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Sept. 15, 2020, 11:47 a.m.
Audience & Social

Escape, education, aspiration: What do rich and poor people want from lifestyle journalism?

Rich and poor people have different expectations of lifestyle journalism. But some of what they want is the same.

In the same way that it’s no longer possible for sports news to “stick to sports,” political and lifestyle journalism are increasingly intersecting — and that meeting point is discussed in a new paper, “Aspirational lifestyle journalism: The impact of social class on producers’ and audiences’ views in the context of socio-economic inequality,” published last week in Journalism.

The researchers, Sandra Banjac and Folker Hanusch of the University of Vienna, interviewed 22 lifestyle journalists and held three focus groups with 25 readers from different class backgrounds in South Africa. South Africa has higher economic inequality than any other country in the world. It uses the Living Standards Measure (LSM), a marketing and research tool “that identifies audiences based on ownership capital,” dividing them into 10 groups.

The 22 journalists interviewed “had moderate economic capital (editors had high), moderate-high cultural capital, low-moderate social capital, and low-moderate symbolic capital, making them the cultural middle-class and the editors also the economic elite.” The 25 readers came from different economic backgrounds and the researchers identified them throughout the paper as “distressed,” “affluent,” or “university [students].” The readers were “asked to discuss how they imagine lifestyle journalists and their purpose in society, and what they expect from them and the content they produce.”

The journalists:

The readers:

Some findings:

“The personal is political and vice versa.” The journalists showed “strong support for traditionally political journalism roles,” the authors write. They didn’t think of lifestyle as being totally separate from politics.

One recurring theme was a need to celebrate and acknowledge Black culture, by promoting a “strong Black narrative” and telling “authentic African stories” (Thembile). This role challenges stereotypical narratives of Black culture as defined by the traditionally white-dominated media. Respondents also wanted to celebrate local and national identity through stories on innovation and design, by bringing “international attention to the country” (Clive), “getting African designers out there” (Khanyisile), and encouraging audiences to “champion local flavors” and food (Kassy). There was also a desire to empower women by helping “dismantle the patriarchy” (Heidi), making “South African women feel proud and safe” (Sara), addressing the “socio-political connotations of fashion” (Chloe), “disrupt beauty standards” and raising “awareness around[…]Black transgender women” (Heidi). As mediators, journalists hoped to bridge class differences, by creating a “sense that women, no matter where they are from are dealing with the same stuff” (Sara). Journalists also sought to educate people by raising their awareness of “the sustainability of chocolate” (Kassy) and the “drought in [Cape Town]’ (Maria).

— The journalists were “very aware of social class divisions among their audiences.”

“I understand that in South Africa, my audiences will have less disposable income” (Clive), because they live in “aa very stratified space” (Kabelo). This gave some journalists a “feeling of disjointedness” (Clive) and “disconnect” (Chloe), making cultural mediation all the more complex and fragmented.

“I don’t want to be selling people shit they don’t need,” one journalist said, but another noted, “We are compelled by sales to feature [advertisers’ products], otherwise they are going to cut their massive ad-spend with us.”

— South African journalists frequently talked about how one of their roles is to provide “aspiration.” That is “an important divergence from journalists in more prosperous economies,” the authors note.

Journalists targeted inspiration and aspiration to specific class groups. Inspiration was about “provid[ing] affluent South Africans with ideas to go away for the weekend or for holiday” (Justin), while aspiration was targeted at people “who aren’t necessarily rich […] not in the luxury market, but […] are working and they still have things that they want to acquire, but they are not kind of low LSM where they can’t afford certain things” (Thembile). […] However, “people from fully disadvantaged backgrounds whose key purpose is to put food on the table” (Sibongile) […] were not targeted.

Another type of aspiration has to do with motivation and hope — allowing audiences “to see people like them who have achieved stuff, people who come from the same kind of neighborhoods they come from, the same kind of circumstances they come from, and have accomplished or reached certain stages of their life’s journey and their work journey,” one journalist noted.

Still, they did not see themselves as targeting the absolute poorest groups. “[Working-class audiences] might get inspired because everyone I’ve ever written about started from the bottom, but their bottom isn’t the same bottom as the fully disadvantaged group,” another journalist pointed out.

— “Service” means different things. Readers across socioeconomic groups described the role of lifestyle journalism in similar ways. They think it offers service, escapism, and education. But those terms don’t mean the same thing to everyone.

For example, middle and upper classes wanted recipes and advice on “how to revamp your kitchen” (“affluent”), while the working classes wanted “relationship advice” and financial advice on “how to plan, how to budget” (“distressed”). Upper-class audiences found escape in “crosswords,” and gossip about the royal family (“affluent”), while working-class audiences sought out updates on “what’s going to happen in soapies” and the horoscope (“distressed”). However, only working-class audiences expected “education” in wanting to learn about issues of rape, mental health, and HIV/Aids. One participant said: “How do I deal with my sister when my sister comes back home and says ‘I’ve been raped’ […] How does a person come and say, ‘My daughter, my child, I’m HIV positive,’ how do I talk, how do I deal with that person?” (“distressed”).

— The journalists interviewed didn’t see their role as promoting products to the poorest groups of readers. But readers across economic groups were interested in shopping and product recommendations. “While we assumed aspiration would exist among economic middle-class audiences […] it was evident across all class groups, including the working class,” the authors write.

They add: “It is crucial for future scholarship to examine more explicitly working-class audiences’ perceptions and expectations of lifestyle journalism.”

POSTED     Sept. 15, 2020, 11:47 a.m.
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