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News Audiences and News Habits

Summary and Keywords

The focus of news-audience research has shifted from investigating news audiences of single platforms—such as newspapers, television, or radio news—to audiences in an inherently cross-media context; and from examining the audience as passive, choosing between content made available for them; to investigating what audiences do with the news more actively, often coined by the term “news engagement.”

News-audience studies can be divided into five approaches: (1) media-effect studies of news consumption; (2) studies of news-media use and motives; (3) cultural audience studies of news practices; (4) news audiences’ comprehension and recall of news; and (5) news engagement in the digital age.

Due to changes in the media landscape, both technological and commercial, traditional analytical models in news-audience research have been challenged. The final discussion addresses how a tendency to focus on either reducing audiences to quantifiable aggregates in big-data research or labeling news audiences as a thing of the past can be observed—in both cases removing news-audience research from actual empirical audiences.

Keywords: journalism, news, audiences, media effects, news comprehension, uses and gratifications, news habits and practices, news repertoires, journalism studies

News Journalism and Its Audiences

Imagine a life without online news—without Facebook and Twitter—and no newspaper, TV, or radio news. What would it be like, and would we miss it? Berelson asked this question in his classic study, “What missing the newspaper means” (1949). Berelson researched people’s sense of emotional loss when their morning newspapers disappeared because of a 1945 newspaper strike, concluding that the loss was less about missing specific information and more about an interruption in people’s daily schedules, as well as a sense of being disconnected from public discourse (Berelson, 1949). This question of how audiences interpret news and react to not having access to news, and how news connects us to each other and to society at large is the essence of what has concerned news-audience researchers. The discipline of news-audience research can be viewed as a subfield of audience and media studies and has a history as long as that of media itself. News audiences and their habits particularly have been studied within both journalism and audience research. Research on news audiences and news habits can be seen as connecting these two fields of study because journalism, by definition, is based on the idea of valuing regular news input in the lives of audiences. Journalism provides news for its audiences, and through this, these audiences serve as the foundation for the existence of journalism as an institution. Of course, news is much older than both the journalistic profession and newspapers, as well as the idea of the indispensability of everyday news about the world. However, the modern “news paradigm” (facticity, event orientation, objectivism, and concomitant formats, styles, and sub-genres) began later (Ekecrantz, 2005, p. 94).

Following a brief, primarily Western and historical view of “news audiences,” the extant literature on news audiences is reviewed and divided into five approaches. The last section discusses five limitations to recent news-audience research, with suggestions for possible further research paths to examine news audiences and their habits.

News Habits Linked to Specific Media Platforms

In news-audience research, the news-distribution platform has had a defining role in relation to the empirical scope and methodological choices made due to research in news audiences and news habits having been in a dialectic relationship with market- and industry-led research into how people have consumed news at various points in history. Technological innovation and development of new platforms naturally have led to changes in consumption patterns and vice versa. Therefore, before turning to specific research approaches, this section briefly will map these changes historically.

In a Western context, the consumption of news took off during a period often called the party-press period, roughly the 1780s to the 1830s, which was dominated by audiences accessing news via printed newspapers, consuming viewpoints, and news from government and political parties. During this era, specific newspapers formally were linked to specific political parties. As TV entered people’s living rooms in the 1950s, this media platform also became a dominant medium for news consumption, giving rise to specific TV research traditions. During this period, roughly half the adult population in a European context on an average day watched televised newscasts either on the one national channel or on public service channels.

The newspaper economy, as the main provider of mass-distributed news, underwent large changes during this period, in the readership market as well as through commercialization of newspaper ownership, fueled by a rapidly expanding advertising market in the 1960s and rising competition for readers, with newspapers slowly becoming “news for everyone.” To appeal to broader and more-diverse audiences, ideals of objectivity and facticity gained a foothold within modern news journalism. News had become big business, as did information on news-audience behavior.

Newspapers still dominated the commercial press, but the entrance of large TV networks made direct measurements of audiences possible (i.e., through Nielsen measurements). However, at first, news on TV was limited, and research on audiences focused on the large amount of entertainment programs that audiences consumed.

Increasingly, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, producers, at least from commercial TV channels, needed to know what kinds of stories would attract and retain audiences. Advertising was a principal driver at commercial stations, where producers soon realized how important news had become to audiences. In the United States, Nielsen introduced the Storage Instantaneous Audimeter, a device that sent viewing information daily to the company’s computers over phone lines and made national daily ratings available by 1973. Although the audimeters did not supply sufficient information regarding audience demographics, it did, however, allow Nielsen to establish diary reports that provided some insight on audiences.

From the 1990s onward, digital platforms gained a foothold at news organizations, with Internet penetration increasing production of news for a surging online audience. However, the audience did not seem to choose these new platforms over older ones but rather added them to their media consumption, spending increasing time overall on news and screens (Møller Hartley, 2011). The digital platforms offered new possibilities for tracking audiences’ access and engagement with news, driven by editorial analytics performed mostly through algorithmic software such as Google Analytics, Chartbeat, and Hotjar, which monitor the activities of news audiences on different online media platforms and provide media producers with up-to-the-minute information on who is visiting their platforms, which content is being consumed, and which stories are being shared. Additionally, comments and @replies on social media give media producers a “qualitative” sense of the concerns and sensitivities among members of their audiences (Møller Hartley et al., 2018, p. 188).

Five Approaches to News-Audience Research

If we consider news audiences as a discipline concerned with what the audience does with news, distinct from other audiences, one could argue that it’s a rather new discipline. The broader field of audience research generally had focused on TV, radio, and popular culture, and more recently digital media (Jensen & Rosengren, 1990). Even though news often was an implicit part of the research, or figured into empirical case studies, the main research questions often revolved around the broader concept of media and mass communication up through the 19th century. Overall, this article discusses news-audience studies and news habits from what can be viewed as five different approaches: (1) media-effect studies of news consumption; (2) studies of news-media use and motives, that is, news repertoires; (3) understanding of news, that is, comprehension and recall; (4) news practices in everyday life, that is, the cultural turn; and (5) audiences’ cross-media engagement with news. The five approaches have been more prominent in different historical periods but cannot be viewed as following each other historically. They differ in their methodological focus and in their views on “audiences” as analytical objects. The approaches all originated in a Western context, and despite later spreading to other parts of the world, the focus in this article will remain on the founding schools and newer literature in a Western context. Furthermore, this article maintains a strong focus on research, with actual news audiences as the empirical object and news as a genre as the main focus, rather than just one genre of text among many other types of content.

The Power of Media on News Audiences: Media Effects

The tradition of media-effect studies runs through the 19th century, then into the development of mass-media technologies, such as radio and film, in the early 20th century, then to 1930s audience researchers, who looked at audiences as passive and homogeneous. Propaganda implemented during both world wars exemplified strong-effect communication, and early media-effect research often focused on the power of this propaganda (e.g., Lasswell, 1927).

News-audience research grew steadily in the United States primarily, a prime example of which is agenda-setting theory. Agenda-setting attempts to make predictions about audiences, even though the audiences in some variations were rather absent empirically. The hypothesis was that if a news item is covered frequently and prominently, the audience will regard the issue as more important. Agenda-setting theory formally was developed as news-audience research by Max McCombs and Donald Shaw in a study on the 1968 U.S. presidential election. They concluded that “in choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972, p. 176).

To this day, it is still common to see studies on various effects from news on audiences, for example, studies on “the effect of news on elections” by Lawson and McCann (2005), who show that on the basis of analysis of a four-wave panel survey, exposure to TV news had significant, substantial effects on both attitudes and voting choices in Mexico’s watershed presidential election in 2000.

Quantitative panel surveys have been the preferred method of effect studies, which were and are often measured in relation to elections and voting. One example can be seen through the entry of Fox News into cable markets and its impact on voting (DellaVigna & Kaplan, 2007). Studies sometimes cover long-term changes, such as Bruter’s investigation of the effect of EU news on European citizens’ identities. Bruter used the method several times over 2.5 years and concluded that good or bad news on Europe, or that affected symbols of the European Union, affected the European identity and also that news works as a powerful time bomb (Bruter, 2009). Hence, agenda-setting research has continued to develop into the early 21st century, even though a reaction toward this dominant paradigm of measuring the effect of mass-media content had been felt back in the 1950s from Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld in their book Personal Influence (Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955). The book’s main argument was the innovative concept of the two-step flow, which challenged the popularity of the direct-effects model. It undermined the image of the viewer and listener as part of a mindless, homogeneous mass. It was time to bring in the individual user, and this gave birth to uses-and-gratifications (U&G) theory.

The Motivations and Needs of the News Audiences: News Repertoires

The U&G approaches (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1973) stem from Lasswell’s functionalism of the 1940s (Lasswell, 1948), which also originated in a U.S. context. It attempts to explain why people use various forms of media (Katz et al., 1973) and what their motivations are when selecting among media channels and their content. The U&G approaches conceived of the audience as conscious individuals who can identify their own needs and interests, then select news-media sources and messages accordingly. U&G also emphasizes various affective methods of engaging with the news, such as motivations (for news use) and experiences in the use of news, as well as evaluations and gratifications that the user gets from accessing the news.

Jensen and Rosengren have argued that the media-effects tradition within mass-communications research seems to have merged with the U&G approaches, as can be seen under the heading “Uses and Effects Studies” (Jensen & Rosengren, 1990).

The U&G approaches have been criticized for being behavioristic in their way of emphasizing the rational and individualistic choices of single users, and this particular focus is why the tradition has been criticized as unfit for studying the context of the media and news consumption. Some of this criticism originated in Britain, where several scholars from the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, in their critique of the U&G approaches, played a big role in emphasizing the context of news consumption in everyday life.

However, as Livingstone (2006) argues, the story of two opposing research traditions on two sides of the Atlantic is possibly too simplified, as work by Katz and even the book Personal Influence by him and Lazarsfeld emphasized group processes as they operate in local contexts. She notes, “Hence, sidestepping the more usual production-text-audience framework of mass-communication research, Personal Influence, like much of Katz’s subsequent work, examines various permutations of the relations among three different domains: media (primarily institutional contexts, though also texts), public opinion (and its role in democratic processes) and conversation (as embedded in interpersonal or peer networks)” (Livingstone, 2006).

Coming out of the U&G approaches, a focus on the habitual, or news consumption as routine, can be observed, for example, routinely listening to news on the radio during everyday chores at home (Heikkilä & Ahva, 2015, p. 6). Diddi and LaRose (2006) argue that habits are an important addition to the U&G approaches, as they emphasize that over time, people stop thinking about the choices they make. Audiences fall into a “pattern of repeated media behaviour that is not subjected to active self-observation, a media-habit” (Diddi & LaRose, 2006, p. 195). In time, habit strength builds, aided by the process of classic conditioning, in which news consumers return to their preferred news sources to relieve their vague sense of unease about not knowing what is “going on” in the world (Diddi & LaRose, 2006, p. 195). They show how increasing habit strength for “news junkies” gradually moves from actively “getting their fix” to a more automated and unconscious process over time, thereby forming a habitual news-consumption pattern (Diddi & LaRose, 2006, p. 206).

One method of studying people’s routine practices of news consumption in their everyday lives theoretically has been conceptionalized as news repertoires. Building on the German tradition of media-practice research, media repertoires can be defined as “relatively stable cross-media patterns of media practices” (Hasebrink & Popp, 2006, p. 4).

A study by (Schrøder & Kobbernagel, 2016) applies the work of Andreas Hepp (2013) on communicative figurations in a news-consumption context. Hepp defines communicative figurations as “People traverse in the course of a day, week, month or year, each characterised by a specific constellation of actors, a thematic framing, a set of mediated and non-mediated forms of communication, and a media ensemble” (Hepp, 2013, p. 623). This is done by situating the use of news in everyday life, and they define media repertoire as “the entity of different media that a person regularly uses” (Schrøder & Kobbernagel, 2016). Inspired by earlier studies of how media consumption was linked to people’s social profiles, recent studies of news repertoires specifically have noted that it is possible to identify certain shared subjective orientations among citizens toward patterns of cross-media; digital news consumption, such as “online quality omnivores”; “light-news snackers”; and “intellectual/professional networkers” (Schrøder & Kobbernagel, 2016; Swart, Peters, & Broersma, 2017). Media-repertoire studies also have made it possible for researchers to focus on more than one platform, thereby putting the audience at the analytical center, rather than the platform of news distribution.

Another tradition came with a different critique of the media-effects approaches—a research approach that dug qualitatively more deeply into how news audiences receive text and understand the content of news items and various platforms. They were interested in news comprehension and how much (or little) news audiences remember.

Understanding the News: Comprehension and Recall

This comprehension of news was studied extensively in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly through often-experimental recall studies. This tradition aimed to study how people remembered and understood news. In Sweden, Höijer and Findahl carried out several studies on news comprehension, showing that news is remembered poorly and that differences exist between platforms. They also showed how variables in content and previous knowledge affected how much people comprehended news content (Findahl & Hoijer, 1985). Lewis (1991) investigated news comprehension in relation to the narratives of the study, comparing both reception of news and popular content, but with an emphasis on TV as a platform. The researchers also examined audiences’ ability to recall within a single news item, for example, Larsen showed that radio listeners only remember about 20% of any news item (Van Dijk, 1988). Schaap (2001) examines how correct reproductions or misunderstandings are often assessed by researchers themselves and classified as incorrect retention, even if they might be legitimately considered a part of what it means to comprehend news.

Mathieu (2012) notes that the studies collectively show that people understand and learn little from news, but that this might be too narrow and incomplete a conception of news reception. He argues that extant studies show more about what people don’t do with news than what they actually do with it, and that it is important to consider the recipients’ perspectives and contributions. How do news audiences themselves negotiate meaning (Mathieu, 2012, p. 34)?

Recall studies also have shown that the amount of sophistication in background knowledge enhances recall and comprehension (Graber, 1988; Gunther, 1887, 1981; Van Dijk, 1987). These studies also have shown that education is seen to correlate strongly with comprehension, but that even when well-educated, 35% did not understand the news (Van Dijk, 1988). Philo concluded in his research that direct experience with the subject matter provides a context of knowledge to comprehend the news. For example, those who experienced the British coal-mine strike of 1984–1985 used their experience to oppose the narratives in the news and did so unrelated to their social position (Philo, 1990).

In Birmingham, several researchers also were interested in the reception of news but with a much stronger focus on the cultural frameworks affecting how news was perceived by different audiences. This approach has been labeled “the cultural turn in audience studies” (Bird, 2011).

News-Audience Practices in Everyday Life: The Cultural Turn

In cultural audience research, interpretation of news and other content is understood as a semiotic process, wherein readers identify a piece of text as news; and while reading it, they apply specific cultural frameworks for making sense of what is claimed. Secondly, researchers also aim to grasp the broader environment in which media consumption—and, thus, news consumption—takes place, often working with the concept of “everyday life” (Drotner, 2000).

The researchers focused on the reception of text and relating it to how audiences receive it (Jensen, 1986). As the focus was on sense making, ethnographic methodologies have flourished in the domain of cultural studies. News largely was neglected in favor of work with entertainment media (Bird, 2011). Bird argues that the reasons for this lie primarily in the difficulty of capturing news audiences for study (as opposed to audiences for specific entertainment programs or genres) because news is received and circulated almost constantly—even more so in the early 21st century with the rise of social media (Bird, 2011, p. 490). A consequence of all these complications, Bird says, is that journalism scholars rarely tackle the reception of news in other than quantitative, text-response ways, and cultural-studies scholars and anthropologists continue to focus primarily on entertainment genres (Bird, 2011, p. 491).

However, news audiences were part of the work at the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, where Stuart Hall was a leading figure in the 1970s, most known for the canonic text Encoding/Decoding, which first appeared in 1973 and was published in a shorter and more famous version in 1980. Although the focus was on the discourses of TV more generally, one section focuses specifically on TV news as a factual genre. In this work, a response to the structural, deterministic Marxist arguments of the Frankfurt School, Hall argued that several dominant readings of a certain news text are possible, but that the readers of that text also interpret it differently than how the producer of the text had “encoded” it (Hall, 1980).

Building on Hall’s work, Morley’s seminal study “The Nationwide Project” empirically examined the three ideal type readings identified by Hall—“dominant,” “oppositional” and “negotiated”—finding relative matches with the economic status of audience groups. However, Morley found that decoding cannot simply be attached to socioeconomic class (Morley, 1980). A criticism of Morley’s work has been that it failed to clarify the systemic and consistent influences of viewers’ social conditions on decoding practices. By using a statistical method, (Kim, 2004) demonstrates that audiences’ decodings of the program presented by Morley were, however, clearly patterned by their social positions. The findings reveal the overdetermined effects of various social conditions, such as class, gender, race, and age (Kim, 2004). Jensen (1986) also studied the reception of news directly, and using the metaphor of negotiation, he transferred the concern with power into the arena of sense making. The interest in meaning should be seen in relation to the desire to find out whether audiences would reproduce the dominant ideology of the media or vice versa. “For reception analysis, the question is to what extent the account is taken over or reproduced by the recipient” (Jensen, 1986, p. 67). The sense making as a concept has continued to flourish in news audiences research, even as the sense making became increasingly difficult to study with the increase of digital and connective platforms for consumption of news.

Cross-Media News Engagement

As the Internet and social media have gained increasing importance in people’s lives through the “culture of connectivity” (van Dijck, 2013), a greater emphasis has been put on the role of online technologies and social media platforms in news and media use and engagement. As noted above, viewing news as a social experience and recognizing the importance of distributing systems in the consumption of news already were established in mass-communication research, following Katz and Lazarsfeld’s seminal work Personal Influence (1955). But in the digital age, with its increased and facilitated opportunities to engage with news, it seems that much of the literature has moved from studying news consumption toward news engagement. News engagement as a concept indicates a more active user, and in market research, it often means measuring clicks, likes, and shares in social media and elsewhere to gauge users’ level of engagement in a specific media outlet or story. The digital medium thus moved research questions from consumption, that is, “How much and which news on which platform?” to engagement, that is, “What do we do with news across platforms?” The digital medium and the importance of social media platforms meant that studies of media consumption no longer could be limited to studying single-media consumption but had to be seen as “inherently cross media” (Schrøder, 2011).

What unites newer studies of audiences in the digital era is a combination of two foci: an investigation of news usage (as an ingrained part of media consumption, more generally); and an examination of what news means to audiences and its larger effects on society, exemplified in a study by Couldry, Livingstone, and Markham, “Media Consumption and Public Connection” (2010). In this study, which used media diaries, qualitative interviews and survey methods, Couldry and his colleagues draw attention to the concept of public connection, through which they attempt to conceptualize “the orientation to any of those issues affecting how we live together that require common resolution” (Couldry et al., 2010, p. 6). In their study, news is not a specific focus but is integrated into overall media-content consumption. News, they note, is located in the interface of following the news regularly and attitudes toward the news (Livingstone & Markham, 2008, p. 56).

Much of engagement research shares an interest in the concept of “practice” (Bräuchler & Postill, 2010). Practice theory comes in many varieties, but a recurring definition describes a practice as “a routinised way in which bodies are moved, objects are handled, subjects are treated, things are described and the world is understood” (Reckwitz, 2002, p. 121). In an article from 2004, Couldry argues that a focus on practice can overcome the dichotomy between the textual focus, in which it is extremely difficult to conclude any effect on audiences; and the study of the institutional structures of the media, that is, media production, which, according to Couldry, does not tell us anything about the uses to which media products are put in social life generally (Couldry, 2004, p. 118). Similarly, Ann Swidler (2001) has noted that audience researchers need to focus on practices themselves, particularly “routine activities (rather than consciously chosen actions) notable for their unconscious, automatic, un-thought character” (Swidler, 2001, p. 74).

An example of such a study, specifically focusing on news audiences’ engagement practices, has been provided by Jacob Ørmen (Ørmen, 2015), who defines news engagement as a multidimensional concept that includes three socio-psychological processes: physical behavior, cognitive processes, and affective relations (Ørmen, 2015, p. 25). This, in turn, also meant a shift in focus from often-passive news consumers to more active news users, first coined by uses-and-gratifications theory. He concludes that the connections that audiences might get from engaging with news are often more private, as many people prefer to discuss news in private.

The digital and cross-media focus does not mean that researchers stopped looking at which news, how much news, and on which platforms, as we see it in the repeated cross-national comparative reports of digital news consumption published by the Reuters Centre for Digital News (Newman, Fletcher, Kalogeropoulos, Levy, & Kleis Nielsen, 2017; Newman, Fletcher, Levy, & Nielsen, 2016; Newman & Levy, 2014, 2013) (2013, 2014, 2016, 2017), as well as in studies such as the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Zickuhr & Smith, 2011).

Two other user strands of research have come out of the U&G approaches, following new questions on digital and participatory changes in the media landscape, specifically spurred by an increased concern with the power of social media platforms.

First, one strand of studies continued from the media-effect-studies tradition, often using big data to examine how the audience is fragmented (Trilling & Schoenbach, 2013a) or trying to show the effect of social media in terms of filter bubbles or echo chambers (Colleoni, Rozza, & Arvidsson, 2014; Pariser, 2011; Sunstein, 2009). Traditions related to this also looked into news-audience polarization, arguing that news consumption has become more polarized between news seekers and news avoiders over time, and that political interest has become a more important determinant of news consumption in today’s high-choice media environment (Ksiazek, Malthouse, & Webster, 2010; Strømbeck, Djerf-Pierre, & Shehata, 2013). The audience formerly could only be active within the clear limitations set by the mainstream media, but researchers have hypothesized that with social media as intermediaries, as well as personalization of online news sites, people have far more opportunities to select only the media content they want to consume. Thus, those who do not care about current affairs, politics, and other news now can simply avoid it and live without any media exposure. Thus, more and more researchers have begun to examine non-usage of news as a phenomenon (e.g., Schrøder & Blach-Ørsten, 2016; Trilling & Schoenbach, 2013a, 2013b). Summing up, media effects in the early days focused on the effects of news content, whereas later research of news consumption on digital platforms provides a balance between technological determinism and hyper-optimism.

Within the more optimistic body of research, studies became concerned with the notion of user “interactivity.” These user studies have examined how people engage with the news through more participatory news-audience practices, famously coined by Jay Rosen’s description of “the people formerly known as the audiences” (Rosen, 2006). Axel Bruns and Tim Highfield have spoken of “produsage” to denote those collaborative processes in which knowledge is produced by both professionals and users (Bruns, 2005; Bruns & Highfield, 2012; Deuze, Bruns, & Neuberger, 2007). The statements were based on the hypothesis that we are seeing a re-articulation of the relationship between readers and journalists along the lines of what was previously known as public journalism, citizen journalism, or participatory journalism. These mostly theoretical claims then were investigated within what is often labeled “user interactivity” studies, which are interested in debates and commenting on news online (e.g., Milioni, Vadratsikas, & Papa, 2012; Richardson & Stanyer, 2011). This can be seen as a continuation of studies that have looked into similar practices from print, for example, letters to the editor (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2001, 2002).

Limitations and Future Paths

Due to changes in the media landscape, both technological and commercial, the traditional analytical models in the field of news consumption and news-audience research have been challenged. We can observe a tendency to focus on either reducing audiences to quantifiable aggregates in big-data research or labeling news audiences as a thing of the past—in both cases removing news-audience research from actual empirical audiences. This last section will discuss five limitations in recent news-audience research, as well as provide suggestions for possible fruitful paths for future research into news audiences and news habits.

The first limitation entails the structural conditions that influence how audiences choose between news stories, outlets, and platforms. The discussion of individual agency by audiences versus structures of news institutions runs through the history of news-audience research, and although the structural aspect was, indeed, present, especially in cultural-studies traditions, it is as if the inheritance from cultural studies has been forgotten in an attempt to emphasize the importance of digital platforms and interfaces. This means, for example, that people’s motives, skills, and cultural capital (news literacy) seem to have been largely overlooked in the literature. The cultural capital of audiences as a framework for their selection of news frameworks recently has been explored by Ohlsson, Lindell, and Arkhede (2017), who show that cultural capital engenders patterns of taste and distaste for different online national news providers. This is manifested in how those rich in cultural capital are more inclined to consume “quality” news and neglect “popular” news (Ohlsson et al., 2017). Similarly, Lindell and Sartoretto show how young people are socialized into news consumption of specific genres and that class matters in this socialization (Lindell & Sartoretto, 2017). More research is needed to investigate how our position in various social fields influences how we engage with choosing news amid all the other media content we engage with, as well as how new platforms might transform or conserve our taste for news and media content and platforms.

Second, following the emphasis on digital platforms, researchers have focused strongly on news audiences increasingly taking over the role of gatekeeper (curation, circulation) for news (Tandoc, 2014). Researchers often have concluded that there is some distance between the interactive utopian ideals (Domingo, 2008; Møller Hartley, 2011) and the realities of everyday life for news audiences. Research on news audiences has been influenced heavily by ideals concerning technology and the democratic value of engagement with news, while overlooking the commercial side of news habits. Hence, we have seen little audience research on more tabloidic forms of news; popular news formats; and especially the breakdown of borders between public service ideals in news production and the ideals of commercial interests, that is, how business models, advertorials, and other types of content borrow elements from the news genre. The question is: What does this all mean for audiences’ relations with news and with journalism as an institution?

Third, much of the literature within the digital context is quantitative and often contained within national contexts. Conversely, cross-national comparative studies tend to remain focused on the older categories—“television,” “radio,” or “online”—despite the fact that most users of news might not be able to distinguish where and how they engaged with a certain news story, let alone remember how much we actually use numerous screens in many different forms in both public and private settings.

Fourth, we often see an implicit definition of what news is in news-audience research, which also means that consumption of news often has been contrasted or analyzed in relation to the consumption of other types of content. We especially have seen a distinction between popular and informative news, often problematizing that, for example, young people turn toward “lighter” versions of news, however regrettably, without defining what is meant by “lighter.” Furthermore, surprisingly few studies have examined audiences’ understanding of the news as a genre in the mix of all other content that people are exposed to and engage with regularly. Has the way people understand news changed, and how and what does this mean for journalism as an institution?

A few qualitative studies have investigated how, for example, young people define and value various news stories, but entertainment-focused news is predefined by scholars as actual news content in a humorous format, such as comedic TV (Armstrong, McAdams, & Cain, 2015, p. 85). Fry (2008) used focus-group studies to ask people what constitutes news, but this study ended up concluding that people prefer entertaining news, while also wanting more serious news. However, some news viewed as serious to some audiences might be viewed as merely entertaining to others. This paradoxical relationship has been a focus of Meijer’s research on young audiences (Costera Meijer, 2007), who show how they on the one hand like to follow the news, as they feel it is something they ought to do, but also find themselves tuning into more entertaining forms of news than traditional TV news. On the other hand, they do not want these traditional news programs to become more entertaining, as the news then seems less credible or even fake (Costera Meijer, 2007, p. 13). Again, what news is to these young people seems to be implicit in the research questions.

A fifth limitation is an often-implicit, functionalist assumption in many news-audience studies that if people consume news and media, they automatically will turn toward the public sphere. Couldry et al. coined the popular term “public connection” (2010) as “an orientation towards issues of common concern” but refrained from defining what those issues of common concern could be and assumed a broad agreement on what such issues could be. This indicates, as also noted by (Jones, 2006) and Kaun (2012), the importance of addressing, in future research, the dominating role of news in research of mediated citizenship, and a need to look beyond news and citizenship as primarily “informational” (Jones, 2006), making it possible to analyze conflicting ideals of citizenship among different audiences. Attempts have been made to broaden the concept to show how more entertaining genres can foster a public connection (Kaun, 2012), and to theoretically broaden citizenship theories in the directions of “everyday citizenship” (Chouliaraki, 2012) and “silly citizenship” (Hartley, 2010). But rather than seeing media and news (and mostly political news and legacy media) as either a sort of glue holding together the democratic values of society, or more pessimistically seeing media and news consumption as fragmenting us into filter bubbles or echo chambers, media scholars with an interest in news audiences might consider looking for an answer somewhere in between.

Further Reading

Bird, S. E. (2011). Seeking the audience for news: Response, news talk and everyday practices. In The handbook of media audiences (pp. 489–508).Find this resource:

    Bruns, A. (2005). Gatewatching: Collaborative online news production. New York, NY: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

      Couldry, N., Livingstone, S., & Markham, T. (2010). Media consumption and public engagement—beyond the presumption of attention (2nd ed.). London, UK: Palgrave.Find this resource:

        Heikkilä, H., & Ahva, L. (2015). The relevance of journalism: Studying news audiences in a digital era. Journalism Practice, 9(1), 50–64.Find this resource:

          Jensen, K. B., & Rosengren, K. E. (1990). Five traditions in search of the audience. European Journal of Communication, 5(2), 207–238.Find this resource:

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