PhD Defense: Constanza Gajardo (VU University)

Truly Engaging Audiences. How are the needs of the audience – as citizens – served by journalism?

Friday 20 October 2023 at 13:45 hrs
VU University – Amsterdam

From a traditional normative perspective, it is understood that if people do not consume news, democracy loses an informed foundation for an engaged citizenship (Christians et al., 2010; Schudson, 2008; McNair, 2009). Hence, the acquisition of factual information, primarily about politics and public affairs, is often considered what people need from journalism (McQuail, 2013). However, such normative formulations seem to primarily represent the viewpoint of journalists. The audience’s perspective has only been tangentially included in the normative framework of journalism, mainly based on predefined definitions of what it means for individuals to fulfil a citizen’s role (Moe, 2020).

How are the needs of the audience – as citizens – served by journalism? Or, more specifically, how does the audience experience journalism as truly engaging, and how do journalists feel they truly engage with their audiences? This dissertation deconstructs the relationship between citizens, journalism and democracy by taking the perspective of audiences as a starting point, and also considering the experiences of journalists’ relationship with them.

The research is based on 37 semi-structured interviews with Chilean news users (aged 18 to 65), and 20 professional journalists. Some key findings are: first, audiences not only appreciate but also demand that journalism be “on their side,” highlighting the importance people attach to journalism as a resource that allows them to have a sense of agency in their own lives. Second, feeling served by journalism in their role as citizens is not only based on the types of content they receive but also on the communicative experience it evokes. People feel served when they perceive that journalism communicates with them, adapting to their needs and preferences, specifically through demonstrations of (1) editorial transparency, (2) professional commitment, and (3) social commitment. And third, an empirical understanding of how journalism serves the audience as citizens may be construed around the notion of living citizens: concrete news users targeted by journalists based on professional democratic ideals. When journalists conceive of their audiences as living citizens, they see themselves as professionals whose value is strongly linked to their capacity to perform the role of a watchdog, not only in the interest of seeking to hold the de facto power accountable, but also by being a watchdog on behalf of the people and by taking people’s problems seriously. Likewise, approaching the audience as living citizens encourages journalists to see themselves as accountable both for making their journalism relevant and appealing to their audience, and also, being aware of and reflecting on the potential impact their journalism has on people’s lives.

Using the Chilean context as a starting point, this dissertation adds nuances to the automatic link between journalism and democracy and contributes to a better understanding of how the relationship between audiences, journalism, and democracy unfolds in empirical and everyday terms, thereby complementing and expanding the normative theory of journalism.