BRIDGING GAPS BETWEEN AUDIENCE AND MEDIA:
Melissa M. Spirek
Abstract. This article presents a comparison of two approaches to conceptualizing the media-audience relationship in audience research: audience-inside-the-media versus audience-inside-life-as-it-is-lived. Two Sense-Making studies of audience leisure time information needs and seeking success were conducted: one focusing on audience needs in actual life situations; the other on needs while reading newspaper coverage. As predicted, differences were highly significant between the two conditions. Discussion proposes that conceptualizations of the audience are a major contributor to gaps between media and audiences, between media practitioners and researchers, and between media practices today versus those required in a cyberspaced future. Recommendations are offered for media practices from both studies. Sense-Making Methodology is proposed as a useful alternative approach to media audience research.
This study attempts to position itself at the intersection of some formidable gaps faced both by media researchers and media practitioners. The argument presented is seen as relevant to all media although the specific exemplar application is that of newspapers. In brief overview, the gaps are these:
Between media research and media practice. A divide is apparent between media research and practice such that practitioners express dissatisfaction with research no matter what its source. On the one hand, academic research seems both too theoretic and too sophisticated while at the same time accounting for too little variability in audience behavior and seeming to show few advances over decades of effort. On the other, proprietary research produced by media research departments disappoints both because of a lack of sophistication and because its conclusions are directed primarily to marketing interests rather than substantive aspects of media design and practice. This divide between research and practice is, of course, one of long-standing recognition and at the same time increased recent concern. 1In the midst of these divides there is not unexpectedly recent calls for understanding audiences. Such calls have themselves been a long-time song in media research. 8 But it is fair to say that the turn toward audience-oriented media research is more vigorous today than it has ever been. Within quantitative studies of media, for example, there is the robust tradition of uses and gratifications, which has traditionally been based on the call to understand what "people do with the media" rather than what "media do to people" (Katz, 1959). 9 Another example is the agenda-setting research genre focusing on the importance audiences place on, for example, public affairs topics and how these emphases change in evolving media environments. 10 Another example is the innovative and theoretically sophisticated work of Carter who has applied his research technique "Cognigraphics" to audience studies. 11 Further, one generally finds increases in the application of various cognitive approaches to studying media use. 12
The more robust attention to audience-oriented audience studies has been, without doubt, the qualitative audience research tradition. This rich and growing genre focuses on studying media use as it is socially and contextually embedded in the on-going lives of media users, what Lindlof terms "accounting for the actual unfolding of everyday interactions with the media" (Lindlof, 1987, p. x). Characteristic of the qualitative tradition is its conjoint attention to both media production and media use, focusing on understanding the ways in which media institutions, structures and practices constrain and limit audiences. Further, this tradition has typically executed deep holistic digs into audience interpretative activities in specific embedded social contexts (e.g. family life, interest groups). 13
The present study is usefully informed by both of these avenues of increased attention to audience-oriented research. Both, in essence, point to a need to understand audience decoding of media products albeit in very different ways. We submit, however, that neither avenue is serving well the building of the bridge between research and practice. The quantitative turn toward audience research puts its primary emphasis on the media. Audiences are examined in terms of how they position themselves vis-a-vis media usually defined as channels (e.g. newspapers or television or online newspapers) and audience behavior is conceptualized as habitual with enduring characteristics across time-space.
In contrast, the qualitative turn toward audience research provides an extraordinarily rich portrait of audience decoding but does so by placing its primary focus on audience lives in specific contexts in ways that do not seem to generalize easily to media practice. Further, in the context of media environments the lack of quantitative presentation in most qualitative work is unfortunately construed as lack of systemization. Fair or not, quantification is a mandated form of discourse in most media board rooms and newsrooms.
There are, of course, layers of contest and argument regarding philosophic and methodological questions that separate quantitative and qualitative approaches to media audience studies. 14 It is beyond our purpose here to review these. Suffice it to say that we see the polarization as artificial and submit that understanding any phenomena -- in this case the phenomena of interest -- audience decoding -- will ultimately be strengthened by bringing to bear a multiplicity of approaches.
We grant to the quantitative tradition its explicit attention to issues of sampling and systematic analyses and its ongoing, albeit thwarted, concern for finding ways to understand audiences in order to impact media practices. In a similar vein, we grant to the qualitative tradition its explicit attention to the conditions under which we are more likely to find audience decoding behaviors displayed in ways that provide explanatory potential, and its capacity to carry into method its assumptions regarding the active meaning-making audience.
Among the many differences between the traditions upon which we could elaborate, the one we have selected as most important for our study presented here is the issue of how the audience is positioned vis-a-vis the media in audience studies. For quantitative studies, it is fair to say the audience is portrayed inside-the-media. For qualitative studies, it is fair to say the audience is portrayed inside-life-as-it-is-lived.
We highlight this particular difference for attention because we see it as a difference that in many ways undergirds the gaps which we detailed in our opening paragraphs above. It is our assumption that the inattention of traditional media researchers to understanding audience-in-life-as-it-is-lived has much to do with the disappointing achievements of that tradition and with the increasing fickleness of audiences and journalistic fears of the future in cyberspace. Further, it is our assumption that a major reason why research has not informed practice is because most of that research has been too far removed from points of practice -- i.e. that moment when a member of the audience-in-life-as-it-is-lived engages in practices of decoding a media product. This is the moment when the product manifestations of media practices as exhibited in the structure, design, and content of the media product meets the interpreting practices of the audience.
It is at this juncture that we position the study presented here. We propose our study as an exemplar of an audience-oriented approach to studying newspaper readers which at the same time provides relevant links to practice. Further, we propose an explicit comparison of the impact of researching the audience-inside-the-media versus researching the audience-inside-life-as-it-is-lived.
To implement the general purposes stated above we propose to use the Sense-Making Methodology as a particularly useful intervention. Sense-Making as a methodology has been under development by Dervin and colleagues since the early 1970s and has been explicitly designed for the specific mandate of researching audiences (by any other name: users, patrons, patients, readers, and so on) in such a way that the resulting research serves media/communication/information system design and practice. The intent has been not so much to understand audiences as to understand audiences in such a way that the understandings can be used directly in practice and design. 15
Sense-Making is built upon an elaborate metatheoretic and methodological rationale, which will not be reviewed here. The important aspects for the purposes at hand are:
1) Studying audience members as anchored in specific moments in time-space and as potentially fluid and changeable across time-space. >From a Sense-Making perspective, it is in the realm of decoding that audiences have the play to exert freedoms otherwise disallowed in externally observable behaviors. Thus, while audience behaviors that are externally observed may have a habitual character, those that are not observable are far less habitual. Sense-Making studies, to date, have documented that the predictors and explanatory factors most used in media research -- personality, demography, literacies, culture -- rarely predict audience decoding. The reason for this is that they all assume constancy of audience behavior across time-space. In Sense-Making terms, these typical measures are imposed as social markers on respondents and are thus not close enough to life-as-it-is-lived to capture either the ways constraints might actually be operating or freedoms might be exercised. The result is research that makes audience member behavior look chaotic. Sense-Making does not assume that structural conditions do not impact audience interpretations. Nor does it assume that audience members do not sometimes behave habitually. Rather, it assumes that research must frame questions in such a way that both habitual as well as non-habitual behavior emerges.
In this section, we review in turn the research question, questionnaire design, sampling, fielding, units of analysis, variable definitions and operationalizations, and data analysis approaches.
This study would have been impossible without the involvement and support of the Seattle Times. 17 At the time of the study, the Times was interested in examining and improving its leisure time related coverage (i.e. sports, arts and entertainment, and travel). Leisure time situations and leisure time newspaper coverage became, thus, the substantive focus of the sense-making studied.
As stated above, our purpose was to: 1) execute an exemplar of an audience-oriented approach to studying newspaper readers which at the same time provides relevant links to practice; and 2) provide a comparison of the impact of researching the audience-inside-the-media versus researching the audience-inside-life-as-it-is-lived. The second purpose provided the focus for the study's design. The assumption, of course, was that the audience as displayed using an audience-inside-the-media approach would be a very different audience from that displayed using an audience-inside-life-as-it-is-lived approach. The mandate of the study design, then, was to compare audience decoding in two different contexts.
As a research approach, Sense-Making has been developed as a generalizable methodology for studying sense-making and sense-unmaking (Dervin, 1999a). In a specific study, the particular sense-making phenomena is delineated in terms of a particular research discourse. For this study, the selected criterion focus was information needs and information seeking success. Thus, it was decided to examine audience information needs and information seeking success in the two contexts -- one while facing real life leisure time situations, the other while intersecting with newspaper coverage relating to leisure time issues. In the presentation below when we refer to sense-making we are referring to this particular operationalization -- information needs, and information seeking success. When we refer to Sense-Making we are referring to the methodology.
Sense-Making as a methodology has been applied in a long tradition of studies focusing on information needs, seeking, use, and success. 18 It was selected as the criterion focus here because the results of prior research provided a host of already developed approaches both to data collection and analysis. More importantly, however, information needs and successes were selected as the criterion focus because Sense-Making provided an already-developed conceptual template for defining the information need situation. The Sense-Making approach to studying information needs, seeking, and use mandates at a minimum conceptualizing the information need as a convergence of sense-maker attentions to their past, present, and future horizons. Thus, the most used analytic tool from Sense-Making is the Sense-Making Triangle which in the case of studying information needs mandates attention to the situation the actor sees self as in, gaps the actor sees self as facing, bridges over the gap the actor is attempting to construct, and hoped for outcomes on the future horizon. This is not meant to posit all information seeking as rational or linear or purposive. Rather, it is a phenomenological triangulation mandating the interviewer to set aside any imposed maps and listen instead to how an actor constructs a sense-making journey. In this study, three concepts from a 2-sided slice of the Sense-Making Triangle were used: the gap (questions asked), the bridge (question-answering success), and the helps expected (ways in which the actor hoped the answer would help). The operationalizations of these concepts are described below as specifically applied in this study.
The research questions called for two different data collection situations -- one focused on audience sense-making during actual life situations. For purposes of this study, this meant during actual leisure time situations. The second data collection required focusing on sense-making while reading leisure time newspaper coverage.
Data collection methods for both studies were developed using tested Sense-Making approaches. For the study of Sense-Making during actual leisure time situations, a modification of the Micro-Moment Time-Line Interview was used. This interviewing approach asks respondents to reconstruct recent life situations. For this study, respondents were asked to reconstruct two recent leisure time situations -- their most recent participation in leisure time activities and another recent participation that involved many questions or confusions. Respondents were asked to detail questions they had while participating in these activities and the ways in which they hoped answers to their questions would help them. Respondents were also asked whether they got complete, partial, or no answers to their questions at any time during the situation. The top section of Figure 1 reports the portions of the data record from one such interview for one respondent.
Figure 1. Illustration from one respondent's data record of the two data collection approaches.
For the study of Sense-Making while reading newspaper coverage, another Sense-Making data collection method was used -- Message Q/ing. 19 In this method, respondents were asked to stop in the process of reading newspaper coverage at each point that they had questions. For each question they had, they were asked to indicate the nature of the question and the ways in which they hoped answers would help. Finally, after completely reading a given article in the paper, respondents were asked whether they got a complete, partial, or no answers to each question. The bottom section of Figure 1 presents portions of the data record for one respondent showing the results of this respondent's Message Q/ing for one small section of one article in the newspaper.
The costs of collecting the data using the two data collection methods described above had to be taken into account when deciding the sampling design for this study. The questionnaire tapping Sense-Making during actual leisure time situations could be administered over the phone in interviews averaging about 10-15 minutes. The Message Q/ing analysis, on the other hand, involved the respondent actually reading all articles in the selected leisure time coverage and describing as indicated above all questions raised in the process. This process (to be described in more detail later) took an average of about 5-6 hours. It was feasible, thus, to draw a random general population sample for the analysis of actual situations. For the analysis of information needs and seeking success while reading coverage, however, a sample consisting of communications undergraduates in an introductory research class was obtained. The actual situation questionnaire was completed for both the general population and student samples. The Message Q/ing was completed by only the student sample.
This sampling approach allowed both of the research questions framed above to be addressed. For the focus on Sense-Making in actual leisure time situations, the general population adult sample was compared with the intact student sample. For the comparison of Sense-Making in actual leisure time situations to Sense-Making while reading newspaper coverage, only the intact student sample was used.
The general population sample consisted of 384 adults drawn using systematic random procedures from the Seattle metropolitan area phone book. Adults answering the selected phone numbers were interviewed, yielding a sample, which compared well in terms of sex, education, age, and occupation distributions with Seattle census data. The student respondents consisted of 51 students in an introductory communications research course. This intact sample was 86% female and 14% male. Most (86%) of the student respondents were, as would be expected, in the youngest age group (27 years or less).
The study was fielded as a communications research class project. The 51 students who served as respondents, as indicated above, also served as interviewers and coders for the project. The actual leisure time situation questionnaires were self-administered to the student sample and then administered by phone to the general population respondents. The Message Q/ing analyses were self-administered by the student sample. Message Q/ing was completed on one week's worth of Sunday paper leisure time coverage by the Seattle Times. Students were given copies of the four relevant sections (Arts and Entertainment, Tempo, Travel, and Sports) and asked to complete Message Q/ing analyses on all articles.
Units of Analysis
The units of analysis for this study, as for many Sense-Making studies, was the question-asking instance. Results of the sampling and fielding processes described above yielded 1097 questions asked during actual leisure time situations by the 384 general population adults and 360 asked by the 51 students. For the Message Q/ing results, the procedures yielded 1587 questions asked by the 51 students in the process of reading the four newspaper sections.
Variable Definitions and Operationalizations
Three different dimensions commonly assessed in Sense-Making studies of information needs, seeking, and use were specified by the processes above as the focus of this study: 1) nature of questions asked; 2) helps expected from answers (i.e. uses to which respondents expected to put answers); and, 3) question answering success.
The data collection methods yielded verbal answers for all but the latter measure. This meant that most of the data analysis involved extensive use of content analysis. The specific schemes used for this study were ones developed and tested in prior Sense-Making studies. In all cases, standard content analysis procedures were used with results tested using the conservative Scott's (1955) measure of interjudge coding reliability which adjusts for chance agreement between coders. Reliability measures were all above 90%. The specific definitions and operationalizations are described below.
Nature of questions asked. The first class of measures tapped the nature of the questions respondents asked while involved in sense-making in either study context. Three different content analytic templates were applied, all assumed to measure different aspects of the kind of pictures people need in constructing sense as they move through time and space. The three templates included:
Time focus of question: This measure coded each question asked in terms of whether it focused on a point of time prior to involvement in the leisure time activity (past), at the time of the activity (present), or after the activity (future). When the template was applied to questions asked during newspaper reading, the definitions focused on times prior to, during, and after reading.Helps Expected from Answers. In past Sense-Making studies, a scheme was developed for coding the helps respondents expected or got from answers to their questions or the ways in which they saw themselves using answers to facilitate their movement through time-space. This scheme was applied in this study, coding each help into one of 11 categories in terms of whether it indicated that the respondent saw answers to their questions as facilitating:
Getting pictures -- getting ideas and understanding, satisfying curiosity.Data Analysis Approaches
Coded data were analyzed by computer. The statistical test used for this report was the t-test for independent proportions (McNemar, 1962). It should be noted that in the comparison of sense-making in actual situations to sense-making while reading, no control was introduced for respondent variance even though both bodies of data came from the same 51 respondents. Reason for this was the fact that the question and not the respondent was the unit of analysis. Other Sense-Making studies have documented the utility both theoretically and statistically of using a unit of analysis smaller than the person. In fact, this use -- the idea of conceptualizing a unit which is a moment of sense-making practice -- is central to Sense-Making's metatheoretic framing.
Results are presented below focusing first on the comparison of general population sample versus student sample sense-making in actual leisure time situations; and then on the comparison of sense-making by students in actual situations versus while reading newspaper coverage.
Table 1 reports the results for the comparison of sense-making by the general population versus student samples in actual leisure time situations.
Table 1. A comparison of sense-making (information needs and information seeking success) by the general population versus student samples in actual leisure time situations.
Results showed that the two samples differed significantly on eight of the 33 criterion measures with most of these differences being small. Across all 33 measures, the average percentage difference was only 3.1%. Only two of the measures showed differences greater than 9%. The results were as follows:
* In terms of the nature of questions, the student versus general population respondents asked in leisure time situations, results showed that students were more likely to focus on the future (74.9% of student questions versus 65.3% of general population questions). In addition, students were more likely to ask what questions (32.6% versus 26.9%) while general population respondents were more likely to ask why (10.3% versus 6.5%) and where questions (10.6% versus 6.5%).The comparison of student sense-making in actual leisure time situations versus during reading newspaper leisure time coverage is presented in Table 2.
Table 2. A comparison of sense-making (information needs and information seeking success) by the student sample in actual leisure time situations versus when reading newspaper leisure time coverage.
Results showed that the two conditions differed significantly on 31 of the 33 measures, with the average percentage difference across all measures being 17.0%. The specific results were as follows:
* In terms of the time focus of questions asked, results showed that actual situation sense-making was significantly more likely to focus on the future than reading sense-making (74.9% of all questions in actual situations versus 13.4% of those raised while reading). In contrast, actual situation sense-making was significantly less likely to focus on past questions (3.9% versus 17.9%) and present questions (21.2% versus 68.7%).
In terms of the guiding research questions specified for this study at the outset, results showed support. There were few and generally small differences found in sense-making reported by the general population versus student samples in actual leisure time situations. This was as expected based on Sense-Making assumptions, which posit that observable demographic differences between people account for little of internal sense-making, particularly in situations where structural constraints can be hypothesized as less constraining. Thus, while certainly leisure research shows that income and education have a marked impact on what leisure time activities people choose 20, Sense-Making would posit that it would have relatively minimal impact on how people made sense of the actual activities they engaged in when that sense-making is conceptualized in terms of movement through time-space and life-facing.
Results did show many and large differences between the sense-making reported by students in actual leisure time situations and that reported while reading leisure time related newspaper coverage. Again, this was as expected based on past research, which has shown that sense-making in hypothetical situations is markedly different from that in actual situations.
The marked difference between actual situation and reading sense-making provides evidence of the impact of viewing audiences through different lenses. The audience-inside-the-media approach, represented by the study of sense-making while reading imposed media coverage, produced a very different audience than the audience-in-life-as-it-is-lived approach.
Further, the nature of the differences found between actual situation and reading sense-making provide possible guidance for media design. Two major classes of findings emerged. One showed that while only about 15% of questions raised in actual leisure time were reported as not being answered even partially, slightly over half of questions raised while reading fell into this category. This particular study provides only tangential evidence of what kinds of questions are most likely to remain unanswered during leisure time newspaper use. The data leads one to expect that many of these questions involved vocabulary definitions and the identifications of people and places. If this is true, then one possible design strategy would be to utilize well-placed vocabulary/ identification boxes as part of the newspaper format. In the cyberspace context adding such a tool as a hyperlink is easy to conceptualize.
The importance of this finding, however, rests very much on understanding that the results of a Sense-Making study of audiences is intended to change media institutions, not audiences. Findings which show that audience members do not understand media content are plentiful. 21 In traditional media research approaches, the concern often derived from such findings has been to somehow find ways to get audience members to change. Unfortunately, there is now a battery of evidence supporting the folly of such an aim. 22 As a methodology, Sense-Making makes refocusing an explicit mandate: research results are better used to reconceptualize and redesign the media mission and approach.
A second major class of findings with implications for media design dealt with the qualitative differences between actual situation versus reading sense-making. There was much higher emphasis in actual situation sense-making on asking questions about the future, hows, whens, and wheres. Questions were more focused on self and directed more toward planning and reaching goals, avoiding bad situations, and, garnering emotional helps. Reading sense-making, on the other hand, showed much higher emphasis on the present, whos, whats, and whys. The questions looked more at causes, other people, and terms and vocabulary. By far, most of the reading questions were aimed simply at getting pictures and ideas.
The portrait that emerges then was one of actual situation sense-making focusing on movement through time-space while reading sense-making was removed from that movement. The sheer magnitude of the differences suggests that leisure time newspaper coverage could well be directed more toward assisting readers to link coverage with movements in their own lives.
It is, of course, reasonable to suggest that the differences would not have been so large between actual and reading sense-making if respondents had read newspaper coverage directly relevant to their own life situations. This is a research question which needs a direct test. Such a test might hypothesize, for example, that sense-making while reading articles of high importance to readers would be more like actual situation sense-making.
It is expected that such a test would receive data support. It is also assumed, however, that the ways in which media now design their coverage is, indeed, so removed from everyday movement through time-space that even sense-making when reading important articles will be highly discrepant from actual situation sense-making. If this conclusion is supported in future studies, the implications for media design are profound.
It would be premature to accept the conclusion per se. What is more important for purposes of this study is the potential shown in these results for use of approaches to audience research focusing on audience-in-life-as-it-is-lived. Sense-Making has been presented as a particularly appropriate exemplar approach because, since its inception it has been developed as a research tool oriented toward improvements or change in media/ communication/ information system design and practice. Results here show potential in two ways. The first is the consistency shown with past Sense-Making research and with the theoretic premises that guide the research. The second is the guidance the results offer for practice.
In this study, then, there is evidence of both theoretic and applied utility which is the very kind of gain one would hope to find when the model guiding research about practice becomes useful for practice. In the long run, this may be the largest gain from this study -- that it provides evidence that the gap between research and practice that has plagued the communication fields can itself be bridged. This study is seen as contributing in a modest way to the making of a bridge.
1. For studies documenting the dissatisfaction of practitioners with media research, see for example: Layton, 1999; Halvari & White, 1997. For criticisms of proprietary media research, see for example: Singleton & Straits, 1999; Wimmer & Dominick, 1994. For criticisms and assessments of academic media research, see for example: Wartella & Reeves, 1985; Williams, Rice & Rogers, 1988. Social Approaches to Communication (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1995) is an example of a call for bridging the gap between research and practice. Evidence of this recently being a concern for those in the field of media is shown by the fact that print and electronic media industries are funding fellowships and workshops to serve as a catalyst for dialogue between professional and academic groups. Two examples are the annual International Radio and Television Society Faculty/Industry Seminar and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellowships of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Institute for Journalism Excellence.
2. In August 1997 the number of online newspapers was estimated at 1733 worldwide rising at exponential rates from 100 in 1995 (Mings, 1997). As of September 27, 1998, Eric K. Meyer (1999) reported in American Journalism Review NewsLink that a tentative total of newspapers online globally was 4,925.
3. This review of media positioning vis-a-vis cyberspace as compared to that of arts and the humanities comes from Huesca et al., 1999. For related works, see: Peng, Tham, & Xiaoming, 1999; Weispfenning, 1999.
8. There have been repeated calls for better audience research over the decades. In 1964, for example, Bauer called for reconceptualizing the "obstinate audience"; in 1979, Schwartz and Moore described newspaper research as "on the rocks" while calling for an alternative, more audience-oriented research approach.
14. For examples of the debates and underlying issues in the traditional polarization between qualitative and quantitative studies of media audiences in particular and communication processes generally, see, as examples: Evans, 1990; Fejes, 1984; Fink & Gantz, 1996; Jensen & Rosengren, 1990; Lindlof, 1987; Lindlof, 1991; Livingstone, 1993; Reimer, 1998; Morley, 1993; Webster, 1998.
15. For recent articles focusing on the metatheoretic and methodological premises of Sense-Making, see: Dervin, 1999a, 1999b, 1998, 1993; for comprehensive overviews, see: Dervin, 1992, 1989; for recent empirical studies, see: Dervin & Shields, 1999; Shields, Dervin, Soller, & Richter, 1993.
17. This study was fielded in 1983 in Seattle, Washington. The data has not previously been published and there is no reason to expect given the focus on audience-driven sense-making that the passing time has made the data any less relevant. The authors are especially grateful to Michael Fancher of the Seattle Times for his assistance. The presentation of the study here is set in the context of current discourses which show that the data is more relevant today than it was when first collected.
19. Message Q/ing is an adaptation of Carter's signaled stopping technique to sense-making. See: Carter et al., 1973.
20. It is been beyond the purpose of this article to engage specifically the literature on information seeking and use in the leisure research and tourism research fields. There appear to be relatively few studies focusing on information needs, seeking, and use for leisure time activities, although one sees a burgeoning interest in these fields. For recent examples, see: Fodness & Murray, 1997; Vogt & Fesenmaier, 1998; Vogt & Stewart, 1998.
22. For example, the literature on public communication campaigns has documented that public education efforts via media campaigns are both costly and for the most part fail. See, for example: Rice & Atkin, 1989; Rimal et al, 1997.
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