Every text has a target audience

Students will often say, when asked to identify the ‘target audience’ of, for example, a newspaper article, that it is ‘the general public’, or, if they think they’re one step ahead, ‘Guardian readers’. The knowing teacher will at this sadly shake their knowing head, ‘no no Rosie, that’s very simplistic. Writers never write for such a general audience: they’re always targeting as a specific group of people, don’t you know? Try again Rosie…’

Poor Rosie. I feel for her, and, for the most part, I think she’s right.

It should be said from the beginning here that, for many texts, the notion that there is an ‘audience’ is just plain wrong. What is the target audience of a spoken conversation between two friends or family members? I suppose you could say that at any given moment one of the people is speaking, and so the other is not, and is therefore the audience. This seems pretty silly, though, and something of an abuse of what the word ‘audience’ is generally supposed to mean. Clearly, texts do not necessarily have audiences, though they always have participants.

In practice, students are often asked to analyse the kind of public texts where the word ‘audience’ does seem more appropriate, though even in these cases, I’d argue, we’re often unnecessarily distorting the everyday meanings of that word. My dictionary gives three essential definitions of ‘audience’: the first refers to people who listen to a text (the etymology, of course, is to do with listening – ‘audio’). This clearly won’t do for most of the kind of texts that end up on Rosie’s desk, which are generally written, rather than spoken. The second definition is ‘the readership’ of a newspaper, but Rosie tried that and we saw what happened: teachers just don’t like it. Perhaps those teachers have my dictionary’s third, and last, definition in mind: ‘the people giving attention to something’.

This third idea, that the audience of a text is whoever is paying attention to it, is perhaps closest to what teachers are driving at when they talk of a ‘target audience’. But there is a considerable amount of confusion created with the addition of the word ‘target’. The people who actually do read a text and pay attention to it are clearly not exactly the same people who the writer intends to have read it. A writer would be lucky indeed if exactly all the people they would like to read a text ended up reading it.

This confusion was evident when I was once told that, for example,  ‘readers of the New York Times’ is no good as an audience of a climate change article because, ‘not all the people that read the paper would actually read that article -some prefer the sport pages’. I was then informed that for this reason ‘people who are interested in climate change’ is a far better characterisation of the audience. But this is very odd reasoning: who is more likely to read a NYT article – someone who is interested in climate change, but doesn’t read the NYT, or someone who reads the paper, and isn’t? Clearly, however fascinated with a topic you may be, you’re not going to read an article about it in a paper that you never read.

If we’re going to just stick with this notion of who pays attention enough to read it, then there will quite clearly be people who read it without having a strong prior interest in that subject matter. On the other hand, if we look at it from the point of view of who the writer is aiming at, it seems fair to say in most cases that it’s as many people as possible who might come across it- the newspaper’s readership, in other words.

The beef that I have with teachers here – and I think it more likely the younger ones who have probably never actually read an old fashioned newspaper – is perhaps the result of the rapidly evolving media landscape in which we live. Newspaper articles addressing topical issues used to be generally categorised as of ’general interest’. It was assumed that the average citizen might have some interest in this topic, and the only thing the writer might have to worry about was the sociological notion of the paper’s readership. These days, fewer and fewer people read papers in this way, and young people especially (if they read newspaper articles at all, of course) pick and choose from articles that get promoted to them through social media. For readers such as these, the notion of a newspaper ‘readership’ is understandably quaint, but to respond to this by narrowing the audience seems exactly the opposite of what we should be doing: if anything, perhaps Rosie was right with her very first answer – it’s the general public who are expected to read the article, as it makes its way to them by whatever means it can through the social media jungle.

Of course, there are many texts where stuff is going on that quite clearly indicates a particular group of people are intended readers. Some texts involves allusions or inferences which imply a particular kind of prior knowledge. Others adopt a strong partisan voice that perhaps presumes that the readers share an ideological position. But the point is that it is only some texts that do this. Not all texts do – some are more audience oriented than others, and some very much do try to reach as broad an audience as possible by avoiding niche language or values. Teachers should stop asking ‘who is the target audience’ and instead ask some more precise, inter-related questions: ‘how broad an audience might this text appeal to, and why?’ and ‘how broad an audience could understand this text, and why?”. 

The reason that teachers even think about target audiences is that they’re convinced that they have something to do with the language choices of the article. They want students to be able to say clever things like, ‘the writer utilises words like ‘grumpy’ to appeal to grumpy audiences’. But this kind of comment is rarely clever, much less insightful. The serious models that students are given are not much better—because an article mentions the impact of climate change on children, students are encouraged to identify ‘parents’ as the target audience, as if they are the only people who could possibly care about children.

And this point reveals what is most worrying about this approach: the subtle undermining of the idea of the general citizen and of the shared space in which we might negotiate our common future. Rather than posit an open and public discourse whose very purpose is to promote democratic inclusion, the elevation of the ‘target audience’ implies that language can only ever balkanize: it is a small but significant token of the rising challenge posed by tribalism to the deepest aspirations of humane politics.

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