A three-year audience research project “Towards Engaging Journalism” (2009-2012) looked onto how the relevance of news is conceived in the social networks, both offline and online. The results of the project have been presented in a number of publications both in English and Finnish. In addition, one book chapter in Spanish is forthcoming in 2017.
In the face of the transforming media environment and increasing competition in the news market, journalists are compelled to provide “added value” for their recipients in each news story they produce. The buzzwords voiced in newsrooms suggest that any piece of news should be “interesting”, “relevant” or “engaging”. The problem in this lies in the fact that the goal remains vague for journalists. The meanings of these words are floating; they can mean “whatever”. Thus, in order to meet with this objective media organizations seek to understand better what the audiences expect from news. In the meantime, the concept of audience, and methodological designs aimed at measuring audiences, have become more contested than ever before.
This project stems from the premise that the crucial elements of what makes journalism engaging or relevant are not rooted in the production of news but rather in their reception. Therefore, empirical qualitative research about how people use media is called for. Nonetheless, given the ambiguity about the concept of audience, any empirical evidence without a solid theory about media uses and audiences hardly makes much sense. In order to build a robust theoretical framework, the focus in the project was on the discursive aspects of audiences i.e. what people do as media users.
The empirical data in the study comprised a total of 77 focus group discussions with nine social networks based in four different regions in Finland (the capital region, Tampere region, and the towns of Jyväskylä and Oulu). In the discussions, groups gathered together to discuss varying aspects of journalism. In fourteen of those discussions, the groups had the opportunity to meet with journalists working at leading newspapers of respective regions (Helsingin Sanomat, Aamulehti, Tyrvään Sanomat, Keskisuomalainen and Kaleva).
In the empirical analysis participants’ accounts of their media uses were interpreted against three analytical concepts drawn from theories of symbolic interactionism: the mass, audience and public (Blumer, and Dewey). In addition, a special attention was paid to the role of social networks as a “crucial part of the distribution system of the media” (see, Katz & Lazarsfeld).
The empirical analysis suggests that in the role of the mass, i.e. in the habitual uses of media, the participants heavily relied on news as a privileged access-point to the mediated centre of society. In their routines, the distinction between the “old media” (newspaper, television) and the “new media” (online newspapers, news aggregators etc.) proved to have little significance, as the participants’ media diets tended to include both, irrespective of their age, gender or their socio-economic status. The overall robustness of news consumption demonstrates that pessimism with regard to the fragmentation of audiences - let alone political apathy - seem overstated in this respect.
In the role of audience, the dominant modes of action are interpretation and criticism. The empirical analysis suggests that the participants appear to be much more political and critical in their news readings than what is usually presumed. Thus, a general reliance of news as gateway to the mediated centre of society (Couldry 2003) does not contradict the fact that some of the stories invoke political readings and occasional mistrust of journalists. In their face-to-face interactions with audience groups, journalists regarded the participants’ criticism towards news practices as exceptionally “smart”. However, a closer look in this dialogue points out a significant discrepancy between journalists and audiences. While journalists tended to take journalistic norms such as accuracy, relevance and transparency of news rather pragmatically, the audience groups were more rigid about how these norms should be applied.
The study highlighted that social networks and interpersonal communications represent important site of negotiating mediated meanings. In addition, the participants told that they particularly enjoy discussing “serious social problems” or “worries” with their peers. While these discussions rarely develop into public action, the participants tended to expect that journalism should be more responsive to their concerns. This observation suggests that news organizations should learn better how to connect with social networks.
In general, the study proves to be instrumental in unpacking the mystery of “relevance” of journalism. Rather than spelling out the "secret formula of intrerestingness", the study points out that the relevance of news depends on the distinct roles of reception i.e. those of the mass, audience and public. In the position of the mass, recipients are mostly interested in simply that news are available, while in the role of audience they sometimes want to challenge journalists and what is catered for them as “facts”. As critical audiences, media users wish that they would be listened to by media organizations. Most importantly, the study sheds light to the role of interpersonal communications and social networks as important sites of sense-making. In fact social networks tend be important “seeds” of publics. Participants expect journalism to be better connected to the concerns voiced in their social networks. What is regarded “relevant” here is neither fixed nor relativistic. What the participants tended to appreciate most in journalism is depth and analytical insight.
Publications in English:
Ahva L. & Heikkilä, H. & (2016). Mass, Audience and the Public. In. Witschge, T., Anderson CW & Domingo, David (eds.) The Sage Handbook of Digital Journalism. London: Sage, pp. 315-325.
Heikkilä, H. & Ahva, L. (2015). The Relevance of Journalism: Studying News Audiences in the Digital Era. Journalism Practice 9, 1. pp. 50-64. DOI: 10.1080/17512786.2014.928465. Also in Steensen, S. & Ahva L. (eds.) Theories of Journalism in a Digital Age. London: Routledge, pp. 163-177.
Ahva, L.; Heikkilä, H.; Siljamäki, J. & Valtonen, S. (2014). A Bridge over Troubled Water? Celebrities in Journalism Connecting Implicit and Institutional Politics. Journalism; Theory, Practice and Criticism 15, 2, pp. 186-201.
Heikkilä, H.; Ahva, L.; Siljamäki, J. & Valtonen S. (2014). The Mass, Audience and Public: Questioning preconceptions of news audiences. In: Glowacki, Michal & Jackson, Lizzie (toim.) Public Media Management for the Twenty-First Century: Creativity, Innovation, and Interaction. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Books, pp. 161-178.
Heikkilä, H.; Kunelius, R. & Ahva, L. (2010). From Credibility to Relevance: Towards a sociology of journalism’s “added value”. Journalism Practice 4, 3, pp. 274–284.
Presentations in English:
Heikkilä, H. & Ahva, L. (2015). News-based Public Connection in Finland: Will the Relationship Last? International Association of Communication (ICA), San Juan, Puerto, May.
Ahva, L.; Heikkilä, H.; Siljamäki, J. & Valtonen S. (2011). A Bridge over Troubled Water? Celebrity news and public connection among Finnish readers. NordMedia 2011, Akureyri, Iceland, August.
Valtonen, S.; Siljamäki, J.; Ahva, L. & Heikkilä, H. (2011). Content-Generated-Users: Revisiting Reception studies in the age of media convergence. NordMedia 2011, Akureyri, Iceland, August.
Heikkilä, H.; Ahva L.; Autio, H.; Siljamäki. J. Valtonen S. (2011). What if Everyday Life Is Not that Civic? International Association of Communication (ICA), Boston, May.
Heikkilä, H.; Ahva, L.; Autio, H.; Siljamäki, J. Valtonen S. (2010). A Long and Winding Road: Quest for partnership from the perspective of ”audience”. RIPE@2010: Public Service Media After the Recession, Lontoo, September.
Heikkilä, H.; Ahva, L.; Autio, H.; Siljamäki, J. Valtonen, S. (2010). A Cause for Concern: News and politically-oriented talk in social networks. International Communication Association (ICA), Singapore, June.
Heikkilä, H.; Kunelius, R.; Ahva, L. (2009). From Credibility to Relevance: Towards a sociology of journalism’s “added value”. Future of Journalism, Cardiff, September.
The study was coordinated by COMET at the University of Tampere (Heikkilä and Ahva). Other participants in the project were from the Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki (Valtonen) and the Department of Communication, University of Jyväskylä (Siljamäki). The project was funded by Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.
Heikki Heikkilä, heikki.heikkila(at)uta.fi, +358 3 3551 8058
Laura Ahva, laura.ahva(at)uta.fi, +358 3 3551 7842