Journalism is essential to having an informed public, and therefore to having healthy, representative government. But the news that people actually read, watch or listen to is often focused on entertainment, sports, or funny cat videos. So, what constitutes “valuable” journalism? Is it what people want? Or is it what people “need”?
A recent paper published in Journalism Studies attempts to address the issue, laying out four aspects of reporting that the paper’s authors call the dimensions of “valuable journalism.” The paper, “Valuable Journalism: Measuring news quality from a user’s perspective,” was published online May 13, and was authored by Irene Costera Meijer and Hildebrand P. Bijleveld of VU University Amsterdam.
The paper is based on a relatively small sample size of news consumers in the Netherlands, but it raises some interesting ideas that are likely worth discussing – and I, at least, would be very interested in seeing similar research in the U.S.
The goal of the work, according to Meijer and Bijleveld, was to find a way to bridge the difference between news that is popular (i.e., news that people actually read in large numbers) and news that is considered important by societal or journalistic standards (but that fewer people consume).
To that end, the researchers surveyed 370 Dutch adults about a variety of issues that could potentially form criteria for valuable journalism, with a particular focus on regional journalism (as opposed to national or international news). After analyzing the responses, they determined that there were four dimensions to valuable journalism in the context of regional reporting: urgency, public connection, understanding the region, and audience responsiveness.
Urgency, in regional media, had two key components, according to the authors: “Users do not only expect media to supply the news right after it happens; they also like to be able to easily find news once something of importance occurs. Second, urgency, to users, does not only apply to important news, but also to major public events in the region….Moreover, broadcasters need to indicate clearly where, exactly, events take place.”
Public connection was defined by the authors as “shared orientation to a public world where matters of common concern are…addressed.” This dimension highlighted a “strong link” between “appreciation of serious news, presenting light and cheerful news, approaching people respectfully and supplying topics for conversation.”
Understanding the region was defined as providing “background information on the news, as a way to provide insight into how the region works.” “Background,” in this context, means providing insight into the customs and attitudes of groups in the region, insight into how the region works, and an awareness of the region’s history.
Audience responsiveness was described as “actively offering a listening ear,” meaning that “Broadcasters should be as responsive as possible to their (potential) audience and users.”
The researchers also asked survey participants which topics they felt should be addressed more often. Given the specificity of topics, and the study’s regional focus, I won’t go into the topics in any great detail. However, three news themes stood out as being deemed more important than others by study participants: nature, living environment and history.
As the researchers noted: “Remarkably, these three subject areas are usually absent as conventional newsbeats.”
So, what does any of this have to do with science communication or science reporting?
In some ways, we live in a great time for science journalism. There are a lot of news outlets out there, and the internet has made it easy for people to find and consume science news from around the world. From Nature and Scientific American, to Quanta and Nautilus, almost anyone can track stories about emerging research from, well, almost anywhere.
But science coverage in newspapers, and regional science coverage in particular, has taken a beating.
As Columbia Journalism Review reported in 2013, there were 95 weekly science sections in U.S. newspapers in 1989. That number had dropped to 19 by the end of 2012.
To be sure, much of the news that would have appeared in those science sections was likely covered elsewhere – in science blogs if not in national online venues. But that doesn’t mean that consumers would know where to find it, if they bothered to look. (See that point about “urgency” above.)
If we think that science news has value, maybe we need to think about how to communicate that value both to news companies (or, for reporters, our editors) and to the public.
It’s not enough to say that something is important. We have to say why it is important. That part’s not new – it’s as old as newsrooms. We also have to say why we think the public might respond to it, finding the balance of what is popular and what is important.
That’s where this idea of “valuable journalism” may be useful.
I don’t think it’s a perfect tool, or that it could easily be applied to every circumstance. But it is at least one framework for shaping the way we think about the balance between what we think is worthwhile and what the public actually wants. Even if we can’t use this framework, even if we reject it, we would have to think about why we are rejecting it – and that sort of critical thought can be incredibly valuable. Maybe, by thinking about why this wouldn’t work, we would think of what would. And maybe we would find that this framework would work, at least for identifying science stories that make sense for regional outlets – whether that’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And, while acknowledging the study’s limitations, it is worth noting that two of the three topics that survey respondents said would make them increase their news use are topics clearly related to science journalism.
There are no clear answers here, but there is food for thought.