In an effort to better understand the media lives of older people, Adrian Smyth conducts an exercise in autoethnography whereby he chronicles and reflects on the news choices he makes in the hour between waking and setting out for the day.
The Method: The practice of autoethnography, whereby the researcher turns the research method back on him/herself is a relatively new and sparsely used method of inquiry, but it may be a useful tool especially if the topic in question is one in which the researcher and the researched may have shared interests and experiences. In essence, when considering a particular conundrum, the researcher reflects and looks within for enlightenment. In this case, as I am considering the motivations which may drive older consumers of news media, I must reflect, in the first instance, on my own habits and practices.
But before I start, I must address the first ‘painful’ consequence of this method of inquiry: the personal disclosure. I am, I confess, approaching the age demographic where most Irish News Lovers dwell.
For the purposes of this exercise, I have chosen the hour of the day – between 6am and 7am – when my engagement with news media is at its most concentrated.
6am: As I stumble to the bathroom, I reach for my battered portable radio, flick the switch to Long Wave and spin the dial, without looking, until it reaches 198 kHz and the reassuringly atmospheric ambience which underscores BBC Radio 4’s long-running Today news programme. This is a habit I have fallen into over the years, and like most habits it just seems to have crept up on me. If RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland was on at this hour I would listen, but that is not an option. So when I wake, I need to know what’s been going on during the eight hours I’ve been ‘offline’, and my first media appointment of the day is with the BBC. So while I may not yet know how traffic is building on the M50, I am hearing about what may have happened in Syria or North Korea, and by the time I’m heading downstairs I’m quite briefed on world affairs, the markets, and whatever else may have caught the attention of Today’s editors.
6.30am: Down for breakfast, and I have switched now from listening to Radio 4 on Long Wave, to listening to the same channel on my kitchen internet radio. At the breakfast table, as I listen to the BBC, I may simultaneously scope Twitter on my smartphone for any trends of interest. This, I realise, is my first active story-selection task of the day. So I suppose I am now beginning to build my personal news menu, adding to whatever stories I’ve been handed by the editors and producers of the Today programme, constructing in my head my own ‘front page’.
My use of Twitter as a news source has definitely increased in the last couple of years, and while I try not to be uncritical of the information it offers, I have been thinking lately about how and why certain topics are listed as ‘trends’. I used to think a Twitter trend was a universal thing – that everyone on Twitter was seeing the same trends at the same time. While this may be the case for selected stories of international (or U.S.) interest, I’m guessing now this may not be the case. Ordinarily, in the interests of accuracy, I would have researched this quandary away from this page and then returned here with the best available answer. But if I’m to be true to this experiment, I must leave the question hanging here. What I can say is that I have been picking up some talk lately, by way of the various news programmes, that there is some connection between our online activities and the information our platforms feed back to us (?). I’ve heard the word ‘algorithm’ mentioned, which I can’t fully explain either without breaking away to check it’s definition, so that too must hang in the air.
7am: By this time, I am presuming there is unlikely to be any news of global significance of which I am not aware. However, a Twitter trend, especially a story of Irish origin, might be worth closer attention. So now I turn to RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland on my kitchen FM radio (I have noticed I am using Twitter more regularly to trigger my hops between terrestrial channels). In practice, if the lead story on RTÉ is an Irish subject – and of particular interest to me – I will opt for that and switch off my BBC feed. If however the lead story on RTÉ is international, I shall return the BBC on the assumption that they are likely to be ‘closer’ to the story. Significantly, I think, I am also looking for what I call ‘solid analysis’ as well as hard news facts, and this analysis, I judge, should come from as close to the source of the story as possible. So I may now be also seeking greater ‘authenticity’ in my news.
On reflection: Even in this very brief account of my morning news ritual I seem to be engaging in quite a lot of decision-making and information-processing – very rapidly and with a precision I have honed over the years to ensure I get the best and most accurate information I can within a restricted timescale. I can only report here what I think may be driving my decisions.
Firstly, due to what I think may be habits of routine-formation built over time there is my preferred palette of media: two English-speaking radio stations (one Irish, one British – both of which fall broadly under the public service genre); three devices (one portable radio tuned to Long Wave; one portable radio tuned to FM; one internet radio); and one social media platform (Twitter) – accessed by way of smartphone.
The acquisition, I admit, of a radio with the Long Wave facility is not accidental, rather it was purchased with the express intention of receiving BBC Radio 4’s most robust long-distance signal – so I may be pre-disposed to seeking-out the Today rather than it being the only available option so early in the morning – which it certainly isn’t.
Also, the different radio platforms I use reflect various domestic technical practicalities I have resolved over the years: the internet radio offers crystal-clear reception but plugs into an electrical socket and so is a fixture of the kitchen rather than the bathroom; the portable battery-driven radio is safer to use in the bathroom, and while the audio signal is weaker and less clear, the device is easier to carry from room to room while I’m upstairs. On occasion, I have used my smartphone as a portable radio – especially through the BBC iPlayer radio app, but my home WiFi signal tends to drop-out upstairs, so I have largely written-off this practice.
Secondly, there is my routinised sorting of news story preferences which, I think, may primarily revolve around a number of personally-developed habits and general and specific curiosities of the wider world; in addition to my curation of trusted/respected sources of reporting and analysis across a lifetime of news consumption; and considerations of personally-developed discernments of the likely credibility/accuracy of information sources; and the ‘professional’ presentation of information, i.e. clear, accurate and impartial – which I explain to myself as critical components of the credibility of news provision. Also of significance, I think, is the general ‘shape’ and direction of my morning routine as I move through my domestic space, and how I have placed technologies to serve my needs in my various ‘stopping-off’ points.
What is obviously missing from this chronicle of my morning media engagements is any mention of the visual or print news media. Over the years I have glanced occasionally at (British) breakfast television, but I have never come close to incorporating it into my daily morning routine. Certainly, I have stared at the silent screen rolls of Sky News, CNN and the BBC News Channel while waiting at airports for early morning flights, but I would never dream of switching them on in the house so early in the day. The same goes for online video – I have no interest in watching any video footage at all so early in the morning, even if there is a live Twitter video feed at my fingertips. I have no contact with newspapers until I leave the house, so there is nothing to report in this regard.
As I approach the age cohort regarded as the most engaged when it comes to news consumption, I have tried in this exercise to gain a greater insight into the news choices of older people. Have I succeeded? Certainly, the idea of routinisation in domestic media consumption is one that must be seriously considered, and I know here I must return at least, for reference, to research that has been conducted over the years into the domestication of media. But behind the daily practices, I realise, are a plethora of habits, experiences, influences, persuasions, manipulations, judgements, assumptions, ideologies, beliefs, internal as well as external conversations, perhaps even personal prejudices which comprise the media consumption decisions we make – decisions we may sometimes deploy in an instant and almost, it seems, unconsciously. Such is the messy business of trying to figure out what really drives people to act in the ways we do when it comes to media consumption.
This is perhaps an unsatisfactory conclusion, but I may carry this personal exercise in self-analysis only so far. I have given many leads here as to what I think might be driving my news choices but it is perhaps for another researcher, if interested, to more fully examine whatever reasons there may be for the motivations behind my choices.
Adrian Smyth is a PhD candidate with the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Media where he is currently researching the digital lives of older people in Ireland.