Reviewed by Nadine Klopfenstein Frei
When a journalist with a doctorate writes a book about how young people process the news, one might expect a sharp argument here or there, or at least a pointed pen. But Markus Wolsiffer exercised academic restraint in his book Das Nachrichtenverständnis junger Menschen. The author consolidated his dissertation into a nice volume on news processing by adolescents aged 14 to 21, also providing an overview of news research and its underlying theories. What is more, his monumental (more than 560-page) tome contains a comprehensive outline of the major theories in news and communication research, which will certainly be an asset to future students. The book starts out strong. The sections on the status quo and the research issue contain pointed statements that will make even the most serious reader smirk. However, the book becomes more rigid and harder to read as the chapters progress. The fact that the theoretical foundation takes up more than half of the book does not help in terms of its readability.
The empirical, research-geared part includes a survey of young adults on their understanding of news as well as a focus group which discussed TV formats for this target group with young people. A survey, a classic instrument of communication science, is a logical choice to obtain meaningful results. Nonetheless, it would certainly have been helpful to add a qualitative assessment of the research question, namely, whether adolescents between the ages of 14 and 21 have their own individual understanding of news that differs from normative understanding.
The author does not fully explain why he focused on TV news in the qualitative part of the study – a rare item on the overall target group’s media menu, since young people between the ages of 14 and 20 consume news primarily via social media. Thus, the book’s goal to illuminate the »blind spot« of the young audience’s news perception remains little more than a (small) glimpse.
Despite his focus on more traditional TV formats, the author critically examines the previous definition of news and the understanding of news in general, thus penetrating directly to the core of the problem: how young people understand news and whether their understanding of news differs from the normative ideal. Unlike other authors, he does not paint a dystopian picture of young adults as media recipients, but differentiates between interest in the news and news consumption itself. Wolsiffer points out that the latter accounts for only a small part of this group’s (digital) media use.
The book becomes really interesting from chapter 4, which adeptly summarizes the current theories and the state of research. If you are pressed for time, I recommend you start the book with this chapter and skip the theoretical introduction with its extensive presentation of well-known communication and news theories (or leave it to first-year students).
The critical examination of the Uses and Gratification approach and various developments of the method, on the other hand, is rather more suited for expert researchers. The study was conducted in 2020 under Covid-19 conditions, which meant that the recruitment of survey participants had to outsourced to an external provider and the focus group had to be conducted digitally. That is all the more remarkable because no significant limitations arose from these difficult circumstances.
The results of the survey reveal different clusters of news understandings that would have merited more detailed description – after all, they represent the actual core of the empirical study and could open up a new perspective on news research into young people. The individual’s understanding of what they perceive as news does contribute significantly to reception behavior – despite variability within the target group.
This realization presents the media industry with a fundamental problem in producing news for young people: You cannot assume that the target group is homogeneous. This has implications for the producers of news formats, as they can never hope to meet all the demands of young recipients between the ages of 14 and 21. This segmentation, coupled with fierce competition for attention, is rapidly exacerbating the problem of news production. The expectation that recipients should actively go looking for suitable offers to satisfy their information needs seems to be utterly outdated.
In his book Das Nachrichtenverständnis junger Menschen, Markus Wolsiffer paints a differentiated picture of young news recipients and encourages media producers to rethink their practices. With his doctoral thesis, the author has produced an appealing work with interesting and important insights into young people’s understanding of news. The book could have been somewhat narrower in scope, but is a fundamental foundational work due to its comprehensive classification of news and communication theories.
This review first appeared in rezensionen:kommunikation:medien, 12 May 2023, accessible at https://www.rkm-journal.de/archives/23814
About the reviewer
Nadine Klopfenstein Frei, a former journalist, works as a research assistant at the Institute for Applied Media Studies (IAM) at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) in Winterthur. In 2017, she completed her master’s degree in digital journalism at the University of Hamburg. Her research areas are news consumption by young people, youth and media, digital transformation, volunteer communications, and sustainability communications.
Translation: Kerstin Trimble
About the book
Markus Wolsiffer (2022): Das Nachrichtenverständnis junger Menschen. Definitionen und Erwartungen im Kontext aktueller journalistischer Information. [How young people process the news. Definitions and expectations in the context of current journalistic information.] Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 543 pages, 84.99 EUR.