The ambition to please the audience requires that the journalist knows what the audience wants.
‘Journalists generally feel it is important to respond to what the audience wants, but at the same time they often don’t really know what this is,’ says Ulrika Andersson, doctoral student at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Gothenburg and author of the thesis ‘Journalister och deras publik. Förhållningssätt bland svenska journalister’.
Discussions on the role of mass media in society usually depart from the Anglo-Saxon norm that they serve an important function in democratic societies and that journalists work on behalf of the citizens. This means that journalists should produce material that is relevant to ordinary people. Yet the journalist’s task is also strongly influenced by the notion of independence and by the idea that journalists, as professional actors, should determine what people need to be able to exercise good citizenship.
‘The journalistic task is double-natured to some degree, and this affects how journalists approach their audience,’ Andersson continues.
This duality becomes very clear when looking at how journalists feel mass media should approach the audience. Most journalists stress the importance of responding to the needs of the audience. But at the same time they claim that journalists must provide material that is important according to journalistic standards. It also turns out to be easier said than done to respond to the needs of the audience: journalists tend to not think highly of their ability to identify topics that people are interested in.
The study shows that female journalists – especially young ones – are more prone to consider the audience, while male journalists – older ones in particular – tend to base their work more on traditional ideals. The results indicate that the view of the journalist’s role and the way journalists approach the audience are affected by the rapid changes experienced in the field over the last 10-15 years. This suggests that the way journalists approach the audience will change even further as new generations enter the profession.
‘But it is important to remember that this issue concerns primarily attitudes and not actual behaviour,’ says Andersson. Previous studies have shown that ideals and practice often differ. This is evident not least when looking at what journalists really know about the audience.
‘Journalists tend to overestimate people’s interest in entertainment-related material and underestimate their interest in news’.
In her study, Anderson discusses how this shortcoming may affect the journalistic task of effectively representing the public at large.
The thesis is based on the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication’s survey Journalist 2005, which involves 2000 members of the Swedish Union of Journalists.
Title of the thesis: Journalister och deras publik. Förhållningssätt bland svenska journalister