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News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
News Fragmentation and Democracy:  A Challenging Future
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News Fragmentation and Democracy: A Challenging Future

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Academic analysis from 2009. The concern over news fragmentation today is not a new development; in fact, the proliferation of television stations in the last few decades brought significant scholarly …

Academic analysis from 2009. The concern over news fragmentation today is not a new development; in fact, the proliferation of television stations in the last few decades brought significant scholarly attention to fragmentation (Katz, 1996).

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  • 1. News Fragmentation and Democracy: A Challenging Future Nicole Cathcart June 17, 2009 1
  • 2. Earlier this year, CBS Sunday Morning (2009) presented a segment showing thesimilarities between the blogs of today and newspapers in the 1600s. The advent of newtechnology is the common theme linking these seemingly incongruous media. In the1600s, the moveable type printing press allowed for easy and cheap mass printing,leading to a rise in independent publishing. In this century, blogging allows anyone witha computer and an internet connection to publish opinions and news. As a result,millions of blogs now populate the internet. The concern over news fragmentation todayis not a new development; in fact, the proliferation of television stations in the last fewdecades brought significant scholarly attention to fragmentation (Katz, 1996). Despite its fragmented past, newspaper publishing has since grown into ahomogenous mainstream medium. Surely, this may happen again; the fragmentation intelevision and online news today could follow the example of 17th century publishing.The struggle for credibility in a competitive environment may one day make the majorityof online and television sources of news extinct. The rise of technology andfragmentation of media may simply be part of an existing cycle. While the effects ofthese nascent technologies on modern society, namely democracy, are only slowly beingrealized, the concern over 21st century news fragmentation appears exaggerated—whilefragmentation affects democracy, it will not be its demise. News fragmentation, whilepresenting significant commercial and political consequences, does not present as muchof a threat to participatory democracy as apathy. While researchers (Tewksbury, 2009; Katz, 1996) remain concerned that mediafragmentation will have negative affects on democratic societies, the commercialresponse to media fragmentation and the resulting audience segmentation is positive. 2
  • 3. This segmentation allows for greater sophistication in advertising than is possible withhomogenous channels. This fragmentation is not unique to television and online news,either. It exists in every medium, and, as Paula Berinstein (2005) points out in heranalysis of newspapers, fragmentation “is an advertisers dream. When like-mindedpeople congregate in one place, its easy to reach and tailor your message to them” (p.47). As the key revenue generation source for news media, arguably all media,advertising plays a large role in the drive for greater segmentation of audiences. Whiletelevision offers numerous demographic, geographic and psychographic options forsegmentation of audiences, online news exponentially expands those options foradvertisers. As the technology for tracking and identifying online behavior continues togrow, advertisers have responded positively to increased options for segmenting theirtarget audiences and maximizing the return-on-investment for their budgets. Theexpectations of advertisers are unlikely to change, provided the positive results of thislevel of segmentation continue to grow. This, combined with the growing percentage ofadvertising dollars spent online, means news fragmentation will continue to expand. The political consequences of news segmentation reflect the growing nationalreality of growing partisanship and lack of moderates in the American two-party system.Media has reported on this divide for years, while simultaneously playing an integral rolein its development. In Elihu Katz’s (1996) study of segmentation’s affect on televisionpoints out that “[d]ispersed spaces that lose sight of the center—or provide escapistalternatives—may even lead to the center’s collapse” (p. 23). Katz’s work suggests theeventual fall of the nation-state through this segmentation, which, thirteen years after hisstudy, and with greater segmentation in new media, seems no more likely now. Despite 3
  • 4. polarized politics, democratic participation in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election,especially in younger demographics, suggests some of these fears of a failing democracymay be premature. David Tewksbury’s (2009) conclusions regarding online news behavior mirror theconcerns of Katz when he states that “readers of one news type may have little say toreaders of another. Such a development, in as much as it represents a departure fromhomogenous news consumption patterns, could make it harder for one leader, group, orparty to build connections with large numbers of people in a society” (p. 19). Reaching thewhole population with a single message may be, as Tewksbury suggests, harder. However, just as advertisers of one product have managed tocater their messages to different audiences, political messages may have to be disseminated in a similar manner. Certainly, this approachreflects greater sophistication and coordination in messaging in an already carefully studied and planned field, but it does not represent animpossible challenge. The push for fragmentation, although embraced by advertisers, reflects the desire of individuals to cater their news consumption,when it is consumed, to their particular interests or political leanings. Jonathan Morris’s (2007) study of the popularity of Fox News, forexample, a channel born out the growing assumption that the majority of mainstream media reflected a liberal bias, further emphasizes thepublic’s desire to control the news it digests. Morris’s findings echo Katz and Tewksbury, as he concludes, “[a] s viewers pursuenews sources that are more tailored to their own political beliefs, the probability ofexposure to divergent points of view decreases. Thus, Americans are getting differentversions of the same issues and events, which may hinder the chances of politicalmoderation and compromise among the mass public” (p. 276). These researchers agree,regardless of the root of the segmentation, that fragmented news sources reduce ourability as citizens to relate, converse and agree. Yet, their research does not suggest alack of participation or interest in democracy. Although a polarized population may complicate our democratic process, the trueantithesis to democracy is non-participation. Analysis of online behavior (Tewskbury,2005) shows that online news, for example, has diversified news intake for large sections 4
  • 5. of the public, yet despite the ease and control over accessing information, 14% of thepopulation has little to no regular exposure to news (Pew, 2008). With greater choice, thepublic can easily find a variety of news sources, but it must also ignore a growing numberof content options. Those who prefer news can diversify and increase their current affairsknowledge, but those who prefer entertainment can tune out of politics and decline toparticipate in their democracy (Prior, 587). The existence and concern over fragmentation is nothing new, if the example ofthe printing press and newspaper production proves analogous to modern blogs.Regardless of the outcome, modern society has grown accustom to personalization andcustomization, and commercial interest in furthering audience segmentation indicatesnews fragmentation will only grow. The nature of our democracy may change. Almostcertainly, communicating political messages will grow more difficult and demandsophisticated strategies. The commercial sector’s communications and marketingstrategies will be a guide for political leaders as they attempt to maintain a cohesiveplatform while tailoring messages to particular audiences. Fragmentation does makedemocracy more challenging, but it will not destroy it. 5
  • 6. ReferencesBerinstein, P. (2005). Black and white and dead all over: Are newspapers headed 6 feet under? Searcher, 13(10), 46-53.Katz, E. (1996). And deliver us from segmentation. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 546 (July), 22-33.Morris, J.S. (2007). Slanted objectivity? Perceived media bias, cable news exposure, and political attitudes. Social Science Quarterly, 88(3), 707- 728.Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (2008, August). Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources. Washington, DC: Author.Prior, M. (2005). News vs. entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49 (3), 577-592.Butler, M. (Writer), & Landis, J. (Writer). (2009, March 29). Blogging through history [Television series segment]. In M. Rennie (Executive Producer), CBS News Sunday Morning. New York: CBS News Productions.Tewksbury, D. (2005). The seeds of audience fragmentation: Specialization in the use of online news sites. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 49 (3), 332-348.Tewksbury, D. (2009, May). Online news reader specialization and its boundaries: Implications for the fragmentation of American news audiences. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New York. 6
  • 7. ReferencesBerinstein, P. (2005). Black and white and dead all over: Are newspapers headed 6 feet under? Searcher, 13(10), 46-53.Katz, E. (1996). And deliver us from segmentation. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 546 (July), 22-33.Morris, J.S. (2007). Slanted objectivity? Perceived media bias, cable news exposure, and political attitudes. Social Science Quarterly, 88(3), 707- 728.Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (2008, August). Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources. Washington, DC: Author.Prior, M. (2005). News vs. entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49 (3), 577-592.Butler, M. (Writer), & Landis, J. (Writer). (2009, March 29). Blogging through history [Television series segment]. In M. Rennie (Executive Producer), CBS News Sunday Morning. New York: CBS News Productions.Tewksbury, D. (2005). The seeds of audience fragmentation: Specialization in the use of online news sites. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 49 (3), 332-348.Tewksbury, D. (2009, May). Online news reader specialization and its boundaries: Implications for the fragmentation of American news audiences. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, New York. 6

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