Audience Selectivity: Uses-and-gratifications and selective exposure

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Audience selectivity is an area of research that looks to explain the reason that people make the media use choices that they do. The two dominant approaches, uses-and-gratifications and selective exposure, share a perspective shift from other types of media research — they focus, not on what the media does to audiences, but on what audiences do with the media (Rubin 2009, 168; Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 320); however, the two approaches to selectivity research hold incompatible perspectives on collecting and interpreting data.

The shift to audience-centered research requires a psychological perspective (Camaj 2019, 1), and for the models to consider the factors that influence selectivity “within the context of other influences” (Rubin 2009, 165). With these distinctions, selectivity research gains a more holistic understanding of the layers of intervening variables that guide and inform the selection process. Both approaches explain selection choices as being based on the needs and desires of the individual as moderated by psychological and social factors (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 320).

From these points of agreement, they diverge in ways with significant implications for data collection and validity. Uses-and-gratifications looks to explain the factors that influence an individual’s selection choices because audiences are active participants in both selecting and interpreting media. It further presumes that audiences are fully self-aware and able to accurately account for the selection-making process. This is important because uses and gratifications relies on self-reports as its principal form of data collection. If this assumption is wholly wrong, then the entire corpus of uses and gratifications studies is called into question. Selective exposure, however, argues the opposite; it assumes that audiences are “not fully aware of their selection motives” (Valkenburg, Peter, and Walther 2016, 320). Self-report data, then, is used minimally (Knobloch-Westerwick 2015, 8), which comes with the risk of discounting important data related to the selection experience. Instead, selective exposure researchers use behavioral observation in the hopes of collecting more objective measures (Knobloch-Westerwick 2015, 8). However, these methods bring their own issues because behavioral observation can be invasive, overt observations can alter or bias selection motives and choices, and observational studies — functionally — imply a reliance on laboratory contexts that may hamper generalizability. Being unable to study audiences in-situ, which would be observing media use and selection as it actually occurs and as it is influenced by differing contexts and environments, may undermine the implications and conclusions of selective exposure research. If you build up models and theories that can only explain selection in a laboratory context, then what have you gained — or more crucially, what have you missed?

The two branches of audience selectivity will persist until one or both of their limitations can be addressed. Setting aside philosophical implications regarding the mind and the impossibility of neutrality, in the practical sense the two branches of research cannot be unified until they are able to accurately qualify the limitations of self-reporting or to achieve designs of behavioral observation that demonstrably minimize intrusion while remaining ethically sound.

Literature reviewed
  • Camaj, Lindita. 2019. “Week 3: Media Audiences & Selectivity.” Notes. University of Houston. COMM 6317: Media Effects.
  • Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia. 2015. “Building Blocks of the Selective Exposure Paradigm.” In Choice and Preference in Media Use: Advances in Selective Exposure Theory and Research, 3 – 24. New York: Routledge.
  • Rubin, A. M. 2009. “Uses-and-Gratifications Perspective of Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 165 – 84. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
  • Valkenburg, Patti M., Jochen Peter, and Joseph B. Walther. 2016. “Media Effects: Theory and Research.” Annual Review of Psychology 67 (1): 315 – 38. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033608.

On media selectivity and the Uses-and-Gratifications perspective

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The thing that immediately stood out to me about Rubin’s discussion of Uses and Gratifications was the language. Uses and gratifications …what? Is it a perspective? Approach? Theory? It frequently goes unqualified, which seemed to be a deliberate affectation. I looked into it, and there seems to be some criticism or debate around the precise terminology, and this paper may be attempting to stay out of it. Apparently, U&G originally received criticism for being called a theory while not qualifying as one.

These are the types of things that I tend to notice when practicing “active reading,” where I approach a text as a conversation with the author (parasocial). I note questions and tangential thoughts that come to mind as I’m reading. Overall, this increases my engagement with a text, improves my recall and comprehension, and I find that it permits me to be more critical — in contrast to Kim & Rubin (1997) who classify skeptical responses as reducing comprehension. This is an area where I’m active by choice and utility, but my TV viewing has become active out of necessity and format.

I’m both a cord-cutter and a huge nerd, which I think makes me acutely aware of media selectivity, the intentions behind my media use, and desires that I pursue through that media use. I love science fiction (for its reality exploration) and educational television (value reinforcement; learning is fun) to the exclusion of most other types of TV content. Knowing that, it’s probably easy to see why I cut cable.

For me, primetime television was replaced, many years ago, with educational YouTube videos because they better met my cognitive and affective desires. With what happened to TLC, Discovery Channel and the History Channel, an entire genre was increasingly absent from cable TV; I missed it and resented its departure. I sought out educational content as much I could, selectively exposing myself content like Nova and Cosmos. When the last blocks of WW2 programming gave over to the History Channel’s paranormal and pawn shop crazes, I almost entirely ceased using television and video media for passive, ritualized, and diversionary viewing. Once YouTube dominated my use of the video medium, I had to be a much more active viewer. Partly because the content is short and I have to pick what to watch next, and partly because I have to fight to keep the algorithm trained to my preferences (avoidance: list videos and conspiracy theories).

The industry is finally catching up with this. I’m a big Star Trek fan, so I am watching Star Trek Discovery. Being the show that launched CBS’s online-only platform, it requires even more intent (and money) to watch. However, it provides me with fresh (affective) involvement in a fandom from my childhood. Involvement that doesn’t end with the episode itself; I also have to participate in the fan discussions (behavior involvement) over the course of days and weeks, because I enjoy the fan-created critical essays that dissect each moment, reference, and context as much as the show itself.

Literature reviewed
Knobloch-Westerwick, Silvia. 2015. “Building Blocks of the Selective Exposure Paradigm.” In Choice and Preference in Media Use: Advances in Selective Exposure Theory and Research, 3 – 24. New York: Routledge.
Oliver, B., and K. M. Krakowiak. 2009. “Individual Differences in Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 517 – 31. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.
Riles, Julius Matthew, Andrew Pilny, and David Tewksbury. 2018. “Media Fragmentation in the Context of Bounded Social Networks: How Far Can It Go?” New Media & Society 20 (4): 1415 – 32. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817696242.
Rubin, A. M. 2009. “Uses-and-Gratifications Perspective of Media Effects.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed, 165 – 84. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge.