Program Academy Colloquium The Audience Turn in Journalism


The program consists of four focused panels in which the speakers share and discuss key findings and challenges from their work on digital news habits. The panel presentations are followed by a discussion led by selected discussants. These discussants will reflect on the panel presentations based on their own research expertise.

Day 0: Tuesday, January 22

  • 19.00: Registration and opening reception

Day 1: Wednesday, January 23

9.00 – 9.50: Introduction

The Audience Turn in Journalism Studies (Irene Costera Meijer, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

9.50 – 13.00: Panel 1

Capturing and making sense of everyday news use: Heikki Heikkilä (University of Tampere), Ike Picone (Free University Brussels), Stephanie Edgerly (Northwestern University)

Although it has become somewhat of a cliché to argue that the media landscape is rapidly changing, it is hard to overstate the transformations the news ecosystem has undergone during the past several years. For audience researchers, a key issue is how to capture and make sense of news use when it is increasingly characterized by always-on-ness and on-the-go-news and when news use continues to blur and intertwine with other media practices. This panel therefore centers around two main questions: How can we develop methods and measures that do (more) justice to the complexity and multilayeredness of news use? How can theories and concepts from other disciplines (e.g., anthropology, human-computer interaction) enhance our understanding of everyday news use and users’ experiences of news?

A first challenge concerns capturing people’s everyday news use. Tracking apps and audience metrics (page views, time spent) allow researchers to unobtrusively trace people’s news use, allowing for detailed and precise comparisons between different news media, platforms, brands or genres (e.g., Nelson & Wei, 2017; Thurman & Fletcher, 2017). However, results from the New News Consumer-project (NNC) raise the question what exactly such metrics capture and how they relate to people’s news experiences. For instance, the NNC-project found that page views fail to account for browsing patterns such as “checking” or “monitoring” that do not necessitate a click yet do indicate interest in news (Costera Meijer & Groot Kormelink, 2015; Groot Kormelink & Costera Meijer, 2018b). It also found that less time spent on news can be a sign of users’ skills and experience rather than disinterest or disengagement (Groot Kormelink & Costera Meijer, 2018a). In addition, measures of exposure do not capture the quality of news experiences, such as the distinction between “enjoying” a sensational news item and “appreciating” a thought-provoking item (Groot Kormelink & Costera Meijer, 2017). This panel will therefore discuss how everyday news use can be captured and made sense of in such a way that it allows for meaningful comparisons but also does justice to users’ experiences.

A second challenge concerns an alternative to tracking: self-reporting (surveys, interviews, diaries). People’s limited ability to accurately report their own news use (Prior, 2009) becomes a more urgent concern as users are juggling a multitude of devices, platforms and news outlets, and are consuming news on platforms that mix news with other types of information. For instance, news users are less likely to correctly attribute news stories to news brands if they access them through social media or search (Kalogeropoulos et al., 2018). Moreover, results from the NNC-project indicate that news users have little awareness of how their physical handling and navigation of devices and interfaces shape their use and experiences (Groot Kormelink & Costera Meijer, 2018a). This panel will therefore also discuss how we can capture and make sense of dimensions of news use that people themselves are not aware of, and how we can make productive use of the discrepancy between what people actually do and think they do.

14.00 – 17.00: Panel 2

Connective news in everyday life: Hallvard Moe (University of Bergen); Kim Schrøder (Roskilde University); Stephen Coleman (Leeds University)

Traditionally, journalism’s legitimacy has been linked to its role of societal access point, bridging the private world of individuals and the public space of collective entities (Couldry, Livingstone, & Markham, 2010; Hovden & Moe, 2017; Schrøder, 2015). Recent discussions on the increasing polarization of public debate, information overload and declining levels of institutional trust question these assumptions. This panel asks how the ability of news and journalism to facilitate public connection and engagement is understood from the perspective of the news user, and how journalism practice may adapt to these changing conceptualizations. In the light of current challenges to democracy, how do people perceive journalism’s civic value? How can new formats, forms of storytelling and interactive functionalities be employed to bring the news in such a way that it connects to the lifeworld and the (public) frame of reference of news users? And if the focus is on the connective role of journalism, how is this compatible with critical or disruptive news?

New forms of (online) engagement raise questions about under what circumstances these are perceived as meaningful in users’ everyday life. The New News Consumer project found that while news websites and social media offer numerous interactive features to share, discuss and interact with news, these means for engagement are used very selectively (Swart, Peters, & Broersma, 2016, Van Cauwenberge, 2018). Privacy concerns, the risk of losing face and a lack of user control cause audiences to shift from relatively-open social network sites such as Facebook to messenger services like WhatsApp with a less public character (Swart, Peters, & Broersma, 2018). While this provides safe spaces for users to construct understandings about news with others they trust and may facilitate social cohesion within groups, their detachment from broader “publics” problematizes the classic integrative functions attached to news media of establishing common ground (Coleman & Ross, 2010; Swart, Peters, & Broersma, 2018). How can users’ needs for privacy and sense-making through interpersonal networks be aligned with journalism’s civic value of facilitating connection beyond community boundaries and providing shared frames of reference? Additionally, despite social media’s potential as platforms for connection through news, we also found clear patterns of news avoidance on social network sites (Broersma & Swart, 2016). For users who primarily employ social network sites to connect with others, the presence of news and journalism runs this risk of breaking what users consider a social experience, questioning how professionals can deploy social media in order to facilitate public connection without disrupting existing habits.

Day 2: Thursday, January 24

8.50 – 12.00: Panel 3

How young people understand and engage with news: Lynn Schofield Clarke (University of Denver); Paul Mihailidis (Emerson College); Sonia Livingstone (London School of Economics and Political Science); Neil Thurman (Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München)

When young people are asked what news should be like, they will tell you it should be objective, factual, trustworthy, informative, societally relevant, and reported by professional journalists; they will name quality newspapers and broadcasters as their most valued sources to learn about public issues (e.g., Van Cauwenberge, d’Haenens & Beentjes, 2013; Swart, Peters & Broersma, 2016). These attitudes stand in sharp contrast with how young people actually engage with news. For instance, although professional journalism and legacy news media remain valued sources for news, other information genres and platforms such as political entertainment, blogs, and social media are equally, if not more, frequented news sources among the young (Marchi, 2012; Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2018; Schofield & Marchi, 2017). In addition, findings from The New News Consumer-project show that young people’s sense-making of news hardly reflects that of rational information misers who learn about the world around them by acquiring factual information from news media (Van Cauwenberge, 2018). More often, young people construct understandings of news issues through affective and social processes and contexts that give meaning to news. For example, sharing and discussing political memes on WhatsApp as a friendship maintenance practice, or the use of social discourses and personal experiences to make sense of a news story (Van Cauwenberge, 2018).

Another assumption concerns young people’s news literacies. Current public debates about the role of media literacy education to counter misinformation and political polarization draw in large part on the assumption that people—and in particular the young—need protection against an information environment that lures them into misperceptions and ‘alternative epistemologies’ (e.g., Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017). But to what extent is this assumption a reality? Are young people indeed helpless victims that easily fall prey to fake news, targeted disinformation campaigns, filter bubbles and echo chambers? And have facts, expertise, and professionalism journalism become irrelevant in processes of knowledge construction? Findings from The New News Consumer-project indicate that this fear might be exaggerated, at least in The Netherlands. To illustrate, not only do young Dutch people say to critically engage with media and information, e.g. the use of indicators such as source trustworthiness, expertise, and affiliation to assess the information value of a news message, they are also keenly aware that algorithms drive news filtering on social media and will purposefully steer these to counteract filter bubbles and echo chambers on their personal social media accounts. An example of this is the practice of ‘liking’ a variety of news items and pages from different political parties on Facebook in order to get a topically and politically as diverse as possible news feed (Swart, Peters & Broersma, 2018; Van Cauwenberge, 2018).

If anything, the outlined paradoxes show that conventional understandings of news consumption, found among news audiences as well as news use researchers, fall short in capturing the various meaningful and often conflicting ways in which young people understand and engage with news in the current information environment. This panel asks how we can understand these conflicting scenarios. Or do these scenarios only seem conflicting and are they, rather, part of the same picture? In an attempt to answer these questions, this panel will shed light on and discuss orientations, practices and contexts through which the young make sense of and give meaning to news in a rapidly changing news environment.

13.00 – 16.00: Panel 4

Audiences and journalists: (how) do they know each other?: Steen Steensen (Oslo Metropolitan University), Oscar Westlund (Oslo Metropolitan University), Wiebke Loosen (Hans-Bredow-Institut Hamburg)

The contemporary practice and study of journalism is governed by a participatory ideal, e.g. the idea that journalists should connect in all possible ways with their audiences. This ideal assumes a connection between participatory journalism and democracy, as it starts from the idea that engagement with news is linked with engagement in society. However, two decades of research on digital news production have taught us that journalists, sticking to their gatekeeping role, are reluctant to different forms of audience participation. Audiences are only invited to participate within strict boundaries, and mostly not in the early stages of news production (Lawrence et al., 2017; Singer et al., 2011). While journalists’ reluctance is already well-documented, more recently, scholars have started to pay attention to the reluctance of audiences to participate in news production (Heise et al., 2014) or to engage with news in general (Kalogeropoulos, 2017).

This panel departs from two findings of the New News Consumer Project. The first finding is that journalists overestimate audiences’ willingness to engage with news. For instance, regional journalists practicing “public-powered journalism” through a tool called Hearken (see also Nelson, 2018; Wenzel, 2017) experienced that audiences want to suggest story ideas but that only a small minority of them want to be involved in the subsequent story construction process (Boesman, Costera Meijer & Kuipers, 2018). With regard to interactive storytelling, data journalists and other digital storytellers said they use less and less interactive features, because their metrics indicate that many interaction possibilities – meant to engage audiences – actually disengage audiences (Boesman & Costera Meijer, forthcoming).

The second finding is that participating and interacting audiences are challenging journalists’ conceptions of newsworthiness. While the debate about preference differences between journalists and (measured) audiences is often framed within the dichotomy “giving the public what it needs” (politics!) versus “giving the public what it wants” (cat videos!), our research provides a more nuanced picture. Rather than being only soft news or entertainment, the most common problem journalists experienced with audiences’ story preferences was to align them with dominant journalistic news values as recency, prominence, and conflict (Boesman, Costera Meijer & Kuipers, 2018). For instance, digital storytellers described their most shared and valued stories as “timeless stories, not very newsy”. Regional journalists working with Hearken, on their part, found it difficult to turn audiences’ story suggestions into news stories. The result being that audience-initiated stories were produced as something “additional to the news” rather than being accepted as news.

These findings raise a range of questions, including: How well do journalists know their audiences? Do the increased possibilities for audience feedback really mean that journalists know their audiences better? Are audiences really disinterested in participation, or is it about how participation is organized? And given the relativity of audience participation, is it possible that journalists’ focus on “engaged audiences” is counterproductive to the aim of “audience engagement” in a more general sense?

16.00 – 17.30: Panel 5

Future of audience research in Journalism Studies: Unpacking current dilemma’s, ambivalences and contradictions in audience research (moderator: Marcel Broersma, University of Groningen)

Day 3: Friday, January 25

9.00 – 12.30: Masterclass news professionals

Part One: Focus on Engagement – James G. Robinson (Columbia University & The New York Times)

What are we talking about when we talk about ‘engagement’? Are we talking about clicks and shares? Are we talking about tools and platforms to measure audience attentiveness? Are we talking about the techniques journalists use to make news stories more interactive or participatory? Are we talking about journalists’ efforts to make their work more transparent or constructive? Or are we talking about how news encourages people to participate in society? Newsrooms’ engagement strategies can take all possible forms, but we need to be aware of the different outcomes of divergent choices. This first part of the extended colloquium session will discuss the multilayeredness of engagement, the difficulties of measuring engagement (how to measure, for instance, the heightened use of closed social media such as WhatsApp, or people’s emotional investment in stories when this does not translate into action?), and the connection between engagement and trust (for instance, the connection between negative comments and trust in the related story).

Part Two: Focus on Trust – Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism)

Although audience trust has always been an important issue for journalists, it is even higher on the agenda now, in a, so-called, ‘post truth era’ in which mis- and disinformation proliferate (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017). Yet, current conceptualizations and measurements of news trust fall short in capturing this complex attitude. For instance, while some polls like Eurobarometer and The European Social Survey have consistently ranked news on the low end of the trust-scale, one could question the validity of these kind of survey measurements. For one, it is unclear to what extent these measurements in fact tap into news attitudes rather than reflect a broader sentiment towards public institutions in general. Additionally, the reliability of such measures is contested as other surveys, such as the countrywide survey from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (2018), indicate that the level of trust in the news media people themselves use is even increasing in countries like Ireland, Canada, and the Netherlands. Lastly, what do we mean by ‘trust in news’? Does this indicator refer to news transparency, professionalism, accountability, objectivity, ethics? Or does it simply measure a brand preference?

Being aware of how trust in news is measured and the national contexts within which it is assessed may have important implications for journalism theory and practice (for instance, do we have to applaud the high level of trust in news in Singapore, knowing that this country is at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index?). Furthermore, as mis- and disinformation is primarily spread in society through social media (Bounegru, Gray, Venturini, & Mauri, 2017), one could wonder how engaging with audiences through social media can be united with fostering audience trust. Against the backdrop of these discussions, this second part of the extended colloquium session aims to broaden our understanding of audience trust in news; both in terms of conceptualization and assessment, and how the news industry can use these to strengthen engagement with its audience.

13.00 – 17.00: Masterclass PhD’s and research master students

Measuring changing news use and fragmented audiences: Kim Schrøder (Roskilde University) and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism)

In this masterclass, two esteemed media and journalism scholars will reflect on different methodologies for studying media audiences. Based on their own work, they will discuss how one’s choice of method shapes and colors the results of research into media use. Prof. Kim Schröder is an expert in the cross-media consumption of news and applies both qualitative and quantitative methods, often in mixed-methods designs such as Q-sort methodology, to study media as resources in everyday life. Prof. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that conducts the annual and world-wide survey of digital news use. They will discuss the pros and cons of qualitative and quantitative methods to study media use, and the value of combining both strands of research in mixed-methods approaches.

All panel sessions are full. PhD students or ReMa students can still sign up for the masterclass.

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