In March 2020, the question of how you did your job began to include where you did your job. As newsrooms closed and people adjusted to working from home, one group had a clear challenge — how do you broadcast live from your living room? (Here are some delightful wfh bloopers.)
But for Kirstin Pellizzaro, isolation brought up another question. What do viewers think?
Twenty months into the pandemic, there are jobs that make sense to continue from home, “but for journalists that is kind of a crazy idea. Giving up the newsroom experience is insane. And the only way that we would really go for it is if we knew that the audience was OK with it.”
So she and a colleague held an experiment.
Pellizzaro, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, is a former TV news producer. She has researched TV audiences and their interactions with reporters and anchors. A lot of that research has focused on the parasocial phenomenon.
That term, coined in 1956, “is a state that a viewer reaches as a direct response to a person on TV,” Pellizzaro said. It’s an intimate social interaction between two people who’ve never met, “so it’s like an illusion of an interpersonal relationship.”
And it’s something broadcasters pay attention to. Who can build a relationship with the audience through the camera lens? The answer directly relates to ratings.
Pellizzaro worked with Madeleine Liseblad, an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Long Beach, to conduct a between-group experiment looking at two things — parasocial relationship and parasocial interaction.
Previous research into PSI and PSR included the high production value that comes with filming from the studio, they report. The pandemic offered the chance to test how people feel about seeing their TV anchors and reporters from home.
In August 2020, they conducted the experiment using two clips from anchor and reporter Alicia Barnes, then at WIS in Columbia, South Carolina. Both were recorded on the same day, one in the studio, one from home. Then, they surveyed 325 participants.
“What we found was no significant difference between the two,” Pellizzaro said.
“COVID-19 has brought the broadcasting industry and researchers a unique opportunity to explore more cost saving opportunities. With the success of at-home reporting, financial constraints, and health concerns, it is conceivable that smaller newsrooms, more bureau-like, freelance, or part-time reporting might have merit discussing. Also, it is worth mentioning these findings should be taken into account when addressing issues of sick, maternity, or paternity leave, or disability. The fact that quality news production can be conducted from home with no hindrance to the broadcaster-audience relationship shows that corporations and managers should take these options into account when trying to work around life events.”
Could allowing journalists to work from home bring more people into the business? Could it help parents and caregivers? Could it save news organizations money? And would they pass it on to their employees? What impact might this have on young journalists who don’t have the space to go live from home?
The pandemic showed us that a lot of people can work from home, and from this small study, we know at least broadcast audiences didn’t mind peeking into reporters’ and anchors’ homes. Pellizzaro would like to do a longitudinal study and see, as more and more people return to work, if anything changes.
“I think this opens a discussion.”
Poynter’s getting ready to test a hybrid remote/in-person approach next year. What’s your newsroom doing?
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists