Communication Audience Fragmentation
by
David Tewksbury
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0009

Introduction

Fragmentation is a broad term used to describe the transition of a population from one comprised of few large audiences for any one media product to another comprised of more numerous smaller audiences. In general, the number of people in the population attending to products need not change. Rather, fragmentation is assumed to result from a substantial increase in the number of options from which people can choose. It is often assumed that fragmentation involves the creation of audiences that are less internally heterogeneous as they become smaller, but that is not necessarily the case. Indeed, the level of homogeneity of the audience prompts a need for additional terms. Segmentation can be used to describe fragmented audiences that are internally homogenous. Media producers typically find such audiences desirable for the purposes of grouping people for advertisers. As a result, market segmentation is often a term used to describe media outlet strategy. Media outlets are able to segment the audience when (1) they specialize their products to meet the demands of the desired audience and (2) people specialize their outlet and content selection purposefully. Some observers have decided that successful segmentation of a populace results in polarization, the division of people into like-minded groups who share similar knowledge, opinion, or value profiles.

Background Texts

The fragmentation of mass audiences is, by definition, a departure from a more homogenous state of affairs. Specifically, fragmentation is a disruption of a system in which mass media content creates and serves a mass public. Neuman 1986 describes that basic system with a critical eye, setting up the conditions for its weakening and describing some of the stakes for democratic politics. The traditional news system is also nicely described in Bogart 1989, a review of research on the newspaper industry and its audience. Rice, et al. 1984 pivots from the traditional mass media and looks ahead to the coming of interactive video and computer networks. Its predictions and recommendations turned out to very useful for media researchers studying the Internet and multichannel television. These three works set the stage for Negroponte 1995, a description of the technologies possible and probable with the digitization of mediated content. Davis 1999 provides a broad account of the many ways that the Internet may be affecting American politics, audience disruption among them.

  • Bogart, Leo. 1989. Press and public: Who reads what, when, where, and why in American newspapers. 2d ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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    Most communication researchers suggest that online news resembles the print newspaper most closely among the traditional media. As a result, this comprehensive review of research on the newspaper industry is useful reading for those studying news on the Internet. Of particular use are chapters 3, 4, 5, and 9 describing newspaper audience research.

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    • Davis, Richard. 1999. The web of politics: The Internet’s impact on the American political system. New York: Oxford.

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      Written just after the dawn of public use of the Web, this book provides a broad review of ways in which the Internet may be used in democratic systems. Useful introduction to ways in which citizens may be audiences and participants online.

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      • Negroponte, Nicholas. 1995. Being digital. New York: Knopf.

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        Founding director of the notable MIT Media Lab explains the foundations of digital technologies and their potential social effects. The book introduces the term Daily Me in predicting the ubiquity and efficiency of personal filters for news and other information.

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        • Neuman, W. Russell. 1986. The paradox of mass politics: Knowledge and opinion in the American electorate. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

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          Evaluates the tenability of the mass public concept and considers alternatives to mass politics. For people unfamiliar with the political science approach to citizen competence, there are very useful chapters on popular political sophistication and the role of the media. Some of the considerations suggest a certain inevitability to public fragmentation.

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          • Rice, Ronald R., James H. Blair, Milton Chen, John Dimmick, David M. Dozier, Mary Ellen Jacob, Bonnie McDonald Johnson, W. David Penniman, Lynne L. Svenning, Everett M. Rogers, Eric W. Rothenbuhler, John E. Ruchinskas, and Frederick Williams. 1984. The new media: Communication, research, and technology. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

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            Contains a number of chapters that outline basic contributors to audience fragmentation. Among the most important chapters are those devoted to the evolution of media theory, theories of news reading, and media displacement processes.

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            Journals

            The study of fragmentation cuts across disciplinary lines but has been centrally located in communication journals. The mainstream Journal of Communication frequently publishes relevant research, as do the more specialized Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media and Journal of Media Economics. The topic’s centrality to journalism is reflected in frequent publishing of related research in Journalism Studies and Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. Journals specializing in the study of new communication technologies are also logical outlets. Two of the most prominent are New Media & Society and The Information Society.

            Data Resources

            Studying the evolution and audience use of the media can be data-intensive. Fortunately, there are some excellent sources of information online. Commentary about journalism in the traditional and newer media can be found at the Columbia Journalism Review and Poynter Online sites. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism site also contains some commentary, but its primary value lies in its impressive ongoing content analysis of topics in the American news media. Audience use metrics for various media can be found at the Nielsen and TV by the Numbers sites. The Nielsen site does not have a large archive, but it contains information about a number of media. Its studies of multiple media in the household are particularly useful. Surveys of traditional media and Internet audiences can be found at the sites for the Pew Internet and American Life Project and The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

            Social and Political Stakes

            Most of the discussion about public fragmentation and polarization assumes from the outset that the public sphere in any population should feature people sharing information and views across social and political boundaries. Berelson 1952 describes the mainstream political communication perspective on the importance of knowledge and opinion quality in a democracy; this is a normative baseline from which most communication research operates. Katz 1996 and Chaffee and Metzger 2001 suggest that high-bandwidth television systems and the Internet threaten the concept of shared media experiences and learning in advanced democracies. Sunstein 2001 notes that reducing shared experiences likely carries the side threat of increasing ideological divisions in society, an effect typically labeled issue polarization. Turow 1997 points to the role of advertising in the process of audience segmentation and outlines some ramifications of that process. Perhaps the most notable among the effects, Gandy 2001 argues, is the deterioration of the public sphere. Not all signs point to impending doom, though. Neuman 1991 looks at the ways in which audiences reacted to multichannel television in the 1980s and concludes that fragmentation is a gradual process at best. From a political perspective, the concept of issue publics, updated in Krosnick 1990, suggests that some degree of segmentation in society is a natural part of large heterogeneous societies. Dahlberg 2007 adds that fragmentation may not necessarily be a bad thing. Some homogeneity is forced on societies and tends to stifle minority voices. The empowerment of those voices may be one result of fragmentation and segmentation.

            • Berelson, Bernard. 1952. Democratic theory and public opinion. Public Opinion Quarterly 16:313–330.

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              Most observers who express concerns about fragmentation suggest that democracies require an informed and active citizenry. There is some debate about this standard, but this article provides a good presentation of the issues and how they are related to basic democratic functions.

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              • Chaffee, Steven. H., and Miriam. J. Metzger. 2001. The end of mass communication? Mass Communication & Society 4.4: 365–379.

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                Oft-cited article that offers speculations about the future of the study of mass communication. Such relatively well-developed theoretical domains as agenda setting and cultivation were based on basic models of audience aggregation. Segmentation, as an alternative, suggests the need for new theoretical development.

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                • Dahlberg, Lincoln. 2007. Rethinking the fragmentation of the cyberpublic: From consensus to contestation. New Media & Society 9.5: 827–847.

                  DOI: 10.1177/1461444807081228Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                  Internet is increasingly where all communication occurs. Researchers interested in fragmentation look to the Internet for communication that both crosses boundaries and challenges the power to set boundaries in society. Dahlberg reminds us that too often we study the former and ignore the latter.

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                  • Gandy, Oscar H., Jr. 2001. Dividing practices: Segmentation and targeting in the emerging public sphere. In Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. Edited by W. Lance Bennett and Robert M. Entman, 141–159. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                    Commenting on the rise of targeted messages in political campaigning, marketing, and other media, the author argues that segmentation strategies are antithetical to the health of a public sphere. By definition, messages created for selected audiences limit the flow of ideas through a society.

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                    • Katz, Elihu. 1996. And deliver us from segmentation. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 546:22–33.

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                      Writing about the proliferation of options in national television systems, Katz argues that the shared culture and political knowledge imparted by television is threatened. Without a common diet of public affairs programming, national identity in contemporary democracies is at risk.

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                      • Krosnick, Jon A. 1990. Government policy and citizen passion: A study of issue publics in contemporary America. Political Behavior 12:59–92.

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                        Political scientists suggest that a population is composed of issue publics, segments of society with an intense interest in an issue. Most issues in America have a focused public rather than a broad base. This model may help communication researchers think about how audiences behave with respect to other content segments in the media.

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                        • Neuman, W. Russell. 1991. The future of the mass audience. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                          In a wide-ranging analysis of political and media theory and practice, Neuman assesses the long-term prospects for mass society. The book features argument and evidence questioning the inevitability of audience fragmentation. The book nicely highlights the importance of an emphasis on the audience and on the force of social inertia.

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                          • Sunstein, Cass. R. 2001. Republic.com. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                            This frequently cited text is an accessible indictment of the power of the Internet to divide citizens. These divisions include both audience fragmentation and polarization. The latter Sunstein uses to refer to self-reinforcing opinion spirals facilitated by self-section into homogenous opinion climates online.

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                            • Turow, Joseph. 1997. Breaking up America: Advertisers and the new media world. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                              The dual role of fragmentation as cause and effect is nicely on display in this influential analysis of advertising strategy and influence. Over the last few decades, advertisers have been using existing social fragmentation and creating new segments for the promotion of social difference and product consumption.

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                              Evolution of the Media

                              Perhaps inevitably, describing media development as an evolutionary process raises questions about the nature of change and the independence of potential outcomes. At one end, the evolutionary model of Merrill and Lowenstein 1979 suggests that media tend to progress through a relatively predictable set of stages of content and audience structures. Maisel 1973 tells a similar story using macro-level economic patterns. Shapiro 1999 and Levinson 1997 offer somewhat less deterministic perspectives on the long-term potential of interactive, high-bandwidth media. The former suggests that these media provide users with essentially too much control. They may use that control for good, to be sure, but the concept of control over information seems inexorably to lead to damaging outcomes. Levinson 1997 offers a more sanguine perspective, one that leaves open more possibility of beneficial uses of the technology. Dimmick 2003 less directly addresses the concept of determinism and is more content to identify the many conditions under which media compete for audiences and resources. Together, these works suggest a set of frameworks for thinking about the changes being experienced by the media industries today and the inevitability of audience fragmentation and related outcomes.

                              • Dimmick, John W. 2003. Media competition and coexistence: The theory of the niche. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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                                The conflict between media industries and the accommodations they make for each other and media audiences are the primary foci of this book. The Niche theory provides a framework for thinking about markets, resources, and audiences in the competition between media organizations.

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                                • Levinson, Paul. 1997. The soft edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution. New York: Routledge.

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                                  Written in the midst of burgeoning public interest in the Internet, Levinson’s book adopts the perspective of “soft determinism.” New technologies offer humans opportunities for change. Our response to the potential of what we invent makes all the difference. This is a terrific guide to thinking of history as potential realized and missed.

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                                  • Maisel, Richard. 1973. The decline of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly 37.2: 159–170.

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                                    Before any visible decline of the network model of television, Maisel predicts that the age of mass media in modern societies was temporary and already on its way out. Evidence supporting this suggestion comes from slower growth in the American television industry from 1950 through 1970 relative to other national communication systems.

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                                    • Merrill, John C., and Ralph L. Lowenstein. 1979. Media, messages and men: New perspectives in communication. 2d ed. New York: Longman.

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                                      This textbook features a very cogent presentation of the three-stage model of media history (pp. 29–35). In this framework, communication systems cater to elite audiences, move into a mass audience stage, and stabilize in a specialized (segmented) audience model. This is nice heuristic model of conceptualizing media evolution.

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                                      • Shapiro, Andrew L. 1999. The control revolution: How the Internet is putting individuals in charge and changing the world we know. New York: Public Affairs.

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                                        Suggests that newer technologies spread control of information over too many different hands—individual and centralized. Of interest to the study of fragmentation is the concept of “oversteer,” the suggestion that by accepting opportunities to control our media lives, people may impoverish themselves in unseen ways.

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                                        Content Proliferation and Diversification

                                        One of the assumptions underlying concerns about audience fragmentation is that contemporary media feature a large and growing number of options for citizens. That the number of television channels and websites meets these conditions is clearly observable. Gunter 2003 provides a very useful consideration of the business, economic, and legal environment in which online journalism operates, and Boczkowski 2004 uses historical and ethnographic methods to examine how online journalists work to attract audiences. Taken together, these texts acquaint readers with the state of affairs as it was before multichannel television and the Internet, and they describe the conditions that facilitate the demise of mass audience media. Interestingly, though, researchers continue to question whether more channels and sites necessarily imply more diverse content. Napoli 2007 contains a number of assessments of contemporary media on this point. Stanyer 2009 focuses on trends in journalism and forecasts some degree of content diversity online. Similarly, Baum and Groeling 2008 demonstrates that online news outlets can be more partisan than those based in the traditional media. Becker and Schoenbach 1989 addresses the basic question of audience reaction to plentiful choices in television as they developed in the 1980s, with many lessons for the current environment. One apparent truism of content proliferation is that outlet multiplication can encourage content segmentation. Not all of what is new on cable television will lead to fragmented knowledge, though. Hollander 2003 and Baum 2002 both suggest that the infotainment (or soft news) formats that have risen with outlet multiplication can provide citizens with some information about public affairs.

                                        • Baum, Matthew A. 2002. Sex, lies, and war: How soft news brings foreign policy to the inattentive public. American Political Science Review 96:91–109.

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                                          With media diversification comes more of every type of news. This rather controversial article suggests that soft or “infotainment” news may contain enough information to bring some issues to the attention of the public. If so, a fragmented news audience may still retain some shared awareness of politics.

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                                          • Baum, Matthew A., and Tim Groeling. 2008. New media and the polarization of American political discourse. Political Communication 25.4: 345–365.

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                                            Most models of media evolution suggest that competitive environments encourage product differentiation. In the case of news, this means that online news sites will be more partisan than the sites of mainstream news organizations. That is what this tidy study shows.

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                                            • Becker, Lee. B., and Klaus Schoenbach, eds. 1989. Audience responses to media diversification: Coping with plenty. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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                                              The 1980s saw large increases in the number of television and other media channels in countries across the globe. This near-simultaneous expansion of choice gave researchers the opportunity for a comprehensive comparative study, the goal of this book. The opening and closing integrative chapters nicely contextualize the country-by-country analyses.

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                                              • Boczkowski, Pablo J. 2004. Digitizing the news: Innovation in online newspapers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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                                                How news outlets have adapted to—and adopted—the Internet is the topic of this insightful ethnographic analysis of three organizations. Of particular interest is the way the organizations built their views of news and the audience into their websites.

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                                                • Gunter, Barrie. 2003. News and the Net. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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                                                  Brings the perspective of an experienced media researcher to a description of the way journalism is evolving online. Short on hyperbole but with an appropriate level of detail, the book lays a foundation for thinking about the news from which online audiences are choosing.

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                                                  • Hollander, Barry A. 2003. Late-night learning: Do entertainment programs increase political campaign knowledge for younger viewers? Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 49:402–415.

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                                                    Late-night television contains some information about public affairs. In particular, the late-night programs Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and the late-night talk show hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman appear to influence citizens’ recognition (though not recall) of political campaign information. This relationship is most pronounced among younger adults.

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                                                    • Napoli, Philip M., ed. 2007. Media diversity and localism: Meaning and metrics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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                                                      Integral to the study of the fragmentation is the evaluation of whether the content from which people choose is diverse or homogenous. It is an old question that gets a contemporary assessment here with an emphasis on recent technological, economic, and regulatory developments.

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                                                      • Stanyer, James. 2009. Web 2.0 and the transformation of news and journalism. In Routledge handbook of Internet politics. Edited by Andrew Chadwick and Philip N. Howard, 201–213. London and New York: Routledge.

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                                                        Succinct summary of the way journalism has evolved on the Internet. The focus here is on the proliferation of sources and the democratizing potential of content-development patterns. These trends suggest more diversity of content online but also more opportunities for the fragmentation of knowledge.

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                                                        Audience Activity

                                                        Audiences are most likely to become segmented when they pursue their interests in mediated content. As a result, a core concern for researchers looking at the potential for fragmentation and segmentation is whether citizens are likely to engage in active selection of media, outlets, and content. Audience activity has been debated for some time. Some early media effects theorizing had suggested that audiences were passive, and Krugman 1965 represents that tradition relatively well. The majority of contemporary research suggests that audiences are rather active. Levy and Windayhl 1984 provides an influential framework for that perspective. Perse 1990 demonstrates audience activity in a study of cable television channel selection and changing behavior. Researchers also acknowledge that the concept of activity can be misleading. The relations that some people have with some media can develop into relatively stable long-term patterns. Rubin 1984 labels some of these as ritualized (as opposed to instrumental) exposure motivations. McDonald and Glynn 1984 observes that people develop stable orientations to the media; these orientations can influence audience behavior over the long term. Finally, some observers argue that media research has placed too much emphasis on the active audience. Biocca 1988 argues this point, suggesting that the active-audience approach places too much emphasis on the individual as an autonomous actor. The technological attributes of the Internet blunt some of that criticism, however, as audiences spend much of their time interacting with the medium. Bucy and Tao 2007 assess the concept of interactivity and argue that audience involvement is not limited to clicking on sites. It is an integral part of the realization of the medium’s potential.

                                                        • Biocca, Frank. A. 1988. Opposing conceptions of the audience: The active and passive hemispheres of mass communication theory. In Communication yearbook. Vol. 11. Edited by James. A. Anderson, 51–81. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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                                                          The active-audience concept is not so central to contemporary study of mass communication that it is without its problems. This influential critical article notes the ease with which researchers can overstate the intentionality of audience behavior and leave little room for the sociological forces that influence us every day.

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                                                          • Bucy, Erik P., and Tao, Chen-Chao. 2007. The mediated moderation model of interactivity. Media Psychology 9:647–672.

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                                                            The concept of interactivity is central to the study of newer media. Unfortunately, the concept has many meanings. This update to continuing debate about interactivity provides a pithy review of the literature and a useful set of recommendations for future research.

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                                                            • Krugman, Herbert E. 1965. The impact of television advertising: Learning without involvement. Public Opinion Quarterly 29:349–356.

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                                                              It is perhaps a straw-man used to represent the passive audience perspective, but Krugman’s article is famous for having argued that people are often notably inactive in their use of the media. They allow messages to wash over them without exerting much effort at interpretation or resistance.

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                                                              • Levy, Mark R., and Sven Windahl. 1984. Audience activity and gratifications: A conceptual clarification and exploration. Communication Research 11:51–78.

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                                                                As interest in the active audience orientation grew with uses and gratifications research, the ubiquity of the term threatened to leave it with little meaning. This oft-cited article outlines a framework for conceptualizing how audiences choose mediated content, process messages, and integrate meanings within their lives.

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                                                                • McDonald, Daniel G., and Carroll J. Glynn. 1984. The stability of media gratifications. Journalism Quarterly 61.3: 542–549, 741.

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                                                                  The concept of audience activity can be argued to suggest that people are always adjusting their media use to changing circumstances, social and mediated. The evidence suggests, however, that some media-use motives are very stable over time.

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                                                                  • Perse, Elizabeth. 1990. Audience selectivity and involvement in the newer media environment. Communication Research 17:675–697.

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                                                                    Applies the instrumental-ritualistic model of television viewing motivations to audience selection of content in a multichannel environment. The results suggest that people develop and rely on motivations that are similar to what they use in more limited television systems.

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                                                                    •  Rubin, Alan. M. 1984. Ritualized and instrumental television viewing. Journal of Communication 34.3: 67–77.

                                                                      DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1984.tb02174.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                      Rubin suggests that many of the reasons people have for media selection can be considered instrumental uses. Nonetheless, he argued that much media exposure is rather ritualized. The question for subsequent research has been to conceptualize ritual in the context of the newer media of cable/satellite television and the Internet.

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                                                                      Selective Exposure to Information

                                                                      As a general rule of thumb, the more selective people are in their medium and message choices, the more likely it is they will encounter content that other people do not. Such a result is the basis of fragmentation. Of course, that rule of thumb is built on the assumptions that different people have different interests and that these differences correspond to discernable distinctions among media and messages. The selective exposure concept is an old one with a checkered past, but there are number of general principles that are useful for the study of fragmentation. Selective exposure has made something of a comeback in research on contemporary media.

                                                                      General Principles

                                                                      Within the communication field, selective exposure gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s in reaction to research that showed little effect of seemingly powerful messages. Bauer 1964 describes some of that reaction and points to audience activity as an important explanation of null findings. Selective exposure research followed from conclusions such as these. To the surprise of some researchers, selective exposure was sometimes difficult to observe. Sears and Freedman 1967 presents an influential argument that perhaps people were not as selective as the field thought. Attention to the concept waned as communication turned to uses and gratifications as the home of the active audience approach. As part of that work, Atkin 1973 argues that the selective exposure approach has been too narrow. People feel uncertainty about a range of things, and the actions they take to reduce it can take many forms. Research in psychology, upon which selective exposure theory was originally based, continued to make strides in identifying selectivity processes. Frey 1986 summarizes some of those advances, pointing to the viability of cognitive dissonance as a selectivity motivator. At the same time, multichannel television focused attention on how audiences choose among more numerous options, a topic neatly gathered and presented by Zillman and Bryant 1985. As attention to the cable television and the Internet waxed in the late 1990s and 2000s, researchers again took up selective exposure as a central concept. Contemporary studies of selective exposure examine a range of selectivity motivators. D’Alessio and Allen 2007 uses a meta-analysis to aggregate work that focuses on selectivity prompted by attitude defense. Knobloch-Westerwick, et al. 2008 applies a combination of theories in their analysis of race as a basis for selectivity. Harkening back to the 1960s, researchers continue to probe the limits of selective exposure. Valentino, et al. 2009 reminds the field that sometimes people want balance and eschew biased selection.

                                                                      • Atkin, Charles 1973. Instrumental utilities and information seeking. In New models of communication research. Edited by Peter Clarke, 205–242. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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                                                                        People select media for reasons. This is not a shocking proclamation, but it deserves an underscoring in research on how people react to crowded media environments. The rather functional model presented here focuses on uncertainty reduction as a primary goal in news-seeking behavior.

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                                                                        • Bauer, Raymond A. 1964. The obstinate audience: The influence process from the point of view of social communication. American Psychologist 19:319–328.

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                                                                          The use of “obstinate” to describe audiences of propaganda and other communication is an indication of the shock some researchers had in response to the notion that people were not as vulnerable to messages as they had assumed. This article provides a well-reasoned defense of audience activity as an important principle.

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                                                                          • D’Alessio, Dave, and Mike Allen. 2007. The selective exposure hypothesis and media choice processes. In Mass media effects research: advances through meta-analysis. Edited by Raymond W. Preiss, Barbara Mae Gayle, Nancy Burrell, Mike Allen, and Jennings Bryant, 103–118. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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                                                                            A meta-analysis of selective exposure studies finds evidence that people will tend to choose messages that correspond with their preexisting attitudes. The underlying studies here are only somewhat related to media choice, but this chapter helps communication researchers get past the notion that people are not selective.

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                                                                            • Frey, Dieter. 1986. Recent research on selective exposure to information. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 19. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 41–80. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

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                                                                              From many years after the Sears and Freedman 1967 critique of selective exposure, researchers considered it an empirical dead end. Frey’s review of developments in research in cognitive dissonance research breathed new life into the topic. Not everyone uses cognitive dissonance in selective exposure research, but it remains a powerful heuristic for theory.

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                                                                              • Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia, Osei Appiah, and Scott Alter. 2008. News selection patterns as a function of race: The discerning minority and indiscriminating majority. Media Psychology 11:400–417.

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                                                                                The majority of work in selective exposure has focused on audience reaction to information that supports or challenges their attitudes. This complement to that work suggests that the race of news site users may operate similarly. This is good news to site developers who want to segment news along demographic lines.

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                                                                                • Sears, David O., and Jonathan L. Freedman. 1967. Selective exposure to information: A critical review. Public Opinion Quarterly 31.2: 194–213.

                                                                                  DOI: 10.1086/267513Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                  In response to burgeoning interest in selective exposure in the 1950s and 1960s, the authors argue that there is surprisingly little evidence that people avoid information to protect their preexisting attitudes. This was taken by some to be a death sentence for this area, but the authors offer some useful avenues for research.

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                                                                                  • Valentino, Nicholas A., Antoine J. Banks, Vincent L. Hutchings, and Anne K. Davis. 2009. Selective exposure in the Internet age: The interaction between anxiety and information utility. Political Psychology 30:591–613.

                                                                                    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2009.00716.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                    In contemporary research on fragmentation and polarization, news selectivity is often assumed to be the norm. This study of the interplay between affect and cognition in news selection identifies a number of circumstances when ideologically balanced news selection is most likely. This is a useful reminder to the field.

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                                                                                    • Zillman, Dolf, and Jennings Bryant, eds. 1985. Selective exposure to communication. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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                                                                                      The early 1980s in America was a period of swift growth in cable television access and channel proliferation. This very timely edited work provides a useful overview of selective exposure research. Particularly helpful are chapters examining how television audiences develop viewing patterns and react to the need to make choices.

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                                                                                      Selective Exposure in Contemporary Media

                                                                                      Armed with selective exposure theories, communication researchers have observed a substantial level of selectivity in the high-bandwidth media. Looking at cable television and the Internet, Iyengar and Hahn 2009 shows strong ideological selectivity, a finding reinforced by Best, et al. 2005 with respect to news site selection. Nie, et al. 2010 specifies that relationship a bit more tightly, noting the polarizing potential of online media in contrast to cable television. Online news selectivity appears to operate at the level of attitude consistency, a point made by Knobloch-Westerwick and Meng 2009. There is plenty of selectivity outside the world of politics, of course. Knobloch-Westerwick, et al. 2005 reports that online news readers will use popularity indicators left by other news readers as considerations in their news selection. In sum, there is ample evidence of selective behavior on the part of news audiences online. Bennett and Iyengar 2008 speculates on the effects of that selectivity on communication theory and the health of democratic societies.

                                                                                      • Bennett, W. Lance, and Iyengar, Shanto. 2008. A new era of minimal effects? The changing foundations of political communication. Journal of Communication 58.4: 707–731.

                                                                                        DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.00410.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                        This review article sparked some controversy with the suggestion that new technologies have voided many of the basic theories of political communication research. Prominent among the suggested changes facilitated by the new media is partisan selective exposure. Selectivity has encouraged ideological polarization and a reduction in the power of media messages to inform and persuade.

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                                                                                        • Best, Samuel J., Brian Chmielewski, and Brian S. Krueger. 2005. Selective exposure to online foreign news during the conflict with Iraq. International Journal of Press/Politics 10.4: 52–70.

                                                                                          DOI: 10.1177/1081180X05281692Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                          Perhaps the least studied form of online news selectivity is the process by which people choose news outlets to visit. This survey study fills some of the gap by showing a relationship between political attitudes and the nature of the news outlet people visited for early Iraq war news.

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                                                                                          • Iyengar, Shanto, and Kyu S. Hahn. 2009. Red media, blue media: Evidence of ideological selectivity in media use. Journal of Communication 59.1: 19–39.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2008.01402.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            In a crossover application of selective exposure within both mainstream and Internet-base news, this study finds that ideological predispositions guide the selection of news from identifiable news outlets. Predictably, conservatives and Republicans avoid CNN and National Public Radio; liberals and Democrats avoid Fox News. The focus on avoidance is a nice feature of this study.

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                                                                                            • Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia., Nikhil Sharma, Derek L. Hansen, and Scott Alter. 2005. Impact of popularity indications on readers’ selective exposure to online news. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 49:296–313.

                                                                                              DOI: 10.1207/s15506878jobem4903_3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                              News audience research operates under the assumption that news audiences partially rely on cues in the information environment when they decide what news to consume. Online news sites provide relatively unique cues, among them the perceptions of other readers. People care what other people like.

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                                                                                              • Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia, and Jingbo Meng. 2009. Looking the other way: Selective exposure to attitude-consistent and counterattitudinal political information. Communication Research 36:426–448.

                                                                                                DOI: 10.1177/0093650209333030Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                Working within the context of issue opinion, this study notes the tendency for people to let their attitudes guide news selection operated as partial function of time. Initial news selections are relatively balanced. Later selections become more polarized.

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                                                                                                • Nie, Norman H., Darwin W. Miller III, Saar Golde, Daniel M. Butler, and Kenneth Winneg. 2010. The World Wide Web and the U.S. political news market. American Journal of Political Science 54.2: 428–439.

                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00439.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                  The conjunction of media diversity and audience selectivity leads to the prediction that people who take advantage of content segmentation will be those who are most politically polarized. This is relatively obvious, but the data to test it have not been available until now. The results of this study confirm moderate polarization of audiences.

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                                                                                                  Fragmentation in Action

                                                                                                  Under the broad umbrella of research in fragmentation, researchers have studied a number of phenomena. They can be grouped into a few general categories. The first is a set of direct studies of the extent to which people are moving away from attending to general media outlets to seeking out more specialized ones. If people are moving in that direction, what are the implications for a populace’s shared beliefs, attitudes, and culture? The evidence of segmentation and information gaps suggests that consequential divisions will grow between segments of society. In addition, a shared sense of the issues facing a populace should fall by the wayside as a result of a fragmentation of agendas. Of course, there are forces in society and media that will place limits to fragmentation; this will tend to maintain some level of homogeneity in societies. Each of these issues is presented in turn in the subsections below.

                                                                                                  Evidence

                                                                                                  News audiences can be selective consumers through their choice of media, outlets, and news topics. The arrival of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s was followed by predictions that the new medium would attract audiences away from the existing media, eventually running them out of business. Empirical studies of such a displacement process have produced mixed results, but there are signs that the Internet has replaced some traditional media use. Ahlers 2006 suggests that media displacement has been modest and appears likely to remain that way for some time. De Waal and Schoenbach 2010 finds some evidence of media displacement and a maturing of Internet users as they and the medium develop new patterns. A different sort of displacement is occurring in both television and online as people take advantage of content proliferation in these media. Webster 2005 shows how television audiences have become distributed across more channels than before but have not yet made the leap to full channel loyalty. Prior 2007 suggests that Americans who prefer entertainment over news are best able to direct their exposure—and avoid the news—when they have access to high-bandwidth media. Hollander 2008 also notes the movement of people away from news exposure and adds that the remaining news audience is more politically polarized than before. The propensity of audiences to focus their exposure on specific sites and content are highlighted in Kalyanaraman and Sundar 2006 and Tewksbury 2005.

                                                                                                  • Ahlers, Douglas. 2006. News consumption and the new electronic media. International Journal of Press/Politics 11.1: 29–52.

                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1177/1081180X05284317Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                    Observing the displacement of one medium by another has proved surprisingly elusive. Incorporating a range of data, this study finds evidence of only limited movement of audiences from the offline news media to the Internet. If displacement is happening, it has been relatively gradual.

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                                                                                                    • De Waal, Ester, and Klaus Schoenbach. 2010. News sites’ position in the mediascape: Uses, evaluations, and media displacement effects over time. New Media & Society 12:477–496.

                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1177/1461444809341859Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                      This analysis of panel survey data from the Netherlands demonstrates that news is a durable commodity, even as the places where people obtain it shift. The results reveal some evidence of a maturation process among Web users. Print-news audiences appear to move to online newspaper sites and thence to non-newspaper sites.

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                                                                                                      • Hollander, Barry A. 2008. Tuning out or tuning elsewhere? Partisanship, polarization, and media migration from 1998 to 2006. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 85:23–40.

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                                                                                                        Looking across an eight-year period, this study finds ample evidence that the high-choice media environment of today has allowed (or encouraged) people with little interest in politics to migrate away from news exposure. Those left behind by that migration attend increasingly to partisan news outlets. Political chaos ensues.

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                                                                                                        • Kalyanaraman, Sriram, and S. Shyam Sundar. 2006. The psychological appeal of personalized content in web portals: Does customization affect attitudes and behavior? Journal of Communication 56:110–132.

                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2006.00006.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                          Customization features of Web portals allow people to preselect the content they wish to receive. The suggestion that people may limit their exposure to other sites, as a result of customizing a portal, is supported in this study. In effect, people systemize their specialization through site-customization features.

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                                                                                                          • Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-broadcast democracy: How media choice increases inequality in political involvement and polarizes elections. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                            If people did not have to watch or read the news, would they? According to the Conditional Political Learning model, only some would. Multichannel television and the Internet allow people with little interest in news to avoid it. As a result, they know less about politics and are less likely to vote.

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                                                                                                            • Tewksbury, David. 2005. The seeds of audience fragmentation: Specialization in the use of online news sites. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 49:332–340.

                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1207/s15506878jobem4903_5Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                              The division of online audiences into separate groups is facilitated by their selection of sites that cater to their interests. This analysis of news site traffic data shows that major news sites have distinct audience profiles. Thus, people appear to choose news sites with expectations about what they will find there.

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                                                                                                              • Webster, James G. 2005. Beneath the veneer of fragmentation: Television audience polarization in a multichannel world. Journal of Communication 55:366–382.

                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb02677.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                The polarization to which Webster refers here is a type of segmentation of the television audience. When faced with many content options, people can sample widely or they can limit their exposure to meet specific needs. The data here suggest that audiences are somewhat loyal to channels, but segmentation is not yet widespread.

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                                                                                                                Segmentation and Information Gaps

                                                                                                                Part of the issue of fragmentation in modern societies is a question of whether knowledge about social and politically important things will be randomly distributed in a population or will be separated into specific segments. The starting point is predicting what people will do with choice is identifying what the members of the population choose when given options. Kim 2007 suggests that people develop rather strong attachments to topics and issues and often focus their information gathering on them, to the possible exclusion of other content. Webster 2005 shows how this operates in television-channel selection. The developing segmentation of audiences into clusters of people with similar exposure patterns recalls an enduring concern communication researchers have with the tendency for the information-rich to get richer in a high-information environment. The knowledge-gap hypothesis, as this is called, was introduced by Tichenor, et al. 1970. For the study of audience fragmentation, it provides empirical support to the idea that what people know about a topic is partially determined by the media choices they have and how they react to them. Delli Carpini and Keeter 2002 adapts the knowledge-gap hypothesis to the Internet and connects it with political persuasion. Hardy and Scheufele 2005 makes a related argument, finding that political gains from using the Internet depend, in part, on interpersonal conversations. Of course, not everyone has access to high-choice environments, an issue that is called the Digital Divide. Compaine 2001 presents the basic issues concerning the divide and includes some nuanced arguments that the most important divides are found in the various ways in which people use the medium. Those differences are possible foundations for segmentation in a populace.

                                                                                                                • Compaine, Benjamin M., ed. 2001. The digital divide: Facing a crisis or creating a myth? Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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                                                                                                                  The chapters in this edited volume note the width of the Internet access divide in 2001 but offer a number of more subtle interpretations of the meaning of access. A point made by several authors is that having access does not mean the same thing for everyone.

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                                                                                                                  • Delli Carpini, Michael X., and Scott Keeter. 2002. The Internet and an informed citizenry. In The civic web: Online politics and democratic values. Edited by David M. Anderson and Michael Cornfield, 129–156. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

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                                                                                                                    Succinct discussion of the character of political knowledge in America and how it connects with political behavior. The authors suggest how audience fragmentation through Internet news gathering may affect the distribution of political knowledge and exacerbate existing knowledge gaps.

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                                                                                                                    • Hardy, Bruce.W., and Dietram A. Scheufele. 2005. Examining differential gains from Internet use: Comparing the moderating role of talk and online interactions. Journal of Communication 55:71–84.

                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb02659.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                      One way of conceptualizing audience gaps is in terms of the factors that turn public affairs news consumption into political participation. This study suggests that interpersonal conversation, long known to be a key component of participation, functions to facilitate the transformation of online news gathering to active citizenship.

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                                                                                                                      • Kim, Young Mie. 2007. How intrinsic and extrinsic motivations interact in selectivity: Investigating the moderating effects of situational information processing goals in issue publics’ Web behavior. Communication Research 34.2: 185–211.

                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1177/0093650206298069Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                        Leading a minor resurgence of interest in the issue-public concept, this article reports that citizens’ intrinsic interest in issues can drive their Web use. This suggests that the presence of focused content sites may, in certain circumstance, facilitate knowledge gaps between the issue publics and other citizens.

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                                                                                                                        • Tichenor, Phillip. J., George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien. 1970. Mass media and differential growth in knowledge. Public Opinion Quarterly 34:158–170.

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                                                                                                                          The concept of the knowledge gap was introduced in this seminal article. Examining the effect of education on what people know about well-publicized topics, the study demonstrates that people with higher education tend to acquire more information than other people.

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                                                                                                                          • Webster, James G. 2005. Beneath the veneer of fragmentation: Television audience polarization in a multichannel world. Journal of Communication 55:366–382.

                                                                                                                            DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb02677.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                            US audience exposure data show that people in a multichannel television environment spread their viewing over a number of channels, but there are also signs of segmentation (called polarization here). Some channels attract rather loyal audiences who limit their viewing to those channels, but the phenomenon is not widespread in television.

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                                                                                                                            Fragmentation of Agendas

                                                                                                                            One potential outcome of audience fragmentation is diversity in the public agenda. If citizens are all attending to different content in the media, they will be less likely to know and care about the same things. Researchers have approached this topic by looking at the agenda of the media in the contemporary environment and at how audience use of the newer media may weaken the unity of the public agenda. A commonly heard prediction is that the diversity of content producers on the Internet will result in incoherent news agendas on that medium. The data do not yet provide much evidence of that. Quandt 2008 suggests that the basic characteristics of news online are not that different from what one finds in the traditional media, a level of agenda continuity reflected in Lee 2007’s comparison of online blog and mainstream media news online. Similarly, Lim 2006 reports agenda stability over time online. Boczkowski 2009 provides one possible explanation for similarity between news sites online in his analysis of imitation between Internet news providers. Winsvold 2007 adds that the growing number of non-news sources of information online can help to maintain some homogeneity. If the news that appears on the Internet presents a relatively consistent agenda, is that what news audiences will take away with them? The few studies in this area suggest that they may not. Heeter, et al. 1989 provided an early look at how news audiences react to computerized news delivery, setting the stage for later studies of agenda breakdown. Althaus and Tewksbury 2002 examines use of one site on the Internet and concludes that when people have more control over their news consumption, their conformity to the media agenda can weaken. Schoenbach, et al. 2005 updates that finding with the observation that not all news audiences are the same. Individual factors, such as education, can moderate the effect that the news medium has on agenda setting.

                                                                                                                            • Althaus, Scott L., and David Tewksbury. 2002. Agenda setting and the “new” news: patterns of issue importance among readers of the paper and online versions of the New York Times. Communication Research 29.2: 180–207.

                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1177/0093650202029002004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                              Early in the development of the World Wide Web, online news sites were rather spare. They imparted little information about news importance to guide readers. Perhaps as a result, this experiment found that online news readers saw issue importance differently than did print readers.

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                                                                                                                              • Boczkowski, Pablo J. 2009. Technology, monitoring, and imitation in contemporary news work. Communication, Culture, & Critique 2.1: 39–59.

                                                                                                                                DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2008.01028.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                Rather than leading to news agenda diversity, journalists’ use of technology may increase homogeneity. That is the somewhat provocative argument in this article. An ethnographic analysis of journalists in Argentina reveals that the technologies in the newsroom facilitate interorganizational monitoring, potentially increasing agenda interdependence.

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                                                                                                                                • Heeter, Carrie, Natalie Brown, Stan Soffin, Cynthia Stanley, and Michael Salwen. 1989. Agenda-setting by electronic text news. Journalism Quarterly 66:101–106.

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                                                                                                                                  Before the Internet reached public awareness, there was videotex. Computer-based data services featured rudimentary electronic newspapers. This seminal study found little evidence of unique agendas emerging for users of such services.

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                                                                                                                                  • Lee, Jae Kook. 2007. The effect of the internet on homogeneity of the media agenda: A test of the fragmentation thesis. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 84.4: 745–760.

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                                                                                                                                    A frequently heard concern is that the proliferation of weblogs and other independent sites may dilute the news agenda online. This content analysis of political blogs and mainstream news sites during the 2004 American presidential election finds signs of agenda homogeneity, suggesting that agenda diversity is not a certainty.

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                                                                                                                                    • Lim, Jeongsub. 2006. A cross-lagged analysis of agenda setting among online news media. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 83:298–312.

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                                                                                                                                      Researchers have assumed that mainstream news outlets jointly build the news agenda. This intermedia agenda setting has been partly responsible for the stability and internal consistency of the agenda. This study extends the intermedia agenda concept to online outlets and finds that many of the traditional patterns prevail; agenda stability is possible online.

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                                                                                                                                      • Quandt, Thorsten. 2008. (No) news on the World Wide Web? A comparative content analysis of online news in Europe and the United States. Journalism Studies 9.5: 717–738.

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                                                                                                                                        Mass communication researchers are caught up in a debate about whether news on the Internet is all that different from news in the traditional media. This content analysis of news sites in France, Germany, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom suggests that most of the characteristics of offline news content have continued online.

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                                                                                                                                        • Schoenbach, Klaus, Ester de Waal, and Edmund Lauf. 2005. Online and print newspapers: Their impact on the extent of the perceived public agenda. European Journal of Communication 20:245–258.

                                                                                                                                          DOI: 10.1177/0267323105052300Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                          Agenda diversity is often the standard by which researchers pass normative judgment on the media and audiences. This comparison of users of print and online newspapers in the Netherlands reveals few differences in agenda diversity. Audience education level makes a difference, though. Among less educated citizens, print newspapers appear to foster wider public agendas.

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                                                                                                                                          • Winsvold, Marte. 2007. Municipal websites in the local public debate: Supplying facts or setting agendas? Nordicom Review 28.2: 7–23.

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                                                                                                                                            When the gatekeeping power of the journalist wanes, some forces can maintain agenda homogeneity. A study of the influence of Norwegian municipal websites shows that both citizens and local media rely on the sites for information and, indirectly, the policy agenda.

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                                                                                                                                            Limits

                                                                                                                                            Outlet proliferation, seemingly inexorable audience activity, and strong tendencies toward selective exposure all suggest that audience-initiated fragmentation is inevitable. Not everyone agrees with this assessment, however. Dutta-Bergman 2004 shows that the news people seek offline is very similar to what they seek online. Webster and Lin 2002 offers a similar assessment of how people use the Internet. It looks a lot like the way in which they use the traditional media. Schoenbach and Lauf 2004 shows that television still has the power to inform mass audiences, a power Tewksbury, et al. 2001 suggests may also reside in elements of the World Wide Web. More recently, Wise, et al. 2008 reports an inherent learning advantage for news selection among many options, an outcome that favors acquiring news online. Mutz and Martin 2001 show that even the relatively high-bandwidth environment of today exposes people to diverse content. If they were suddenly bereft of the media, most people would be much more fragmented and polarized than they are today. That is a comforting perspective.

                                                                                                                                            • Dutta-Bergman, Mohan J. 2004. Complementarity in consumption of news types across traditional and new media. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 48:41–60.

                                                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1207/s15506878jobem4801_3Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                              The extent to which news audiences are selective can be assessed in terms of medium, outlet, and topic selectivity. This study observes that people tend to be fairly consistent in their topic preferences, crossing from traditional courses to online in search of the topics they desire.

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                                                                                                                                              • Mutz, Diana, and Paul S. Martin. 2001. Facilitating communication across lines of political difference: The role of the mass media. American Political Science Review 95.1: 97–114.

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                                                                                                                                                As much as the contemporary media environment encourages segmentation of audiences into narrow units, media exposure exhibits more diversity of opinion perspective than do interpersonal conversations. Much as television before cable was a homogenizer relative to the newspaper market, the media in general remain relatively diverse for many people.

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                                                                                                                                                • Schoenbach, Klaus, and Edmund Lauf. 2004. Another look at the “trap” effect of television—and beyond. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 16:169–182.

                                                                                                                                                  DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/16.2.169Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                  One of the most wide-ranging effects of television is the “trap” effect—the tendency for those with little interest in politics to acquire information about it, nonetheless. This analysis of the impact of media exposure and vote turnout in Europe and the United States shows that television still has the power to affect voter behaviors.

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                                                                                                                                                  • Tewksbury, David, Andrew Weaver, and Brett Maddex. 2001. Accidentally informed: Incidental news exposure on the World Wide Web. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 78.3: 533–554.

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                                                                                                                                                    Not all news exposure is purposive and selective. US survey data show that some news exposure on the Internet is accidental, and that such incidental consumption can affect how much citizens know about politics. There is a limit to wholesale fragmentation and polarization of knowledge.

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                                                                                                                                                    • Webster, James. G., and Shu-Fang Lin. 2002. The Internet audience: Web use as mass behavior. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 46:1–12.

                                                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1207/s15506878jobem4601_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                      Looking at website use, these authors argue that Internet users behave more like audiences of the traditional media than most observers predict. There is substantial overlap of site selection across the medium, suggesting that the era of mass communication is not entirely over.

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                                                                                                                                                      • Wise, Kevin, Paul D. Bolls, and Samantha Schaefer. 2008. Choosing and reading online news: How available choice affects cognitive processing. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 52.1: 69–85.

                                                                                                                                                        DOI: 10.1080/08838150701820858Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                                                        One potential contributor to fragmentation is the amount that people learn from the media. This study suggests that when audiences choose news articles from among a number of options, they pay more attention to the news. As a result, multiplying new media options may not lower overall learning among news audiences.

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