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Dec. 7, 2020, 9:20 a.m.
Audience & Social

How journalists learned to stop worrying and love the audience

Plus: Journalistic norms vs. right-wing populism, what journalists think about deleting their tweets, and the unfulfilled promise of augmented reality for news

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a new monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

The audience turn in journalism: from concerns about “quality” to an embrace of “innovation”

By now, it’s a given that news organizations must care (and do care) about understanding and connecting with their audience — much more so than they used to back in the day when journalists could mostly disregard their readers and viewers.

This change in perspective about the audience is everywhere in the industry and in the academy. News executives are focused on growing reader revenue. Journalists are tracking a vast array of digital metrics that provide a real-time window into reader preferences. And many journalism scholars have made an “audience turn” of their own, shifting some research attention away from news production and toward the complexities yet to be understood about news consumption and related questions about, say, how trust in news actually works.

Across the board, there’s a heightened awareness of what has long been obvious but wasn’t such a pressing concern decades ago: the truism that because journalism can’t exist without an audience, it therefore matters to understand how news can be made more meaningful and valuable to more people. This is particularly true at a time when news media are fighting an uphill battle for attention in a digital world offering all manner of YouTube, games, Netflix, and everything else more interesting than, well, traditional news.

But how, exactly, did we arrive at this point? How did the audience go from being something of an afterthought to a front-and-center fixation?

To say it’s simply a matter of the changing economics and technology of news is too simple and only partially true. Instead, we get a more nuanced and well-developed answer from a new study by Irene Costera Meijer, a professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and one of the foremost experts in this area. Costera Meijer was studying news audiences before it was cool. That wealth of experience is apparent in her new article in Journalism Studies, “Understanding the Audience Turn in Journalism: From Quality Discourse to Innovation Discourse as Anchoring Practices 1995–2020.” Partly a personal reflection and renewed synthesis of Costera Meijer’s own two decades of research, this article shows how the journalistic conversation about what counts as “quality” in news is a revealing lens through which to see how journalists have shifted their approach to news users — to the point that, these days, “becoming more audience responsive is no longer automatically condemned as the highway to popularization and sensationalism.”

How is it possible, she asks, “that for a long time, and almost by definition, honoring quality meant excluding audiences from having a say about quality?”

Costera Meijer traces several “tipping points” between 1995 and 2020 that, while grounded in the Dutch journalism context, have broad resonance elsewhere, particularly in countries with strong public broadcasting media. These key moments illustrate a gradual transformation from the 1990s idea that “news is news” and doing quality journalism meant not having to reckon with the audience, to a growing professional emphasis in the early 2000s on “informed citizenship” through quality news, followed by digitalization trends that made the audience trackable and thereby essential to journalism’s survival in moving from print to online. A fourth and final stage has been the recent embrace of audience engagement, which Costera Meijer describes as part of a broader turn in the journalistic discourse away from “quality” and toward “innovation.”

This analysis sets up a way of thinking about where matters of quality fit in a future of journalism increasingly oriented around the audience. “If as scholars we want to keep excellent journalism alive,” Costera Meijer notes in conclusion, “we should … improve our understanding of the experience of quality by news users — when do they actually feel informed — and how such experience changes in relation to time, place, need, habit, mood, device, medium and platform.”

Research roundup

Here are some other studies that caught our eye this month:

Professionalism as a response to right-wing populism? An analysis of a metajournalistic discourse.” By Benjamin Krämer and Klara Langmann, in International Journal of Communication.

This study dealt with a similar theme to a paper we looked at last month, on journalists’ approach to covering white nationalist rallies: What happens when the journalistic norms of objectivity and professionalism run up against racist extremism? In this, Krämer and Langmann were interested in the challenge to journalism from right-wing populism — specifically, the rise of the German extremist party AfD.

Right-wing populist groups like AfD, Krämer and Langmann argued, present two challenges to journalism: First, there is the question of how much coverage to give these organizations given their growing political influence, without amplifying hateful or racist views. Second, the news media themselves are a central target of these groups’ anti-elite criticism, as they seek to use journalists’ own norms of objectivity against them to delegitimize them.

Krämer and Langmann examined 67 articles in German publications discussing journalistic coverage of AfD (what’s known as “metajournalistic discourse”) and found that journalists advocated doubling down on the norms of objectivity and professionalism in response to AfD. Journalists agreed they should not demonize or ostracize the party, but cover them scrupulously fairly according to the principles of objectivity and let the party leaders’ own words “unmask” themselves. “Critical self-reflection with regard to journalistic norms is virtually nonexistent,” Krämer and Langmann concluded, and journalists not only did not deconstruct the populist criticism of the news media, but in some ways tacitly acknowledged it as containing some truth.

Testing for the human capital value of daily newspaper journalists in the era of newsroom downsizing.” By Brian L. Massey, in Newspaper Research Journal.

Based on the relentless cuts at U.S. newspapers over the past decade or two and the overworked, underpaid journalists that remain in those newsrooms, it seems evident that the value of newspaper journalists to their organizations is quite low. Brian Massey has taken on the rather macabre task of determining just how low that value is, by surveying their editors.

In a survey of 191 editors of U.S. daily newspapers, Massey used literature on human capital to measure how much worth editors said they saw in the journalists they managed, and how much their organizations invested in that worth by training and rewarding them. The results captured the duality of the position of editor at an under-resourced newspaper: They expressed very high estimations of the value of their journalists in concept, but didn’t indicate a commitment by their organization to train or reward those journalists. The gap between word and deed is likely cold comfort to the journalists those editors oversee. “The question is whether validation by word alone is enough to recharge those reservoirs” of journalists’ draining psychological resources, Massey wrote. “It may well have to be.”

Proactive ephemerality: How journalists use automated and manual tweet deletion to minimize risk and its consequences for social media as a public archive.” By Sharon Ringel & Roei Davidson, in New Media & Society.

Twitter and its users have long wrestled with the tension between the ephemerality of its form and the permanence. With just 280 characters available, it’s always felt like a place for tossed-off observations, splenetic responses to news, and half-formed theories. Yet those haphazard musings are permanent, preserved for posterity without the intervention of a third-party deletion service or tedious manual deletion. Ringel and Davidson examine this tension as it relates to journalists, who often see their work as a “first draft of history,” but who are also carefully protecting their brands on social media amid a precarious work environment.

In interviews with 17 New York journalists, Ringel and Davidson find that most of them deleted their tweets regularly, many of them en masse with third-party deletion services. For the women interviewed much more so than the men, that deletion was oriented around protection from harassment and “unwanted attention.” Deletion also reflected journalists’ view of the intended ephemerality of their tweets, and their concerns for their own job security and prospects.

But journalists also somewhat ruefully acknowledged the professional norms that might push back against deleting tweets, even as they wiped out their archives. The authors argue that journalists’ mass deletion of their tweets is a form of “individualized platformization” in which journalists mimic the mechanized agency of the platforms they’re using. They call for Twitter to develop more nuanced archiving tools that could allow journalists, for example, to flag tweets they deem worthy of preserving.

Shared emotion: The social amplification of partisan news on Twitter.” By Ariel Hasell, in Digital Journalism.

For many of us, particularly over the past nine months, consuming news on social media has meant being flooded with wave after wave of posts with intense emotion — anger, sadness, fear, and (very occasionally) joy and relief. As the common complaint goes (and research has also confirmed), social media is also a haven for partisan news sources: The more extreme, it seems, the more likely to go viral.

Ariel Hasell tested those observations in a machine-learning analysis of more than 300,000 tweets and retweets from 2014 and 2015, particularly the relationship between the two. Do partisan news sources, she wondered, elicit more emotion on social media? Is that emotion more likely to be negative? And are they more likely to be shared and tweeted about?

The answer, more or less, was yes, yes, and yes. Tweets from partisan news sources on both the right and left were retweeted and replied to more often, and expressed more emotion. There was one caveat, however: When those outlets were retweeted, only the sharing of conservative outlets was more emotional than “neutral” news sources. Liberal news sources were retweeted about half the time with neutral emotions, and when they were retweeted, they were far more likely to be accompanied by enthusiasm than by anger or anxiety than conservative news sources. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that liberals are happier when sharing news than conservatives: The events Hasell chose (like the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S.) were happier stories for liberals than for most conservatives. But it did suggest, as we’ve likely suspected, that emotion is a significant driver in the spread of partisan news, particularly relative to its more neutral counterparts.

Examining augmented reality in journalism: Presence, knowledge gain, and perceived visual authenticity.” By Tanja Aitamurto et al., in New Media & Society.

Augmented reality has been one of journalism’s “next big things” for at least a decade, but it has yet to realize its promise. Some of that may be because it can be difficult to produce and clunky to use, but there’s also the question of whether it’s a good medium for producing understanding of news events and stories. It might be immersive, but does it help people grasp things better than interactive or static visualizations?

That was the question Tanja Aitamurto and her five colleagues were attempting to answer through an experiment with users of three New York Times AR visualizations. They found that compared with static or interactive visualizations, AR produced a greater sense of physical presence, as one might expect, but that the impact on users’ learning was more ambiguous. They perceived themselves as learning more in particular ways from AR visualizations, but when their knowledge was objectively measured, there was no difference between the types of visualizations. AR also largely didn’t improve perceptions of authenticity, accuracy, or credibility, possibly because of the disruptive effect of computer-generated images in the AR visualizations. On the whole, despite AR’s engaging potential, the authors concluded that “it may, to some extent, compromise journalism’s informational goals by contributing to an impression of learning instead of actual learning.”

The winner-loser spiral in political news coverage: Investigating the impact of poll coverage on subsequent party coverage.” By Per Oleskog Tryggvason, in Political Communication.

Oleskog Tryggvason examined the classic critique of political journalism, most prominently made by Harvard’s Thomas Patterson in the 1990s, that it’s dominated by a horse-race frame in which candidates’ and issues’ standing in the polls is a central influence on how they’re covered. That premise has been supported by research in the decades since Patterson’s argument, but that research has centered on the American political context, which is distinct in its two-party system and heavily commercialized media system. Oleskog Tryggvason’s study explored this dynamic in Sweden, a parliamentary democracy with eight parties represented in parliament. What kind of effect, he wondered, does horse-race framing have on political coverage in that environment?

He analyzed 7,500 stories over four years across eight Swedish news organizations, and found that opinion-poll coverage of a party does influence the tone of coverage of that party in the future — but only for positive poll stories, not negative ones. Oleskog Tryggvason posits a couple of possible explanations for this disparity: Journalists may be so used to writing negative political stories that positive polling stories are seen as more deviant and newsworthy, and the horse-race frame may have less of an effect in a less commercialized and more public service-oriented media system such as Sweden’s. Nevertheless, he concludes that political polls are not an indicator but rather a driver of media coverage overall.

Chairs of different colors, by Steve, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 7, 2020, 9:20 a.m.
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