Category: Textbook Posts

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/

If It Bleeds, It Reads: How the News Affects People, Part 1

For this post, I chose to focus on a specific section within our third textbook, Democracy and the News, written by Herbert Gans. The section within Chapter 2 is called “How the News Affects People.” The author admits that this section is mostly speculative, as it is hard to determine what news media is doing by itself because of confounding variables. He says people who make a living dealing with words, pictures, and other symbols (like sociologists, journalists, and media critics) pay more attention to the news than the general population. He states that lab studies systematically overestimate the effect of news, and many of the potential effects of news media never occur. This section goes over the different kinds of effects that may happen.

This post deals with the first three effects; the next post will deal with the next three effects.

 

The Social Continuity Effect

The social continuity of news media arises from its daily appearance as scheduled, showing that social life will go on as before. This is an unconscious effect brought on by the routine nature of many news items. This also makes the news more important or visible in times of crisis, with journalists reporting recovery efforts and the return to normalcy. In this subsection, Gans says that everyday routines would be interrupted but the government could function for a while through interoffice communication. Americans may be happy without political news for a while, but will come to rightly suspect government corruption due to lack of communication Gans also warns that without journalism, democracy cannot properly function due to an uninformed populace.

An interesting point from this subsection is that “…the absence of news practically guarantees the arrival of rumors to supply information when people need it” (Gans, p. 73). I wonder how the growing popularity of Twitter would affect this thought experiment. Twitter is used to spread information quickly and globally, and the trending section shows what people are talking most about. I wouldn’t be surprised if many people got quite a lot of their news explicitly from Twitter.

 

The Informing Effect

The point of journalism is to inform an audience – usually the general public. Gans says that people in the audience choose when they want to be informed. This makes sense, but the constant bombardment of information coming from Facebook and Twitter is involuntary, as are mandatory government warnings that come screeching and blaring onto a TV or radio station during a weather-related emergency. Gans makes an interesting point when he says that people acquaint themselves most eagerly with information they need for their daily lives or can use for emergencies. I don’t entirely agree with it; while it should make sense, it doesn’t account for the popularity of sports journalism (I know I seek out hockey news even though it doesn’t affect me personally).

A Pew research study in 1986 found that most people do not follow most news very closely. I suspect that a replication of this study may find something similar, especially with the increased bombardment availability of news due to social media. People do pay close attention to disaster, however. Many people get their news from something other than news media. The author points out the Daily Show as a news source. More recently, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal seem to be filling that role.

 

Legitimation and Control Effects

This section starts off with the statement that journalists treat the subject of their reporting with respect and earnest. I doubt that this is always the case, especially with political journalism and exposés. The author mentions that covering an individual gives them legitimacy. In class, we discussed Megyn Kelly’s interview of Alex Jones. A valid criticism of the interview is that Kelly is giving legitimacy to Jones’ views (which are abhorrent, to say the least). By showing him on national television, she is giving him a platform through which to gain more followers and spread his conspiracy theories (such as calling 9/11 and the Sandy Hook shooting hoaxes).

Gans says that advertisers are not big content controllers, but I do not see a lot of merit in this claim. Advertisers are not nearly as stuck to news media as Gans would believe; they can gain publicity through program television, social media, and billboards. The Internet makes advertisers even less beholden to news media; they can simply take their ads elsewhere. There is more pressure on news media outlets to be ad-friendly than for advertisers to be medium-friendly. Gans mentions that journalistic patriotism after 9/11 was a reaction to consumer pressure, and may have unintentionally helped the government reduce disagreement with its policies.

This subsection discusses how disasters and emergencies get more attention than routine stories. This brings us to September and October of 2001, some of the most memorable months in my entire life, and probably for many other people as well. Two major terror attacks occurred in the United States during this time; the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, and the Anthrax scare that took multiple lives beginning on October 18th. According to Gans, both stories were followed very closely by the entire country (and for good reason). 9/11 was especially huge on the East Coast, and was followed closely by 74% of respondents of a specific survey (Gans, p. 74). As the Anthrax scare was national rather than in a specific city, it was followed by 78%.

[Cover of the New York Times after 9/11]
Cover of the New York Times after 9/11
I was five years old at the time, but I remember a disturbing amount of what happened. I am from a town in New Jersey almost directly across the river from New York City, so I experienced the brunt of 9/11. 9/11 was during the second week of kindergarten, and because we were so close to the city we were sent home early that day; on the way home, I could see smoke in the distance and the fear in my father’s eyes. The news coverage of 9/11 brought the fear even closer, with images of destruction and the President calling the attackers evil. Gans was right about the influence of journalistic patriotism after 9/11; as a child, I was quite supportive of the American military and their fight with “the bad guys” who did 9/11. (I did know, however, that Bush was lying about weapons of mass destruction.)

 

There are examples backing up Gans’ claims about the effects of the news media, but I don’t think he quite hits the nail on the head – especially once social media gets involved. I will discuss more news media effects in my next post.

 

Works Cited

Gans, H. J. (2010). Democracy and the news. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. pp. 71-78
[Front page of the New York Times on September 12, 2001]. (n.d.). Retrieved June 28, 2017, from http://www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/?tfp_display=archive-date&tfp_region=USA&tfp_sort_by=state&tfp_archive_id=091201&tfp_show=all&tfp_id=NY_NYT
From the Newseum

Interview with a Journalist: Social Media and Journalism

In class today, we briefly discussed the prevalence of social media in journalism. We talked about how social media can be overwhelming for journalists. For this blog post, I interviewed David Zatz, the editor of Allpar, an automotive news site that covers Fiat Chrysler. While Allpar covers news, it also features articles on classic cars, Chrysler history, and repair tips.

Allpar has social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and more platforms. The news section of Allpar operates based on WordPress, and it has an extensive forums site for readers to interact with each other. 

Zoe Zatz: How have advances in technology, such as faster servers and WiFi, affected the growth of Allpar?

David Zatz: Not really; in some ways it’s slowed our growth. On the one hand, we get more people browsing; on the other, everyone expects huge photos and video on big screens and tiny photos and video on phones.

ZZ: How has the explosion of the internet affected Allpar?

DZ: Up to a point, it’s been a major boon. The more people who can find the Internet, the more people can be readers. However, Facebook and Wikipedia have drawn off people faster than the Internet expansion has added them.

ZZ: Has attribution become an issue?

DZ: Heck, yes. It’s always been an issue. We have exclusive photos, and a Canadian newspaper, rather than simply giving credit, literally retouches the photos to remove our copyright notice. You get a photo or story, and everyone else just copies it. If you get any attribution on [a certain site], if you’re not part of the AOL family, it’s a tiny note at the end with a link – but who clicks on that? Nobody, really. And you don’t get “link credit” from Google because they only link your name, not a keyword.

ZZ: How have you used social media as an automotive journalist?

DZ: Mostly to publicize. It is rare I get anything from Facebook. Sometimes a story comes from someone doing something foolish on Twitter. If you count forums as social media, then the story is very different. Forums generate a lot of stories.

ZZ: Are there social media platforms that are useful for automotive journalism?

DZ: Not as far as I know.

ZZ: Are there social media platforms that hinder Allpar?

DZ: Facebook draws of visitors. It dominates the time of readers and they don’t go to my site. Also, it changes expectations. It makes everything have to be more instant, more visual, no depth.

When we post stories on Facebook, people make snap decisions based on the headline, nothing else. A small proportion click through.  It’s harder with the more nuanced stories, like “Who tuned the “offending” diesels?” The solution is not, as Facebook readers seem to believe, throwing the EPA into jail.

ZZ: What proportion of your views comes from social media links?

DZ: 6% come from Facebook, less than 1% come from Twitter and all other social media combined.

Note: It is likely that Allpar is somewhat different from other news sources as it caters to an older audience, which generally doesn’t use much social media. 

ZZ: How has social media affected the way you interact with your writers and inside sources?

DZ: Really, it hasn’t.

ZZ: How do you interact with your readers on social media?

DZ: Reluctantly, because many of them will make snap judgements based on their prejudices. Normal people become idiots when they’re on Facebook, including me.

My main interaction is posting for others to read, the old “one to many” media model. I do look at comments and if I find things I need to change or fix, I dot it, so there’s some self correction that I get from readers.

ZZ: Does the high prevalence of social media on the internet make your job easier or harder?

DZ: It makes it harder to attract and retain an audience.

ZZ: You have forums for readers to interact with each other and with you. Do you think this is more or less effective than a high social media presence?

DZ: It’s a lot more effective for interaction. People take more time for thought. It’s nearly all text. Memes are rare and simple-minded black-and-white views don’t usually last long. People learn from each other. Forums have been working well for years but most are suffering from Facebook, based on what I’ve read in a forum administrator forum.

ZZ: In one of the textbooks I’ve read, the authors stated that the news has a set of values, including: timeliness; impact; currency; conflict; emotions; prominence; and proximity. How does automotive journalism at Allpar relate to these values?

DZ: Yes, definitely. Emotions determine how much viewership (and therefore money) you get, regardless of anything else. Timeliness can make or break a story – but it’s weird, if we run something and [a big automotive news site] picks it up two weeks later, we  have to run it again because [a big automotive news site] doing it makes it a story again. Conflict increases discussion but not viewership. Not sure about the rest.

ZZ: Do you have any other comments or concerns? Is there anything I missed?

DZ: See my blog post Mild to wild: The nuttiness of ‘net comments

Dave maintains a blog much like the New York Times Insider where he discusses the inner workings of Allpar. This blog is run on WordPress. In the blog post linked above, Dave discusses the differences in online comments. He talks about how more technical websites get better comments than mass-media news sites. He suspects that bots have something to do with the quality, or lack thereof, of comments on the internet. This blog post includes this quote about Facebook: 

Facebook is a mixed bag, largely because it gets the fewest comments. The main distinction of Facebook is that most people never read more than the headline of any story, which is hard, because many headlines are mild clickbait — not untrue, but also not telling the whole story. That’s largely due to length limits and, well, my desire to have people leave Facebook and go to my site. I don’t get a salary from Facebook, after all.

Novelists as Journalists

In the first textbook reading, one particular section called out to me. On pages 32-34 of “The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know,” the authors discuss how Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and other novelists were also journalists. This caught my eye because I like Mark Twain and I enjoy any opportunity to learn more about him. Mark Twain was really funny, and his quotes on Congress still ring true (especially recently).

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
Mark Twain, a Biography

The section starts out with a small mention of Anne Frank, which I skipped over because when Anne Frank is mentioned, people are usually trying to guess what she would do if she hadn’t been murdered. I would rather not think about her death, especially given that my brother is the same age now as she was then.

What I found interesting is that Jack London was a journalist, and I would have been excited to learn more about London’s journalism because I read so many of his books as a kid. According to the book, John Steinbeck wrote about Okie migrant camps in California before writing The Grapes of Wrath. George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, worked as a journalist.

The text points out that authors are told to write what they know, which would make journalism a logical occupation to chase. Many authors also wrote nonfiction in non-journalism form. Isaac Asimov was a scientist, and wrote scientific pieces as well as humor-filled science fiction.

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

Isaac Asimov, 1920-1992

Similar to Asimov, Keith Laumer had a scientific profession before becoming a writer: he was an officer in the United States Air Force. In 1960 (and revised in 1970), Laumer published his only non-fiction book How to Design and Build Flying Models, which RPI actually has a copy of in its library. During his lifetime, Laumer was lauded for his science fiction writing, with Dinosaur Beach being among one of his most well-liked books.

As the authors of The News Media write, authors are united in a deep love of fact; this includes science fiction writers such as Asimov, novelists such as Steinbeck, and journalists. The lines between these different types of authors is fuzzy.

Chomping on Chomsky: Discussing the Propaganda Model for Journalism

Herman and Chomsky’s first essay on a propaganda model for journalism was certainly intriguing. The authors take a critical perspective on mass media journalism, pointing at the ability of the wealthy and powerful to influence the news media. News passes through filters put in place by the “dominant elite,”, that depend on these five characteristics:

  1. How big and powerful the dominant mass media firm is
  2. Advertising as a primary source of revenue
  3. Reliance of the media on information provided by the government, businesses, and other experts
  4. Flak to discipline media that doesn’t align with the views of the dominant elite
  5. “Anti-communism,” or the creation of a common enemy, as a national religion and control mechanism

While I generally find this model for journalism convincing, I do have some concerns.

The authors write that the elite domination occurs so naturally that people think the news they receive is objective. This is interesting because it assumes that news organizations aim to be objective or to appear to be objective. There are certain sites (like TreeHugger) that have an outwardly political agenda. However, I recognize that these sites may not be under as much control by the dominant elite (they may be independent from major news sources) and may have filters of their own to paint certain subjects (such as nuclear power) in a negative light.

The third filter pertains to the reliance of journalists on authoritative figures such as the government, business heads, or experts. After working for an automotive journalist, I can see a journalist’s motivation for near-verbatim parroting of leaders. The general populace may not know the full goings-on in a press conference, so this reporting allows them to see this. The particular automotive journalist I worked for added commentary, but not all do.

The discussion of a dominant elite is reminiscent of a certain conspiracy theory that really grinds my gears. There is a particularly nasty conspiracy theory that posits that Jews control the world and are all in cahoots with each other. (If that’s true, why are there holes in my shoes?). This conspiracy theory is obviously false to anyone with a good head on their shoulders, but still leads to excessive prejudice against Jewish people. I don’t think that the authors are headed in this direction, as they discuss the worthiness of different victims (as the saying goes: “If it bleeds, it reads, unless it’s Jewish”) and Chomsky himself is Jewish. However, those who already subscribe to the conspiracy theory may use this model to solidify their beliefs.