People on the internet love arguing about what is and isn’t journalism. From comments on Facebook posts to fights in Twitter threads, any kind of controversial reporting can quickly spiral into a generalised attack on journalism as a whole. To a certain extent, this can be productive. It allows viewers to distinguish between disinformation and accurate reporting. To point out inaccuracies in posts, often as they are going viral. To prompt audiences to consider what kinds of media they are engaging with.
This argument, however, has become an easy comeback to articles or editorial decisions that audiences don’t agree with. So, how do we figure out what audiences want?
In a digital, heavily-populated media landscape, active audiences are crucial to the practice of journalism. As audiences move beyond traditional print and broadcast formats to broader multimedia coverage, creating an increasingly fragmented media landscape, tech firms and their algorithms have become dedicated to attracting them by whatever means possible.
This isn’t an easy question to answer, but social media in particular has allowed audiences to express their likes and dislikes towards media as it is made. The internet is very rarely a particularly civil place; it doesn’t take long for this discussion to become, at best, heavily polarised and, at worst, harmful. Amidst all of this, journalists are encouraged to build and maintain an online presence to draw their own audiences to their work. With unprecedented, parasocial access to journalists, audiences can scrutinise journalistic practice in a more immediate and large-scale way than ever before.
The Digital News Report, organised by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based at the University of Oxford is a project involving ongoing surveying of the opinions and behaviours of digital news consumers around the world. In the 2022 Australian edition, almost three quarters (73 per cent) of Australians surveyed could not name a journalist whose work they pay attention to. Despite this, at least half (52 per cent) of respondents reported that they believe that journalists should only report news on social media and not share their own opinions.
This seems to suggest that attitudes towards journalists’ newfound visibility are often contradictory. Whilst audiences allegedly don’t regularly follow the work of journalists for the most part, they still have strong opinions about what they believe to be appropriate online activity for journalists.
The survey results showed variance based on the platform that users consumed news through, as well as respondents’ age. People that get their news online, particularly on Twitter, tended to be more supportive of journalists sharing their opinions, while more than half of television users (60 per cent) opposed this.
Younger generations appeared to be more open to this, with close to half of Generation Zs (54 per cent) and Ys (43 per cent) responding that journalists should be able to express their opinions alongside their news coverage. Respondents with high levels of interest and engagement with news tended to also be more accepting.
The nature of this question illustrates a broader tension between seeking to grow audiences and dealing with visibility. In this environment, the audience’s own definitions of journalism can shape what work succeeds or doesn’t. While it could be beneficial for audiences to be able to understand the internal biases and contexts of the journalistic content that they are reading, this expectation of increased visibility brings its own risks for journalists globally.
Visibility can be dangerous for journalists. The 2022 version of the World Press Freedom Index, developed by Reporters Without Borders, found that the state of press freedom is ‘very bad’ in 28 of the 180 countries and territories included in the survey. A further 38 countries were found to be in a difficult situation for press freedom, and 69 in a problematic situation. This leaves only 53 countries in a satisfactory or good position this year. Australia is 39th on the list.
Beyond these threats to press freedom, many journalists face ongoing online trolling and abuse. These risks are higher when a journalist is female, LGBTQIA+, Indigenous, culturally or linguistically diverse, and/or disabled. A survey by the International Center for Journalists and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) found that almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of responding female journalists experienced online abuse. A fifth (20 per cent) of female respondents reported experiencing physical attacks that they believe to be connected with the online abuse.
This is likely a real world consequence of expecting the unprecedented visibility and accessibility to journalists that is currently taken for granted. Journalists should be able to do their jobs, use social media and be on the internet without facing continual threats to their safety. Freedom of the press remains a perennial issue, and should be treated as one.
Here lies the contradiction. Finding the answer to what audiences want continues to shape and guide the media. Current media norms and practices celebrate viral content. Viral content brings more viewers to news outlets and their work. Yet more viewers brings more visibility, and often more potential for cyberhate, trolling and abuse.
Words matter, but so do actions.
Perhaps, we should be less concerned with what we define as journalism, and instead find more ways to support quality reporting around us, and the people making it happen.