Reviewed by Fabian Prochazka
Journalism is just one of many things on offer in the digital public sphere. User-generated content sticks to news like limpets on a ship’s hull: It is a rare article that finds readers without comments, ›likes,‹ or a friendly recommendation in the family WhatsApp group. But how does this ›metacommunication‹ shape the way recipients assess quality? How is our perception of journalism affected when it is constantly presented to us together with the opinions of other people? These are the questions that Jennifer Wladarsch’s book, based on the dissertation she wrote at LMU Munich, attempts to answer.
Wladarsch defines metacommunication as »communication that makes communication a topic in itself« (100). It can be descriptive or evaluative (with or without value judgement) and can originate in a journalistic service (supply-side) or be applied to journalism from outside (third party). Supply-side metacommunication includes, for example, media brands, background information on the article, or biographical information on journalists. Third-party metacommunication may include user comments, numerical popularity indicators like likes and shares, or conversations about media. The theoretical section is one of the work’s major merits, as Wladarsch introduces an overarching concept that is independent of technical (new) developments and can thus bring further forms of metacommunication together under one umbrella in the future, too. Despite this, it would have been useful for the theoretical section to include a systematic roundup of examples, in order to demonstrate more clearly what exactly counts as metacommunication and what does not.
Wladarsch uses five components to organize the quality assessments of the recipients systematically: value judgement subject (who is making the assessment?), value judgement object (what is being assessed?), value (which criteria are used for the assessment?), value rating (how is it assessed?), and expectation (which assessment was expected previously?). This classification is useful, as it shines a spotlight on how quality judgements depend on the observer, without resorting to the trivial finding that quality lies in the eye of the beholder. Instead, Wladarsch succeeds in demonstrating convincingly that different stakeholders make different judgements in different roles or situations, without this being ›right‹ or ›wrong.‹
The central research question is how metacommunication influences the way the recipients judge the quality of journalistic content, and is the focus of the third large theoretical chapter. Wladarsch summarizes a host of theoretical approaches here, enhancing them with empirical results from previous research. The hypotheses of schema theory are crucial to the effect of supply-side metacommunication: Metacommunication signals like media brand or department trigger certain schemas that shape the quality judgement. When it comes to the effect of third-party metacommunication, socio-psychological factors dominate the arguments: People’s quality judgements are swayed by the opinions and assessments of other people (their comments, likes etc.).
All in all, the theoretical section calls on almost everything that communication studies has to offer, with Wladarsch working her way through communication definition, system theory, the spiral of silence, filter bubbles, two-step flow, and even schema theory. This unfortunately means that the overarching thread is sometimes lost – in the third theoretical chapter in particular, it remains somewhat unclear what exactly the effect mechanisms are that she believes to be at work. This is not too much of a problem, however, as Wladarsch approaches the object empirically with qualitative guided interviews (not only one theory is tested).
Using the theory section as a foundation, the author develops four research questions to guide the interview study: 1) To what quality standards do users hold online journalistic services? 2) How much attention do they pay to metacommunication? 3) What role does metacommunication play in quality expectations? And 4) assessments of quality?
The qualitative approach the author takes is a breath of fresh air in this research field, which is so often dominated by experiments. Furthermore, the clever combination of methods promises new insights, with the guided data collection (32 interviews) being supplemented with media stimuli and thinking out loud. In the methods section, Wladarsch limits the investigation to user-side metacommunication, specifically user comments, post rankings, and numerical indicators of popularity (cf. 185). Focusing considerations on these elements is undoubtedly useful. However, it is inconsistent with the theoretical section: While metacommunication was defined very comprehensively and comprises a host of phenomena, the empirical section reduces it to just a few forms. A broader approach may have produced more exciting results here, and there would certainly have been space for them in the results section.
Only a few of the results of the study can be shown here. Reading comments appears to be little habituated and to depend strongly on topic interest and time factors. Young users who are online a lot and are highly interested in news are more likely to read the comments. However, the respondents showed little interest in aggregated popularity indicators (likes, most-read lists etc.) and appear to register them only in passing, if at all. Most commonly, the respondents stated that they look to the comments for reinforcement of their own opinion on the article. Comments therefore often have a confirmatory effect on existing quality assessments. Only in a few cases did respondents say that they had changed their opinion of an article based on comments. Interestingly, this applies mainly to people with a more open fundamental attitude.
Wladarsch finishes by developing a typology with six user types that differ predominantly in their news use and the way their quality judgments are impacted by metacommunication. The »independents,« for example, orientate their behavior significantly on professional services and largely ignore metacommunication, while »information seekers« observe the opinions and behaviors of other users intensely and join in discussions themselves. »Social bubble consumers« consume news predominantly on news channels that are personalized through algorithms and also base their quality judgment strongly on other people. This typology is another clear advantage of this work, demonstrating tangibly how heterogeneous modern news consumers are. At the end, the results are used to derive a few hypotheses that could be examined in further (quantitative) research.
The results are all fascinating and relevant, although at 70 pages the results section is somewhat limited compared to the theory and method (216 pages). Although the general news consumption and quality expectations of the respondents are covered in great detail, more could certainly have been extracted from the analysis of the central research questions on how metacommunication influences quality assessment. Incidentally, the entire book would have benefitted from careful proofreading – the theoretical section in particular has typos or repeated words on almost every page.
On the whole, Jennifer Wladarsch’s examination of metacommunication delivers a strong theoretical concept with plenty of jumping-off points for further research and relevant findings on quality assessment of journalistic news online. Those who are interested in how the opinions of other users shape our perception of journalism will enjoy this book.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 6th December 2021, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23076
Translation: Sophie Costella
About the reviewer
Dr. Fabian Prochazka is a Junior Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Erfurt. His research focuses on the relationship between journalism and the audience, online discourses, and political opinion-forming online.
About this book
Jennifer Wladarsch (2020): Metakommunikation und die Qualität des Journalismus. [Metacommunication and the quality of journalism] Baden-Baden: Nomos, 339 pages, EUR 69.