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Quality Journalism in the Digital Age

“Recipients’ ability to judge the quality of news is very limited”

You can hear this sentence quite often when it comes to the debate regarding the future of journalism: “We need to offer quality journalism in order to survive”. The problem is that the understanding of quality in journalism is quite vague. The arguments are often based on anecdotes and intuition rather than on research and rational thinking. What can journalism research do about it? We’ve found some answers to this question in the latest research paper by Wolfgang Schweiger and Juliane Urban of the Institute of Media and Communications (Institute of Applied Sciences Illmenau). DW Akademie’s Steffen Leidel talked to Wolfgang Schweiger about the surprising findings and the notion of quality in journalism.

How can you define the notion of quality in journalism from the scientific perspective?

In Germany, we have our own tradition of journalism quality research, whereas our starting point is a normative definition of quality. There’re constitutional and social requirements which journalism has to fulfil in Germany. Through this norm we are able to derive quality dimensions. On the other hand, journalism research in the USA is rather focused on user quality. The question which is being asked is: What do recipients perceive as quality in news? Dimensions like entertainment value, interesting subject matter and attractiveness of the news package play an important role which is not the case in the German research tradition.

Which quality dimensions are important for the normative approach?

On the one hand, diversity and impartiality. It’s important that opinions, actors and topics are covered objectively and from different perspectives. On the other hand, news has to be relevant and give answers to the [five] W-questions. News should also be easy to grasp, appropriate and exact.

We already see two different definitions here…

We can always face a conflict when we speak about news quality. Do we want to produce news which will be interesting from the user perspective, or do we want to offer quality news which corresponds to the social function of journalism?

Does that mean that news which a user is interested in is not the same as the news which performs a certain social function?

It depends on the media and on the market. There is research which show a correlation between normative quality dimensions and success among users. That means that quality news is more successful among the recipients. But there’re also research which show the opposite: The more popular and tabloid news is, the better for the user. There’s no clear answer to the question whether the audience likes quality news or not.

How does your research paper differ from the others?

Most papers have raised the general topic of quality perception in media. Still, they haven’t given an answer to the question whether users can judge the quality of separate pieces. When people in Germany are asked how good the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the magazine Spiegel or the TV program Tagesschau are, they will all say these are quality media. That’s a classical answer which is socially desirable. Empirical social research often faces the problem that people give answers they consider to be desirable. That’s why we decided to find out if users can still judge the quality of separate media pieces independently of the media brand.

How did you proceed?

We have resorted to a classical experiment. One half of the participants was handed out a media report which was really good, another half of the participants received a report which was really bad. Then we compared evaluations of the journalistic quality of these two reports by the group.

With what result?

We had expected that recipients had no idea of what good news means.We have actually found out that recipients’ ability to judge the quality of news is very limited. What surprised us most was that this ability doesn’t depend on the level of education, media competence and age. I was really perplexed. We had expected a strong effect related to the educational and media competence.

So what does that mean?

In my opinion, a normal person, regardless of his or her level of education, in contrast to a qualified journalist, doesn’t have the necessary tools in his head which will help them judge journalistic quality. An average person has nothing to do with it.

What does that mean for the media? Is that good or bad news?

That’s a very important question. At first sight, that might mean that the audience wouldn’t notice reduced expenses in journalism and hence a certain loss in quality. However, such judgement would be an oversimplification. Our data have proved the important role which the image of a media brand plays for gaining confidence of the audience. In the short term, media users might not notice the change of quality. Still, when they finally do notice it, it will have negative consequences for the image of a media brand in the medium and longer term. That could mean a serious drop in circulation. That’s why I’d advise media companies not to fool around their most important equity which is the confidence and trust of their audiences.

Foto: Shira Golding CC


Wednesday 2013-08-21



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