Generational Use of News Media in Estonia: Media access, spatial orientations and discursive characteristics of the news media
An overview of the doctoral thesis defended by Signe Opermann at the Department of Media and Communication Studies of Södertörn University. A full version of the thesis is available online http://sh.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A748704&dswid=4141
The main aim of the doctoral thesis presented in this blog has been to explore the interplay between age, life course, social generation, and societal and media change in order to understand the consequences of this mixture for the individual’s news media use over time. This means to explore the individuals’ repertoires (Hasebrink & Popp 2006) of mainly established (mainstream) news media approached from the multifaceted perspective of generational analysis, which has developed with the revival of the classical theoretical approach in sociology offered by Karl Mannheim ( 1952), in the field of media and communication studies in recent years (Bolin & Westlund 2009, Bolin & Skogerbø 2013, Vittadini et al. 2014, etc.).
From the generational point of view, this research dealt with media access, but also the spatial dimension of mediated social practices (Falkheimer & Jansson 2006). More precisely, the dissertation discusses conceptualised space (Harvey 2006) and the issue according to which people with different socio-political backgrounds, who may be located in the same geographical territory, perceive the outside world and create spatial relations. Third, the thesis pays attention to how generation groups as news audiences characterise and reflect their media use and how they understand and define one of journalism’s central genres – the news. The analytical focus of this discursive analysis (Fairclough ( 2010) was motivated by the hypothesis that people who have grown up and developed against the background of different media systems acquire the relevant ‘media grammar’ (Gumpert & Cathcart 1985) or specific semantics for the interpretation (Corsten 1999).
Empirically, the thesis was rooted in the Estonian society that offers an interesting perspective on a transforming society with a dynamic media landscape which is witnessing the expanding impact of new media and a shift to digitisation. Methodologically, the work is based on data collected from nationally representative population surveys carried out between 2002 and 2012 and a series of focus groups conducted in 2011.
Based on the research aim and the identified research problem, a number of empirical research questions were formulated (and summarily presented here) to achieve the objectives:
• What patterns can be distinguished in news media use among different generation groups of media audiences, taking Estonia as an example? What are the common cross-generation trends in accessing traditional and new media and how do the generation groups combine professional news media channels resulting in different media repertoires?
• What spatial orientations of media use can be distinguished across the generation groups (as well as the main groups of communication language)?
• How do different generation groups experience their relationship with the news media and what types of discursive feature emerge from their joint discussions on the significance of news within the personal and societal contexts?
From the viewpoint of contributing to the discipline of media and communication studies and to a general theoretical discussion, the thesis also discusses: how useful is the concept of generations to account for the wider generational phenomena in the field of media and communication studies, and how should the generationing process in contemporary societies and in the converging media landscape be studied?
The thesis defines five socially constructed cohorts that are historically and socially located and related to particular societal as well as media developments that can be expected to have influenced people’s shared perception of their particular ‘own time’.
The composition of the five generation cohorts, created by the author of this thesis, have been categorised into the following groups: (1) ‘the post-war generation’ (born between 1932 and 1941), (2) ‘the early Soviet generation’ (born between 1942 and 1957), (3) ‘the Space Race generation’ (born between 1958 and 1971), (4) ‘the transition generation’ (born between 1972 and 1986), and (5) ‘the children of freedom’ (born between 1987 and 1997).
These groups have their definite position within certain historical time periods because they are formed of people born in about the same years into similar circumstances (in a geo-political as well as cultural sense). The formative years (according to Mannheim, described as approximately 17–25) of these groups were spent after World War II, in the heyday of the Soviet Union, during Estonia’s independence aspirations or in democratic Estonia as a new European Union member state with high ratings in personal, economic, press and Internet freedom. Departing from the viewpoint of media development, three of the five generation groups have witnessed the emergence of a new form of media during their formative periods.
Three media generations
The quantitative multidimensional analysis of the data from the nationwide representative surveys, conducted between 2002 and 2012, has revealed that in conditions of digitisation and the constant development of information technology, serious intergenerational differences appear in media choices and ways of media use, which are partly caused by unequal access to various devices and services. On the other hand, attitudes and media behaviour are not necessarily divided by year of birth. Although statistically reliable generalisations can be made, it is still difficult to measure and delimit social generations by quantitative research methods and data only. Therefore, arguments presented during focus group interviews have been useful in illustrating and supplementing some considerable results.
The trends discussed in the thesis have made it possible to merge the groups with similar features into integrated ‘media generations’, representing three dominant usage patterns.
Traditional media and classical news generation
There are substantive similarities between the cohorts that can be conditionally described as traditional media oriented users, explained by the prevalence of public service broadcasting in their media repertoires and their attachment with ‘profound’ media content, such as politics and economy, topical debates and opinions, social affairs, culture and memory. These features inarguably apply to ‘the post-war generation’ (born between 1932 and 1941); in addition, ‘the early Soviet generation’ (born between 1942 and 1957), to a large extent, accords with such media behaviour.
The analysis has shown that the media taste and repertoire of ‘the post-war generation’ and ‘the early Soviet generation’ is rather conservative. The approximately ten years under observation have not seen notable changes in their media behaviour; these two groups have clearly remained committed to traditional news media. This is especially so concerning the printed press and public broadcasting, which are held as the most accessible and reliable mediators of current news (as the survey data revealed, public radio continues to be the most reliable channel for them). These were also the prevailing media during their childhood and youth.
In the later lives of the members of these two groups, global television news channels appeared – in both Russian and English. The Internet has also been taken into use but mainly as a reading-centred news medium that supplements other channels. The computer and the Internet have not replaced the newspapers, radio and television as distinct media. These generations do not greatly use mobile (news) media (and the smartphone), although they have fully domesticated the mobile phone (originating from the previous decade) mainly to make calls and send messages.
As for the particular news interests, one could observe a consistently high interest in politics, history and memory, as well as environmental issues which were also the crucial dimensions in the independence movement which resulted with Baltic secession (Gerner & Hedlund 1993). For the older generations, these issues, which escalated in public and media discussion during the late 1980s (Lauk 2005: 309-311), still symbolise the independence and integrity of Estonia.
Expectedly, the position of these generation groups in their life course explains their growing engagement with media topics like healthcare and social security.
Finally, the findings reveal that the structure of mediated spatial relations (for example, through the level of attention given to various countries and cultural regions) also differs between the generation cohorts surveyed over the years. Specifically, a clearer orientation to local news (related to the locality and Estonia) and great closeness to the Russian media space, and also the other neighbouring countries like Finland, can be observed in both older generation groups – ‘the post-war generation’ and ‘the early Soviet generation’. At the same time, they indicate some distance with increasingly globalised media space and smaller engagement with English-speaking cultures.
Combiners of traditional and new media – the buffer generation
The generation which in this thesis is labelled as ‘the Space Race generation’ (born between 1958 and 1971) has performed as successful adapters for various phenomena in the changing news media landscape. They appear to efficiently combine the practices of ‘old and new media’, having neither abandoned traditional formats nor completely dedicated themselves to digital ones.
A good skill of adaptability may have here a practical explanation: being still in the phase of active working life in their life course, this generation was expected to have computer and digital literacy during the last decade and now as well. In contrast to this group, the two older groups have already moved out of the labour market and do not probably feel such direct external pressure.
As also shown by the analysis, the so-called buffer generation is relatively flexible and ready to adopt new formats and technologies offered by the news media, while on the other hand they also preserve earlier behavior patterns and repertoires and do not give them up so easily. This argument can be defended by their estimation of the reliability of the Internet as a source of news information in proportion to, for example, public broadcasting and newspapers. Therefore, one can understand their strategy of media use – combining different channels, they attempt to create the best possible repertoire to give themselves an exhaustive overview of possibly topical issues (in their personal lives as well as in society).
The generations centred on online (and mobile) media news
Although there are also some differences in the media behaviours and repertoires of the two subsequent cohorts, ‘the transition generation’ (born between 1972 and 1986) and ‘the children of freedom’ (born between 1987 and 1997), similarities dominate and give rise to the profile of online media centred users. These cohorts are characterised by the frequent and comprehensive use of the information distributed over the Internet. They have predominantly adopted the possibilities of digital media, especially the news formats adjusted for computer and mobile applications.
A considerable amount of information is obtained from social media (mostly from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube), which offers additional possibilities to be up to date with the news. This trend has been most eagerly followed by ‘the children of freedom’. The reflections within the focus group showed particularly clearly how smart devices and unlimited network connections symbolise for them a perceivable ‘our time’ (Corsten 1999), which definitely has not yet become fixed in the consciousness of the ‘the post-war generation’ or ‘the early Soviet generation’.
In the geopolitical meaning, too, ‘the transition generation’ and ‘the children of freedom’ are generations whose knowledge and memories of the former Soviet lifestyle and social order (including the media system) are fragmentary or completely lacking. Thus, their habitus and lifestyle as media users differ considerably from those of their predecessors, as they are rather influenced by the pressure of the globalising world (for example a strong orientation towards the English-language communication environment). The increasing presence of the global media operates as one of the main agents of socialisation during the formative period of their life course.
Comparing the data about news consumption in the younger cohorts, one can also observe an existing difference that lies in the regularity of following news and current debates, as well as the structure of preferences for media topics. The differences also result to a certain extent from the position of those individuals in their life courses. For, example, for ‘the transition generation’ the family- and children-related topics appeared to be important, while ‘the children of freedom’ had an enhanced interest in youth and education topics, music, computers and other high-tech products. As also stated by other authors (Vihalemm & Leppik 2014), among Estonian youth the regular habit of following the news becomes established by their twenties. Relying on this statement and reflecting on the results of the analysis presented in this thesis, one can presume that for media consumers younger than 25, reading of news need not be a daily priority and habit, as at this age they might lack time, continuous interest, or other resources. The fact that ‘the transition generation’ revealed a similar pattern of news consumption in the initial period of data collection (2002), allows one to conclude that a more stable interest in news will develop with time.
Throughout the thesis there has been an endeavour to find a way in which generations can be deployed and used for the analysis of changing and progressively stratifying media situations.
With this in mind, one can agree with a suggestion (cf. Aboim & Vesconcelos 2013) that generations in analytical work should be imagined in terms of discursive formations, since neither birth cohort nor age group can be automatically equated to social generation, which covers, in contrast to age group, different periods of time and does not follow fixed metrics. Moreover, as Alessandro Cavalli (2004: 159) states, “It is impossible to establish a priori how long a generation is going to last or how many cohorts it includes.” Thus, these arguments make any statistical analysis of generations far more intricate than expected, in particular, because of a certain hesitation about where the cut-offs should be made.
The generational phenomenon as a whole involves several notional layers related to both perceptions of time – ‘external time’ as objective and ‘internal time’ as a more personally perceived dimension, which, within the process of generational formation, transforms from ‘my time’ to ‘our time’ (or ‘the time of our generation’). Underpinning this is a question that is epistemological, since cohorts can be interpreted as generations only when they show subjective cohesion and become ‘actors in their own time’ (White 1992).
To conclude from the analysis and discussion of the results, it has to be emphasised that Mannheim’s theoretical framework, although foundational for such research, often creates difficulties, especially in examining the definition of the formation of a new distinct generation, which would surpass the external objective structures (for example historical or other changes in the society or media) and be induced by the perception of internal time and formation of a new (or unique) worldview, which, for the previous generations may seem to be ‘out of reach’ (as Vittadini et al. 2014 say, contextualising the lack of understanding and division between old and young people). Such understanding about the exclusive status of some age group in the generation building process would overlook the idea that Wilhelm Pinder (1926) worded as the ‘contemporaneity of the non-contemporaneous’, and thus, designating the possibility that one generation might bring together and unite individuals of slightly different ages who share similar media repertoires.
On the basis of the research on news media usage an intelligible conclusion is that contemporary audiences consist of users representing different preferences, which, to some extent, can be grouped together to form compound, but still implied, media-related patterns and behaviours. Unquestionably these patterns have no clear separation based on one’s year of birth, but are more and more dispersed along individualised interests, still revealing some age-, life course- and generation-specific features – as the thesis clearly demonstrates.
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