MEDIA CONSUMPTION AND THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC
FUNDED UNDER THE ESRC/ AHRB CULTURES OF
OCTOBER 2003 - MARCH 2006
RESEARCH TEAM: NICK COULDRY, SONIA
LIVINGSTONE, TIM MARKHAM
The London School of Economics and
Media Consumption and the Future of Public Connection’ is a 30 month project which aims to provide a qualitatively rich insight into the ways in which people do, or do not, connect with a public world particularly through media. It seeks to address empirically some key assumptions in political science and media research. The question we’re interested in - the relationship between people’s lives as media consumers and the basis for democratic politics – has wide resonance in Britain and other countries too; as a result, we hope the project will stimulate further, comparative projects (we are currently working with colleagues in the USA Australia and the USA to this end).
This short document summarises the aims of the project and outlines its fieldwork strategy, discussing some related methodological issues.
research question is best explained, first of all, in terms of the two
connected and widely made assumptions about democratic politics
that we’re trying to test:
writers about politics make both these assumptions – although the
two are detachable. Some believe the first without believing the second,
because they argue that public connection is unlikely to served by
people’s use of media (Robert Putnam’s Bowling
Alone thesis takes that position at least in relation to the effects
of television). But generally writers assume both, but can we find
evidence for both in how citizens think about themselves?
first assumption is
important because it underlies most models of democracy. For it is only on
the basis of this assumption that the legitimacy of democratic political
authority can be built: consent to political authority requires that
people’s attention to the public world can be assumed, or at least that
we can assume an orientation to the public world which from time to
time can be expected to result in actual attention.
word ‘public’ is difficult; it has a range of meanings (cf Weintraub
and Kumar, 1997). When we talk of ‘public connection’, we mean
‘things or issues which are regarded as being of shared concern,
rather than of purely private concern’, matters that in principle
citizens need to discuss in a world of limited shared resources. Our hunch
is that, however much people differ over what exactly counts as the public
world and what doesn’t, most people can make sense of the difference
between the public and the private, and that boundary remains
meaningful in spite of many other levels of disagreement over the content
and definition of politics.
is why we feel we can base a research project on asking people what for
them lies on the other side of the line from the things that they are
regard as of only private concern. We are asking people: what makes up their
public world? How are they connected to that world? And how are
media involved, or not, in sustaining their connection to that
world? These are the questions we want to explore – first by asking a
small group of 30 people to write a diary for 3 months during 2004 that
reflects on these questions, second by interviewing the diarists later in
2004, both individually and in groups, about that process of
diary-writing, and finally by broadening out the themes from this
necessarily small group to a nationwide survey (targeted at a sample of
1000 respondents) to be conducted in 2005.
questions we are addressing are huge. In starting to answering them, we
are, quite deliberately, starting small! There has been little, if any,
research that has looked in detail at the quality of people’s sense of
public connection and how it might, or might not, be linked to their media
consumption;. Required now is research that listens closely to a range of
people’s own reflections on these issues; it is only from there that we
can start to generate larger hypotheses.
are however drawing here on earlier pilot research done here at LSE 2
years ago (‘The Dispersed Citizen’ project funded by STICERD, 2001-2,
conducted by Nick Couldry and Ana Langer). This study drew on questions
posed to the Panel at the UK’s Mass-Observation Archive and also a small
set of interviews in London. It suggested, first, a significant degree of
alienation both from media and from contemporary British politics
particularly among the quite elderly, mainly female Mass Observation
sample, but, second, among those we interviewed in person, a sense of
media as offering a form of ‘public connection’. That connection,
however, took various different forms (for some, a more traditional form
based on national press, TV, radio; for others, a newer form based on
continuous online connection) with time (the constraints on
people’s time) being a major factor in limiting those possibilities of
connection. We say more below
about how our current, larger project develops these thoughts in the
context of the long tradition of media research.
The current context
are two reasons why we think our research strategy is valuable now.
first is the widespread concerns among academics and policymakers about
the possible decline in political engagement: from falling voter turnout
in various countries to a broader decline in interest, knowledge or even
basic attention to politics, especially among young voters. This point was
captured well, for example, in Madeleine Bunting’s article ‘Trust Hits
the Buffers’ (Guardian 19 January 2004) which drew on David Marquand’s recent
book Decline of the Public (2004).
We must however be careful here because the signs are quite ambiguous.
Decline of attention to politics in the traditional sense, need not mean
lack of attention to politics in general, and certainly not
necessarily apathy). Is
people’s’sense of what politics should be, perhaps, changing? This is
what some political scientists have argued - to explain the existence of
huge mass demonstrations and global political networks at the time when
trust in the formal political process appears to be declining (see essays
by Russell Dalton and Sidney Tarrow in Pharr and Putnam (eds) Disaffected
complexities into account, we are trying (as we research people’s
underlying sense of public connection) to abstract from a possible lack of
consensus on a number of range of more specific, but vitally important
issues: not just people’s political values and their cultural
attachments, but also, more subtly, their differences over what are
appropriate topics for political discussion, over the people they regard
as legitimate political actors, and over the spaces or sites they feel are
appropriate for political discussion and action. We’ve tried
to design a diary format that is as open on these questions as
possible (see further below).
also a second reason why we think this research is urgent now – which
relates to a change not in the political but in the media
landscape. No longer can we assume an older media world where prime time
television really was prime-time, providing a primary focus for national
attention. There is the multiplication of media and media formats, the
increasing interlinking of formats through digital convergence.
Is the result likely to be an intensification of public connection,
because of people’s greater ability to adapt their media
consumption to suit their everyday habits and pressures? Or is the
consequence of those shifts in media more likely to be the fragmentation
of the public sphere into a mass of specialist ‘sphericules’ (Gitlin,
1998) that can no longer connect sufficiently to form the basis of a
shared public world?
Background of Audience Research
over shared culture, shared or fragmenting ideas of the public sphere, and
over levels of participation in democratic life and apparently rising
apathy are both widespread and important. This is one area where we see
the project making its contribution. But there’s another debate central
to the project, namely the changing and complexifying nature of the
communication and information environment, and hence the changing
significance of the audience, or rather audiences, for public life.
media are framed in this project as potentially a key means by which
people might share a sense of the public with others, and by which the
public sphere might reach out to the people, inviting them; or
alternatively by which media might close doors to the public world,
excluding or distracting potential participants. There are currently lots
of experiments in using media to reach out to people and bring them into
the public sphere: e-democracy, online consultations, citizens juries,
broadcast debates. Other experiments use the television or radio studio,
the message board or chatroom, or even the text message, as a means of
attempting to engage private citizens, especially younger citizens, in
projects however face a hidden cultural barrier. For the media
traditionally construct people in their ordinary lives not as publics
necessarily, but as ‘audiences’. We ordinarily think of the media as
part of our leisure, not our public life. The media are often seen as part
of consumer society, as a means of escape from the real world rather than
participation in it, as what we do after work not as work, as frivolous
entertainment contrasted with the worthy duties of citizenship.
therefore, audiences are denigrated as trivial, passive, individualised,
while publics are valued as active, critically engaged and politically
significant. Since audiences are generally ascribed to the private domain,
consider these common associations of public versus private, each of which
valorises public over private: rational versus emotional, disinterested
versus biased, participatory versus withdrawn, shared versus
individualised, visible versus hidden. These oppositions each leave
people’s uses of media as devalued, ignoring their potential for
when the media do get involved in the public sphere, people get worried
– not that this will open up new opportunities for public connection,
but that it will undermine the very possibility of ‘true’ public
connection by undermining the public itself. As Kevin Barnhurst puts it,
we worry about ‘politics commodified into beauty pageant cum talent
show; journalists transmogrified into masters of ceremony, celebrity
judges and measurers of the public will’ (Barnhurst, 1998: 203). These
are real worries, especially as there are few if any places left untouched
by the media. But there is a risk here of homogenising the media as if
they speak with one voice, one effect, and collapsing citizens into
audiences, thereby homogenising the public also. Such misinterpretations
assume a normative perspective – that one central stage is to be valued
and protected, and other activities are marginal, irrelevant. They are
fuelled by the language of moral panics and narratives of decline.
while remaining aware of the important issues about alienation, apathy and
disengagement in and from mediated public life, we need to take account of
arguments that may point in the opposite direction.
First, the media are more complex than automatic pessimists assume. In traditional mass media, a range of quality broadcasting and print channels devote considerable efforts to addressing their audience as a public – thinking, informed, concerned, active – and this is not restricted to news genres. And in new media, we are only just beginning to explore the new possibilities for addressing, reaching out, inviting in, including the thoughts and activities of audiences. Such experimentation is generating some puzzling, ambiguous situations that resist simple categorisation into either public/citizen or audience/private; for example, the child in her bedroom chatting with kids across the globe; a lively TV talk show discussion of cultural norms of sexuality, that provides a rare insight into the diversity of experiences; a televised citizens jury on environmental issues, where the public quizzes the experts; a local radio station starting up to represent an ethnic minority, run by that minority; or websites that enables teens to recognise their rights, or disabled people to organise a protest.
people are more complex than automatic pessimists assume. The story of the
adoption and appropriation of new media – a story which stretches back
over centuries, of course – is not simply one of acquiescent subjection
to standardised, consumerist, normative media. Yes, many people (indeed
all of us) may slump in front of the television some nights, exhausted
from a demanding day – which is why our research seeks to contextualise
experiences of public (dis)connection in people’s everyday lived reality
- but those same people on other occasions may respond differently and
is, more generally, a challenge to decide when audiences become publics:
is it when they shout back at the news, discuss developments in a soap
opera, text in feedback to a show, complain to the BBC, volunteer to take
part in a talk show? Or must they get together, organise, influence a
particular policy or political process, with measurable effects? We need
to pay attention here not just to officially recognised forms of
participation, but also the precursors of participation, the conditions
which sustain or undermine public connection, and media’s role in them.
Methodology and detailed research strategy
project emphasises the importance of understanding what people themselves
define as matters of public, or shared, concern. In designing a research
methodology, this throws up some very interesting questions.
not simply presenting people with a series of questions and asking for
their responses, but rather inviting people to determine the terms of
reference of the research themselves,
in ways that makes sense to them.
There’s no shortage of research being done on how the public sphere has
changed, how people’s engagement with politics is in decline or has been
transformed, but what has been addressed much less is the subjective
dimension of public connection. We need to understand more about
people’s orientation to the
public world (if that’s what it is), without which theories of
democratic politics make little sense.
project will proceed in several stages, exploring different aspects of the
questions we’re addressing. At the heart of the project is an innovative
method involving participants keeping diaries over a period of three
months, recording their thoughts and reflections about the public world,
their connection to or disconnection from that world, and the role their
use of the media plays in all of this.
nothing new of course about using diaries in social research as such. But
our questions to diarists will be substantially different from the
questions in diary-based research. There’s a good deal of research which
uses ‘diaries’ – often daily or even every few hours – about their
pain levels, or mood., or specific forms of consumption. This often
involves ticking boxes or giving short responses to specific questions,
and can generate in a relatively short space of time a great deal of data,
mainly quantitative. While this is perfectly valid, it doesn’t allow for
people’s subjective reflections about whatever is being measured, how
they understand the questions which are being addressed. More
importantly, the frequent, highly structured, ‘minimal’ diary method,
because of its extremely intensive and intrusive nature makes it difficult
to track changes over a longer period of time. By contrast, we want to
understand how people’s thinking about the public world develops as they
reflect for an extended period on such questions.
broad research aims might suggest an approach at the polar opposite of the
diaries just mentioned: narrative diaries, in which participants are more
or less given free rein to relate anything and everything which might come
to mind. There’s a strong ethos behind such diary methodologies - as
developed within cultural studies and social anthropology - of not
imposing a theoretical framework on respondents and letting them have
their voice. While we agree with that basic aim – indeed it underlies
our whole research - we don’t want the process of diary keeping to be
completely unstructured and open-ended, because it is people’s varying focus
on the public world and media, and the connections between the two, that
we want to understand. We want to know what happens when people are asked
to think about such questions over a three month period of diary
therefore tried to strike a very careful balance in designing our diary
between encouraging the free flow of ideas, while maintaining a focus on
issues of media consumption and public connection. We try not to direct
the diarists’ reflections, but we do give prompts and suggest starting
first contact with diarists, after they have been recruited through market
researchers, takes the form of a fairly long interview. The purpose of
this is twofold. First it allows us to record participants’ initial
thoughts on the main questions of the project, giving us a starting point,
a general idea of their views, and a possible point of comparison further
down the line, enabling us to collate socioeconomic details, profiles of
media access/ consumption and basic attitudes to the public world. Second,
this is where we start participants thinking in depth about the
project’s key issues, explaining what’s expected of them and getting
them interested – again, this has meant striking a careful balance when
designing the interview protocols: while we want to hear interviewees’
opinions, we want the interview to raise more questions for them than it
for the diary itself, we decided against having a series of questions to
be answered, or headings under which diary entries were to be divided. We
opted instead for a cover letter which reminds diarists of the questions
we’re addressing and would like them to reflect upon, along with diary
pages which are blank except for the project’s title and which are to be
submitted weekly. We feel this combination will provide the right mix of
prompting or direction and open-endedness.
choosing a diary method, we are well aware that this choice may have
different implications for different respondents. There may, for example,
be gender-related or other issues that affect whether it seems an
appropriate or natural form of self-expression for different people (see
have therefore given diarists a choice of media in which to record their
thoughts – not just a traditional written diary, but also email, phone
message or voice recorder, any of which can be supplemented by press
cuttings or whatever else the diarist wishes to send in. While the diary
process is anchored around the weekly written diary, we hope this
flexibility will encourage diarists to develop and record their ideas in
as unfettered a way as possible. It’s important to prevent the diary
from coming to resemble a homework assignment, or an self-administered
recognise that three months, while essential to produce longitudinal data,
is a long time as far as diary methodology goes. We therefore are keeping
in touch with diarists through the period, with comments or suggestions
for expansion, which are designed to be as non-judgmental as possible.
diarists have been recruited through the invaluable work of our market
research company, The Field Department, and on the basis of an incentive
payment. We have aimed for an even spread of diarists across genders, age
range (18-30, 30-50, 50+) and levels of media access.
important, we recruited across a series of six regions, chosen to
undermine any metropolitan bias linked to the research team’s location
in London: in addition to one inner city and one suburban region in
London, we have recruited from Manchester suburbs, Leeds, inner city
Southampton, and rural Leicestershire. The detailed choice of areas has
also been designed to ensure a broad mix of socioeconomic categories.
stages of the project
diary phase will run until early summer 2004, to be followed by final
individual interviews with the diarists and a series of focus groups in
which they can meet other diarists and develop their thoughts on the
project further. Analysis of the data collected in the diary phase,
interviews and focus groups will proceed until early next year.
Following this will be a nationwide survey in which a large amount of more quantitative data will be collected and analysed, and the results compared with those of the first phase of the project. This will really allow us to judge the significance of what we find in the diary phase, whether it stands up against the survey data – and also the extent to which the conclusions and implications of the diary phase go beyond standard survey analysis – and we plan to go public with the results in early 2006.
Links to the Wider Research Community and Potential Conclusions
already mentioned, we believe this research project has potentially wide
relevant both within the UK and in other countries because it addresses in
a qualitatively rich way a question that underlies contemporary concerns
with the changing nature of democratic politics. We held a seminar on 3
February 2004 (just before our fieldwork began) with a small group of
interested policymakers, media practitioners and researchers. In 2005 once
our data is substantially complete, we will issue an interim report to
interested parties and hold larger-scale briefing meetings. Interim
conclusions will also be posted on our website.
complete this brief outline of where our research is aimed, it is perhaps,
even at this early stage, worth mentioning some conclusions that even now
we might anticipate and which would be interesting outcomes of the
are ready to find, for example, that
we’ll end up challenging fundamentally the two assumptions that we
started out to investigate – about public connection and its basis in
shared media consumption - we
can’t yet tell, but in any case we
hope to generate a much better sense of how those assumptions are
sustained, if they are, in people’s everyday lives.
K. (1998) ‘Politics in the fine meshes: young citizens, power and
media’, Media Culture & Society, 20(2): 201-218
E. (2003) The Audience in Everyday Life. London: Routledge.
T. (1998) ‘Public Sphere or Public Sphericules?’ in T. Liebes and J.
Curran (eds) Media, Ritual and Identity. London: Routledge.
D. (2004) The Decline of the Public. Cambridge: Polity.
S. and Putnam, R. (eds) (2000) Disaffected Democracies. Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University Press.
J. and Kumar, K. (eds) (1997) Public and Private in Thought and
Practice. Chicago: Chicago University Press.