Audience Fragmentation and Journalism in the U.S. Context
- Angela M. LeeAngela M. LeeSchool of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication, The University of Texas at Dallas
The association between audience fragmentation and journalism is an intricate one. On the one hand, the word “audience” refers to an assembly of a group of consumers, such as book or magazine readers, moviegoers, radio or podcast listeners, television viewers, and website visitors, and they are primarily distinguished by the particular media product, genre, or outlet that they choose to consume. Webster stated in 2016 that oftentimes the purpose and consequence of audience research are financial—i.e., book publishers tend to break down their market by readers of different genres, which allows them to better tailor their content and promotions to relevant audiences in order to maximize book sales—and thus the goal of audience research in such contexts lies in finding the balance between capturing the largest number of media users who share similar consumption patterns and the narrowest content clusters—i.e., those separated by topic or genres.
On the other hand, whereas the purpose of audience conceptualization fundamentally revolves around fragmentation, the motivation for journalism in democratic societies is arguably the opposite. That is, if one were to believe, as Kovach and Rosenstiel posited in 2007, that the purpose of journalism is to inform and educate the people so they can self-govern and make better civil decisions in democratic societies, then it follows that the primary objective of journalism lies in serving as many citizens with the same information as possible. In short, the purpose of audience fragmentation and journalism is—in many ways—ontologically contradictory, with the former being more pluralistic in nature.
The topic of audience fragmentation is approached primarily from a commercial perspective, and in the context of the US market. It should be acknowledged, however, that this topic can and has been approached differently, via critical studies and across other markets. The end of this article offers a cursory comparative analysis between the USA and other Western countries to help contextualize findings from the USA in a global context. For those with deeper interest in such other inquiries, the recommended readings provided at the end of this article may offer a good starting point.
It should be noted that one of the biggest obstacles in the study of audience fragmentation, at least in the USA, lies in the fact that large-scale media reports of such data (e.g., those published by the Pew Research Center) often compare apples and oranges (e.g., either using survey questions with different operationalizations as the basis for comparison or reporting on different facets of audience fragmentation in its longitudinal studies, as this article will explain). To this end, this article is a first step in offering a baseline cross-sectional overview of how American audiences are consuming the news in 2018 via analysis of select Pew data files with comparable sampling method and survey instruments.