The Internet is no new thing. Its common use has been around for well over twenty years. Yet, while the mediums of print, radio, and TV remain largely unchanged, the ever-shifting sands of the Internet daily present new opportunities for news organizations. Unlike the static journalism in traditional media, online audiences are able to join the conversation with journalists and, thus, affect the message.
Online news manifests near limitless potentials for the engagement of audiences and audiences engaging journalists. Where journalists once told stories, their role is transforming to becoming facilitators of discussion. Through online journalism, the audience is now becoming the story-tellers.
The redefining of both journalism and journalists spurs the need for increased research into the developing dynamic between news organizations and their audiences. Studying this evolution creates a challenge akin to charting a land in constant flux.
My research seeks to examine the how often consumers of online news become producers of online news. The core of the study is a quantitative online survey regarding online news consumption and production. The survey is augmented by previous research focused on similar analysis of online news and audiences.
Researching online news audiences potential to become engaged with stories must look at three levels of engagement. I call them the three P’s: Propagation, Production, and Participation. Propagation is the consumer who is commenting, sharing, liking, retweeting, etc. news stories. Production is the consumer who adds to a story through original content; such as blogs, photos/videos, or other forms of citizen journalism. Participation includes audiences who consume online news but engage in civic participation either online or offline; those who go beyond adding to the story but become part of the story itself.
In recent years, there is a growing realization that the propagation of a local news story can have a butterfly effect. A relatively small event can suddenly gain a global audience. Recent years are rife with examples of how online news audiences took part in raising awareness of issues.
A case in Germany was central in a study of the exponential growth in propagating news. The researchers discovered how Twitter’s hashtag system facilitated an isolated discussion into a national debate (Maireder & Schlogl, 2014). Researchers identify that the structure of social media allowed for rapid growth. The overlap of users participations in online homogenous clusters spread the story to new audiences, who in turn propagated it further.
An anthropological study of the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO further analyzed how social media infrastructures foster the consumption and propagation of news stories (Bonilla & Rosa, 2015). This study recognizes how the hashtag #ferguson brought several voices to the discussion. While this correlated to the case study in Germany, Bonilla and Rosa note that propagation through hashtags and similar index systems potentially limit the conversation to exclusively indexed tweets or comments, offering only a slice of a larger discussion.
The Arab Spring in 2011 was a watershed moment for online news. A study of local Iraqi Arab Spring youtube videos had gained a surprisingly high viewership in both the US and Canada (Al-Rawi, 2014). Viewership data showed that North American audiences ranked 2nd to the local Iraqi audiences. The study demonstrated that online news can garner major traction beyond the intended audiences.
The research shows online audiences can propagate a news story faster and more efficiently than offline media audiences. While Twitter is a leading venue for news propagation, the previous research doesn’t begin to examine how news is being spread through alternate social media (like Facebook or Google+), comments on message boards, emails, and other online platforms.
Traditional news media has always faced the challenge of creating local content that audiences will care about. Audience fragmentation has created a demand for greater diversity in news stories and hyper-localization (Maier, 2010). While online news fills that role, consumers want deeper coverage. Through online venues, consumers are beginning to produce content to fill the gaps in reporting.
Whether creating news content or submitting original content to news organizations, citizen journalism is becoming more established. As of 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 7% of US adults are producing user-generated content with another 7% submit their content to news organizations (Olmstead,Mitchell, Holcomb, & Vogt, 2014). Contrasting this with international findings, a study was performed in Sweden that found citizen journalism is on decline; with comments and blog links becoming less frequent (Karlsson, Bergstrom, Clerwall, & Fast, 2015). The Swedish study admits shortcomings as it largely deals with blogging and surveyed only Swedish participants. Ultimately, the findings in the Swedish research rings false. The Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2012 that found 39% of the top news videos on Youtube were user-generated content (Pew Research Center Journalism & Media Staff, 2012).
If the purpose of journalism is to create a better informed public than an audience that engages in civic participation must be its fruition of that purpose. Compared to traditional media, a study found that online news consumers are more likely to join in civic engagement and political participation (Bachmann & Zuniga, 2015). The authors of this saw online news audiences’ capability to propagate and create content fostered a positive climate for civic participation.
An earlier study compared and contrasted professional and citizen journalism’s audiences likelihood of civic engagement. Two interesting findings was that citizen journalism fosters online civic participation and that consumers with a higher trust in citizen journalism are more likely to participate in politics (Kaufhold, Valenzuela, & Zuniga, 2010). This supports the idea that online news audiences are more likely to engage civically and politically.
One of the best events to study the relationship between online news audiences and their level of civic participation is the Arab Spring of 2011. In contrast to the past articles, a study in 2013 strived to prove that political context precedes social media use, trivializing social media’s role in engagement (Wolfsfeld, Segev, & Sheafer, 2013). I considered this study flawed and the conclusion moot. Of course the political or civic event will precede social media use. Until the event has begun, there is nothing to really share or discuss. The study should have focused on examining the level of participation after social media use. If the previous studies offer any truth, each progressive political event should see larger amounts of participation due to preceding social media use.
Audiences of online news move beyond being mere consumers through propagation, production, and/or participation. Through taking an active role in journalism, the consumers become producers themselves. Previous studies usually limited research towards specific contexts or audience activities. Hoping to gain insight into the audience’s roles in creating content, I created a survey to examine online news consumers’ contributions to news stories. My research question is, “How frequently are online news consumers participating in journalism?”
To answer this question, I conducted a survey utilizing the website, kwiksurveys.com. This was beneficial as it was easy to use, offered many report options, and was free of cost. All of this made it an effective tool for conducting online quantitative research.
While designing the survey, my independent variable was consumption of online news. The dependent variables were propagation of online news, production of online news, and civic participation. While the survey only included a single straight forward inquiry about participation in civic engagement, multiple questions were used to measure participants’ levels of propagation and production of online news content.
The survey was constructed with 15 questions. Of the 15, four served as demographic questions and the remainder related to determining online news consumption patterns. These questions included inquiries about viewing habits, likelihood of interactions with news content, viability of creating news content, and the likelihood of participating in civic engagement. I pretested the questionnaire by doing the survey, myself, and removing my results from the data.
To recruit my candidates, I utilized two online social circles. My first pool of potential participants was my email contacts at Oklahoma Baptist University. This was comprised of approximately 40 college-age students. An email was sent asking for volunteers to complete the survey. The second contact group was via my near 100 Facebook contacts. The majority of those contacts are between the ages of 30-60. Of those two groups, I had 28 participants respond to the survey.
The initial four questions of the survey asked about gender, age, education, and income level. 54% of the respondents were female, with the remaining 46% being male. At 39%, the majority of the participants were between the ages of 18-24 with 55+ being the second largest age demographic, at 18%. The highest education level completed by the bulk respondents, at 46%, was a Highschool Diploma but the remaining 54%, as a whole, had earned some degree of higher education. The annual household incomes of the participants was split evenly with 50% making less than $50,000 and 50% making more than $50,000.
50% of the survey’s participants indicated their primary online news source is a professional media website, such as CNN.com or BBC.com (See Figure 1). Social media was used by 36%. The remaining 14% comprised of apps, citizen journalism, or no response. Regardless of news source, the participants indicated their preference for national and local news at 39% and 37%, respectively (See Figure 2). The rest of the respondents prefered to view topical news, such as sports or entertainment. 89% of the particpants also indicated some likelihood of seeking deeper coverage by watching embedded videos or clicking links to related subject matter.
When asked about additional viewing habits, 76% answered they view online news at least once a day with 36% of the total respondents specifying they view more twice a day. The participants were equally divided when asked what device they viewed online news on. 50% utilized PCs and 50% used a mobile device.
The surveyed online news audiences indicated a higher amount will share online news content than will post online comments about it. 61% of the participants said they would, at some level, share the online news content compared to 29% who answered they would post comments on the news stories (See Figure 3). Of that 29%, only one participant indicated they would comment on news content but not propagate it with others.
In regards to viewing online news on social media, 50% of the respondents favored Facebook, making it the top choice (See Figure 4). The second largest majority, at 29%, used Twitter. Beyond 11% indicating no use of social media for news, the remaining participants indicated using other social media platforms.
Participants were asked if they created any user-generated news content, such as blogging, taking photos, or shooting video. In addition, they were asked if they ever had online discussions about online news content. 68% responded they do not produce any content or engage in any online disucssions (See Figure 5). The remaining 32% indicated they do take part in creating original online news content and discussing news online.
The final question asked online news audiences of their level of civic engagement. 54% indicated some level of civic participation with 46% saying they do not. Only one participatn responded they frequently participate with the remainder of the 54% responding they only participate sometimes.
RESEARCH DISCUSSION & CONCLUSION
Reviewing the results, there was a significant amount of journalistic participation by the online news consumers. Almost two-thirds of the respondents were active, at some level, in propagating news stories. Nearly a third, were engaged in online news content production or discussions of news stories. Over half the respondents participated in civc engagement. In totality, the results show that this group of online news consumers is very active in contributing to online journalism. The
In comparison to previous articles on the propagation of news, the survey results correlated to findings of how news stories rapidly spread. With 61% of the respondents sharing online content, news stories dramatically increase in viewership due to the high-level of propagation found among online news consumers.
According to the 2014 State of the Media by the Pew Research Center ((Olmstead,Mitchell, Holcomb, & Vogt, 2014), 14% of US adults either post user-generated content or submit to news organizations. My research indicated online news content production by 29% of the participants. With the majority of the respondents being 18-24, it stands to reason that younger online news audiences are more likely to produce original news content.
This study’s primary shortcoming is the participation pool was small and did not accurately reflect current US census data. In addition, the survey was limited to broad definitions of online news consumption and participation. Further research would need to provide a more in-depth analysis to establish a better cross-section of how online news consumers participate in journalism. I believe this is absolutely needed as previous studies only look at individual elements of audiences’ engagement rather than the totality of their behavior.
In conclusion, I found that online news audiences are very engaged with the product. Whether through sharing, creating content, or being motivated to participate, online news viewers show they are capable of more than just consuming. In correlation with past research, my study shows news organizations need to go beyond talking to their viewers and strive to talk with them. The consumers are increasingly becoming the producers and journalism is becoming more open-source.
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