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Editor's Note: Following RJI’s first event in collaboration with The Associated Press on Feb. 25 during Social Media Week in New York City, we asked a group of media scholars to comment on the question: Are news organizations setting the agenda or chasing it on social media?

Many newsrooms in an earlier era had several, seemingly good, reasons to pay little heed to real readers and viewers. Journalists thought they knew what the audience wanted because they imagined an audience that looked like themselves. Journalists also institutionalized audience preferences as a set of news values — audiences liked news that was timely, local, dramatic, significant, and highlighted the unusual. Since these values came to define news, journalists only had to worry about the news, not the audience’s day-to-day whims. And it wasn’t like readers and viewers — at least not in large numbers — would charge into newsrooms demanding to be heard. Besides, journalists saw themselves as professionals. It was the journalists’ job to select the news and set the agenda, not the audience’s.

So, what’s changed? Well, seemingly everything. The changing economic situation has made every reader and viewer a precious commodity. The audience has almost always been a commodity; that’s just a lot harder for journalists to be indifferent about these days. And, of course, the changing technology has made the preferences and voices of the audience a little less imagined and a lot more real. We know when stories capture readers’ fears, concerns and guilty pleasures. Kim Kardashian — in all her glory — might not have broken the Internet, but she’s no doubt made Chartbeat analytics go crazy in many a newsroom. Many journalists know that now.

However, it turns out that not everything has changed. A survey of journalists I conducted last year shows that journalists’ definitions of news are still largely the same as they have been for decades, and journalists haven’t given up their prerogative to set the agenda for the public. Many traditional news organizations built their business on their professionalism — including their agenda-setting role — and they’re not ready to relinquish what separates them from the upstarts. Perhaps they shouldn’t.

As near and real as the audience may seem via social media and through Web analytics, journalists still have much to imagine about their audience. And perhaps something should be left to the imagination. Even when it comes to the persons closest to us, maintaining a bit of mystery can be a good thing. Knowing too much about the audience’s guilty pleasures can keep journalists from seeing persons’ better selves. We don’t need to be as misguided as Don Quixote and see every reader as Dulcinea, full of virtue and incapable of vice. But it is not quixotic to see the audience as persons seeking to be their better selves. It’s generally our better selves that make the effort to help a neighbor, participate in public life, and generally do the sorts of things journalism empowers our better selves to do. If setting the public agenda allows readers and viewers to be their better selves, perhaps it’s a role worth keeping.

Tim Vos  
 
Guest blogger



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