Framework for audience fragmentation as a global phenomenon using India as a case study

The study “Rethinking Audience Fragmentation Using a Theory of News Reading Publics: Online India as a Case Study” by Subhayan Mukerjee from National University of Singapore used the case of online India to build a more inclusive theoretical framework for audience fragmentation studies that is not so Western-centric but extends to the Global South.

Audience behavior has been studied through the dual lenses of audience fragmentation and audience duplication. Audience fragmentation refers to the idea that people increasingly use media they only share with a group of like-minded audience members. 

Audience duplication, on the other hand, refers to the fact that while the audience for an outlet may seem small and circumscribed, many people use numerous different media and the audience of a single media consists of people of many persuasions.

This study aimed to fill the gap in there by building on the existing research on audience fragmentation by including India, the largest democracy in the World, on the discussion. India is not only an interesting case in itself but also relevant to the whole Global South. The study is the first to offer large-scale quantitative evidence on news consumption in the Global South. 

News consumption research has been linked to studies on audience fragmentation, as the increasing options for news sources have led to selection that has been fragmented in nature. The presumptive pattern is that there used to be an unified, shared media and the turn has been gradual toward fragmentation. This notion, however, is not applicable to developing countries. 

India, in particular, historically has had 20 official languages, low literacy rate leading to low newspaper readership, and lack of television in many households, so clearly the country has not had a shared media experience only later to be fragmented. 

Rather, the media market has been fragmented from the beginning. Thus, existing theories that rely on the gradual fragmentation framework are unable to explain India or developing countries.

Theoretically, this study relied on four strands of research. First, the Uses and Gratifications theory (UGT), which focuses on what people do with media. Second, Social Identity theory, which posits that the social category people fall to and feel they belong to defines who one is. Third, issue publics, used to study how people organize. Lastly, Cultural Proximity theory, which claims that people prefer culturally close news, such as indigenous news over Western news. 

Empirically, the study utilized a dataset from ComScore that tracked the desktop browsing behavior of over 50,000 users over a period of 45 months. The author built co-exposure or  audience overlap networks for every month and combined them into a single network. 

The analysis revealed that fragmentation was more prominent in the three southern states, where three South Indian languages had their own communities within the network. The communities were more distinct there. Likely due to the dominance of Hindi in the northern states, the fragmentation was lower there. The Keralite news reading public was also interestingly fractured in two.

The author suggests that conceptualizing news consumption through the lens of news reading publics is an inductive approach and not dependent on the context on which is applied, so that it can be used to study news consumption elsewhere in the world and the Global South. It can be presumed that similar fragmentation results occur in other multilingual countries. 

In countries where the public is divided on other lines than the language, more granular data is needed to identify the news reading publics. The audience might be divided along demographic lines or along ideological lines. 

The author notes that the dataset did not include mobile browsing data with cell phones, which is a limitation. The second limitation is that it is not certain whether the results are generalizable to offline formats like print and broadcast. Nevertheless, the results and the framework proposed are important contributions to the field.

The study  “Rethinking Audience Fragmentation Using a Theory of News Reading Publics: Online India as a Case Study” by Subhayan Mukerjee is in The International Journal of Press/Politics. (free abstract).

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