The influence of audience agency in digital media: A model adjustment in the hierarchy of influences
The hierarchy of influences is a theory that models the underlying forces or influences that guide journalists during their decision-making processes as gatekeepers of news and information (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996, 2014). As part of this model there are a group of influences originally described as extra-media influences: some are now labeled “social institutions” and others have been moved to the “routines” level that includes competition, advertisers, community leaders and, audiences, which in the treatise now are considered in both levels to some extent. Technological innovation in digital media has changed some of the ways journalists gather, produce, publish, present and disseminate the news. Digital media innovation has also affected the way audiences or users now consume, discuss, debate and share the news. As digital media technological innovation continues to rapidly expand and change, its use by journalists and consumers could have implications that have caused shifts on the forces or influences in this hierarchy, particularly on the levels of social institutions and routines.
This study seeks to test the idea that changes in the digital media environment have sufficiently shifted audience agency to a degree that it warrants further examination as it relates to other influences. To date, this has been documented mainly in correlational studies (Lee, 2013; Lee, Lewis, & Powers, 2014; Vu, 2013) or qualitative research (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009, 2009) . This study agrees that the hierarchy model needs to account for the greater agency digital media affords audiences. It goes beyond the research to date that primarily uses self-reports to strengthen the case by documenting a cause-and-effect relationship with an experiment. The experiment tests if knowing what storytelling forms audiences want will lead to journalists choosing that storytelling form.
This study uses an experiment with 144 professional journalists, by giving them four scenarios that they are likely to encounter in their work – how to cover a story about a dangerous storm, for example. Half of the participants are told which storytelling forms – video, Tweets, in-depth stories, interactive graphics, etc. – are preferred by audiences, advertisers, the competition, and community leaders; half are not. Journalists select the storytelling form that they would use to tell the story. Influence is measured by how often participants choose storytelling forms that are preferred by audiences compared with how often they choose forms preferred by others. If journalists choose audience-preferred storytelling forms significantly more often than the preferred forms of other influences that will provide support for the idea that audiences now have an elevated influence in the decision-making process in the newsroom. One strength of this experiment is that is shows what journalists would actually do when faced with these situations, rather than asking them what they think is the most important influence on their decisions. That is, it gets closer to seeing what journalists do as opposed to what they think they do. Findings show that knowing the storytelling preferences of the different influences matters; participants selected significantly different storytelling forms when they knew which forms were preferred by the influences than when they did not. Furthermore, these journalists chose audience preferred storytelling forms significantly more often than the forms preferred by other influences it was tested against. In a practical sense, however, they did not overwhelmingly choose audience preferred forms – between 48% and 62% of the decisions were for audience preferred story forms. Findings also show that participants think they choose audiences far more often than they actually do. One would have expected far more decisions favoring audiences considering how high participants placed audiences in both their ranking of the influences, where audiences were most important in both online and offline platform decisions, and in their qualitative comments. This cautions about confirming the findings of self-reports with other methods, as people are not always aware of the actual influences on their own behavior. The qualitative comments were instructive in helping explain this attitude-behavior gap as these participants exhibited paternalistic attitudes toward the audience. Participants believed that the audience needed journalistic guidance on what they really wanted because they were not capable of knowing for themselves. They justified this as being in the best interest of the audiences. The platform that the stories are told on also mattered. While participants said audiences were their number one concern for both online and offline platforms, the similarities end there. The competition was more important in online platforms while community leaders were more influential in offline storytelling, for example. The role of influences from other levels, specifically resources and financial influences from the organizational level, were incorporated by having participants make decisions under the real-world conditions as if they were in their own newsrooms, and under ideal conditions, as they were in a perfect world where there were no constraints. This also mattered, as journalists chose audiences’ storytelling forms significantly more often when the conditions were ideal than when they were real. Theoretical contributions of this study include the statement that audiences do deserve stronger consideration in the newsroom decision- making. It is also accurate to say that the audience is much higher in the minds of journalists than in their actions.