How Journalists Write about their Audiences: A Social Construction
How Journalists Write about their Audiences:
A Social Construction
Utica College of Syracuse University
1600 Burrstone Road
Utica, NY 13502-4892
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
March 27, 1995
Qualitative Studies Division
Chair: Bonnie Brennen
Department of Communication
Geneseo, NY 14454-1401
This paper uses a Nexis search of articles pertaining to journalistic audiences
over a two year period to address three central questions:
l. What are the predominant stories regarding news audiences?
2. Do newspaper journalists characterize newspaper readers differently than
television news viewers?
3. On what kinds of sources do journalists base their assessments of their
Based on the findings, it is concluded that news audiences are indeed a social
construction by print journalists.
Mass media researchers have long maintained that the news is socially
constructed. In other words, the news does not exist "out there" as an
objective fact, but is rather shaped by journalists and the organizations
which they work.
This paper further argues that the notion journalists have of their audiences
is also socially constructed. While there clearly are real people
who read the
newspaper in the morning and view the television news at night, the
are characterized by the news media are another "construction."
construction is created to help journalists tell their stories. In this
I examine the types of constructions that go on in the press. By
sometimes very conflicting images of the audience, I demonstrate that
is a construction rather than an objective reality that is simply
Specifically, this paper examines the theoretical framework that suggests news
is socially constructed. It discusses the relevance of audiences in
stories and describes the "reflexive" nature of the media looking at
at its audience. I argue that given a growing market orientation of
one can expect the media to grow in its coverage of itself and
hence, of its
audience. Following a description of the method involved in this
examine major newspaper coverage of newspaper readership and
viewership over a two-year period, March 1990 through January 1992.
"News as a social construction"
News is socially constructed. In her aptly titled book, Making News, Gaye
Tuchman (1978) asserts that "the act of making news is the act of
reality itself rather than a picture of reality." This description
of the news
process typically conflicts with the standard reporter's claim that
merely describing an objective reality that exists by itself.
By describing news as "socially constructed" researchers have often pointed to
the variety of concerns that help shape the news product, that help
information is included in the news and how that information is treated.
Media sociologist Paul Hirsch (1977) argues that media content is the
construction of inputs from the individual, organizational, and
levels. Different media researchers have emphasized different
elements of such
news construction. For example, Lichter, Rothman, and Lichter (1986) see the
news as a byproduct of the liberal nature of individual journalists
elite news media. Others, like Tuchman (1978) stress organizational concerns:
Today's news media place reporters at legitimated institutions where stories
supposedly appealing to contemporary news consumers may be
expected to be found.
. .Originally designed to attract readers' interest by catching appropriate
stories available at centralized locations, the news net
assumptions about readers' interests: 1) Readers are interested
at specific localities, 2) They are concerned with activities
organizations, 3) They are interested in specific topics (pp.
Mark Fishman (1982) too, argues that news is the result of "practical
accomplishment,"--constraints of organizational concerns. The notion
is the product of institutional concerns is represented by Robert A.
Instead, we would analyze the various types of systematic orientations and
relationships which unavoidably structure news accounts. These
indeed include partisan favoritism or political prejudices. But
include criteria of newsworthiness, the technological
characteristics of each
news medium, the logistics of news production, budgetary
inhibitions, the availability of information from sources, the
need to tell
stories intelligibly and entertainingly to an intended audience,
the need to
package news in a way which is compatible with the commercial
selling audiences to advertisers and the forms of appearance of
political events. All these factors and others shape the media's
an ideological institution (p. 269).
Therefore we see a strong argument that contends that the news we read, listen
to, and view in the news media is much more than a "mirror of
reality" but is
rather a reality that stems from a variety of concerns.
Reporters' views of their audience
A variety of mass communications researchers argue that journalists do not
really know their audiences. Schlesinger (1978) argues that notions
remain an "abstraction". . . (p. 107). Gans (1979) found that the news staffs
at news weeklies and network programs also had little knowledge
audiences. Similarly, Gaunt's (1990) examination of a small Indiana
and two European newspapers showed reporters were unclear about
Darnton (1990) conveyed the same image in his recollection of his work on the
New York Times:
Yet when I thought back to my own work on the New York Times, I remembered that
the only "image person" I had encountered was a twelve-year-old
reporters in the newsroom believed that the editors expected them
to aim their
stories at this imaginary creature. Some thought that she
appeared in The Style
Book of the New York Times, although she only existed in our minds. "Why
twelve years old?" I used to ask myself. "Why a girl?" "What are
her views on
slum clearance in the South Bronx?" But I knew that she was
nothing more than a
figure in the folklore of 43rd Street and that she merely functioned as a
reminder for us to keep our copy clear and clean.
We never wrote for the "image persons" conjured up by social science. We wrote
for one another. Our primary "reference group," as it might be known in
communication theory, was spread around us in the newsroom. . .
Audience as a constructed reality
If one can argue that news is a constructed reality and that journalists really
don't have an image of their audience, then one might expect that their writing
concerning their audience is too, a constructed reality. How can a
journalist write about news readers if s/he does not know who they are or
they are like? On what does the journalist base his/her stories?
Can one even
say that a news "audience" exists? Ettema & Whitney, (1994)
operating from a
broader institutional point of view, have already argued that
something that is "constituted--or perhaps reconstituted--not merely as
audiences but as institutionally effective audiences that have social
and/or economic value within the system" (p. 5).
This paper then, principally operating from the individual level of analysis,
sets out to discover what kinds of stories journalists tell about
or television viewers. Whether or not the images pertaining to
are included in the journalists' stories match the conceptions they
have of their audience is unclear. Yet, one would expect that the
journalists write about their audience would indicate some of their
images they have. Further, as a journalist sits down to write a story that
describes his/her audience, one might expect that that story creation
to further create an image of audience in the journalist's mind. Merely
writing about an audience, not only constructs the audience for the
also for the journalist. A number of questions are specifically
l. What are the predominant stories regarding news audiences?
2. Do newspaper journalists characterize newspaper readers differently than
television news viewers?
3. On what kinds of sources do journalists base their assessments of their
I conducted a NEXIS search focusing on U.S. newspaper coverage of news
audiences during the past two years. Stories date from March 5, 1990
January 25, 1992. I confined myself to stories and columns
appearing in the
major newspapers included in the NEXIS file and to editorials that
The specific search for articles was based on the following terms: Newspaper
Readership, Newspaper Audience, and News Viewers. Overall, the
Readership" term garnered a total of 154 stories; the "Newspaper
garnered 31 stories and the "News Viewers" term lead to 110 news
concerned myself only with stories that seemed to say something
about news audiences. (The term "Newspaper Reader" was estimated to
over 500 news items. Due to the time and cost limitations, this
was not accessed.) In further limiting the scope of this study, I only
examined what these print journalists wrote about news audiences. One
also consider comparing these images with those conveyed by broadcast
This research is a qualitative look at the differing images conveyed in these
The most frequent message regarding newspaper audiences is that they are
reading the newspaper less than they used to do so. There were numerous
references to this finding. For example in a New York Times article
"Rethinking Newspapers" (January 6, 1991) Alex S. Jones writes:
The future of the daily paper itself clearly depends on its ability to cope
with one fundamental -- and thus far, unsolvable -- problem:
increasingly do not read newspapers.
At the end of World Ward II, most American households subscribed to a morning
and an afternoon paper. Newspaper market penetration was 135
more papers were sold every day than there were households.
until the early 60's, then leveled off at about 62 million, according to the
Audit Bureau of Circulations. But population kept growing,
bringing a steady
decline in penetration. . . .
Another point is that those who say they are newspaper readers increasingly do
not read a paper every day. The National Opinion Research
Center reports that
the percentage of adults who do dropped to 50 in 1989, from 73
percent in 1967.
At the same time, the percentage that read "once or more weekly" increased to
38 from 18 percent.
This article is indicative of a number of ways in which newspaper reporters
characterize their own audiences. For one, audience is typically
terms of its relationship to the newspaper, not in terms of other
characteristics such as personality or other tastes. This matches the
audience research conducted by academics. Whitney & Ettema (1991)
if anything unites all of these views of the audience, it is the
idea that the
audience exists only in some sort of relationship to the mass media
system" (p. 7). (One might expect that the search terms used in this
identify articles pertaining to news audiences would contribute to
That is, by using the search term, "newspaper readership" one would expect the
NEXIS system to specifically identify articles that describe the relationship
between the news reader and the newspaper. What is perhaps telling
proportion of articles given to this relationship, and specifically the
proportion of articles that pertain to the news audience and the economic
of the media organization. In contrast, we see relatively little
life-style of the media audience in ways that do not bear on the
of the media organization.)
Note also that the Jones article relies on official statistics to construct the
audience in a more credible way. Once data is presented in a "scientific
realm" it takes on an aura of truth. It is an aura with which the
convincing and indisputable. Yet, what makes the description of audience a
"construction" is that by choosing different information, the
paint a very different picture. For example, in another article in
(Dec. 30, 1991) Jones conveys a more positive picture of the very
Citing research done by Philip E. Meyer at the School of Journalism and Mass
Communication at the University of North Carolina, Mr. Batten
Knight-Ridder Inc.) noted that about 73 percent of the population
newspaper every day in 1967. Since then, the percentage dropped
percentage point a year, to 50.6 percent in 1988.
Mr. Batten said the good news was that since 1988 newspaper readership had been
rebounding, reaching 51.5 percent this year.
Here the reader is left with a more positive outlook on the modern newspaper
reader. Note again Jones' use of statistics to convey a sense of
his reporting about news audiences. Batten says readership has reached 51.5
percent this year. The figure is not "over-half" of Americans but
This precision gives the impression of ultimate reliability of the data. The
reader likely has no better understanding about newspaper readership
precise figure. Indeed, the reader would likely better remember the
if the article were worded "over half." In their text, Media Writing (1985),
Newsom & Wollert argue this point:
Avoid numbers whenever possible. People cannot comprehend a bunch of figures
thrown at them in a newscast. . .Try to round off all numbers.
. .Finally, make
numbers real when possible. Instead of "Traffic deaths in the
city rose from 36
in 1983 to 70 in 1984," write "Traffic deaths in the city nearly doubled from
1983 to 1984" (p.52).
In the Jones piece in the New York Times, Jones likely uses the exact statistic
because it is the style dictated by the newspaper's policy in citing a source.
Yet the overall effect this policy has on readers is to make the
harder for them to understand but gets them to perceive the
information as indisputable and a "scientific reality." This also is an
of how the organizational input of the New York Times, helps the reporter to
construct a reality about the newspaper audience.
While declining readership figures appear to be the most reported subject
regarding news readers, the quality of that readership is another way
the audience is constructed. Again, the images of quality appear to
between stories. Some convey an astute readership. For example, a
Times article (Dec. 15, 1991) paints the reader as bright: "
'Whatever we need
to do, we do,' said Shelby Coffey III, editor and executive vice
the Times. 'You have to protect the quality of the paper, because
readers are depending on you for.' " The same high view of the
portrayed in an article appearing in the Chicago Tribune (Sept. 2,
1990) by Paul
. . .And contrary to H. L. Mencken, you can go broke underestimating the taste
of the American people. . . More than one newspaper has shut
down with hundreds
of thousands of readers still ready to pay for the next
edition. In this
future-fixated society, there is still a bottomless demand for news
commentary, especially on the local level. See the success of
community newspapers around the country.
The image conveyed in the article is of an intelligent public that has been
duped by a quick-fixing news-making apparatus. Here, news
viewed to underestimate the view of the American public. Other
quite a different picture. An article in the New York Times (July
cites a Times Mirror study which portrays the American public as less
than others might believe:
The survey also suggested that people who claim to have closely followed a
particular news event may have only superficial knowledge of it
multiple news sources.
Indeed, merely living in the nation's news-rich environment seems to make
people feel informed about issues that they actually know little
Another article conveys an image of the average news reader as somewhat
frivolous. A piece in USA Today (January 21, 1992) runs this way:
Gossip columns may go in and out of fashion, but they'll never go away.
"Whether you're an upper- or lower-income person, people are always
in what other people are doing," says Raposa. "They want to
see behind the lace
curtain how other people live. . .Everybody likes a good piece of gossip."
This piece uses a different rhetorical style to present its version of reality
of news readers. Rather than relying on statistics to argue for a
"less-serious" reader, it uses common sense. It too, however, relies on an
industry insider (the columnist Raposa) to describe the audience.
none of the pieces discussed so far, seem to actually talk to
Another common theme represented in these articles focuses on youth and their
failure to read the newspaper. Again, these articles often view
individuals only in their reaction to the paper and how the paper is, in
reacting to them. Laurel Shaper Walters begins her story in the
Science Monitor (July 25, 1991) this way:
Young people -- and many adults, for that matter -- are snubbing newspapers.
In an effort to cultivate new consumers, many papers in the
United States are
developing special sections or pages for young readers.
For a long time, editors assumed that once students went away to college they
would start reading the paper or once they got out of college
they would start
picking it up, says Bruce Raben, an editor with the Fort Worth
Star-Telegram. "Well, they weren't," he says.
In 1990, 53 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds read a newspaper every day --
compared with 73 percent in 1970, according to the Newspaper
Again, the writer employs the familiar strategy of citing an industry source
(an editor) and an industry study to create an image of the young
Reporters point to a drop in younger readership to tell their stories
the state of youth and the state of newspapers today. The following
of young readership (or lack thereof) in an editorial in the Washington Post
(May 2, 1990) implies a frivolous young audience:
Between 1967 and 1988, the share of 18- to 24-year-olds who had read a paper
"yesterday" dropped from 71 to 55 percent, says the Newspaper
Bureau. And may younger readers aren't reading the news. They're
the TV listings, enjoying the comics or using the classifieds.
seem to be losing the MTV generation. Will the Ninja-Turtle
While this story seems to cast the blame for newspapers woes on external
problems among youth, other articles blame the newspaper establishment
on how newspapers are adjusting to reach this youth audience. An article in
the Los Angeles Times (June 2, 1991) casts it this way, "Many of
people, accustomed to computer and television screens, may prefer to
'front page' on their computer screens; others will want it printed
to read over
breakfast." Another article in the Los Angeles Times (December 15, 1991) talks
of contemporary newspapers' attention to young readers, "And several
publications have begun -- belatedly, some critics say -- to experiment with
formats designed to appeal to younger readers, who are viewed as vital to the
Another common lament is that the news industry as a whole, is out of touch
with its readership. Journalist Richard Harwood castigates his
profession in an
editorial in the Washington Post (December 22, 1991):
But it is we journalists and not bean counters who bear a heavy responsibility
for the newspapers that have been losing public favor over the
past 30 years.
We proclaim our "professionalism" to the gullible. But we do
not write well
enough. We do not study and report well enough. We do not edit
In our isolation from the main streams of American life and
thought we often
resemble a Tibetan order, talking primarily to ourselves and
of the political class.
Similarly, a story in the New York Times (April 25, 1990) quotes another media
analyst to tell a similar story:
Jeff Greenfield, a political and media analyst for ABC News who moderated the
program on readership, said that a large part of the problem
might be that the
nation's papers are "edited and owned by white, middle-aged
men," who are
essentially out of touch with those they are trying to reach.
A newspaper industry out of touch with its readership is reflected in an
article in the Los Angeles Times (December 15, 1991):
To compete for the attention of consumers short on time and long on options,
newspaper editors and publishers must respond more quickly to
shifting needs and
demographics, said Cathleen Black, president and chief executive of the
American Newspaper Publishers Assn.
"We have historically not tended to put the customer first," Black said. "For
too long, we have bypassed reader concerns and provided the
product we wanted to
offer, not necessarily what they wanted to receive."
The overall image of the newspaper reader then is a confused one within these
stories. Some journalists argue that newspaper people do not know
audience is and others state specifically who does and who does not
paper. Alex Jones describes a detailed study on news readership in a
the New York Times (July 15, 1990) that seems to leave few questions
as to who
makes up the news audience:
The group identified as most sophisticated when it comes to news are nonwhite
men 50 years old and older who are college graduates, live in
the West, and
consider themselves politically independent. . .
In comparison, women under 30 who are married and have children and women over
30 who are single parents are the least likely to be regular
or viewers of television news.
Television News Viewers
In many respects newspaper journalists characterize television news viewers
just as they do newspaper readers. For example, just as the story is
a shrinking readership, a story can be told about a shrinking viewership for
the nightly news. In an editorial in the Washington Post, (August
Richard Harwood draws the parallel to help tell his story of a
Americans have concluded, in the words of Republican National Committee Chairman
Lee Atwater, that politics and politicians are "full of baloney" and largely
irrelevant. That cynicism extends to other major institutions
in our society,
the press included. It is reflected in the steady decline in
readership and circulation and in shrinking audiences for
These stories largely portray television viewership in relation to its impact
on the television industry, more so than as an "audience" in its own
audience takes on identity as it provides the ratings that "make it
or break it"
for individual television stations or networks. The lead to an article in the
Seattle Times (October 25, 1991) is indicative, "KING-TV has
recent pattern of success in attracting local news viewers, according
results of the latest Nielsen rating period, released yesterday."
news viewership is examined in terms of its impact on the television
industry moves are also judged in terms of what they do for
article in the San Francisco Chronicle (November 30, 1990) illustrates
Major changes at the anchor desk have produced no seismic shifts in Bay Area
television news ratings, according to A.C. Nielsen November
San Francisco's three network-affiliated stations remain bunched together in
the financially critical news ratings, continuing their
dogfight for viewer
KGO (Channel 7), with Richard Brown replacing Pete Wilson as co-anchor with
Anna Chavez, held onto its news lead at 6 p.m. but fell to third
place at 11.
Here, news audiences are measures of how successful a news-team is working.
From the journalist's perspective, the audience becomes the vehicle
an interesting story. Just as researchers have long pointed to the
propensity for detailing the horse-race in political campaigns, here
audience becomes the vehicle for telling the horse-race story among
news organizations. While arguments are made for why a viewer
station over another, the essential point is not the "why" but the
station does the viewer watch? Which station wins?
Like the newspaper reader, there are conflicting images of what the television
news audience is really like. Some stories characterize the viewers
others portray them as volatile and self-absorbed.
An article in the Boston Globe (March 5, 1990) utilizes the "audience as loyal"
People don't like changes in the morning, particularly when they're put through
all the turmoil that "The Today Show" has put them through in the past year.
Mornings are the one time of day when even the most anarchic
among us want order
and stability. So with Pauley and Sullivan off the menu and Norville and Zahn
on it, people are search for a new Egg McMuffin.
That scenario is what the folks at NBC are hoping for as "The Today Show" is
experiencing a ratings free fall that has left if trailing
America," after ruling the roost for the past five years.
The loyalty theme is echoed in a Los Angeles Times article (April 18, 1991):
Whether such plans will translate into improved news ratings, or course,
remains to be seen. News viewers are loyal viewers, and once news
toward one newscast, it can take a long time for them to tilt
"World News Tonight" has been the dominant newscast for a year. .
Again, the ultimate focus of the discussion is on what the audience means for
the news industry, rather than what the audience is about on its
loyalty theme regarding news audiences is not a unanimous one among
journalists' stories. In an article in the Los Angeles Times
(April 1, 1990), CNN producer Bob Furnad paints a very different picture:
". . .The lead story is still the lead story, but if it's dull as sin, the
second story should have emotional appeal. We live in an
people are watching a channel for three minutes and then pressing
We've got to get them watching and keep them watching in that environment."
Here the news viewer is anything but loyal. Rather, because of the viewer's
fickle nature, the news organization needs to find ways to capture
the viewer. .
.take him/her hostage. It is therefore, unclear, whether the audience member
can be viewed as loyal or as fickle. In these stories, the news
however, consistently viewed as an important component in the
equation. Fitting this notion of audience members' overall
in relation to the news organization, they are typically represented
via numbers or demographic figures. A Washington Post story (January 18, 1992)
conveys this reality:
The KPIX study of 1,458 San Francisco-area viewers by Norman Hecht Research
revealed a pattern that television executives in other cities,
Washington and Boston, say is evident with their viewers. Nearly
50 percent of
adults in the San Francisco sample were on their way to work by
7 a.m. Nearly
three of every four were home and had begun watching television
by 7 p.m., an
important statistic to networks' way of losing viewers in the
Individuals become part of mass audiences. They are reified into audiences by
way of neat statistics that summarize who they are. Another common
journalists' writing about news audiences pertains to the quality of
viewership, just as they had examined the quality of newspaper
discussed, viewers are sometimes referred to as "loyal." In another
tone, this Los Angeles Times article (July 15, 1990), characterizes
viewers as being "plugged in" to their world:
But those who watched TV news regularly were more likely to watch a lot of it
-- more than an hour a day -- a marked contrast to all other
news media, whose
audiences tend to shrink over time. . . .
On certain kinds of news stories, or in answer to particularly broad questions,
those who watch television even had a higher level of interest and information
than those who said they regularly read newspapers.
But television news viewership is not always viewed in a positive light. Note
the marked difference in the characterization of this piece also in
Angeles Times (December 5, 1990):
It's hardly news that anchors are essentially come-ons, drawing viewers to
newscasts the way mannequins attract window shoppers. . . .
Like most anchors, she's a glossy ornament, a host, presenter and news reader
who has no input or role in gathering or reporting news.
So think about it. Although some Los Angeles viewers surely do use other
criteria, thousands and thousands more are watching a newscast at
a given moment
not because of the news product but because of the news package.
Overall there appear similarities between the way journalists treat television
news audiences and newspaper readers within these stories. Both
focus a great
deal of time establishing the role these audiences play in the
of the media organization. There is a reflexive trend here, in the
to focus on itself. . .a sort of egocentricism. This preoccupation with self,
for the media organization, is indicative of the process in which it
its audience. Krippendorff (1991) draws the parallel:
Social constructionism arose in social psychology and cultural anthropology and
recognizes the constructed and non-representational nature of
knowledge as well.
It emphasizes the social construction of emotions, persons, interpersonal
relationships, etc. in the language used by individuals; that is,
discourse. It insists that all knowledge is self-reflexive in the
the knower always is a constitutive part of his or her own
process of knowing
and moreover, that much of it is negotiated with others. . .
Applying this to the ways newspaper journalists characterize media audiences,
we can expect that the social construction of these audiences would
say much about the journalist, the media organization for which s/he
the media institution. Social construction, like other kinds of
self-reflexive. As the journalist writes about the audience, s/he
writing about him or herself. S/he is also discovering him or herself.
journalist writes about his/her audience, s/he creates the audience
in light of
what s/he deems important: him or herself, the media organization,
media as an institution. This is perhaps most evident in some of the
editorials, such as this one by Michael Kernan in the Washington Post (April
Why are newspapers losing readers ["Extra! Extra! Who Cares?" Outlook, April
1]? After 40 years as a reporter and editor, more than half of
them with the
Post, I have these thoughts:
It comes down to how we define news. . . .
Editors the world over are sublimely confident that they know "what the readers
want. And what is important. The fact is they don't. . .
People are many-splendored creatures, infinitely complex, and we are speaking
only to their most obvious interests. The Style section had a
mandate to get
inside people, regular people. It no longer does, if it ever
really did. . .We
need to reach the whole person.
We need stories about tenderness.
Notice that what this says about the audience, likely says much more about the
journalist. The writer's values regarding modern journalism are
while this reflexive trend pertaining to the individual journalist is
evident in editorials, the reflexivity that pertains to the news institution is
perhaps more obvious in the news articles, as evidenced in this excerpt from an
article in the Los Angeles Times (December 15, 1991):
Eugene L. Roberts Jr., who retired last year as executive editor of the
Philadelphia Inquirer, contends that the business' problems are
short-lived and, to some extent, are of newspapers' own making.
As more newspapers have become publicly owned, "we have become very
shortsighted, with the emphasis on quarterly and even monthly and weekly
goals," said Roberts. . .
"More and more decisions," he added, "are being made further away from the
readers and advertisers."
If metropolitan dailies are being sorely challenged, few would say they are in
danger of disappearing.
The Persian Gulf War demonstrated once and for all that newspapers could not
match the immediacy of Cable News Network's coverage of
colliding Scud and
Patriot missiles. Yet newspaper readership surged during the war,
that the public was still hungry for the kind of in-depth reporting and
analysis that newspapers do best.
"Everywhere you can see that people want to read more, hear more, see more,"
said Allen H. Neuharth, who was chairman of Gannett when the
USA Today. "But they don't have the time and will not make the
effort to read
newspapers that are dull and gray."
While it is not endemic to articles about audiences that they exclusively
pertain to the economic state of media organizations, (and likely many
articles discovered using different computerized search terms do not),
therefore, not surprising to see a great many articles which discuss
relating to media economics. A certain reflexivity is part of any
construction. In addition, media organizations are increasingly
interested in their own economic survival. News copy can and will
fact. Stone (1987) describes the reality, "With increased competition for
available news space, the desire to keep current readers, and the need
attract new ones, editors are anxious to make every column inch of
perform its maximum reader-attraction function" (p. 61). In his 1990
Newsroom Management, Robert H. Giles argues that such concerns are
part of the editorial function:
The growth of large newspaper companies and the strength of other media
organizations that are competing for advertising dollars and readers'
made budgeting a necessary planning responsibility for
Editors no longer have the luxury of casually running the news
spending whatever it takes to pay the staff and cover the news.
editors are looking at the expense sheets with a sharp eye.
They are under
pressure from publishers who want to pare costs and increase
profits (p. 145).
As the institutional concern for the "bottom-line" interacts with the editorial
process, institutional concerns will more and more likely be a part of the
overall editorial decision making that helps to construct the news.
Institutional concerns for "advertising dollars and readers' time" will
undoubtedly trickle down to the journalist's concerns--what s/he deems
important, how s/he comes to understand his/her audience. In The Newspaper
Survival Book (1985), Philip Meyer implies that the journalist needs
more aware of his audience:
Everyone who markets consumer products keeps a picture in his or her head of the
person who will be using those products.
For my high-school journalism teacher, that mythical target was a
twelve-year-old child. If the child could understand what was in the
she told us, most other people could too. . . .
In today's marketing environment, however, a single customer stereotype is no
longer sufficient. Marketers follow a strategy of segmentation
that calls for
them to simultaneously appeal to many different kinds of
customers, each looking
for different kinds of value (p. 78).
McCombs (1981) makes a more direct appeal:
Most newspaper editors and reporters desire to be like the actor with his
spellbound audience eagerly awaiting the next line. But many
unfortunately, journalists are more like the orator with his empty
The basic problem which journalists and all other mass communicators face is
how to obtain sufficient feedback to maintain a steady flow of
communication (p. 44).
A second observation about the way these journalists talk about their
audiences is that they typically treat readers or viewers on the aggregate
rather than as individuals. This too, can be expected. Using traditional
definitions of newsworthiness that are tied to clear news pegs, the
has no way to talk about the audience member as a unique individual.
journalist might ask, "What is the news value?" The individual, unless
achieves "prominence," is not newsworthy. There is one exception.
journalist can focus on the individual audience member, when it is clear
s/he represents a vast number of others who are "out there."
refers to this as the "trend story." This structure gives the
chance to actually talk to a member of the audience, outside of
or statistics. In such an opportunity, after television stations changed the
times of their local news shows, (January 18, 1992), Washington Post
writer Jay Mathews got a chance to tell of one audience characteristic:
Leonard Anderson, a writer for a California power company, used to set his
alarm for a little before 7 a.m. and have plenty of time for
breakfast and the
drive to work. Now with two children, a working wife and a
long list of
extracurricular chores, he is up at 5:30 a.m. and still does not
seem to have
Brian Fiori, a television station research director, is single at 34 and finds
himself going to bed earlier. "We baby boomers are not 20
anymore," he said.
"I still like to play, but I don't do it the way I used to.
The proliferation of women in the workplace and the aging of the baby boom
generation have produced a revolution in American eating habits,
entertainment choices and family size. But now they are altering the fabric of
time itself, returning American sleeping habits to an early-to-bed,
early-to-rise rhythm that would make Benjamin Franklin proud. . .
But the most telling evidence of the change has come from the television
industry, the nation's most conscientious monitor of hour-by -hour
inside the American home.
The article goes on to detail the significance of this change for television
news programmers. Other direct quotes do come from letters sent to
television station, a rarity in getting to hear directly from media
While on the whole, there appear more similarities than differences in the way
newspapers journalists write about newspaper readers versus television news
viewers, one difference may be in the amount of coverage that is
each. As indicated, a LEXIS search for "newspaper readers" garnered
stories during the two-year period while using the search term "news
only located 110 stories. While no scientific claims of any sort
can really be
made of such a finding without a formal content analysis and further
experimentation with different search terms, the finding is surprising. With
special television sections in many newspapers, one would expect a
great deal to
be written about news viewers. Likely one reason for the goodly number of
articles pertaining to newspaper readers is the changing economic
American newspapers. While readership has declined dramatically over
the economic state of newspapers has also been "newsworthy" compared to the
more relatively stable local news programming. However, given the
national television news programming, one might anticipate more
television news viewers.
This paper sought to address three questions:
l. What are the predominant stories regarding news audiences? Given the
search terms used in this study, the most prevalent stories discovered
the declining readership figures evidenced among U.S newspapers, the
readership especially among young people, audience preferences in
areas of news
substance and packaging, demographic and psychographic breakdowns of audiences,
and how newspapers and television stations are catering to these audience
2. Do newspaper journalists characterize newspaper readers differently than
television news viewers? By and large, newspaper reporters tend to
audiences in much the same way. Audiences are largely addressed in
terms rather than treating them as individuals. In addition,
typically refered to in terms of how they contribute to the economic
the news media.
3. On what kinds of sources do journalists base their assessments of their
audiences? The most frequent sources cited by journalists regarding
audiences appear to be media workers themselves. Presidents of
chains, news programmers at television chains, media researchers at
universities and media consultants are the primary sources. Studies that can
offer quantified data regarding news audiences play a special role
in helping to
shape the image of audience. These quantified data help construct the audience
as more real and as an "objective reality."
Based on these findings, one can conclude that news audiences are indeed
socially constructed by the print journalist. The journalist chooses
information about news readers and viewers and does not choose other
information. The predominant information in these stories focuses on the
audience's impact on the economic survival of the media
organizations. In other
stories, the journalist will choose other information. In political stories,
the writer may talk about political constituencies. In religious
writer may talk about denominational breakdowns. Statistics about
used in these articles to help tell the story. . .that is their
Audiences are constructed to help tell stories.
The audience "statistic" used in these stories is just one example of a
statistical construction used to tell a story. Journalists are
search out statistics on which to build their stories. In their
Writing, Newsom and Wollert (1985) make the case for the journalist:
Present relevant statistics, scores, vote totals. Don't just say that the state
senate passed a bill--what was the vote? If a motion fails to carry, how many
votes would have been needed? What was the score of the game?
How many people
attended? How long did it last?
In these stories, the journalist often "constructs" the audience to tell
something about the media organization. The process is analogous to
organizations themselves do, to show advertisers they are
successful. This is
how that process is described in the Seattle Times (August 28,
. . .To compile detailed demographic data on viewership, ratings services rely
on diaries. They require a viewer to log the channel number
and call letters of
the station being watched, along with the title of the show.
"Get this," said James Gabbert, president of San Francisco's KOFY (Channel 20),
which airs a 10 p.m. newscast supplied by NBC affiliate KRON (Channel 4).
"Ours is called "KRON Newscenter Four at 10 on Twenty.' Imagine
sitting at home watching this thing, trying to fill out her
Just as the station must construct its audience to tell its story, so must the
journalist construct an audience to tell his/her story. In some
"construction" is almost the whole meat of the story, as in this
piece in the Denver Post (May 5, 1991):
The Denver Post has boosted its Sunday circulation by 4,799 newspapers over the
last six months, according to a review of industry figures, while adding 21,800
daily readers over the past two years, according to a different survey.
"Our hard work is paying off," said Post Publisher Don Hunt.
"We've steadily increased both our daily and Sunday numbers over the past 36
months," he said. "And every day, more people are deciding
that they want our
better coverage, better service and better color."
. . .Ken Calhoun, Post vice president of marketing said, "Scarborough is an
important report for advertisers. It not only measures
but it also provides a demographic profile of the readers."
For the same
period, Scarborough showed that the Rocky Mountain News lost 91,000
Here, we see audience constructed or reified to tell the story of the Post's
success over its rival, the Rocky Mountain News. Audience
statistics are used
to paint the picture of growth of the media organization. The
sources cited are
not readers, but representatives of the media organization itself.
While all information for the journalist is logically constructed, there is
more than one way in which it can be constructed. Audience need not
exclusively constructed via statistics and official sources. While that
a good place to start, there is also a need for journalists to get
on their audiences. Simply talking to readers and viewers and using them as
"sources" might help both the journalist in his writing and the
serves. Getting "first-hand" accounts of how people use the media,
they use the news media for would humanize the audience construction.
also add a dimension rarely seen in the stories examined here.
studies and industry and academic sources are ways in which the journalist can
get a grasp on the news audience in aggregate, conversations with
readers and viewers can help the journalist better understand and
his/her audience as individuals.
Avenues for Further Research
This study begins an examination of how print journalists write about newspaper
and television news audiences. What is not clear in this study is how closely
the image as written in their stories matches up with their own
perceptions of their audience. One follow-up investigation of some worth
be to interview these journalists about their perceptions of their
comparison with what they write. A second area of inquiry would be
how they use those perceptions in crafting their stories. Do they
envision the "twelve-year-old-girl" when writing their stories or do
actually write in hopes of appealing to their colleagues and editors?
stories they write about news audiences impact their later
perceptions of those
audiences? A third area of questioning would be in asking them what
audience stories they would like to see told. What stories are
being told too
often and what stories are not told at all?
A second follow-up investigation would be to do the same type of research
discussed here with different search-terms. While these stories
focused on mass audiences in relation to the economic state of the
organization, other terms like "news consumers" or "watching T.V." might
somewhat different pictures.
Another area of inquiry could focus on how television and radio journalists
talk about newspaper readers and news viewers. Do their perceptions
of a news
audience match those of print journalists? What types of stories
have they done
on the modern news consumer?
Finally, a quantifiable content analysis of articles pertaining to news
audiences would help to validate some of the conclusions presented here.
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