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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