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What Journalists Want and What They Ought to Do – The Transformation of the Journalism/Audience-Relationship and Its Relevance for Social Cohesion

What Journalists Want and What They Ought to Do – The Transformation of the Journalism/Audience-Relationship and Its Relevance for Social Cohesion

Journalism’s relationship to its audience is profoundly affected by the transforming media environment: the way how people use news is changing, as is what they demand from journalism, which they, for instance, expect to provide greater transparency and focus more strongly on participation and dialogue. The transformation can be observed in the form of the ubiquitous and instantaneous media criticism expressed in user comments, the apparently fragile trust in media among parts of the population, and in extreme cases, accusations against the media of producing “fake news”. The declining number of subscriptions to newspapers and the low willingness to pay for online journalism are additional indicators that journalism often does not meet the expectations of its users.

However, we know very little about what exactly the public does expect from journalism, and how these audience expectations relate to what journalists themselves regard as their professional task or the self-perception of their own role. This also means that virtually nothing is known about the extent to which the views of journalism and its importance for social cohesion on both sides differ. Against this backdrop, this subproject within the context of the “Forschungsinstitut Gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt” (FGZ; Research Institute Social Cohesion) works on two key questions: what ideas and expectations do journalists in Germany have in relation to the relevance of their work for social cohesion? And to what extent are these expectations and self-images (in)congruent with expectations and demands that citizens place on journalists?
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Project Description

Thematic Connection to Social Cohesion

Inherent to the social function of journalism (in Germany) is the democratic-theoretical idea that media and journalism (should) contribute to social cohesion. To this end, journalism must reach an (or: its) audience. Hence, the quality of journalism’s relationship to its audience is at the core of most public debates about journalism today: be it with regard to the fragile trust in journalism, the "insurgence of the audience" in commentary sections and social media, or more fundamentally, journalism’s importance for opinion formation and democracy. However, both public debate and research have, so far, largely neglected to shed more light on what citizens expect of journalism and to what extent this matches journalists’ own perceptions of their role. A precise picture of this is, however, indispensable for journalism to fulfil its societal function because it is only when the public’s expectations are not belied on a permanent basis that journalism can reach an audience.

Such findings are also relevant from a legal and media regulatory perspective. For example, constitutional communication rights, current media laws and media-related self-regulation provisions all start from the premise that journalism assumes specific functions in a deliberative media democracy. The empirical findings may provide indications of possible misperceptions of these functions by journalists, but also incongruent attributions and expectations of citizens towards journalism.

Thus, the project will examine the attitudes and reciprocal expectations of two groups of actors, both of which are particularly involved in the production of public spheres and the social cohesion mediated by them. This will, on the one hand, provide us with insights into the relationship between journalism and its audience and on the other hand, allow us to analyse the supra-individual aspect of how a social institution – journalism – re-orients itself within a changing media environment and society. The project aims to contribute to a better understanding of affective attitudes, which are the basis for the production and perception of (media) reality, especially from an empirical-analytical perspective. At the same time, however, we aim to develop conceptual and theoretical foundations that help us understand the importance of the journalism/audience-relationship for the realization of social cohesion.

Methods, Empirical Approach, Procedure

In order to answer the two guiding questions of the sub-project we will realize a number of interrelated work packages:
  1. an exploratory qualitative pre-study on reporting styles that are “sensitive” to social cohesion;
  2. a quantitative survey among journalists in Germany;
  3. a quantitative representative survey among German citizens (in cooperation with the subproject “Integration-Related Remit and Functions of Public Service Media”, which is also situated in Hamburg);
  4. a legal assessment of the findings from the perspective of media and constitutional law.
During the pre-study, we will conduct a literature review and two workshops with journalists and communications experts to determine the basic features of a reporting style that is sensitized to questions of social cohesion. The results will be summarised in the form of a handbook for journalism practitioners and the general public. Aspects will, for instance, include the objective and comprehensible presentation of social conflicts as well as the sensitisation for power differences.

The second and third work packages are interlinked: Based on two surveys – one among journalists, the other among citizens – we will examine and compare journalists’ self-image (i.e., which roles and tasks they ascribe to themselves) and their corresponding image among the general public (which expectations citizens have of journalists). We will place special emphasis on the journalistic discussion of cohesion and social conflicts as well as the associated representation of different social groups’ interests and goals. The results of the pre-study will be included, too. Comparing the findings for the population’s side with those for the journalists’ side will show us how close or how far apart the respective attitudes are – in other words, it will show what journalists themselves want to do, and what they ought to do in the eyes of the public.

In the fourth work package, the empirical findings will serve as the starting point for a legal analysis that compares the attribution of functions to journalism under media law and constitutional law with the self-perception of journalists and the population’s expectations towards them. Based on this, the analysis will develop conclusions for both media policy and (constitutional) media law.

Project Information


Duration: 2020-2024

Research programme:
RP1 - Transformation of Public Communication

Third party

Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF)

Cooperation Partner

Forschungsinstitutionen im Forschungsinstitut Gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt

Prof. Dr. Andreas Hepp, Dr. Leif Kramp, ZeMKI Bremen

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

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