The news audience is the sub-group of the general media audience that is exposed to newspapers, news magazines, television news, radio news, or online news. Analyses of news audiences usually deal with their size and their structure. This can be done on the micro-level (audiences of particular newspapers, news broadcasts, etc.) or on the macro-level (audiences of news in general). On the micro-level, looking at the distribution of particular newspapers or the ratings of particular news broadcasts is especially important for commercial reasons. Just as in the case of any other magazine or television program, potential advertisers like to know where to place their ads in order to attract their intended audience. On the macro-level, dealing with news audiences in general is especially important for democratic reasons. Because in democracies citizens are expected to keep informed about political life, it is important to know whether they really do so and which kinds of media they use for that purpose. In this case, for example, the size and structure of news audiences in different parts of the world or trends in news consumption can be analyzed.
Although there are several academic studies on news audiences, data on the micro-level typically comes from commercial organizations like Nielsen Media Research. The most extensive data on the macro-level comes from surveys, more or less regularly carried out by governmental and nongovernmental organizations like the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in the USA, or Eurobarometer in Europe. During the 1990s, organizations collecting these kinds of data have also been established in Latin America (Latinobarometro), Eastern Asia (Asia Barometer), and some parts of Africa (Afrobarometer).
In 2006 about 80 percent of US Americans aged 18 or older were exposed to any kind of news on an average weekday. Conversely, a significant number of Americans (about 20 percent) were not exposed to news at all. This percentage is somewhat lower in most European countries (about 10 percent) but significantly higher in most countries in Latin America and Africa. Comparing the primary source of news in 34 countries, Plasser & Plasser (2002) found that in almost all countries under examination most people’s primary news source is television, followed by newspaper. This holds true for North and Latin America, Europe, Australia, and East Asia but not for Africa. The primary source of news for most people in Africa is radio. Looking at trends in the size of news audiences, it is obvious that especially in the USA news consumption is in decline. While in 1994 72 percent of US Americans watched television news on an average weekday, in 2006 only 57 percent did so. The number of people reading newspapers and listening to radio news is shrinking to about the same extent. On the other hand, due to technical developments more and more Americans use the Internet as a source of news. About the same trends are visible in many other western democracies, although in most of them the decline is not that sharp. In contrast, due to technical progress in Latin America, Asia, and Africa news audiences – especially the number of people watching television news – are increasing further.
Analyses of the structure of news audiences usually focus on recipients’ characteristics, like age, gender, education, income, and political interest. When comparing the characteristics of those who are exposed to news with the characteristics of those who are not, several constant patterns occur in most countries worldwide. First, older people are clearly more exposed to news than younger people. This holds especially true for reading newspapers but is also the case when watching television news is concerned. In contrast, just like the average online user the average online news consumer is rather young. Second, men are somewhat more exposed to news than women. This holds especially true for reading newspapers, listening to radio news, and consuming online news. In contrast, there are almost no differences between men and women when television news consumption is concerned. Third, better-educated people are clearly more exposed to news than more poorly educated people. This is most obvious in respect to online news consumption but holds true for every kind of news media except television news. About the same results have been found for income and for socio-economic status, which is a combination of both variables. Fourth, those who are interested in politics are clearly more exposed to news than those who are not interested in politics. This, again, holds especially true for reading newspapers and news magazines, and consuming online news. While the connection between political interest and news consumption is quite strong, the direction of causality is unclear. In most studies, a reciprocal causality is assumed: political interest leads to news consumption and vice versa.
Although some general patterns have been found, the field of news audience research is still in motion. More and more people will have access to more and more media. Three questions especially will have to be answered by future research. The first is whether the decline in news consumption in western democracies can be stopped. The second is whether the increase in media supply in Latin America, Asia, and Africa will also lead to a further increase in the size of news audiences. The third is whether the increase in media supply also improves recipients’ abilities to engage in elaborative news processing.
- McQuail, D. (1997). Audience analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Plasser, F., & Plasser, G. (2002). Global political campaigning. A worldwide analysis of campaign professionals and their practices. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Webster, J. G., Phalen, P. F., & Lichty, L. W. (2006). Ratings analysis: The theory and practice of audience research, 3rd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.