Relevance in the News: The Scale of Self-Reference

How do people determine whether news is relevant? They key may be in the personal descriptors they use to talk about themselves

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinJohn VoiklisDarcey GlasserJohn Fraser
Nov 5, 2020

According to both professional journalists and news users, news should be relevant. Most prior research has focused on how journalists make judgments about relevance. But relevance is not a property of a topic or a story; it’s found in the relationship between that topic or story and a person. So we ask: how do news users determine if news is relevant to them? We published a paper in the Journal of Pragmatics that explores this question.

We use the term “news users” rather than “audiences” to highlight the diversity of ways people engage with news: they may not simply receive news but also play a role in sharing, interpreting, and creating news. To understand what relevance means to news users, we asked people to explain why they found particular stories relevant or irrelevant, and examined their responses from a linguistic perspective that focused on use of pronouns (e.g. "I" or "we" or "anyone").

Key Findings

By using this language-centered approach to open-ended survey data, we found a link between individuals’ perceptions of story relevance and how they refer to themselves. News users who referred to themselves as members of a larger collective or group in their written answers, rather than referring to themselves using individual pronouns, were more likely to say they found a news story relevant.

Similarly, respondents who used individual pronouns (e.g. “I”) were more likely to judge a news story as irrelevant. Respondents who saw different stories judged them relevant at different rates, and the patterns we observed across stories bolster the view of news relevance as co-constructed by journalists and news users, rather than inherent to the story topic.

As a result of our study we suggest the following working definition of relevance, which starts from the news user’s perspective:

“A news report is relevant if a news user treats it as impacting the everyday experiences or interactions of either that individual or a larger collectivity of which they describe themself as a member.”

Let’s put it to work

For researchers, our study sheds light into how news users consider story relevance.

It also raises additional questions. What types of larger collectivities do people describe themselves as members of, in general? And what kinds of categories do they use to assess news story relevance, specifically?

Our findings also support the value of applying language-centered methods to textual data collected through online surveys. Since survey data sometimes receives criticism for failing to include the context needed to understand the written data, we suggest that our approach may reintroduce some of the nuance and complexity. It can even highlight regularities that may have gone previously unnoticed.

For journalists hoping to inform a broad cross-section of society, our results make it clear that they cannot hope to produce stories that are relevant to all news users, nor can they assume that relevance is fully within their control. In particular, simple mappings of topics to types of people cannot take into account the varying scales of social life that inform people’s judgments about relevance.

Instead, journalists must make explicit connections to as broad a variety of possible points of relevance as is practical. In this context, better understanding of the ways people categorize themselves might help journalists determine which points of relevance to highlight. Our findings also suggest the need for additional ethnographic research on how people talk about news stories, how they determine the relevance of news in a range of contexts, and how they make sense of news in their daily lives.

About this Study

The data analyzed for this paper were collected with support from the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 15163471 and the National Institutes of Health under Grant No. #1R25OD0202212-01A1. Access the full data set here.

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

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