The Imagined Audience for News: Where Does a Journalist’s Perception of the Audience Come From?

Mark Coddington, Seth C. Lewis, Valerie Belair-Gagnon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


In public communication, in the absence of a clear sense of one’s actual audience, a communicator relies on a mental image of an imagined audience. But where does one’s image of the audience come from, and how might that matter for how people evaluate their audience? The case of journalists and their perceptions offers an instructive lens for examining this question, particularly given the digitally mediated changes in the way news audiences are known (e.g., via digital metrics and encounters on social media). Through a survey of U.S. journalists (N = 544), we find that journalists’ views of their audience spring from a complex variety of sources, including interactions via email, social media, and comment sections, as well as relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. These sources carry differing consequences for the evaluations of those audiences—namely, regarding whether journalists perceive their audience as smart (rational) and/or similar to them (homophilous). Results suggest that the origins of journalists’ imagined audiences are a significant factor in shaping journalists’ perception of the people with whom they are communicating, with the concomitant potential to influence the communication itself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1028-1046
Number of pages19
JournalJournalism Studies
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 26 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the second author?s Shirley Pap? Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. The authors thank Logan Molyneux, Avery Holton, and Rodrigo Zamith, who were part of the larger survey project involved with this study and helped shape this project in its early stages. We also thank Jacob L. Nelson, Jan Lauren Boyles, the research team at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and the journal?s anonymous reviewers, all of whom contributed insightful comments on previous drafts of this manuscript. Additionally, we appreciate Shannon McGregor?s helpful input on the analysis for this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Audience
  • audience perception
  • imagined audience
  • journalists
  • news
  • survey


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