A case for reframing who journalists are reporting “for”
What would change if journalists related to their audiences as constituents instead of consumers?
Someone told me the other day that those of us pursuing our master’s in social journalism are referred to as the hippies in our graduate school. And I mean, they’re not super wrong. We are a pretty aspirational and idealistic bunch. We talk a lot (usually with our hands flying and our voices fluctuating) about the bright future of journalism we want to create.
But this week I left our community engagement class with one of the most useful, pragmatic and simplified frameworks that all journalists should embrace. It gave me a lot of clarity about the heart of what the media should be and what (and who) we’re working for.
Mike Rispoli, the director of News Voices, broke down what I consider the core problem in the media in the simplest terms I’ve heard yet. He said, “People aren’t just consumers. People are constituents.”
Now, this shouldn’t be that unique of an idea, but I do think if the journalism industry really believed that and embraced it fully, our media landscape, our civic engagement and our communities would look completely different.
I would go out on a limb to say that most of the ways that the journalism industry has failed are somehow connected to and rooted in this necessary distinction of who we are reporting for. Our audience is made up of constituents, not merely consumers. The shortcomings in our industry have come when we have strayed from that.
Rispoli explained that journalism is a business of relationships, and that in order to shift journalism, we have to shift the relationships that impact journalism.
So what changes in a relationship with a consumer versus a relationship with a constituent?
A consumer relationship is more passive and more transactional. It’s based on the notion that something can make money by getting attention, and that that is the ultimate goal. Sensationalism, click bait and bitter media competition stem from this idea.
More than that, and more deeply troubling, is that when the audience is viewed only as consumer, Rispoli said the number one value they can bring to the relationship is whether or not they can pay for something. This causes editorial decisions to be made strictly from a profit-motivated place and shifts newsroom prioritizing, centering the needs, wants and norms of the wealthy and powerful. It caters coverage and entire media institutions to those with a “disposable income,” instead of to the public in a broader sense. Naturally, this impacts what stories get told, who they get told for, how they’re framed, what stories get overlooked and what stories get silenced. It impacts how useful and relevant the media is for people with different experiences and incomes. Why would someone engage with media that does not include them and was not made for them? For more on this, I was really moved by Carla Murphy’s essay from this past week about the need for a working class media.
This idea of audience as consumer not only hurts our civic life, but I feel like it does actually hurt our bottom line and our sustainability and viability in a business sense too.
When the audience is consumer, success is measured by consumption.
On the other hand, when the audience is constituent, the metrics inherently shift. Success is measured by engagement.
The ideal outcome of that is a sustained relationship between the journalists and the constituents, and genuine investment in both directions.
When journalists invest in information needs of constituents, constituents will invest in the journalism that provides them the information to participate more fully in their communities.
A constituent audience is a more active relationship. It connotes a sense of agency in the audience. They are participants in our communities and in our media landscape, not just passive consumers of what we feed them. They choose to engage with what is useful (and to not with what is not).
The audience as constituent also indicates a sense of responsibility and accountability to our audience, the public. As Rispoli put it, this “more deeply roots journalism as a public service.” We have a duty to serve our constituents.
When the audience is made up of constituents, it forces journalists to think differently about the power they wield. It encourages journalists to give up some of the power of determining what is “newsworthy” and sharing that power among constituents instead. In a way, it democratizes this idea of who sets the narrative, and the journalist becomes a conduit of public conversation about what matters most to the constituents.
When constituents have a role in collaborating with journalists to create a media world that makes more sense in a community, then people are more equipped to engage more meaningfully within that community, and journalism becomes an essential part of that thriving ecosystem in the long term.
In her essay about the working class media, Murphy begged the question, “I wonder about the potential political effects if we had a media that served working-class Americans of this economic era, who currently feel typed but not seen.”
Positioning the audience as constituent opens up the opportunity to explore those possibilities.
This should not be hippie dippy pie in the sky conversation. It also shouldn’t be rocket science. This should be our job. It is our job, and it is our responsibility, to report with a sense of responsibility and accountability to our communities. In the current media landscape, it is easy to lose sight of that, but providing information for constituents so they can more readily participate in our collective civic life is literally why we exist.