ICA Pre-Conference "Media Performance & Democracy – Defining and Measuring the Quality of News", with PD Dr. Wiebke Loosen & Julius Reimer.
Between proximity and distance: The balance in the transforming journalism-audience relationship as a criterion for media quality?
Discussions about journalism’s (in)ability to meet the demands and needs of its audience are at the very heart of any discussion on media performance, the quality of news, and the function of journalism in democratic societies. But how can we measure how close newsworkers’ and audiences’ ideas of “good” journalism are? Moreover, should we think of proximity and distance of expectations as a criterion for media quality? And if so, are congruent preferences ideal, or is a certain disparity preferable in terms of media performance?
These questions are becoming even more pressing as the relationship between journalism and its audience is transforming, especially with digital networked media increasing connectivity and discussion between the two. Given this shift, we must also ask whether journalists’ and audiences’ ideas of media performance remain restricted to the supply of a certain kind of content or whether they are expanded by further facets such as that journalists are also expected to enable public debate by providing (online) discussion fora or even to take part in debates.
Drawing on our own empirical work, we introduce a methodological strategy to assess this by applying empirical instruments that measure preferences of journalists and audience members alike, in a comparable way. We revised and operationalized constructs such as “journalistic role conception”, “expectations towards participatory features” or “(assumed) motivations for audience participation” as parallel item sets which were included in standardized surveys among both journalists and audience members of different media outlets. Here, we put special emphasis on adding items that particularly represent rather new potential aspects of media performance, for instance, tasks such as curation and community building as well as norms like addressability and dialogue-orientation, participatory openness, shareability, transparency of personal opinions rather than neutrality. We find that indeed expectations are amended by new facets which should be incorporated in quality measures. For instance, audience members explicitly request transparency with respect to sources that inform news stories or to working routines within newsrooms – a preference consistently underestimated by journalists.
We show how this approach does not lead to easy-to-interpret indices or degrees for proximity and distance between journalism and its audiences. However, if the underlying theoretical and methodological implications are made explicit, the approach yields new and rich insights into contemporary journalism and its audiences and helps us better understand what both sides value as desirable media performance. Based on our findings, we discuss a) how these new facets relate to different understandings of democracy (e.g., representative, deliberative); b) in how far features meant to embrace new aspects of media quality need to be not only provided but also carefully managed (e.g., the deliberative value of online discussion boards depends on how they are moderated and appreciated by journalists); and c) how a perfect match of journalists’ and audiences’ preferences cannot be optimal in terms of journalism’s function for a democratic society. Finally, we outline a repertoire-oriented approach to measuring media quality that incorporates the novel aspects identified.