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Faculty Spotlight: Stephanie Edgerly

IPR associate studies how audiences consume and engage with the news

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What I think makes the field of media really interesting is that everybody has personal experience with media.”

Stephanie Edgerly
Media scholar and IPR associate

 Stephanie Edgerly

As a child, Stephanie Edgerly remembers observing her mom engage in politics and current events through media outlets like the “Today” show, “The View,” and the National Enquirer. Edgerly, a media scholar and IPR associate, said while these outlets are considered “soft” news sources, they allowed her mom to have political discussions that might have only been accessible, at that time, to traditional newspaper readers.

“This really influenced the range of media that I like to consider when I ask questions about how do people understand the world around them [and] how do they understand current events,” Edgerly explained. “For me, that question has never been tied to only newspapers or network nightly news.”

In college, an ongoing conversation with her friends about whether the host of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart, was a journalist or not kept her thinking about how people consume media. The differences in her friends’ opinions brought up more questions for Edgerly about what types of media are labeled news.

Edgerly would go on to earn her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in mass communication and eventually make her way to Northwestern’s Medill School where she is an associate professor, director of research, and an award-winning scholar.

“What I think makes the field of media really interesting is that everybody has personal experience with media,” Edgerly said.  

Making Sense of the News

When news is mixed into the same venues where we find entertainment, like late night talk shows and social media, it can be difficult for audiences to determine what is—and is not—news. Edgerly’s research highlights how audiences see news as a hybrid between news and entertainment, and she has developed the concept of “news-ness,” or how audiences characterize content as news.

“Just because news and entertainment have mixed, does not mean the news label has lost importance,” she said. “Instead, it makes the labels we give media more open to interpretation.”

She points out that audiences' mixing of news and entertainment has the potential to be problematic as well as providing an opportunity to draw in new audiences. The danger, she says, is if an outlet provides poor quality or incorrect information to audiences, “you don't really want them paying attention.” But softer news sources also offer more approachable ways for people to learn about complex topics, which can include issues of public policy. 

The concept of “fake news,” or trying to discredit a real news story, is a perfect example, she says, of people grappling with defining news. The term, popularized by former President Trump, was used to diminish the power of what gets called news and to ignore news that didn’t align with a specific point of view.

“I absolutely think at the core of the fake news concept is what we understand to be news,” Edgerly said,

It is a question that will be important long after Trump’s presidency, she adds.

Unequal News Consumption

Learning how individuals are socialized to engage with news is critical to understanding the barriers to the news. Edgerly’s research finds roughly 50% of teenagers avoid the news, but another study gives a more nuanced picture of news consumption as adolescents grow older. Millennials with at least one college-educated parent are more likely than other young adults to seek out news. And growing up in a household that does not consume news can lead to unequal knowledge and civil engagement, Edgerly says, which may carry into adulthood.

“If news does not have a direct relationship to your job, to what you have to do that day, to the conversations you're going to have with your colleagues, it becomes a lot easier to forego it,” Edgerly said.

She finds about 20% of adults are considered “news avoiders.” These adults are also less likely to vote or participate in democracy in other ways.

Increasing media literacy is one way to address the knowledge gap that prevents some from consuming media, but another issue is the disconnect many people see between the news and their own lives. If people do not believe the media covers topics that impact them, they will not see any reason to read their reporting.

“The news industry [and] media organizations need to wrestle with what can they do to make it clear that they do address topics that impact your life,” Edgerly said. “Or, take a look in the mirror and ask if their organization is really doing that.”

Saving Local News

A growing concern for media scholars, news outlets, and communities is whether local journalism will survive as news budgets shrink, staff are cut, and advertising dwindles.

In a working paper with Owen Youngman, Medill professor emeritus, and IPR faculty adjunct Rachel Davis Mersey, Edgerly and her colleagues propose that local news outlets look to other communities around the country with a similar typology for new business ideas and ways to engage their readers. They argue, for example, that a newspaper in a college town in Pennsylvania could have more in common with one in similar-sized college town across the country, versus the newspaper in a neighboring town with an older population.

This is part of ongoing work through the Local News Initiative, a Medill collaboration focused on reinvigorating and sustaining local news. They will continue to study local news markets and eventually share more customized marketing strategies with news outlets. Edgerly says that considering the state of local news, outlets do not have time to try everything and see what works.

“We need to be a little bit smarter about the recommendations that we're giving to local news because they don't have a very long runway,” she argued.

Stephanie Edgerly is an associate professor of journalism and an IPR associate. 

Photo credit: Eileen Molony

Published: February 26, 2021.