Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

“To flourish in the third decade of the 21st century, journalism has to stop conceiving of audiences in its own image.”

Once upon a time, journalists conceived of audiences in their own image. That is, members of the audience were seen as interested in matters of the polity at large. Moreover, they were content with being recipients of well-sourced and well-argued information about these matters, and also with processing it somewhat dispassionately. Finally, they were largely trusting of the news they read, watched, and listened to in reputable, mainstream outlets.

But a quick glance at the content, tenor, and dynamics of contemporary practices and conversations related to the news, at least in the United States, reveals a different picture. Audiences appear to be more tribal, expressive, emotional, and skeptical than what they used to be — or at least than what they were assumed to be in the canonical discourse about them in many newsrooms and classrooms across America.

They are tribal because they are motivated more by kinship ties within a collective project, anchored in the affirmation of a particular set of traits and/or issues, than by impersonal ties that bind them to the larger polity through sustaining an abstract greater good — a greater good that has often been upheld at the expense of the erasure of major differences and longstanding inequities.

They are expressive because members of the audience are more interested in communicating about the stories that matter to them and to those in their kinship networks — and socializing about those communicative practices — than about dutifully listening to the reports provided by the news media, despite (or precisely because of) their technical expertise.

They are emotional because current news consumption practices show that interpretation is shaped by the heart as much as by the mind, thus deviating from any notion about the primacy of dispassionate cognition as the central way in which individuals make sense of the news.

They are skeptical because they no longer treat trust in the news as a given but as something that journalists have to earn — trust that takes a long time to develop but can be undone rather quickly.

Audiences that were oriented to the polity, receptive, rational, and trusting were part and parcel of the project of modernity. The current practices of news audiences that gravitate towards kinship, difference, expression, emotion, sociality, and skepticism challenge any lingering dreams that modernity will be eternal. Therefore, in order to thrive, journalism can no longer be a project of modernity and modernization, since that very project has become in question.

To flourish in the third decade of the 21st century, journalism has to stop conceiving of audiences in its own image. For this, it has to meet audiences where they are rather than where it would like them to be. In other words, it has to stop pretending that it can just talk and lead, and instead agree to also listen and be led.

This requires acknowledging differences in lived experience and articulating recognition as the foundational social bond of kinship networks, rather than prioritizing impersonal ideals of a polity that, in the name of particular overarching narratives, have long favored certain communities at the expense of others.

It also entails providing opportunities for expression and then paying attention to what audiences have to say, rather than lecturing at them from a pristine perch enabled by occupational norms and editorial rituals that have gone out of sync with the evolving culture of the social world about which journalists report.

This also means telling stories that appeal to interpretation from the heart as much as from the mind, rather than continuing to provide dispassionate accounts of events simply because that’s the mandate of objectivity in the news.

In addition, it has to report aware of the presence of distrust, providing transparency in the methods of fact-finding and assumptions of story-framing to gradually earn the elusive trust of users, readers, viewers, and listeners.

Ultimately, in this nascent third decade of the century, journalism has to foster social justice because that is the bedrock from which audiences can be re-engaged and trust can be earned again.

The audiences have revolted. Will journalism adapt?

Pablo Boczkowski is the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University.

Once upon a time, journalists conceived of audiences in their own image. That is, members of the audience were seen as interested in matters of the polity at large. Moreover, they were content with being recipients of well-sourced and well-argued information about these matters, and also with processing it somewhat dispassionately. Finally, they were largely trusting of the news they read, watched, and listened to in reputable, mainstream outlets.

But a quick glance at the content, tenor, and dynamics of contemporary practices and conversations related to the news, at least in the United States, reveals a different picture. Audiences appear to be more tribal, expressive, emotional, and skeptical than what they used to be — or at least than what they were assumed to be in the canonical discourse about them in many newsrooms and classrooms across America.

They are tribal because they are motivated more by kinship ties within a collective project, anchored in the affirmation of a particular set of traits and/or issues, than by impersonal ties that bind them to the larger polity through sustaining an abstract greater good — a greater good that has often been upheld at the expense of the erasure of major differences and longstanding inequities.

They are expressive because members of the audience are more interested in communicating about the stories that matter to them and to those in their kinship networks — and socializing about those communicative practices — than about dutifully listening to the reports provided by the news media, despite (or precisely because of) their technical expertise.

They are emotional because current news consumption practices show that interpretation is shaped by the heart as much as by the mind, thus deviating from any notion about the primacy of dispassionate cognition as the central way in which individuals make sense of the news.

They are skeptical because they no longer treat trust in the news as a given but as something that journalists have to earn — trust that takes a long time to develop but can be undone rather quickly.

Audiences that were oriented to the polity, receptive, rational, and trusting were part and parcel of the project of modernity. The current practices of news audiences that gravitate towards kinship, difference, expression, emotion, sociality, and skepticism challenge any lingering dreams that modernity will be eternal. Therefore, in order to thrive, journalism can no longer be a project of modernity and modernization, since that very project has become in question.

To flourish in the third decade of the 21st century, journalism has to stop conceiving of audiences in its own image. For this, it has to meet audiences where they are rather than where it would like them to be. In other words, it has to stop pretending that it can just talk and lead, and instead agree to also listen and be led.

This requires acknowledging differences in lived experience and articulating recognition as the foundational social bond of kinship networks, rather than prioritizing impersonal ideals of a polity that, in the name of particular overarching narratives, have long favored certain communities at the expense of others.

It also entails providing opportunities for expression and then paying attention to what audiences have to say, rather than lecturing at them from a pristine perch enabled by occupational norms and editorial rituals that have gone out of sync with the evolving culture of the social world about which journalists report.

This also means telling stories that appeal to interpretation from the heart as much as from the mind, rather than continuing to provide dispassionate accounts of events simply because that’s the mandate of objectivity in the news.

In addition, it has to report aware of the presence of distrust, providing transparency in the methods of fact-finding and assumptions of story-framing to gradually earn the elusive trust of users, readers, viewers, and listeners.

Ultimately, in this nascent third decade of the century, journalism has to foster social justice because that is the bedrock from which audiences can be re-engaged and trust can be earned again.

The audiences have revolted. Will journalism adapt?

Pablo Boczkowski is the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University.

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