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April 27, 2023, 9:16 a.m.
Audience & Social

Audience loyalty may not be what we think

Plus: How participatory journalism became a taken-for-granted norm, how news use can help mitigate misinformation beliefs, and the limits of live fact-checking.

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 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.

Loyalty is a concept that’s invoked quite often when news executives and researchers talk about audiences. We talk about loyal audiences who trust our journalism and are “engaged” with our products, who spend a lot of time on our sites and keep coming back, who are willing to subscribe or donate to our organizations. But it’s not always clear what exactly we mean by loyalty in itself, apart from those actions that it has been tied to.

Is loyalty even a distinct phenomenon apart from the behaviors — like giving continued attention, sharing, and subscribing — that are often thought to characterize it? Researchers Constanza Gajardo and Irene Costera Meijer of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam believe it is. In a new study in Journalism Studies, they argued that, at its core, loyalty to journalism is less about actions than about feelings within a relationship, one that is often obscured as we focus on only its most economically beneficial outcomes.

To determine what loyalty means to news audiences, Gajardo and Meijer used a lengthy, multi-part interview process with 35 regular news users in Chile. They wanted to give people open-ended questions to describe loyalty on their own terms, prompting them to compare their feelings about journalists and news organizations to interpersonal relationships.

One of their most striking findings was that loyalty to a news source was not always tied to regular use. Some interviewees described deep, abiding loyalty for news sources they didn’t regularly use. Said one participant of a Chilean TV journalist: “I don’t listen to him religiously, but when I do, I listen to him. I’m 40 years old and I don’t have to talk to my father every day.” Others described sources they regularly use but feel no loyalty for: “I know…I should say that the news site I visit the most is close to me and that I like it, but this is not the case. This has a purely functional purpose: to know what happened here, there and that’s it.”

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In the latter cases, loyalty was inhibited by a lack of political like-mindedness or credibility. But even trust didn’t guarantee loyalty, as some participants described a lack of relationship with trusted investigative or longform news sources they used, characterizing them as too serious or distant or heady.

So what kind of behaviors did mark loyalty for audiences? It wasn’t always the clicks, shares, donations, and subscriptions we might expect. Instead, people discussed their loyalty in terms of adapting to changes those news sources made, tolerating aspects they didn’t enjoy, or forgiving mistakes they made. Perhaps encouragingly for journalists, these were all quite relational actions. But they were more about tolerating and adapting to perceived shortcomings than responding to news with pure enthusiasm.

Other, more direct actions that we often think about as tied to loyalty — liking, subscribing, donating, and so on — weren’t as evident to users as expressions of loyalty. Just as journalists tend to think about loyalty as something audiences possess, audiences in this study saw it as primarily built around what journalists provide. “Users seem to be clear about what to expect from journalism,” Gajardo and Meijer wrote, “but they are somehow unaware of what journalism expects from them.”

This could be a bleak takeaway for journalists — even our most loyal users don’t know how to support us in useful ways! But it could also indicate opportunity for growth, as news organizations try to tap into the deep (and complex) feelings of their loyal audiences to develop mutually beneficial relationships.

Research roundup

“‘They’re making it more democratic’: The normative construction of participatory journalism.” By Tim P. Vos and Ryan J. Thomas, in Digital Journalism. The idea that journalists are obligated to engage with their audiences and allow them to participate in the co-creation of news — well, it has become “something of an article of faith in journalism studies scholarship in the first decades of the twenty-first century,” Vos and Thomas argue in this piece. Such ideas about participatory journalism, which became normalized over recent decades, “synced with broader intellectual currents around ‘participatory culture’ and optimism about the democratizing potential of the internet.”

Optimism about participatory journalism is in retreat these days, as the dark sides of a participatory internet has come fully into view. But it’s worth reflecting, as these authors do, on an enduring question: How did participatory journalism become such a firmly established journalism norm?

Vos and Thomas examine the “metajournalistic discourse” about participatory journalism from 2002 through 2021, focusing on nearly 500 articles representing 20 sites representing journalism discourse that were identified via network analysis. In attempting to trace how participatory journalism came to be a journalistic norm against the backdrop of social, economic, and technological change, the authors find several things.

First, they demonstrate how, over time, key commentators “sought to legitimize audience participation in the news production process by imbuing it with tried-and-tested notions of journalistic mission. Thus, we are confronted with a discourse that addressed something new but is garbed in the normativity of something more traditional.”

Significantly then, they go on to note that “the transformations to the culture unleashed by participatory technologies were treated as both an empirical given and as unquestionably positive. It is, the discourse suggests, simply commonsensical for journalists to embrace these new realities — this has happened, and it is good” (emphasis added).

Notably, however, they find that the discourse about participatory journalism appears to have peaked in 2015 and declined in recent years.

“News can help! The impact of news media and digital platforms on awareness of and belief in misinformation.” By Sacha Altay, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and Richard Fletcher, in The International Journal of Press/Politics. What should news media do about misinformation? Some researchers have suggested that reporters can inadvertently amplify false claims in their reporting on them — that merely attempting to debunk misinformation can serve to magnify its spread. And it’s true that news media can be manipulated by bad-faith actors masquerading as legitimate sources. But is it true, as some have argued, that “mainstream media are responsible for much of the public attention fake news stories receive”?

No, probably not. That’s the conclusion of this large-scale survey analysis, which involved a two-wave panel study (where the same groups of people are surveyed at Time 1 and Time 2, to check for differences) that was conducted in multiple countries (Brazil, India, and the UK) to avoid problems associated with focusing on one location in isolation. The surveys investigated the impact of media use on awareness of and belief in misinformation about COVID-19.

“We find little support for the idea that the news exacerbates misinformation problems,” the authors write. “News use broadened people’s awareness of false claims but did not increase belief in false claims — in some cases, news use actually weakened false belief acquisition, depending on access mode (online or offline) and outlet type.”

They note that results were not even across countries — “underlining the importance of comparative research to guard against unwarranted generalizations” — nor for all types of news use, but the results were straightforward in the main: “Overall, we find that news can help.”

This research underscores the vital role that news media perform — most of the time, though not always nor everywhere — in “keeping people informed and resilient to misinformation.” Of note as well: the findings suggest that news use via platforms was not associated with greater belief in misinformation, countering somewhat sweeping claims that are often made about platforms and their effects.

“The limits of live fact-checking: Epistemological consequences of introducing a breaking news logic to political fact-checking.” By Steen Steensen, Bente Kalsnes, and Oscar Westlund, in New Media & Society. Political fact-checking has become a global phenomenon during the past decade. Because it often involves going to great lengths to establish evidence-based evaluations of political statements, this form of journalism is assumed to require a lot of “epistemic effort,” or a high degree of time and energy to verify knowledge claims. On the other end of the spectrum of epistemic effort might be another genre of journalism: breaking news. When journalists cover breaking news, especially when they do it from their desk in the newsroom, it’s assumed to involve a lower degree of epistemic effort, because, as noted in this article, “the immediacy of breaking news prevents the journalists from investing time and resources for extensive critical assessments of sources and information.”

So, what happens when fact-checkers attempt to bring a breaking news style to covering political debates with live fact-checks? How do they bridge the gap, as it were, between higher and lower forms of epistemic effort?

Steensen and colleagues, using a variety of research methods, sought to answer this question by investigating the Norwegian fact-checker and its live fact-checking of political debates during the 2021 parliamentary election campaign in Norway. They found that live fact-checking, at least in the case of Faktisk, mainly involves strategies to reduce complexities in how claims are fact-checked, including a reliance on predefined understandings about the relative credibility of sources.

The upshot: live fact-checking of politics tends toward what the researchers call confirmative epistemology, in which fact-checks confirm rather than critique elite perspectives, reinforcing hegemonic views about what’s important, reliable, and true. This raises the “risk that live political fact-checking…might cater to the political elite more so than to the critical public. A potential consequence of this is that live political fact-checking, as performed by Faktisk, might add fuel to the growing criticism of mainstream media lacking diversity of perspectives and critical distance to elites.”

“‘Saving journalism from Facebook’s death grip’? The implications of content-recommendation platforms on publishers and their audiences.” By Yariv Ratner, Shira Dvir Gvirsman, and Anat Ben-David, in Digital Journalism. You’ve seen them at the bottom of many news sites: sections of “Around the Web” and “Recommended for You” articles that tempt readers with sensational photos and headlines (“37 Child Actors Who Grew Up To Be Ugly”) . These “chumboxes,” as they are derisively called, offer up attention-grabbing fare to lure in readers, and many news publishers allow them to live on their sites because they pay more than other forms of advertising. Research, however, suggests that such content leads people to take a dimmer view of news quality and credibility (no surprise!).

But is there a different way of looking at this phenomenon? For one thing, the clickbait aggregators — Taboola and Outbrain, chief among them — argue that they are sparing journalism from the “death grip” of Facebook’s ad dominance by allowing news organizations to work in revenue partnership with these content recommendation platforms.

So, what is the effect of these chumbox aggregators? Ratner and colleagues offer a large-scale analysis of that question, examining nearly 100,000 stories recommended by Taboola and Outbrain that were scraped from nine Israeli news sites. They find that “the spaces created by these partnerships blur the distinction between editorial and monetization logics” — in effect, muddying the waters between journalism and advertising as well as between news brands, and raising new questions about the role of sponsored content and algorithms in challenging journalism.

Additionally, the researchers discovered certain network effects that undermined some news sites: “While large media groups benefit from the circulation of sponsored content across their websites, smaller publishers pay Taboola and Outbrain as advertisers to drive traffic to their websites. Thus, even though these companies discursively position themselves as ‘gallants of the open web’ — freeing publishers from the grip of walled-garden platforms — they de facto expose the news industry to the influence of the platform economy.”

“Improvisation, economy, and MTV moves: Online news and video production style.” By Mary Angela Bock, Robert J. Richardson, Christopher T. Assaf, and Dariya Tsyrenzhapova, in Electronic News. If you’ve been around the journalism block since the early 2000s, you might remember those early hopes for “convergence” — for print and TV newsrooms to join forces in producing multimedia journalism. Those hopes never materialized, but the centrality of video in the digital news ecology has been profound (“pivot to video,” anyone?), and over the past decade digital-native news sites like Vox have worked to develop distinct styles of video storytelling.

Meanwhile, news consumption, to a large extent, has converged to a single screen (a smartphone). This leaves open an important question: Do newspapers, TV, and digital-native news organizations produce the same kind of video? Are they converging stylistically or, as Bock and colleagues wonder, “staying in their legacy lanes”?

Studying a randomized set of U.S. news outlets, the researchers found that “legacy print organizations continue to produce slower-paced videos without scripted narration; TV organizations use scripted narration with one correspondent; and digital natives produce stories with quick pacing and a mix of narrator types.” They argue that diffusion of innovations theory, which points to the role of culture, values, and other social factors in driving innovation adoption, “helps to explain why these organizations offer distinct production styles that are not converging in form.”

So, why isn’t there more similarity in video style? It appears to be at least partly a function of habit: longstanding, entrenched ways of doing things in legacy media routines. “Just because it is possible to create stories with quick edits, engaging graphics, or quality camera work does not mean all journalists are interested in or able to embrace these techniques,” the authors write. “As organizations turn, turn, and turn again to video, it will be important to consider which of these techniques are esthetic fads and which ones best serve the needs of the news audience.”

“Beyond the freebie mentality: A news user typology of reasonings about paying for online content.” By Arista Beseler, Mara Schwind, Hannah Schmid-Petri, and Christoph Klimmt, in Journalism Practice. With pay models popping up on site after site these days, what do news consumers think about being asked to pay for news that they previously accessed for free? While there have been studies on consumers’ willingness to pay, Beseler and colleagues wanted to go a step further in more holistically investigating people’s general attitudes, behaviors, and motivational reasonings around paid online news content.

Through interviews with 64 adults in Germany, the authors developed a typology of five main approaches: paying subscribersfree riderspromisers (“users who do not pay but announce to do so in the future”), occasional buyers, and convinced deniers. This typology, the authors suggest, is helpful for capturing the “extremely diverse” mindsets that may exist among consumers.

“On one hand, many respondents were skeptical or reluctant to pay for online news,” they write. “Even among the paying subscribers, some participants preferred printed news over online news, highlighting the reluctance to pay for something immaterial. On the other hand, some respondents were strong supporters of paid online news, whereby the majority of them have had experiences with or have been socialized with online or parental print subscriptions.”

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

POSTED     April 27, 2023, 9:16 a.m.
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