Media Audience and Its Democratic Potential
Practically everyone involved in the discussion of freedom, quality and diversity of the media in Slovenia – be it media professionals, managers and owners, or politicians, academics and civil society organizations – refers in some way to the media audience. Yet, there is very little systematic insight into how citizens view, understand and value media, and equally little effort to systematically increase the ability of citizens to monitor media in a critical manner, and to »use« media in a way that pursues active citizenship.
One of the instances of systematic research would be the Politbarometer, a longitudinal study carried out periodically since 1995 by the Public Opinion and Mass Communication Research Centre at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Among other questions, the study enquires as to the trust placed in individual institutions in Slovenia, including the media. The research, based on a representative sample of adult residents of Slovenia, reveals the level of trust enjoyed by the media, and the fluctuation thereof, over an extended period of time. Incidentally, the same public opinion study monitors the extent to which residents of Slovenia have been satisfied with democracy since 1995.
The media industry, for its part, measures the preference of media outlets and specific media content among audiences, but these studies are primarily carried out for market purposes. They are meant to ascertain the size of the audience for an individual media outlet or some particular media content, in order to better execute commercial and business functions, and to increase advertising revenue. The most vivid interpretation of the market-oriented media audience measurements says that media count citizens, i.e. their readers, viewers and listeners, to sell them to advertisers. These studies classify audiences according to socio-demographic data, and – in the context of striving for commercial success – consider as “most valuable” to the media those audience segments, whose socio-demographic profiles allow for the largest amounts of spending, or the ability to spend, on various products and services. It is these audiences that advertisers (and, consequently, the media) normally prefer.
Consumers or Citizens
However, media audience members should not merely be viewed as consumers – they should also be regarded as citizens, as agents in a democratic society. Critical examinations of the marked-oriented view of media audiences have contributed to a re-conceptualization of the notion of media audience. Viewed through the lens of democratic participation, rather than merely that of consumerism, media audience is found to have three kinds of interests:
- an interest in the supply of media publications and content that serve individual interests and preferences; in this context, media audience members may be viewed as customers in a “business” relationship, i.e. as consumers;
- an interest of audience members as holders of certain rights, as individuals who need their rights protected, and require the ability to personally protect these rights;
- an interest of audience members as citizens, as agents in a democratic society who need the media to benefit society as a whole (Hasebrink, Herzog & Eilders, 2007: 77–78).
Free Choice and Structurally Determined Supply
Not only has the development of information technologies demanded a redefinition of the notion of media audience; it has given rise to theses implying that as it contributes to a greater supply of media publications and content, it grants audience members a wider range of choice and autonomy. However, critics of these interpretations – working from traditions of critical political economy – stress that it is always the structurally determined conditions of the media market that dictate what media content and which media outlets are offered to the audience. The conditions in question are the processes of selection of media supply, structurally determined, played out well in advance and far beyond the media audience’s scope of influence. It could therefore be inferred that processes, presented as a contribution to freedom of choice and to individual autonomy in the selection and use of media, not only do not increase the level of the citizens’ freedom, but contribute to “unfreedom” and further the processes, in which politically aware citizens are transformed into consumers of goods (Bauman 1999: 73–78 in: Karppienen 2007:17).
In the discussions and research conducted under the aegis of the Media Watch program, as well as in the present Media Watch book series, we address the following key questions. Does the relationship between media and citizens foster processes that increase the ability of, and possibilities for, citizens to enter into discussions, confront each other with opinions and ideas, and to make informed decisions, relevant to their lives and to sustained development? As information technologies develop and the functioning of media changes, are structural conditions created at the level of political and media systems, as well as within media companies, that enable citizens, i.e. media audience members, to have real influence over important decisions? Also, certain audience segments are systemically underprivileged in respect of their access to media. Is this inequality maintained and even deepened, adding new dimensions to social exclusion? (Dahlgren, 2008: 160) Media convergence really is opening new possibilities to media audiences, to citizens; but only to those with access and the ability to take advantage of these possibilities (Study on the Current Trends and Approaches to Media Literacy in Europe, 2006: 6).
Is the emergence of the so-called citizen journalism, made possible by digital technology, actually increasing the power and influence of citizens in relation to media and other, particularly political, power centres? The question is posed by sceptics, whether citizen journalism is strengthening democracy at all. It could be weakening it, they claim, implying that the flourishing of citizen journalism, along with the profiling and segmenting of media audiences, is making citizens less interested in political news and social affairs in general (Graber, McQuail, Norris, 2008: 7–8).
Media Literacy and Excuses made to avoid Regulation
In an environment of wide-spread disagreement among political players, as well as among media practice and policy analysts, regarding what systemic measures should be taken to protect the rights and interests of citizens as media audience members, some politicians and experts have placed their faith in mechanisms and measures aimed at increasing the citizens’ media literacy. Presumably, the efforts made by the European Commission were conceived with this in mind.(3) One does get the impression, however, that the purpose of all this is to avoid a new regulation of media, which would undertake systemic measures to protect the democratic potential and role of media, and to pass the responsibility of realizing this democratic potential on to the citizens under the banner of “free choice”. All modern media and education policies should aim at and include measures for implementation of critical media literacy and critical media pedagogy, but they should not serve as excuses for media policy and industry players’ inaction at the level of structural issues, e.g. the issues of regulation of media ownership and the mechanisms of media accountability and responsiveness.
In 2006, the Peace Institute, supported by the European Commission, developed the Media for Citizens project, conducted studies of media ownership, of the content of prime time television news programs, and of the patterns of media coverage of minorities in Slovenia. Additionally, we published a manual and organized a workshop on active citizenship in the media field. In 2008, the European Commission granted us their support once more, this time for a project titled Responsibility and Responsiveness of the Media.
Responsibility and Responsiveness of the Media
The project Responsibility and Responsiveness of the Media involves three sets of activities. First, a study into how three different social groups in Slovenia receive and perceive media. The first group we have studied is determined by ethnic affiliation. It includes members of recognised, as well as unrecognised ethnic minorities in Slovenia. Members of the second group are linked by age – they are students studying at universities in Slovenia. The third group consists of professional politicians – Members of the Parliament in Slovenia.
The project Responsibility and Responsiveness of the Media also includes an initiative for three general daily newspapers in Slovenia to set up internal mechanisms for handling their readers’ complaints and opinions, and for creating reports on how newspaper publishers respond to these complaints and suggestions. Publishers should also report on how they fulfil their social responsibilities and pursue ethical standards. We have worked in cooperation with the British newspaper Guardian to encourage such developments in Slovenia.
The third set of activities carried out under the project is aimed at establishing either an informal or formal association of those Slovenian citizens who are interested in greater accountability and responsiveness of media and politics to citizens’ initiatives, opinions and interests, particularly in the fields of radio, television and other audiovisual media services. Our efforts to promote self-organization of citizens follow the example of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer organizations active in several European countries. In pursuit of these goals, our partner has been the European Alliance of Listeners’ and Viewers’ Associations.
The research presented in this book is rooted in the need for greater inclusion of the citizens’ perspective in the discussion of media freedom, quality and pluralism in Slovenia; it aims to discover where citizens acquire information on social and political developments, how they value media as sources of information, how they utilize new technologies to acquire information, how they understand certain social phenomena brought to the fore by the political and media apparatus (such as the phenomenon of intercultural dialogue, given prominence by the dedication of a European Year to it in 2008), and to what extent they assume the role of active citizens, as opposed to passive media audience members.
Our research team assembled a structured questionnaire, combining closed and open questions, and partly modified to suit the individual target groups. We took the route of self-polling – minority members and mp’s received their questionnaires by mail, while the questionnaires targeted at first-year Slovenian university students were distributed at selected faculties. The student target group yielded the largest polling sample (1,281), ethnic minority members responded in smaller numbers (216), and the parliament members’ response was poorest (34). We can consider the sample of university students a representative one, but for two others the sample of respondents is not representative. Still the findings do offer grounds for discussion and examination of the research topic. In addition to the questionnaire, we conducted a number of interviews with ethnic minority members.
Marko Prpič conducted the research among students, Neva Nahtigal researched the ethnic minority members, while Sandra B. Hrvatin studied the responses of parliament members. Mitja Čepič carried out the statistical analysis of the gathered data.
Let us merely point out a few research findings. The polled mps see the daily newspaper Delo as the most important printed source of information on political developments, while students award this title to Žurnal24. Pop TV’s 24ur is the television news program watched most frequently by students and by the polled minority members, while MPs turn most frequently to the program Odmevi on TV Slovenija. All students use the Internet, only one of the polled mps does not, and neither do a quarter of the polled minority members. The concept of citizen journalism is associated most frequently with blogs. How much attention do our target groups pay to blogs? The majority of mps do not follow blogs, the same is true of most students, while blogs are read by less than 3% of the polled minority members.
A little over half of the students create or edit web content, of the polled mps a third are active online, and the share of the polled ethnic minority members who actively create or edit web content is even smaller.
Further, we should mention that most members of all three target groups estimate the media coverage of political events in Slovenia to be biased or partial. As many as 60% of students believe this, in addition to about an equal proportion of the polled ethnic minority members, while the percentage is even higher among the polled mps – approximately 85% feel this way.
Most of the mps polled have complained about something in the media that they found unacceptable, of ethnic minority members more than a third responded in this way to the functioning of media, while only a good tenth of the students have.
Of the different statements concerning media and their significance in society, most students agreed with the statement that media promote consumerism. Most parliament members and ethnic minority members feel that media are a means of furthering political interests, but even with these two target groups the statement that media promote consumerism came in a close second among the statements most agreed with.
This book presents the results with emphases selected by the three researchers who conducted the individual sections of research.
(2008) »Internet and Civic Potential«, in: Peter Dahlgren (ed.) Media and Political Engagement – Citizens, Communication and Democracy, Camgridge University Press, New York, p. 160.
Graber, A. Doris, Denis Mcquail And Pippa Norris
(2008) »Introduction: The Politics of News in a Democracy«, in: Graber, A. Doris, Denis McQuail and Pippa Norris (ed.) The Politics of the News – The News of the Politics, cq Press, Washington, pp. 1–19.
Hasebrink, Uwe, Anja Herzog & Christiane Eilders
(2007) »Media Users’ Participation in Europe From a Civil Society Perspective«, in: Baldi, Paolo and Uwe
Hasebrink (ed.) Broadcasters and Citizens in Europe
– Trends in Media Accountability and Viewer Participation, Intellect, Bristol and Chicago, pp. 75–91.
(2007) »Making a diference to media pluralism: a critique of the pluralistic consensus in European policy« and Cammaerts, Bart and Nico Carpentier (ed.) Reclaiming the Media – Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles, Intellect, Bristol and Chicago, pp. 9–30.
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Study on the Current Trends and Approaches to Media Literacy in Europe, prepared for the European Commission by the University of Barcelona, 2007, available at: http://ec.europa.eu/avpolicy/media_literacy/ studies/index_en.htm (accessed on January 5, 2009).
1 Read more on this research at http://www.cjm.si.
2 For example, the Politbarometer reveals that in January 2004, residents of Slovenia ranked the media fifth among institutions they trusted the most. By December 2008, the media had dropped to the tenth position.
3 On December 20, 2008, the European Commission issued a Communication to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, titled “A European approach to media literacy in the digital environment”. Before that, it had issued a study on “Current trends and approaches to media literacy in Europe”. More information on this is available on the European Commission’s website at http://ec.europa.eu/avpolicy/media_literacy/index_en.htm.