Tow Center

The Case for Journalistic Humility

February 3, 2021

This piece is adapted from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism’s weekly newsletter.

AT A MOMENT WHEN journalism’s credibility remains low and sustainable sources of revenue remain frustratingly out of reach, regaining public trust in, and loyalty to, journalism is among the most significant challenges facing the profession. These challenges grow more important with each newsroom cutback, each cry of “fake news” from politicians, and each violent attack on journalists as they attempt to do their jobs.

Many news outlets clamoring for solutions are increasingly focused on improving journalism’s understanding of and relationship with their audiences through the pursuit of “audience engagement.” (For my purposes here, I use “audience” to refer to a news outlet’s established readership, which may or may not include the community members it endeavors to serve.) Though inconsistently defined, “audience engagement” (also known as “engaged journalism”) refers to the notion that journalism will improve both its sustainability and its relationship with its audience if it is more intentional about working with that audience throughout the news production process.

The approach makes sense: if journalists can determine what audiences want, and if they can use that knowledge to determine how to make audiences trust and value them, then they have a stronger chance of saving their organizations and perhaps the industry at large. Yet as I argue in my forthcoming book, Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public, the degree to which journalists’ reporting aligns with audience preferences is just one piece of the puzzle that ultimately shapes news audience behavior. Even if journalists make the exact news that their audiences want, how those audiences react remains outside of journalists’ control, which means that journalism’s reception will always be at least somewhat unpredictable. 

In light of these circumstances, journalism researchers and practitioners should embrace what I call “journalistic humility” and accept that journalists can never fully understand or control their audiences’ behavior. The audience-focused journalism currently being pursued is more likely to succeed as a means to improve journalism than as a means to increase readership. The sooner that journalism stakeholders realize this, the sooner they will realize that returning the profession to some degree of economic sustainability is not simply a matter of growing more attuned to their audiences’ desires. It is a matter of drastically transforming journalism’s relationship with—and approach to—funders, advertisers, Big Tech, and, in all likelihood, the government


How journalists see their relationship with their audiences

The question at the core of Imagined Audiences is how journalists, many of whom are increasingly focused on understanding and reaching their audiences, perceive those same people in the first place. One answer is that journalists’ perceptions of their audiences stem from a combination of data and their own intuition. This hybrid understanding of audience engagement was supported by data collected from the audience engagement company Hearken, the local news nonprofit City Bureau, and the Chicago Tribune—each of which takes a unique approach to audience engagement—from fall 2016 through spring 2017. 

“I see our Web numbers, I don’t know how to put them into context,” Joe Knowles, the Tribune’s former associate managing editor for sports, said when asked to describe that publication’s audience. “Who are these people? It’s hard to know. I wish I could give you a clearer answer, but the best I can say is based on a little bit of experience, some science, and a lot of instinct.”

Such a combination shapes journalists’ approaches to news production and delivery. And despite the rise of granular, sophisticated measures of audience behavior, there remains an extraordinary amount of variation in audience assumptions throughout the news industry. Some see the audience as comprising people who genuinely want to play a larger role in news production, and have value to add to that process. 

“We talk a lot about community engagement because audiences and the public seem to want that,” Andrea Hart, a City Bureau cofounder and former community director, said. 

Others view their audiences with greater skepticism. “Interviewing can be hard, right? Or at least it’s a skill,” Josh Noel, who covers beer for the Tribune, said. “Some dude walking down the street can’t do that.” Such differences in perspective lead journalists to approach their readers in different ways.

However, even as journalists differ in their respective assumptions about their audiences and their approaches to engaging them, they tend to share some understanding of the journalist-audience relationship. Journalists at Hearken, City Bureau, and the Tribune described that relationship as a relatively simple equation with just two variables: what audiences want from the news, and the degree to which the news meets those desires. 

“Why will [people] look at the news?” Jennifer Brandel, Hearken’s cofounder and former CEO, asked. “Because they feel like they’re reflected in it.” Journalists tend to see their relationship with the public as one that is firmly within their control. The reality is more complicated.


How audiences actually behave

A rich body of research suggests that audience preferences are just one piece of the equation that determines audiences’ patterns of news consumption. Other factors are structural: they include the devices and platforms people turn to for news, the amount of time they devote to news, the language people speak, and the place where they live, among others. These variables are so obvious that they can easily be overlooked. They also tend to privilege news organizations that are already popular and familiar to audiences, especially those with deep pockets that can be tapped to optimize aspects of journalism completely unrelated to reporting. An organization that can devote time and resources to studying page load times and conducting A/B headline testing is in a better position to reach more readers than one that is too strapped for cash to invest in similar efforts. This situation perpetuates a winner-take-all media environment that leaves a few outlets absorbing the bulk of audience attention. It also helps explain why, in an increasingly saturated media environment, outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post are gaining subscribers, while so many local news outlets are struggling to stay afloat. Even if a news organization identifies and produces precisely the kind of news its audience wants, it may still struggle to get its offerings in front of that audience once they’ve been published. 

Taken together, these factors offer a counter-narrative to the notion that journalists play the primary role in how the public engages with news. Instead, the degree to which journalists understand what audiences actually want from news is just one part of the equation that determines how audiences ultimately choose to consume news. Consequently, journalists may have much less control over the reception of their work than they would like to believe. 


The case for journalistic humility

To be sure, many of the engaged journalism efforts unfolding are valuable, overdue steps to make journalism better, especially considering how much of journalism has been (and continues to be) the product of a small, homogeneous pool of middle-class white men who are often focused on the reactions of their superiors, rather than those of their readers. City Bureau stands out especially as an organization actively working to make journalism more representative of the communities it has long failed. It does so by creating opportunities for citizens to become amateur journalists through its Documenters program, and by helping aspiring journalists—often from communities of color—advance professionally through its Civic Reporting Fellowship. These efforts are positive developments for journalism, regardless of whether they lead to larger audiences.

Still, assessing the limitations and quality of journalism’s audience-engagement efforts is important, especially considering that many of those working within journalism turned to those engagement efforts in the hope of increasing revenue via larger audiences (more digital ad dollars) or more loyal audiences (more subscriptions). By assuming that journalistic quality and reception go hand in hand, news organizations inadvertently perpetuate a misunderstanding about the connection between their reporting and their audiences that is likely detrimental to their survival. 

As journalism grows more audience-focused, we must remember that journalism practitioners, researchers, and funders can never fully understand their audiences. Consequently, they will continue to rely on their own innate beliefs about them. It is important to acknowledge the power of those beliefs to shape news production, as well as the power of structural forces, if we are to engage in a meaningful conversation surrounding what journalism is and what it might become.

This article was adapted from Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public, by Jacob L. Nelson, and is reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press.

About the Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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