Should journalists focus on attentive publics?

15 Sep

“The general public” is mostly a fiction except in cases of immediate and clear danger. Then we all pay attention. Otherwise, information targeted to an ill-defined audience only sporadically reaches its target.

However, if we assume the attitude of a PR or advertising manager and transform our conception of the ‘public’ into target audiences, we will have lost the essence of public service. The ‘public’ will be an object and not a partner.

Instead, it seems the challenge is to identify like-minded publics who share values and goals and work with them to serve their information needs. The journalist can be a hub in the network, facilitating publics who can benefit from interaction, knowledge sharing, empathy and partnerships.

For example, it’s clear that many people in Reno are not interested in homelessness. But some are: the homeless themselves, of course, social service workers, businesses in areas where homeless hang out, the police, hospitals, the families of the homeless. What information would make their lives easier or safer or more healthy? What information might reduce risks and waste and exploitation? Who might benefit from improvements in how information is collected, organized and shared?

If journalists developed products and services that met a genuine need within this network, it is likely that information about the homeless would then circulate even among those who are less attentive to the problem. Through the strength of weak ties and the dynamics of networks, focusing on those who attend to a particular problem could have the counter-intuitive result of actually spreading information more widely in more meaningful ways over the long term.

How we approach each group will be different. For some people, we need to listen to their stories. For some, we need to ask specific questions. Others we can watch and observe. In all cases we need a reservoir of examples, questions and prompts to elicit the ideas that will generate the most useful innovations.

Excerpt from graphic in the Knight Foundation report on the Information Needs of Communities

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