Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How the News Affects People, Part 2

In my last post, I discussed three news media effects: the social continuity effect, the informing effect, and the legitimation and control effects. In this post, I will discuss the next three: effects on opinions, effects on activities, and the messenger effect.

I am extending my previous post and using this one as a makeup post.

Effects on Opinions

Gans[1] states that journalists try to report on events that will be of interests to their readers and that audience attention steers coverage. However, people’s opinions are influenced by so many things that singling out news media as a specific source is difficult. Most of the news audience pays too little attention to the news for it to have much of an effect on them. However, it does have an effect. Coverage of memorable events, like disasters or especially brutal crimes, are likely to have an effect on people’s opinions. The example Gans gives is that a particularly brutal crime can raise public favor for the death penalty. An example of this in the real world (not one of Gans’ thought experiments) comes from Canada – eight years ago, a man with undiagnosed schizophrenia beheaded a man on a bus in Manitoba. Afterwards, media outlets called for greater restrictions on those who have mental illnesses[2]. The news reinforces cultural stereotypes by using them to provide the context for the events presented[3].

Gans claims that when journalists express overt opinions, they express mainstream or centrist views, and that this likely reflects the opinion of their audience. On page 76 of the textbook, he says that the news media is only rarely able to express more deeply or permanently held opinions. In this statement, Gans is neglecting to take structural bias into account. Journalists have to make their articles economically feasible, and, in conjunction with people paying more attention to disasters, this means that journalists end up writing about bad news almost universally (which is another structural bias). Editors of news media choose which articles are put where, giving some more inherent importance than others – this may not show overt opinions, but it certainly shows where the priorities of publishers lie. In the effort to appear centrist, many journalists will create a false balance – in class, the example we used was discussion of climate change.

Gans then claims that “if and when the news media have an informational monopoly, they can affect opinions” (Gans, p. 77). This sentence seems to negate his points earlier on in the subsection, though providing the press around Vietnam War makes for a good example. I disagree with Gans on this one. The press is used by the government to spread information to the general public. This was especially evident in the Bush administration’s Message of the Day. Congress is keeping journalists away from the AHCA primarily because they know that journalists will publish information about it and that people will become outraged at the major setback to public health.

 

Effects on Activities

Gans saliently points out that people are always being bombarded by suggestions, whether they be ads, subliminal messaging, or word of mouth. I will admit that I was easily swayed by Dunkin Donuts to try their new frozen coffee (it’s just okay, I still prefer my percolator). Gans says that news stories occasionally change the way people vote, and that exposés can send politicians to jail.

According to Gans, “…the most dramatic behavioral effect of the mass media is imitation, when news stories about murders, suicides, and now school shootings are followed by other such acts” (Gans, p. 77). Copycat suicides are a documented problem. An article from the British Medical Journal[4] discussed a series of copycat suicides in Hong Kong in 1998. A newspaper published a story about a suicide that showed both the method of suicide and the person’s corpse. As a result of the article, a slew of copycat suicides started popping up around Hong Kong. Even though the University of Hong Kong published guidelines for responsible reporting of suicides, suicide by charcoal burning is no longer a novelty and suicides are depicted in digitally created reenactments on websites.

More recently, the Netlix show 13 Reasons Why has sparked some controversy. While not news media, this is still media of some sort. Someone committed suicide after seeing 13 Reasons Why and an article from the Scientific American[5] discussed the possibility of suicide spreading and that there are phenomena through which it spreads. Putting aside the fact that 13 Reasons Why is a terrible (and simplistic) depiction of suicidal tendencies, there is a history of copycat suicides dating back to Shakespeare and Goethe. There may be validity to the idea that copycat suicides can be influenced – however, the author of the Scientific American article says that it “cannot be concluded whether fictional portrayals of suicidal behavior on film and television increase its incidence in the population.”

 

The Messenger Effect

The messenger effect is whether, or to what extent, repercussions follow from events or the news stories about them. According to Gans, journalists play a role in the messenger effect in two conditions:

  1. When they are the messengers of news that would otherwise not be known, i.e. investigative reporting and exposés.
  2. When journalists depict an event so as to maximize its attention-getting quality: story placement. length, or highlighting of a story’s most dramatic portions

Gans provides coverage of police brutality against protestors in Selma in the 1960s as an example of the second condition; this coverage may have helped hasten passage of legislature. Gans doesn’t provide much to respond to in this subsection, but a contemporary example that mirrors Selma could be news coverage of bombings in Syria. News coverage of Syria is heartbreaking and graphic – like Selma, this causes a kind of political rift. While some Americans want to welcome refugees to the United States to be humane, others want to bar refugees, claiming that they will bring terrorists with them.

[1] Gans, H. J. (2010). Democracy and the news. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. pp. 71-78

[2] Whitley, R. (2017, February 17). “Is the Media Getting Better At Portraying Mental Illness?”. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/robertwhitley/media-portraying-mental-illness_b_14798608.html

[3] Stuart, H. (2006). Media Portrayal of Mental Illness and its Treatments. CNS Drugs, 20(2), 99-106. doi:10.2165/00023210-200620020-00002

[4] Parry, J. (2010). MEDICINE AND THE MEDIA: Can depictions of suicide influence copycat acts? British Medical Journal,341(7775), 705. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/25738317.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:57a1f320db598bd51724860f0db3e5a8

[5] Devitt, P. (2017, May 8). 13 Reasons Why and Suicide Contagion. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/13-reasons-why-and-suicide-contagion1/

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