Category: Democracy and the News

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

[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

[5] Devitt, P. (2017, May 8). 13 Reasons Why and Suicide Contagion. Retrieved June 13, 2017, from

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
From the Newseum