Publics & Audiences

There is considerable disagreement over what to call the people who read, watch and listen to media messages about politics. Whether they - that is, we - are conceived of as citizens or consumers, publics or audiences, media-users or ‘prosumers’, or any of the other names given to ‘the people formerly known as the audience’, as Jay Rosen called them, determines what is expected of this set of actors, and shapes understandings of their role in the media-politics relationship. Knowing what to call this category of actors is a problem for scholars - theoretical as well as empirical - because conceptualisations guide what we see, how we think about what we see, what questions we choose to ask and how we go about looking for answers.

different views of people power • uses and gratifications • prosumers • audience as commodity  

To think about: are we active makers of meaning or unpaid workers delivering ourselves with the rest of the audience to unelected market forces? Have we more or less power? With the increase in leisure time (and unemployed time and delayed transitions to adulthood) and more free information, are people in a position to be better informed than ever before?  

Key Concepts: citizens, publics, audiences (active & diffused) media effects

Further reading

Picture: Old radio audience. Wikimedia Commons.

Primary Sources

Media-users are everywhere. By conducting interviews or focus group discussions, you can generate your own primary source material. The advantage of such approaches is that they allow you to formulate your own questions, and produce data that is capable of yielding nuanced insight. The disadvantage is that samples will necessarily be small and thus difficult to generalize. If you prefer to work with larger samples, data produced on a regular basis by large-scale opinion surveys in the EU member states is available for quantitative analysis, and contains responses to questions about media use: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/cf/index_en.cfm. The 1938 broadcast by Orson Welles, that had people fleeing the city, terrified that Martians were invading, and which recurs in many accounts of media effects, was called War of the Worlds and can be accessed on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6YNHq1qc44

Research topics

Questions that can be explored in research on this actor include: what media sites do people turn to first? Do they talk about politics, and if so, how: face-to-face or via some sort of chat? Are they interested in local, national or global issues? Views on infotainment (do they like Young Turks and Daily Show?) and celebrity politics? It is unlikely that most readers of this book will have the opportunity to do large-scale public surveys as part of their research projects. Focus group interviews are a fruitful alternative.