#38: why it's important to study audiences (and ourselves)
and a case for self-efficacy over just literacy
In this letter:
☎️ A conversation with media scholar Stephanie Edgerly about why it’s important to study the effects of news on audiences and the skills we could all benefit from. It’s a little longer than usual, but I’ve broken it into 3 Q’s to guide us.
Our guest: Stephanie Edgerly
Nieman Lab: It’s time to understand the un-audience
First things first: I present you with this potentially confusing diagram to make a few points before we jump into today’s letter, which contains an interview!
Its point is to convey that:
journalists and audiences may spend a lot of time writing about each other (in articles and in frustrated comments, respectively) but actually don’t know that much about each other
pretty much no one is paying as much attention to the needs of news consumers (aka you and me) as marketers, advertisers (and also product designers)
media scholars, like the one you’ll hear from in today’s letter, study the above relationships in great depth and we can learn a lot from them
Let’s make this personal.
Here’s what journalists don’t know about you:
They don’t know why you do or don’t consume news. They don’t know how it makes you feel. They don’t know if you trust them. They don’t know what your media diet looks like. They don’t know what you are worried about most in the world. They don’t know what makes you excited or inspired. They don’t know what drives you to give up. They don’t know why you keep going.
(Caveat: there is a wonderful, growing movement in journalism to prioritize listening to and collaborating with the communities we serve, but it’s not the mainstream.)
If they work for a large media company, then someone on a different floor who is responsible for revenue probably knows a lot of answers to those questions. But the people writing stories about other people? They are mostly in the business of uncovering truth and getting it past editors for a terribly low wage. It’s mostly not their fault (though the question of if it’s their responsibility is a separate one). This is how the business has evolved.
But here’s my question for you.
Do you, as a consumer, know the answers to those questions if you had to answer them about yourself? My guess is that most of us don’t. I didn’t, until I started rigorously documenting and reflecting on my information consumption, and I accept that I’m a little bit insane for doing so.
But the thing is, more people do need to pay attention to the audiences for whom content is produced. Audience awareness makes news producers more thoughtful and useful, and it makes news consumers (aka people) more capable and healthy.
Today we’re going to explore how to think about news audiences.
Today’s guest: Stephanie Edgerly
As promised last week, I’m sharing a conversation I had with media scholar Stephanie Edgerly, who specializes in audience insight at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. If you want to get familiar with her work, a fun place to start is her 2019 Nieman Lab prediction: It’s time to understand the un-audience. (Note: Nieman Lab collects predictions for the future of news from smart people every year.)
I’m excerpting parts of our conversation (which I have very lightly edited for clarity) under a few important questions I think we all need to ask if we want to have better control of how we spend our time with media.
Question 1: Why study effects?
I came across Stephanie through her recent paper, co-authored with Jacob Nelson (whose work I am also excited to dig into): The (ir)relevance of audience studies in journalism education. I follow a fair bit of media and comms research and to be honest, it’s rare that I find work thoroughly focused on audience, so I was beyond delighted to dive into both Stephanie and Jacob’s work. (I’ve since discovered more but open to suggestions.)
My first question was, why audience?
Stephanie: I sort of fell into it a little bit. I was trained in political communication and that background makes me interested in questions of effects. How do media, how does political media, political messaging affect people? And that kind of focus on effects naturally got applied to the news media.
Because we assume that media has some effect on people. We're hoping it has positive effects. It makes you more knowledgeable. It makes you more aware. You develop more complex thoughts or opinions about certain issues. It can compel you to take action. We certainly hope that has something to do with how you vote or, or makes you mobilized to vote. …And we're starting to grapple with some of the negative effects that consuming news can also have on people.
That really pointed me toward all the theories and the methodological training that I had about effects and wanting to center it more in news. And there, you start to grapple more centrally with the role of audiences and the relationship that journalists and news workers have with their audience.
Fortunately, she ended up at Medill at a time when they had already recognized the role of audience in journalism curriculum and started out teaching audience insight.
This focus on audience, however, is not always the case in journalism courses, and in the paper, she and Nelson examine just that: What is the role of audience in journalism courses?
Jihii: In the journalism education paper, in terms of research methods, I see that you basically went through a lot of different syllabi. Was the analysis purely based on the written syllabi or did you end up getting to follow up and talk to some of the professors about how and why they made the decisions they did?
Stephanie: So in the published study, no, but in our continuing project, that is the next step…We are aiming to interview the people that we got syllabi from and also fleshing out some of the other categories that we did not get syllabi from, just to sort of hear about the tensions in including audience and what that means.
I can sort of preview this a little bit for you. In going through the syllabi and in some of the off the record emails we got from professors who were giving us their syllabi, there were two things that jumped out at us that we didn't get a chance to blow out in the paper. There was a much more qualitative, cultural emphasis on audience in non-journalism classes, so marketing classes, strategic communication classes. And those sometimes are in a journalism school, but they're in the marketing department or they are like a separate department in a larger school. So we were really interested—and this is not something just looking at someone's syllabi can tell you—why that broader conceptualization is allowed to grow in an adjacent area, whereas there's a little bit more tension in fitting it into a journalism class. I'm really wanting to explore that.
That was born from several emails where people were like, "Here's my syllabus, but I'm not a journalist," or "I don't teach journalism," or "My class isn't about the news." We were like, but it's so important! And [from] the very real struggles that Introduction to Journalism courses have where they have to teach a whole bunch of skills and a whole bunch of writing, and so when you're under that kind of pressure of introducing basic fundamental skills, where does audience get introduced and how is it actually operationalized in the building blocks of teaching journalists?
Jihii: How interesting. That was exactly my gut feel. That maybe these classes exist outside of the j-school, so I was going to ask: Have you seen other places that this type of more holistic conceptualization of the news consumer is being taught or discussed?
Stephanie: It tends to be an interdisciplinary courses. They can be in a j-school but they're taught by faculty members that are in a different department that are not a journalism faculty member. They might be marketing, they might be strategic communication, they might be communication. They could be a joint appointed sociologist. So they're not the traditional journalism instructor, or it's not, in their opinion, a traditional journalism class.
I mean, I think it's great. It makes me very happy that media and communication and journalism is interdisciplinary because there's so much benefit from these classes that take a different approach. But you definitely feel the pressure or the acknowledgement that like, hold on, I know this is different. This is a little bit of a weird fit. “If you're asking me if I'm a journalism class, the answer is no.”
But it's like, but you're about audience, which is increasingly something that's so talked about in the field of journalism and you're offering this class to journalism students, so we want to know about it.
Jihii: Yeah. That's really interesting because on the consumer side, there is no compartmentalization in the consumption experience. And yet there's so much compartmentalization in the sort of training side of it and it seems quite odd, honestly.
As a side note, what Stephanie described above feels similar to a message I hear a lot when speaking with other writers. “I’m not exactly a journalist,” or “I would consider myself a writer but not a journalist because I don’t have an editorial or journalism background.”
Meanwhile, they write substacks and launch publications filled with interviews, reporting, news analysis and opinion related to current events. It’s always made me feel like audiences, even those who have become producers themselves, imagine there’s some journalistic black belt you have to earn before getting to call yourself a journalist. There is no black belt. Journalism is storytelling guided by practiced norms. These norms can be learned in or outside school. Anyone can do it, anytime.
Now, back to this point about compartmentalization. As you probably know as well as I do, out in the wild, news isn’t labeled as “news.” It’s mixed in with all sorts of content, opinion and mess. If you sit people down and ask them to define “news” it’s remarkably hard.
Q2: Do you actually consume news or not? A conundrum.
A large portion of Stephanie’s work focuses on precisely this. In another paper we discussed, The head and heart of news avoidance: How attitudes about the news media relate to levels of news consumption, she looks at why some people say they consume little to no news. (note: bolded emphasis is mine)
Jihii: So I loved this one because this is one of the first takes I've seen on clearly stating what's driving low news consumption. But what I was surprised by and interested in is when you wrote that the emotional toll of news didn't really have any bearing on the levels of news consumption. That kind of blew my mind a little bit, but at the same time, it sort of makes sense to me on a personal level. I want to understand what you meant by it.
Stephanie: I was quite frankly really surprised with that also, and in doing a little bit of digging, it's not because people don't feel the emotional toll of news. It's because people who consume a lot of news and a little news report, that they are overwhelmed by the amount of news and feel worn out by the prospects of consuming news.
So it's not that people aren't feeling the emotionality of news, it's that both news consumers and news avoiders feel it. And therefore that doesn't really explain why somebody would consume a lot of news or not consume a lot of news.
What I kind of discuss in the conclusion is that clearly this signals to me—this is not something that study could explain—that regular consumers of news feel the emotionality of news, just like news avoiders, but they have some strategy to push beyond that.
So, you know, news might be really emotional. It might be really overwhelming, but they have some strategy for saying like, okay, well I'm going to take a break or I need to avoid this website, that allows them to keep going. It doesn't deter them from consuming news, whereas news avoiders, it's just like, all right, well, I'm going to stay out. So I really think there's a lot more work to do in the emotionality of both consuming news and avoiding news because it seems to be something that both sets of people experience.
Jihii: Can I just ask you to clarify what your definition is of news consumer and news avoider is, since it shows up in your work a lot?
Stephanie: So early on, I had a couple studies [in which] I was really interested in classifying news consumers and interested in this idea that in today's media world, it's not enough just to measure or define news consumers by if they consume one type of news, like, “Are you a Fox news consumer?” “Do you consume the New York times?”
To understand the effects of these things we need to be identifying the overall architecture of somebody's news consumption. The overall pattern of what types of news they're combining together. Because arguably right, the effect of Fox News will have a very different outcome if you're pairing it with the New York Times versus if you're pairing it with like conservative talk radio. It might not be just Fox News, but what you're pairing it with.
So I had a couple studies that were published where I did this cluster analysis, identifying different types of news consumers. And it's very much dependent on how many kind of items you include in the survey or in the dataset. But what I was consistently finding was this kind of fork in the road between three to five different types of news consumers.
You have people that mix different types of digital news. You've got traditional news consumers. You have conservative news consumers that are just consuming conservative type news. You have news omnivores that seem to be consuming all lot of different types of things and don't have a clear preference for something over another.
And then on the other side of the road were these people that are low in everything. And I included like 26 different types of what I would consider news relevant, you know? So it could be late night talk shows, at one point, we had included sports stuff where current events come up… but it was just really low levels of anything that was consistently including current events information.
And so that's why I thought like, what about this fork over here? The people that, despite theoretically increased access to news, despite including a wide variety of news, these people just are not biting? And increasingly they're a large portion of people.
Why are they not consuming news? Is it about access? Is it about knowledge? Is it about disinterest? What are the perceptions that they have about news and about journalism that might have influenced their decision to develop media habits that do not involve the news?
Q3: Can you manage your emotions around the news?
In my circles, conversations about news avoidance came to light in a big way in 2020, which for me was the year of emotions. The general apathy toward current events I usually noticed in my peers disintegrated, while anxiety and panic erupted from deep within many of us, as happens to humans when faced with mortality and injustice.
And America took it out on the media in a big way. At times for good reason. But also, I fear, because of our lack of ability to manage our way through the media.
Still, I noticed that not everyone I know suffers this way. I have a large number of friends who would say in a heartbeat: I hate the news, it’s so stressful. And then others who recommend brilliant links and spend hours a day consuming well-curated feeds. And I’ve been trying to figure out what sets them apart.
[If this feels like you and you are up for participating in a study, please email me!]
Jihii: One of the questions I'm really struggling to figure out how to answer right now is for people who I consider to be "super consumers," who have the skillset to find the sources they need—dial up, dial down, fact check —how did they learn to do it?
I want to ask them: Can we reverse engineer what decisions you were making subconsciously? Did you actually learn them? Were they modeled to you? Did you figure out how to do it because of some problem?
Based on what you're saying, I'm just wondering what the implications of that finding [from The head and heart of news avoidance] are for what media literacy or news literacy ought to be when it comes to managing the emotions that news brings up.
What I'm hearing from you is it sounds like people who are regular news consumers do develop some sort of ability to manage the emotions that come with it. And then those who avoid, maybe don't. I don't know if that's a fair assumption to make, just want to get your reaction.
Stephanie: Yeah. That's my takeaway also from that finding. For me it really points to the importance of news literacy being a multi-dimensional concept. And a lot of times we think about it in terms of the first aspect, which is factual information, factual knowledge. Like, you need to know what an op-ed means. You need to know how PBS gets its funding. You should know the difference between Google News and an organization that does their own reporting.
And yes, that's important. A lot of our interventions are geared towards that. But I think there are also two other components that are really important. First, developing critical thinking skills. And this becomes really important because media is constantly evolving and the tools or the knowledge that is needed in this moment is not going to be the the knowledge that will be needed in two years, three years. There'll be a new thing that we're worried about. So teaching timeless, critical thinking, the ability to ask questions that apply to a variety of domains and a variety of different types of media, I think is really key. Getting us to slow down, be more thoughtful, not rely on some quick heuristics, is really important.
[Second], which I spend a lot of time thinking about, especially the interviews I do with news avoiders is, self-efficacy, feeling like you are in control and feeling like you can take action in order to shape your experiences with news.
I worry that one of the things that happens with news literacy is that some people are like, "this is way too much, the stakes are way too high," you know? And start talking about deep fakes and the fact that things look "professionally" real. "How am I supposed to know that that's fake?" "Wait a minute, I'm supposed to be a journalist? I don't have time to be fact checking things left and right."
And so a lot of people will just bow out and be like, “Not for me. I'm not that interested.” So I think it becomes really important to also balance things you can do. There are fancy things you could do, but there are also some pretty easy things, if you don't have a lot of time, that you can do. And I think that becomes really important. That we empower people with differing strategies, depending on how much time and knowledge and interest you have.
But I really worry that news literacy really beats the drum hard on like, this is what people need to know. And we don't spend a lot of time thinking about building critical thinking skills and empowering people.
Jihii: Yeah I agree 100%. I covered news literacy for CJR when it was kind of growing up and that was the glaring gap for me. Also if your social/emotional needs are being fulfilled by what you're consuming and you're not going at it purely for information, then who cares? Who wants to fact check, really? But the kind of critical thinking and self-awareness and behavioral, psychological stuff, it feels like this massive hole that nobody is filling.
That hole is the entire purpose of this research project, and for those who have been lending me your time and brain to work through these questions together, I’m deeply grateful.
I know this was a longer letter, but I hope you enjoyed Stephanie’s work as much as I did. If you have feedback (and do/don’t want to see more interviews) send me a note! Or leave a comment :)
If you’ve read till the end, I’ll leave you with my favorite takeaway from Stefanie, which was the 2 skills we need to develop to survive this information torrent: 1) critical thinking 2) self efficacy.
I wholeheartedly agree and have been searching for the right venues for this to be taught and practiced.
Thanks to a friend and reader of this newsletter (hi Katina!), I recently landed on Theory of Knowledge, a high school critical thinking course taught in IB programs as a really great candidate. I had a chance to do a little news consumption dialogue with Katina’s TOK students, and I’ll share about that in an upcoming issue.