Journalism and its audiences

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Journalism is changing, and so is the way we consume journalism. On the eve of the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference, Tess Woodcraft talks to Angela Phillips, Professor of Journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Journalism in Context (Routhledge 2015) about how strong news journalism is crucial for informed citizenship, and how our increasing reliance on Facebook and YouTube for news may have serious implications for democracy.

Prof Angela Phillips: I’m interested in the way in which news journalism is changing, and in particular how news audiences are changing in relation to changes in the industry. So I have looked at audiences in my book, Journalism in Context, but I have also been looking at young news audiences in an international context to see how young people are accessing news.

Tess Woodcraft: What’s been happening in journalism?

AP: News journalism is changing and so is the way we consume it. Facebook is now a major source of news for young people.

TW: What are the implications?


Journalism in Context book jacket 1AP:
Since the rise of the internet, there have been big changes, not only in how journalism is produced, but how it is consumed. These two things are in lockstep. At the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, a lot of people were very enthusiastic about the kind of changes. They saw the internet as a means of democratising news. They saw audiences being much more involved in news production and they talked about journalism being less elitist, more involved with audiences, that journalism would become a much more collaborative process.

TW: To a certain extent that has happened, hasn’t it? For example, at Shoreham Airshow (August 2015) ordinary people’s videos of the air crash were all over the news.

AP: In very marginal ways this ‘pro-sumer’ revolution – the idea that the consumer also produces – has come to pass, but not in anything like the way those web enthusiasts imagined it would. What we have today is bystanders with cameras. Whereas before journalists would have gone and interviewed people about what they saw, and it would have been secondhand information, now if there is a big event like an aircrash or bombing, there will always be people in the vicinity who have camera phones and will very often put that information into social media where journalists can access it. But this does not make them journalists, they are still sources. And although all that information moves around – via Facebook, or Twitter or YouTube, for example – most of what happens is that it is curated by journalists who bring it together and construct a narrative around the information and repackage it in a different way. So it is not collaborative.

We are seeing journalists with more and more power than they used to have – the power to find their way into places where they never otherwise have managed to be. The likelihood of a journalist being in the right place at the right time when a bomb goes off are miniscule. So the difference is that we now have access (to pictures particularly) where we didn’t have access before, but it doesn’t really fundamentally change the job of journalist or the relationship between journalist and audience in any way.

Certainly if you are on social media and you are on social media and you are interested in news, the chances are that you’ll get some of this information via social media. But what is interesting to me is looking at who gets what information and just how democratic this process is. Because when you look at the overall statistics not very much has changed in any fundamental way. You still find the major traditional news sources – the biggest newspapers (NY Times, Daily Mail, The Guardian), the BBC and in America the major broadcasters are all in the top 10 of the rankings for what people are looking at.

So we are still seeing the same major titles being the major purveyors of news, but one or two very important things have happened. One is that they have become more monopolistic than they were before, so that on the world stage when you look at Google or your Facebook page, you are actually only seeing a minute amount of what’s available and you’re most likely to see what’s most popular.

TW: That’s the newsfeed on Facebook?

AP: It’s newsfeeds, but more than that, it’s what is passed around on social media. We tend to see, both through social media and Google searches, the most popular posts, so we are seeing, if anything, a narrower, smaller number of possible news sources than we did before.

So the idea that we’d all be thoughtful news consumers, that we’d all find out that something had happened and then go on line and look at lots of different sources to try and get a rounded view, really doesn’t happen except for a very small minority of people. The majority are still getting their news mediated by the same organisations that they always did, but the less popular organisations are dropping thought the hole and no longer exist.

TW: But aren’t they being replaced by blogs and so on? Isn’t there an undergrowth of journalism that is perhaps sometimes unpaid…..What is the total of all that, what does that add up to?

Ap: Rather than totals, which are not helpful, we need to look at the size of the audience in relation to the information being produced. There are a very small number of voluntary, often hyper local, news websites which are relatively successful but most people in this country are not plugged into local news at all. We have an atrocious delivery of local news. We have something between 17-19% of people looking at local news regularly and nearly always on TV (which is actually regional). Local newspapers in the UK are in crisis, but less so in other countries. Countries are very different in the way in which news is produced and consumed. That is really important to look at.

Here in the UK our local news delivery system has all but collapsed, it doesn’t serve local communities very well. Similar problems have arisen in America. It is to do with the way in which local news has been bought up by monopoly providers who provide news for whole regions, and they therefore do not really serve local populations well. We have quite a competitive national news, but it is still the old competitors. Very few ‘web native’ news providers have broken through – the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Vice – but that isn’t an enormous number.

When you think of the ambitions for internet news, the big problem that everyone comes up against is that we have no means of funding serious news. So we get things like BuzzFeed which are able to survive because they have huge audiences but these are mainly for their joke news – people will pass around joke news on Facebook and pictures of cats and celebrity news, so they are able to sell video advertising around that and do sponsorship around that. To their credit, BuzzFeed has begun to include more serious news in the mix but it is supported by a huge amount of trivia. The Huffington Post is largely a comment space so it’s not really the best place to get new of what is actually happening in the world. So news is being produced by a smaller and smaller core of people and we have real worries about how that will continue to be funded.

Local journalism has always been the place where news bubbled up and it would be pushed up to the upper layers of national news. If your local news provision is in trouble it is difficult to know how the news will bubble up to the top. And you do need people ‘on the beat’ – people who do it on a regular, daily, boring basis, because they are the ones who are going to notice differences, changes and see what is really happening.

TW: Why does it matter? If fewer and fewer of us are interested in serious news, does it matter?

AP: The question of whether news matters is a question of whether democracy matters. It is that important! The fact that we have inadequate news provision at local level in the UK is profoundly important for democracy because we elect our representatives at local level. If you don’t have news provision at local level how do people find out what their local MP is doing? How do they understand how their council is operating?

One of the young people I interviewed in the UK came from a ‘media rich’ home, he was well informed, for example, about Ukraine, about Ferguson USA but he didn’t know there was going to be an election the following month. His news choices meant he was not being informed about what was happening in his own country.

If we believe democracy is about an informed citizenship who elect people they believe will work for them, we need to have the means by which those people can be held ot account and by which people can check on them before they vote. That is the basic building block of democracy. Democracy doesn’t work without it.

TW: Yes, journalists are sometimes called ‘the Fourth Estate’.

AP: Yes, we do sometimes call them the Fourth Estate.

It isn’t ok that 25% of people in the UK say they are not interested in news. That’s a large chunk of people who are not seriously involved in democracy. Research in the States suggests we are seeing more and more divisions online between ‘news junkies’ who read everything and ‘news avoiders’ who read nothing.

The trouble is that the news junkies tend to be very polarised in their views, they are very enthusiastic about one point of view or about another point of view, whereas the majority of news avoiders are much more equable in the way they think about politics. We are ceding politics to people who are most likely to disagree with each other.

TW: But so many newspapers and news outlets are owned by people with a point of view – there has never been a Nirvana of fairness and truth.

AP: There is no question we have problems. The press has always – pretty much – defended the status quo, and I thing the question of trying to get new voices which is what we hoped would happen when the internet first opened up is still an ongoing problem.

But doing research into young people and how they access news, the thing I found most worrying was that many young people didn’t even know enough about what was going on to be able to go and do research into whether or not the newspapers were biased. If you don’t know what is happening you can’t research it. That is step 1.

If you know what is happening and you are reasonably switched on, you are able to say, “My experience tells me that if all the Underground workers are coming out on strike, they probably have a reason for doing so – I want to find out what that reason is.”

Then, if you are a reasonably switched on human being, it is easy to do that. You can check your Daily Mail report, find out what the union involved is and go to their website and find out what the union’s point of view is, because probably the union’s point of view will not have been discussed on the Daily Mail website. But if you don’t know there is going to be a strike, not only don’t you know what’s behind it, you’ll turn up at the tube station and find there are no trains.

There are different categories of news. There is something I call ‘vanilla news’, a basic level of knowledge that every citizen needs to function in a democracy. Well, needs to function – you need to know a little of what’s going on!

Some academics, for example, Michael Schudson who say we don’t all need to know what is going on because we can depend on information drifting towards us, through our various networks and we will always know in the end. Certainly amongst the young people I interviewed there was one who said, “if anything really important happens, it’ll bubble up to the top of YouTube.”

But actually this does not work. One think I discovered, looking at the UK students, is that a lot of them were very dependent on social networks to get their news but were unaware that the news they were getting was ‘soft news’ (celebrity news, weather news, news about crime – the young women particularly were likely to get news about crime relating to young women) but they wouldn’t necessarily know there was an election coming up because that doesn’t get into Facebook, doesn’t get passed around. So if you don’t know there is an election, how do you know enough to ensure you have registered to vote? Let alone know how to find out about the candidates…. You need to be at information level 1 to move up to Level 9. If you are not at Level 1 you are excluded from the conversation completely.

What is particularly worrying is that the research showed that in those countries with public service broadcasting there was a much higher general level of audience news knowledge. Research done 5 -6 years ago indicated that in the US there were much lower levels of news knowledge especially among Black and working class people. Public broadcasting in the US is very small, and not really part of the mix, but if you go over to Scandinavia – where you not only have public broadcasting but also publicly subsidised newspapers to ensure political balance – news knowledge levels didn’t vary according to class and education. If you live in one of the Nordic countries, chances are whether you are a railway worker who left school at 18 or an MA student, you’d be able to answer the same questions about what was in the news. That simply doesn’t happen in America where news knowledge and education level are absolutely bound up together.

The UK is halfway between. Our news knowledge is not as good as in Scandinavia, but a bit better than America. We are more polarised here. That is why when we looked at young people and news, we wanted international comparisons. WE found that the national system for delivering news is very important to the degree to which young people feel a ‘duty’ to be informed. Our Norwegian students were far more likely to look at local papers on line, were more linked in to a news agenda, but interestingly enogh, they were more likely than the UK students to read papers from other countries, so their news knowledge didn’t just mean they were more news aware, and more interested in hard news, they were also more likely to be adventurous in where they got information from.

TW: What are the implications of all this?

AP: In the UK we need to look at the way social media is overtaking our publicly funded broadcasting as the stepping stone to news. We have to think about what that means.

There are people who see Facebook as the likely successor to TV for providing basic news knowledge. My concern would be that if that we were to allow that to happen we would end up with a polarised public where we have well educated people who are knowledgeable and with access to a lot of information and a growing number of people who are completely disconnected from politics. I think that is dangerous for the future of politics. It would lead to greater polarisation in politics and it is something we really need to start talking about. I have no readymade solution, but we need to be thinking about it as a problem for the future.

Photo: Got Credit

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