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Book cover for "Imagined Audiences"
March 2021
Oxford University Press


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Imagined Audiences

How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public
Jacob L. Nelson

Many believe the solution to ongoing crises in the news industry — including profound financial instability and public distrust--is for journalists to improve their relationship with their audiences. This raises important questions: How do journalists conceptualize their audiences in the first place? What is the connection between what journalists think about their audiences and what they do to reach them? Perhaps most importantly, how aligned are these "imagined" audiences with the real ones?

"Imagined Audience" draws on ethnographic case studies of three news organizations to reveal how journalists' assumptions about their audiences shape their approaches to their audiences. Jacob L. Nelson examines the role that audiences have traditionally played in journalism, how that role has changed, and what those changes mean for both the profession and the public. He concludes by drawing on audience studies research to compare journalism's "imagined" audiences with actual observations of news audience behavior. The result is a comprehensive study of both news production and reception at a moment when the relationship between the two has grown more important than ever before.


Jacob L. Nelson is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He researches the relationship between journalism and the public.

Praise for this book

Imagined Audiences provides an important and timely framework for thinking about the industry-wide embrace of and ambivalence about audience engagement, particularly with respect to audiences traditionally overlooked by mainstream news.

Regina Lawrence
Associate dean of the School of Journalism and Communication in Portland and research director for the Agora Journalism Center, University of Oregon

Jacob L. Nelson presents a must-read account of how journalists may variously see their audiences as a source of frustration or a source of inspiration, and why those imaginations and the complications and contradictions surrounding them are at the heart of the most consequential debate about the future of news happening today.

Seth C. Lewis
Professor, director of journalism, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon