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(Re-)Discovering the Audience: Journalism under the Conditions of Social Media

(Re-)Discovering the Audience: Journalism under the Conditions of Social Media

Social Media have changed the traditional relationship between journalism and its audience. But what effects exactly do the participatory features of digital media have on practices and expectations among both journalists and audience members? In this project, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) [German Research Foundation], we conducted case studies based on in-depth interviews, standardised online surveys and content analyses in four newsrooms of information-oriented and debate-oriented news outlets (Germany’s most viewed newscast Tagesschau, national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, a highly popular political TV talk on public service broadcaster ARD, as well as weekly newspaper Der Freitag).

The case studies show that each outlet developed an individual answer to the challenges presented by the increasing opportunities of audiences to participate. The size of the newsroom, the rhythm of publication of offline services (daily vs. weekly), the integration or separation of online and offline departments, as well as the individual journalistic strategy and “media brand” are essential influencing factors in this process. A comparison of the mutual expectations shows that both journalists and audience members agree that traditional journalistic tasks are still important. However, journalists often overestimate affective motives of active audience members (e.g. “want to blow off steam”) while they underestimate the motive of expanding one’s knowledge through participation.

Nele Heise summarised the most important findings for epd medien, no. 6 of 6 February 2015 (in German). You can find the article here.

The development of the project, publications, survey instruments and further information were documented on the project’s weblog: http://jpub20.hans-bredow-institut.de/.

Findings
Between 51 and 87 per cent of the audience of the respective medium participated at least once. A much smaller group, the “core”, participates often and intensely in the comment sections of the respective website or on the outlets’ social media profiles. This relatively small number of audience members causes a considerable workload for the newsrooms: Hundreds, sometimes thousands of comments have to be analysed and moderated every day.

The comments, however, are relevant to other readers and viewers who don’t actively participate, as well; they read the posts to get more information or learn about others’ points of view that are not presented in the journalists’ work.

In three of the four media outlets, the audience’s utterances hardly ever are included in the journalistic products. And most of the audience does not want this to change: The journalists state they want to provide relevant information, explain complex issues or criticise deficits – and that’s exactly what their audience expects of them. Most journalists do not regard dialogue- or participation-oriented tasks as part of their jobs, and most audience members expect nothing more.

However, the internet and social media very well change the journalists’ and audiences’ perception of the journalistic role. More active users value participatory features much higher; and journalists in novel roles – e.g., social media editors – do emphasise participation-oriented aspects of their role. Above that, in all the newsrooms it was regarded mandatory to be present in social networks and to provide comment sections and other participation opportunities on the outlets’ own websites. By this, journalists hope to strengthen audience loyalty. Furthermore, they hope to reach new readers and viewers if users “like”, “share” or “tweet” their contents.

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Project Description

But what effects exactly do the participatory features of digital media have on practices and expectations among both journalists and audience members? In this project, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) [German Research Foundation], we conducted case studies based on in-depth interviews, standardised online surveys and content analyses in four newsrooms of information-oriented and debate-oriented news outlets (Germany’s most viewed newscast Tagesschau, national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, a highly popular political TV talk on public service broadcaster ARD, as well as weekly newspaper Der Freitag).

The four case studies cover three dimensions of contrast:
1.  TV vs. print newsrooms including their respective online departments;
2.  Information-oriented vs. debate-oriented journalism;
3.  Weekly vs. daily publication (see table 1).

   Table 1: Overview of the case studies and Time of Implementation
 
TV/online
Print/online
Information-oriented
Tagesschau/tagesschau.de(daily newscast)
(13.2.2012-5.9.2012)
n= 63 / 4.686 ‖ 10 / 6
Süddeutsche Zeitung/sueddeutsche.de(daily newspaper)
(6.2.2013-20.11.2013)
n= 139 / 525 ‖ 10 / 8
Debate-oriented / weekly
ARD-Polittalk including online services (weekly political TV talk)
(Anonymity was guaranteed to the newsroom)
(21.5.2012-16.1.2013)
n= 10 / 354 ‖ 7 / 7
Der Freitag/Freitag.de (weekly paper)
(5.5.2013-8.1.2014)
n= 10 / 344 ‖ 6 / 6
The n in the cells document the sample sizes of the following instruments: standardised surveys among newsroom members/users ‖ in-depth interviews with journalists/users.

In-depth interviews, standardised online surveys and content analyses were used in each case study (s. Figure 1).

Figure 1: Multi-Method Design in the Four Case Studies


Using a variety of methods, the research project studied how professional, editorially organised journalism integrates participatory elements in its services and which role the expectations and expected expectations of both journalists and audience members play in this process. Hence, the project focused on the question how journalists’ professional orientation and audience participation affect one another.

On both the newsrooms’ and their audiences’ sides, we measured inclusion performance as well as inclusion expectations and, comparing the findings on both sides, determined the respective inclusion levels (extent of audience integration) and inclusion distances (congruence of respective expectations) (s. figure 2). 

Figure 2: Heuristic Model

 
For the journalists we could show how newsrooms organise audience participation and how journalistic attitudes and self-images are constituted. For the audience, we could reconstruct to what extent people use participatory features, why they do so, how they construct their image of other users and what expectations and ideas exist with regard to journalists’ (inclusion) performance. The comparison of both sides provides evidence concerning inclusion level and inclusion distance between journalists and their audience in all of the four case studies.

The case studies show that each outlet developed an individual answer to the challenges presented by the increasing opportunities of audience to participate. The size of the newsroom, the rhythm of publication of offline services (daily vs. weekly), the integration or separation of online and offline departments, as well as the individual journalistic strategy and “media brand” are essential influencing factors in this process.

These variables, of course, account for some, and partly significant, differences between the four case studies. However, we can summarise the findings across case studies as follows:
  1. Offering opportunities for the audience to participate more actively involves significant effort for the newsrooms. At the same time, these opportunities are made use of by only a small share of the respective audience. And the direct effect of such audience inclusion on the journalistic output is very limited in three of the four case studies (exception: Der Freitag).
  2. Journalists assume their active audiences to have mostly affective motives (“blow off steam”), while the users themselves state that they want to present their own opinion, to point out mistakes and to expand their own knowledge.
  3. The journalists’ self-image and the audiences’ expectations towards their performance are quite congruent: Journalists want to achieve what they are expected to achieve in the eyes of their audience. Primarily, this means performing traditional journalistic tasks like informing in a neutral way, explaining complex issues and criticising deficits. However, the expectations towards journalism are also extended by new aspects, either on both sides (e.g., so-called “gatewatching”, i.e. referring to relevant information and content in other media) or only from the perspective of the audience (e.g., the request for more transparency concerning authors, sources and how exactly journalistic content is produced).
  4. Journalists systematically overestimate how important participatory features are to their (average) audience. At the same time, they underestimate the request for more transparency in journalism, e.g. regarding the sources a story is built on or the production processes in the newsroom.
  5. Newsrooms rate very highly the strategic significance of audience participation, while audience members are rather indecisive in how to evaluate it.
  6. The increased opportunities to participate create differences in the attitudes of audience members, which challenge (news-)journalism. One part of the “multiple audience” demands more dialogue and participation or at least to be given the opportunity to reply or object to journalists’ stories.

Project Information

Overview

Duration: 2011-2014

Research programme:
RP1 - Transformation of Public Communication

Cooperation Partner

Contact person

Prof. Dr. Wiebke Loosen
Senior Researcher Journalism Research

Prof. Dr. Wiebke Loosen

Leibniz-Institut für Medienforschung | Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI)
Rothenbaumchaussee 36
20148 Hamburg

Tel. +49 (0)40 45 02 17 - 91
Fax +49 (0)40 45 02 17 - 77

w.loosen@hans-bredow-institut.de

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