Deepening Engagement:

Reciprocity Could be Key for Journalists

Journalists should focus on what they can do for their audiences. Image: Lena/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

By Mark Coddington, Seth C. Lewis, Avery E. Holton, EdJ Contributors

The idea of fostering “engagement” has been one of the quintessential journalistic buzzwords of the past decade. Journalists, media executives, and academics have all spent countless hours in meetings and panels, and reading think pieces talking about ways not just to reach audiences with the news, but also to engage them.

That’s a question we’re interested in, too, but we approach it from a different direction. We’re looking at reciprocity, one of the underlying concepts supporting engagement. From every-day interactions to deep family bonds, relationships are reciprocal; people give time, attention, respect and love expecting to receive the same in return.

We think reciprocity, in its positive form, is not only a foundation of interpersonal relationships, but also potentially a key dimension in improving relationships between news organizations and their audiences.

…journalists should focus not so much on what audiences can do for them but what they can do for their audiences.

In fact, we suggest that journalists aiming to foster more engagement with and among readers should focus not so much on what audiences can do for them (e.g., click, like, and share their stories), but what they can do for their audiences to build and sustain more meaningful relationships.

In our research, we look at three different forms of reciprocity:·

· Direct reciprocity, which is what people most often think of when they imagine reciprocity — A gives something to B, and B gives something back to A.

· Indirect reciprocity, in which individuals give benefits and receive them in return, but not from the same person: A might give to B, who gives to C, who then gives to A.

· Sustained reciprocity, which can be either direct or indirect, but its key feature is that it extends through time. Rather than being a single exchange, it is part of an ongoing relationship or community that continues to foster trust.

Through each of these forms, reciprocity not only undergirds our individual relationships, but also forms the foundation for broader networks and communities, both online and offline. If journalists are doing their work within and for communities — and helping to create those communities through and around their work — then reciprocity becomes an important factor in determining how those communities function and what role journalists might play in them.

That’s why we sought to measure reciprocity within journalists’ beliefs and behaviors, to find out whether journalists view themselves as being in a reciprocal relationship with audiences and how their beliefs regarding reciprocity might apply in online and offline contexts.

We also examined reciprocity among journalists in relation to their journalistic roles — that is, their ideas of what functions journalists should serve in society and how they see themselves playing those roles in their own work.

Some Journalistic Roles

Scholars have identified a number of different journalistic role conceptions. They include:

· Public Servants, who see themselves primarily as performing a public service by monitoring those in political power.

· Mobilizers, who try to effect social change through their work.

· Entertainers, who see their work as providing entertainment or a pastime.

· Loyal Supporters, who ultimately see journalism as supporting those in power.

We wanted to know: Are there differences among these types of journalists in how they view reciprocity in their work?

We studied these questions with an online survey of newspaper journalists. We sampled journalists from Cision, a database of media professionals (stratified for proportional representation of editors and reporters, then randomly sampled within those two groups). A total of 546 journalists completed our survey, and we asked them several sets of questions about reciprocity (32 in all), looking at their beliefs and practices of direct, indirect, and sustained reciprocity, as well as whether and how they applied reciprocity in journalistic contexts. We also asked them 20 questions to determine the journalistic roles they most closely adhered to.

Little Talk about Relationships Over Time

Journalists of all types were willing to embrace reciprocity as part of their work, but with some important limitations. When we asked journalists about how they interacted with audiences, few talked about interactions or relationships that extended over time, even when we specifically prompted them to think about engagement over time. We found that journalists who identified with the “Populist Mobilizer” and “Entertainment” roles were more willing to use social media and digital tools as a means for reciprocal engagement. Journalists who affirmed the “Public Service” and “Loyal Support” roles preferred more offline and face-to-face settings.

So while journalists were willing to engage with readers in reciprocal ways, they mostly saw those as one-off exchanges and generally stuck to their preferred formats for those interactions.

But there was good news as well: Journalists generally reported high levels of reciprocal attitudes and behaviors, and we found that their reciprocal attitudes predicted more engagement in interactive and participatory forms of journalism. In practical terms, journalists said their role in reciprocity was to be civil and responsive to audience inquiries and interactions, including, as one journalist put it, a “willingness to immediately do what I can to provide information that [my readers] may seek.”

There’s much more to do in exploring the role of reciprocity in journalists’ relationships with their audiences. We’ve looked at journalists’ attitudes toward reciprocity, but researchers also need to more closely examine the connection between those attitudes and specific, on-the-ground action. Indeed, several scholars have begun to explore the gap between journalistic role conception and role enactment, and future studies would do well to include reciprocity as a factor to examine. It’s clear, though, that reciprocity is an important dimension in today’s media environment, and might point to ways of building lasting connections with news consumers.

Mark Coddington is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University. Seth Lewis is the Shirley Papé Chair in Electronic Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Avery Holton is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah.