What do patterns in media content say more broadly about a society? Can media content tell us about social norms, values, and the issues a particular society deems important? A long line of scholars tracing back to Karl Marx have answered yes. In our capitalist system, the range of stories in major news outlets can tell us who is inside or outside of the mainstream. Scholars in both sociology and cultural studies have extended this argument to a wide range of social issues, such as race, gender and nationality. The logic of this type of argument is best represented visually, as seen below:
These theories are quite attractive, since they fit with our commonsense assumptions. We tend to read and share news stories because the information found in that story fits with our interests and, increasingly, our worldview. Shouldn’t journalists be the same way? If journalists choose one story over another based on which ideas are the most compelling, and the are members of the society they are writing about, then journalists’ decisions about what is most compelling could be very useful to understand broader cultural values.
Ironically, the commonsense notion that journalists write about something because they find it interesting ignores the biggest day-to-day challenge of journalism: finding something to write about in the first place. Contrary to what a few of my misguided undergraduates believe, reporters do not have magical powers they can use to summon news. Reporters need various sources to tell them what is going on in the world. Because reporters are not omniscient, they are not free to choose from all the potential stories in the world. Journalists can only choose to write about the topics they have access to under severe deadline constraints.
The organizational complexity of filling a newspaper, television broadcast or even a website on a regular basis leads writers to use heuristics that typically favor the powerful. A news organization cannot rely entirely on a combination of murders, car chases political scandals and other unplanned events to fill space. (We probably wouldn’t want that either.) Instead we get a steady diet of speeches and rallies, protests and press releases. Despite their rituals of objectivity, mainstream journalists are hardly egalitarian when deciding which events to cover. Large organizations have an advantage, because they can hire full time staff to promote events to the press. When sources offer contradicting accounts, journalists often privilege source with higher status, particularly if that source is an elected official. Many forms of social inequality work their way in to the news, but they do so through a complex process of producing news.
The main advantage of considering the process of producing news and avoiding the “news reflects broader social trends” fallacy is the ability to look critically at how politicians and activists could influence the way events are perceived. When OJ Simpson was first charged with murder, TV coverage showed racially mixed crowds standing on highway overpasses to offer Simpson emotional support. Hunt argues that as the trial progressed, a wide range of activists cast the story as part of a broader cultural narrative about race and crime. The case became racialized, and public opinion increasingly split along racial lines, because sources actively framed the story a certain way.
However, sources’ use of power does not always work in predictable ways. Since Reagan, presidents have been increasingly strategic in how they schedule press conferences. Decisions like scheduling events in the White House, as opposed to other parts of the world, sends a signal to news organizations about how to prioritize the event. I found both the New York Times and ABC were highly responsive to these signals, giving more coverage to events signaled in advance as “important.” Ironically, this additional volume of news coverage is mainly spent incorporating the perspective of other politicians, minimizing the president’s dominance over coverage. Attracting journalists’ attention is usually part of a specific plan to make events meaningful, but this process of creating meaning often has unintended consequences for the final pattern of media content.
Sociologists started agreeing that news content is not a simple “mirror” of society 40 years ago, yet many of today’s sociologists have forgotten this classic case of social construction. Take, for example, a recent Slate article by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Based on a combination of prominent examples and an increase in references to massive online only courses, Cottom argues “This year America went to college because America is really nervous about everything College-with-a-capital-C is supposed to mean: mobility, meritocracy, and the American dream.” Later on, she elaborates that:
“In 2013, America went to college through the popular media imagination because we’re still hopeful that the promise of higher education is alive, for with it goes the promise of American mobility, opportunity, and identity. But there is not much on the horizon that promises to redress the insecurity that has sharpened our focus on the value of higher education.”
The changing relationship between college and social mobility is certainly worthy of sociological study, and one where Cottom’s research on for-profit colleges makes a valuable contribution.
(Before going on, I should acknowledge the issue of word limits in Cottom’s article. Word limits in articles and character limits on Twitter helped inspire me to write this post. If anything is misrepresented or truncated, please let me know.)
Unfortunately, the Slate article’s explanation of why college is getting more news coverage goes astray, drawing a straight line between a growth in news coverage and broader cultural ideas. Sociologists increasingly make this mistake, trying to explain the news based on their perspective as readers instead of trying to understand the power relationship between reporters and sources. As scholars, we need to ask who are reporters talking to about the growth in online education? Politicians? Parents? Students? Maybe most important, how much are private investors pushing the story to help their own bottom line?
There may be growing anxiety over the value of college, as Cottom argues, but a journalist interested in covering this anxiety cannot create a story out of thin air. Instead, any anxiety would be an opportunity for opportunistic sources to push a story by creating news events and talking to reporters. The day-to-day grunt work of producing news may not be as glamorous or attractive of a story as hype over growing social fears, but it’s critical for any sociologist who wants to understand how patterns of inequality are produced in the news.