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Book Review: The News Gap – When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge – Svenja Ottovordemgentschenfelde

The-news-gap-202x300For the better part of the last century, the media landscape was governed by a basic information asymmetry and the journalistic logic of control over content. As a result, mainstream news organizations were in a leading market position to decide which news reached the audience. While the public has always displayed differing levels of interest in stories the media provide, the classic and linear twentieth century format of news delivery exposed the public to more content than what it preferred.

In order to learn about a sports event or a policy proposal, one had to buy a whole newspaper, watch multiple segments of a TV newscast or listen to a radio show long enough to catch a desired report. The emergence of digital media facilitated an evolution of news that has changed the picture drastically: as a fragmented and post-industrial society, we now find ourselves in a hyper-saturated, competitive and high-choice media environment.

In their book The News GapPablo Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein of Northwestern University scrutinize this development more closely and investigate the contemporary state of mainstream news media that allows us “to get the news we want and ignore the rest” (p.3). The authors juxtapose the preferences of journalists with those of the public and in doing so, their book aims to make sense of the existence, magnitude and variability of what Boczkowski and Mitchelstein conceptualize as the “news gap” between the supply and demand of information.

The News Gap presents the results of a large-scale, multi-year year study (2007-2009) that examined more than 50,000 stories published on the webpages of the 20 leading mainstream news sites in seven countries in three regions of the world (North and South America, Europe). The authors used quantitative and qualitative content analysis techniques to examine this large body of data and conducted several smaller ethnographic inquiries into the interpretative and experiential aspects of the production of online news. Unlike other recent accounts, The News Gap is neither concerned with production processes nor consumptions habits on their own – but with the interplay and dynamic space that exists between these two. Due to the focus on this “informational” dimension as well as the scope of the study, Boczkowski and Michelstein’s book is the most comprehensive empirical account to date of diverging news preferences as a social phenomenon.

The book examines the news gap from different analytical standpoints with multiple layers of complexity. Chapter two establishes the existence and size of the gap and the authors find that journalists consider public affairs (i.e. national, international and business topics) as the most newsworthy subjects, while the public gravitates towards non-public affairs content (i.e. sports, crime, entertainment and weather). Despite the diversity of political cultures and media systems across their sample, Boczkowski and Mitchelstein discover that the gap is immune to geographic and ideological variations.

Chapter three examines how times of heightened political activity affect the news gap. Two case studies from 2008, the U.S. Presidential Election and the political crisis in Argentina, illustrate how the news gap is a) dynamic in nature with consumer choices being more variable than those of journalists and b) narrows significantly during these periods in favour of public affairs news.

Chapter four looks at storytelling preferences and finds that both journalists and consumers favour the classic straight-news style, while consumers still prefer non-public affairs topics regardless of format. Contrary to the majority of both popular and expert beliefs, the authors argue that novel formats such as the integration of user-generated content (UGC) have a remarkably low level of uptake amongst audiences.

The book’s narrative is well developed and substantiated by an impressive amount of case studies and empirical evidence. The authors include countless screenshots, graphs and data visualizations to support and illustrate their findings. A follow up study undertaken within the U.S. context is presented as the coda and provides an additional asset to the core body of the book.

Finally, the authors observe that journalists appear to be “less able to adapt to changes in circumstances than consumers, which doesn’t bode well for the future of traditional news production in a fast-paced and changing environment” (p. 110). Ultimately, they come to the conclusion that the study’s evidence “suggests the industry’s inability to innovate” (p. 172). This indicates just how timely The News Gap is, as mainstream news organizations across the globe are facing similar challenges. The recently leaked New York Times innovation report illustrates that even journalists in one of the world’s leading newsrooms are struggling to fully adapt to the digital age.

One of the major contributions of Boczkowski and Mitchelstein’s research is the conceptual formulation of the “news gap”. It accurately captures a prevailing social phenomenon which the authors describe as a tension between “what is interesting and what is important”. However, it is statements like this that clearly reveal Boczkowski and Mitchelstein’s vision of a classic liberal and normative vision of the press in democratic societies. They base their argument around the problems of an uninformed citizenry on the premises of a public service mission of the media, its “vibrant performance of a watchdog role” (p. 141) and its duty to facilitate civic deliberation in the public sphere.

However, this perspective is not necessarily unproblematic. The authors argue that journalists’ professional logic trumps that of the market and in doing so, they risk downplaying environmental forces such as declining revenues, collapsing business models as well as harsh competition for markets and audiences as powerful macro structures that impact the supply side of news. After all, supply determines the existence, magnitude and variability of the news gap just as much as demand does.

Overall, the book is a comprehensive, insightful and valuable contribution to understanding the dynamic knowledge exchange between those who produce and those who consume news. The authors develop a novel methodology that combines traditionally separate fields of study in one project. I highly recommend The News Gap as a useful and well-researched text that sheds light on this yet understudied area of media research.

The News Gap – When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge. Pablo Javier Boczkowski and Eugenia Michelstein. MIT Press. November 2013.

This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Sivier

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    Well, now. Where to start?
    We all know there is a gap between the news we’re allowed to read/see at the moment and the news we need to know about. My concern is that this is politically-motivated and it seems this is not well covered in the article. If it isn’t covered in the book, that’s a real shame, because it is seriously affecting the way people think.
    For example: David Cameron knows he can’t win an election without keeping Rupert Murdoch’s news empire on his side; that’s why he has bent over backwards to be Rupert’s puppy. Conversely, the BBC has its Royal Charter coming up for renewal soon, and fears what the Tories will do – so IT is bending over backwards to be Cameron’s puppy.
    Result: The vast majority of news in the UK is slanted in favour of the Conservative Party, no matter whether that organisation’s policies are right or wrong. And we haven’t even discussed the output of the Daily Mail or Daily Telegraph yet!

    • "Robin Lupinhyo"

      20 sites in seven different countries on three continents and, I assume, in different languages considering one country was Argentina. The global Murdoch conspiracy is pretty impressive to be doing all this in places he doesn’t even own media.

      Or, this shows what editors have known for some time which is that you can lead readers up to a point, but you also have to give them what they want otherwise they stop reading. There’s a good reason why the red tops generally avoid political splashes: the negative impact on circulation.

  2. beastrabban

    Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    This is good, detailed stuff, but in many ways it simply confirms what people knew or suspect already. About eleven years ago one of my history lecturers noted that although the class agreed that the most important historical and, indeed, generally newsworthy events were the hard news of politics, what people actually read the most about in the papers was the soft, social stories about sport and celebrities. And when I was at school, the book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, by an American writer warned that the preference for entertainment over fact was leading to an increasingly manipulative media which trivialised complex issues.
    What, however, is really driving this research is the fear and realisation by the established media that they don’t have the influence to shape public opinion they once did. The Times is a case in point. It’s the British ‘newspaper of record’, which has had the nickname, ‘the Thunderer’ since it first appeared in the 18th century because of its editorials. It’s one of the prizes in Murdoch’s squalid collection of global newspaper titles, as it allows him to sit at the table of politicians as the publisher of traditionally the most respected British newspaper. Yet the Times is losing money hand over fist as people desert it for other media. And so journalists and broadcasters are complaining about an increasingly fragmented audience, which now has little in common with each other, as people get their news from radically different sources. They thus find it increasingly difficult to mould a consensus opinion. The problem with this is that ignores the extent to which the public has become increasingly aware of how the news is shaped and moulded to fit the message the self-regarding ‘opinion-makers’ want to put out. The Mail’s Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch have both attempted to shape government policy through the support they give the political parties, all the while promoting a Right-wing, populist politics of anti-immigration, privatisation and cuts to welfare benefits. As a result, voters are looking elsewhere for their information, quite often to the dark corners of the Net which present extreme and often unsanitised version of events, but which have the benefit of agreeing with their audiences political bias and not having come from an official corporation.

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