greater understanding of Andrew Breitbart and his five websites. I conducted over 60 hours of interviews in Los Angeles with Breitbart in November 2011, five months before his death. I embedded myself in his environment, shadowing him daily from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., at his office, his home, at meetings and at appointments. I transcribed and coded the interviews, highlighting informal references to Bourdieu’s principle of legitimation: peer and/or public recognition (1998). I also interviewed his co-workers at Breitbart.com. In addition to my ethnography, I examined the tweets that were posted during the initial Anthony Weiner allegations. I also analyzed the transcripts that were recorded during the undercover investigations at three ACORN locations in the United States.

Results:  In examining legitimacy and how it is achieved in the field of journalism, I established that the use of social capital was at the center. The field is strengthened not only by economic profit, but also through networking (a form of social capital). Specifically, Breitbart emerged as a legitimate player by creating a position for himself where those with similar views could approach him online with news tips and scoops. My study revealed that Breitbart’s websites comprise a conservative echo chamber where he has emerged as a mouthpiece for the Tea Party, subsequently encouraging like-minded readers to contact him with story ideas, enabling him to use them as sources.

Conclusions: An organization’s ability to gain legitimacy in the field of journalism is dependent on its capacity to leverage varying levels of social capital online. Understanding the use of social capital illustrates the increasingly networked nature of this evolving field, whereby the maintenance of online relationships is paramount.  

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1998). On Television and Journalism. London: Pluto Press


Gillian Brooks

Centre for Corporate Reputation, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Sunday September 28, 2014 10:21 - 10:40
TRS 1-149 Ted Rogers School of Management

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