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Monthly Archives: June 2011

This past weekend I finished reading “Mediating the message,” a classic mass communication theory book that explores factors of the media environment that influence content. It was nice, then, when I saw on Sunday the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace, talking about his take on the source of the bias in news media.

While Wallace admitted to there being a conservative slant on FOX, he said it exists as a “counterbalance” to the mainstream media outlets, which he says display a liberal bias. Stewart disagreed, saying that perhaps MSNBC has become an outlet with a clear liberal slant (though only after the success of FOX’s business model), but most other news organizations have no clear political bias.

It seems what Wallace is trying to suggest that the liberal bias comes mostly from individuals acting as activists. Stewart, on the other hand, suggests aspects of organizational structure and routines that influence the content. “The bias of the mainstream media is toward sensationalism, conflict, and laziness,” he says.

In “Mediating the message,” authors Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese suggest a theory of influence on media content, focusing somewhat holistically on both micro- and macro-level factors. These factors exist, according to the theory, on five levels: individual, routines, organizational, extramedia, and ideological. Stewart’s last comment on the biases toward “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness” speaks to qualities that exist within several of these levels, and in most cases, they are very deeply embedded in the media outlets both hosts are discussing.

Let’s take sensationalism and conflict, for example. Most news organization — FOX News included — are vying for audiences that like entertainment programming and the easy-to-follow stories that go along with it. Or at least that’s what we think we know about them. So, we tend to gravitate toward coverage of stories that can be told in an narrative that has characters, conflict, etc. Take the Weiner coverage for example. Congressman does something devious, gets caught, lies, comes out with truth. That’s pretty easy to follow. There are characters. There’s a conflict. There’s a resolution. The end.

In fact, the structure is so biased to such coverage that after Anthony Weiner resigned, as Stewart mentions in his appearance on FOX, all of the 24-hour news channels went to Nancy Pelosi’s regularly scheduled press conference. They expected her to talk about the Weiner story, but when she said she wouldn’t be answering any questions about it and would instead be talking about jobs and Medicare, all the stations dropped the live feed.

I remember once in grad school in 2006 I was watching one of the cable news channels cover an insignificant story that had narrative appeal (I can’t remember the exact story). I asked myself when this all started, meaning when did journalism become so sensationalistic.  My roommate at the time (Nick Geidner, who is also a media scholar), always the comedian, decided to answer my obviously rhetorical question with a very short answer: “1994.”

What Nick meant was that 24-hour news showed its strength in the late 80’s and early 90’s with coverage of the Gulf War. After the war ended in 1991, audiences had fewer reasons to turn to the channel as much as they might have during the war. That is until 1994, and ensuring OJ Simpson mania. The realization that this new medium could cover even insignificant yet conflict- and narrative-filled stories all the time changed the nature of what news is. The Internet — and the so-called never-ending news cycle — has only exacerbated those routines. Jon Stewart on FOX News Sunday said something similar:

24-hour news networks are built for one thing, and that’s 9/11 and the type of gigantic news event that the type of apparatus that exists in this building and exists at the other 24-hour (news networks) is perfectly suited to cover.

In the absence of that, they’re not just going to say, ”There’s not that much that’s urgent or important or conflicted happening today. So we are going to gin up; we’re going to bring forth more conflict and more sensationalism because we want you to continue watching us 24 hours a day, seven days a week — even when the news doesn’t necessarily warrant that type of behavior.”

Wallace seems to think that the individual political perspectives of those who work at mainstream media organizations is liberal (maybe slightly, according to some research on the topic). What he fails to see, however, is that the other factors are far more influential on news content. It’s the heavily commercial structure of the media system, which values stories that produce more eyeballs regardless of their service to the public interest. It’s the routines of frequently using the same sources. It’s the technology that pushes us to get news out faster. It’s all of these factors and more influencing each other and, in myriad ways, content.

While Wallace is probably right that some personal political beliefs influence coverage, it’s the core parts of the media structure that more greatly affect what we see on the news. Of course, those antecedents are much more complex. And more difficult to blame so easily.

One of my favorite places to read is Kaldi’s, a nice little coffeeshop on Ninth Street here in Columbia. I think they have pretty comfortable places to sit and read, and their turkey artichoke panini and pita chips are delicious. I wish I knew how they made those pita chips — just the right amount of seasoning, and great texture, crunchy yet chewy. But I digress.

Today, I decided to head to Kaldi’s to do a little comps reading, and to my pleasant surprise, a little jazz quartet called the Ellipses Jazz Collective showed up. Always easily distracted, I decided to take a few photos and record some audio to put together a little audio slideshow.

Three of the musicians are MU students — Sarah Carney (sax), Annie Linders (drums/trumpet) and Lizzie Fraccia (piano). Isacc Foley (bass) is a student at Berkeley.

Lizzie said they started playing last spring to get some exposure, hoping to get some paid gigs eventually. Until then, they said, they’re pretty happy with the free coffee.

The central theme of the ICA convention this year was “Communication @ the Center.” A pretty obvious, yet intriguing point, that the process of communication (and subsequently what ICA members study) is truly at the center of most human activities. What this means is that not only is communication a part of everything else, but also inversely, everything else is part of communication.

I mention this because many of the journalism studies sessions at ICA (and other conferences and journals of late, academic and professional, for that matter) have focused on new players in the journalism world. These new players are citizen journalists (see my most recent post), opinion bloggers, public relations professionals, and very interestingly, comedians. Yes, it’s of little question that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have had some influence on how we think about journalism. After all, some (at least in academia) have suggested that studying such political satire is an important area of research. After all, the reason why I was at ICA was because of a paper on the Rally to Restore Sanity.

I attended a session on Sunday morning that included several panelists, including one (Geoffrey Baym, author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The evolution of broadcast news”) whose presentation focused on Colbert’s testimony to Congress last September regarding U.S. agricultural jobs. Baym’s paper (“Politics and the performance of satire: Stephen Colbert’s Harvest of Shame”) compared that testimony to the 1960 Edward R. Murrow prime-time Thanksgiving-day documentary “Harvest of Shame,” which told the story of migrant farm workers.

Baym showed that most media coverage of Colbert’s testimony focused only on the novelty of the comedian testifying in front of Congress, with cable news shows and newspaper editorials asking whether it was appropriate for the comedian to be doing this. Many also focused on the merging of entertainment, journalism, and politics. Baym said, and I agree, that most news media framed the story as if news and entertainment are often distinct entities, when they themselves engage in entertainment-like performance.

Of course, Colbert’s testimony was funny, and he did make several jokes. But were those jokes meant to simply entertain, or were they meant to use political satire as a tool to poke at the errors in our food policy? More than likely, Colbert had multiple goals in mind, but I think that there was a public service mission high in his list of priorities.

Many professional journalists believe very strongly in the principle of independence, that that principle helps them tell the verified truth in a way that is loyal to citizens. But when we get news or civic-type information from non-traditional news sources, how do we evaluate the extent to which they serve a public service mission similar to that which was the cornerstone of modern journalism?

While most agree that it’s impossible for journalists — or anyone for that matter — to be objective, we still expect our journalists to be focused on one primarily goal: finding the truth. In other words, their public service IS providing the truth in a way that’s useful to citizens. One important question now is how do we evaluate the public service mission of non-journalists, who perhaps have additional goals beyond the truth.

I just got back on Monday from the annual International Communication Association conference in Boston. I attended because the paper some colleagues and I wrote about the Rally to Restore Sanity was being presented. However, I was able to spend some time in some other sessions that really presented some new and interesting ideas. I’m going to try to blog about a couple of them. Here’s the first post.

Citizen journalism as civic responsibility
One of the most interesting sessions was from Nikki Usher, a recent Ph.D. from USC Annenberg who will soon be an assistant professor at George Washington University. She spoke in a session with other authors who have contributed chapters to a new book on the status of journalism. Her chapter and talk focused on the concept of citizen journalism, and how it has been hijacked by professional journalists.

Specifically, her point is that citizen journalism has been defined often in its relationship to professional journalism. More importantly, the organizations that have tried to spark development of citizen journalism have often developed standards for it that are based on professional norms. For example, in a learning module on the Knight Community News Network site, the principles of citizen journalism are largely those upon which professional journalism is based.

She also noted that citizen journalism has often been used as simply a tool to provide content (especially so-called hyper-local content) to traditional news organizations, many of which are cash-strapped and see the citizen journalists as free labor. Think CNN iReport.

Her argument is that citizen journalism should be defined outside of the context of its relationship to professional journalism. Her conceptualization sees citizen journalism as a civic responsibility, as a everyday act of living in a democracy. She gave the example that in addition to being a soccer mom, you might be a journalist. Journalism, she said, is what citizens do.

Relationship to my research
So, how does this relate to my research. Well, for one, it conceptualizes a public service in terms that call on everyone to be involved in a bidirectional system. In that, I mean that in the post-professionalization world of journalism (e.g. the last century or so), the role of citizens has been as passive receivers of information. This was the professional norm, and it was certainly aided by features of communication technology that allowed for primarily one-way mass communication. The Internet changes that, yet the professional norms of journalism still try to fit citizen journalism into a traditional box.

I mention that journalism is a public service, and that the concept of citizen journalism re-conceptualizes journalism as something with which everyone can be involved. I love this idea because it relates to another public service — teaching. In other words, the best teaching comes about when all parts of a community (e.g. students AND teachers, as well as others) are involved. The same is true for journalism. This calls on everyone to be an active part of the process. Everyone is a teacher; everyone is a student. Teaching and learning are just what citizens do. This kind of thinking brings journalism and education closer together, which (at least in my mind) involve very similar processes.

One of the other speakers on Usher’s panel mentioned the classic Lippmann-Dewey debate. To oversimplify, Lippmann thought the world was far too complex for most to understand, and that government should be run by elites. The public would have a role in elite rotation through voting public officials out of office. Lippmann, in this way, saw democracy as a means to a end. Dewey, on the other hand, saw democracy as a end in and of itself. Lippmann saw the public as passive; Dewey saw them as more active participants in democracy. This is relevant to the current discussion because perhaps the new landscape (particularly, the new technological landscape) has afforded the public the ability to play a more active role. That is, the changing structure of media allows us to revisit the Lippmann-Dewey debate in a structural context that allows for a more Deweyan public to thrive.