In Western Europe, the notion of public service in the media was originally associated with traditional public-service broadcasters. However, since the 1990s, the general idea of public-service broadcasting and the continuing need for it in a digitized, content-abundant environment have been questioned. In particular, public-service broadcasters’ online activities have triggered controversial discussions and policy responses, not least because of direct competition with online services of the private media. At the same time, discussions have emerged about the meaning of public service and attendant concepts such as public value, challenging the hitherto commonly accepted attachment of the concept to a specific technology (broadcasting) and a specific—publicly procured and financed—organizational setting. In response to this and backed by politics, public-service broadcasters have reinvented themselves as public-service media. They have expanded their remit beyond television and radio into multimedia realms such as the Internet and, in addition to this, have started devoting new attention to the general public as their prime target of accountability—thus opposed to the original exclusive accountability to politics. Such accountability has been pursued, among other things, through direct cooperation with the public or other ways of connecting with it, for example, through personalization efforts and participatory formats. Although the public has rhetorically become the prime target of accountability, there is little discussion or acknowledgement of the actual perceptions that the public has about the general idea of public service and how public-service broadcasters accomplish this task. With few exceptions, studies continue the dominant paradigm of audience research, which construes the public almost exclusively as consumers.
For millennia, the idea that rituals create a shared and conventional world of human sociality has been commonplace. From common rites of passage that exist around the world in various forms (weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies) to patterned actions that seem familiar only to members of the in-group (secret initiations, organizational routines), the voluntary performance of ritual encourages people to participate and engage meaningfully in different spheres of society. While attention to the concept was originally the purview of anthropology, sociology, and history, many other academic disciplines have since turned to ritual as a “window” on the cultural dynamics by which people make and remake their worlds. In terms of journalism studies in particular, the concept of ritual has been harnessed by scholars looking to understand the symbolic power of media to direct public attention, define issues and groups, and cause social cohesion or dissolution. Media rituals performed in and through news coverage indicate social norms, common and conflicting values, and different ways of being “in the world.” The idea of ritual in journalism is accordingly related to discussions around the societal power of journalism as an institution, the ceremonial aspects of news coverage (especially around elite persons and extraordinary “media events”), and the different techniques journalists use to “make the news” and “construct reality.” Journalism does more than merely cover events or chronicle history—it provides a mediated space for audiences and publics that both allows and extends rituals that can unite, challenge, and affect society.