A few weeks back I released a video essay called “How to Read the News” on my YouTube channel that outlined some arguments made by John Fiske and Stuart Hall, among others, about how TV news functions within a network of power relations, and how we can pay attention to the ways we read news texts.
More than ever in my memory, the news serves for many of us as the primary source of information about things out in the world, our primary interface with people, places and events that we will probably never experience in-person. As Hall et al. rightly point out, this has serious implications for not only what we deem significant about those things and people, but also how we judge them.
Here’s the video, in case you missed it, and below it I present some other notes and excerpts from sources that didn’t make it into the essay.
Video: How to Read the News
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Here are a few other sources, excerpts and notes I’ve collected in my research but that I didn’t have room for in the video.
Against Calls for More “Objectivity”
Fiske, in his concluding statements, argues that the responsibility for change lies not with the producers of news, but with the readers of it, since objectivity is not actually possible in news production.
Arguments that news should be more accurate or objective are actually arguments in favor of news’s authority, and are ones that seek to increase its control under the disguise of improving its quality. News, of course, can never give a full, accurate, objective picture of reality nor should it attempt to, for such an enterprise can only serve to increase its authority and decrease people’s opportunity to “argue” with it, to negotiate with it.
Therefore, Fiske says, readers ought to maintain and insist upon a relationship of play with the news as a means of challenging the power relations in which the news is invested.
The differences between news and fiction are only ones of modality. Both are discursive means of making meanings of social relations and it is important that readers treat news texts with the same freedom and irreverence that they do fictional ones.
Convention Means That Much of the News Is “Pre-written”
One of Fiske’s points about the news (both print and broadcast) is that so much of it is essentially pre-written. The hard deadlines endemic to news production means that it relies heavily on convention. A vivid example of this is given early in the chapter:
During the forced withdrawal of Belgium from the (then) Belgian Congo, an American journalist landed at Lusaka airport and, on seeing a group of white women waiting for evacuation, rushed over to them with the classic question, “Has anyone here been raped, and speaks English?” His story had been “written” before landing, all he needed was a few local details.
News Interviewees Function Like Fictional Characters
One area of Fiske’s analysis I didn’t have time to get into is how the news draws on conventions of fiction and narrativization to control the spontaneous, polysemic events and voices that it covers. Fiske quotes John Hartley’s 1982 book Understanding News:
Even though the dialogue “belongs” to the characters who speak it, it is produced by the author. In television news the same principle holds. Whatever an individual character may say, its meaning will be determined not by his or her intentions or situation, but by the placing of the interview in the overall context of the story.
As discussed in the video, Fiske points to the news’ use of conventional character roles in order to “claw back” deviant or disruptive voices among the people it selects to cover. Just as in fictional movie and TV tropes, these roles can also tend to perpetuate power relations through stereotype, as Fiske relates of a textual survey by P. Bell:
Bell[‘s 1983 survey of drug stories in print and TV news] found that these narrative and social roles were typically filled by the social types that embody the same ideological values as they do in fiction. Thus the villains (or drug runners/dealers) were typically not Anglo-Saxon or, if they were, they had their Asian or Latin connections stressed. Social or racial deviance is the sign and embodiment of evil in news as in fiction. The victims came from groups of minimal social power–the young, women, lower classes, the unemployed, the low achievers. The threat that their weakness posed was defused by being located in a position in the social structure designed to accommodate it.
Journalists Are the Ones Most Invested in the Transparency Fallacy
Fiske calls the idea that the news objectively reports “facts” the transparency fallacy because it assumes that reality can be contained without bias or influence and presented neatly and completely to the reader. It’s the We Report, You Decide fallacy. In my research, Michael Schudson’s 1989 paper “The sociology of news production” shares an intriguing (and kinda funny) example of how, as Fiske also reports, journalists are the ones most interested in maintaining the idea that their work is purely fact-based and is mostly objective:
Social scientists who study the news speak a language that journalists mistrust and misunderstand. They speak of ‘constructing the news,’ of ‘making the news,’ of the ‘social construction of reality.’ … Even journalists who are critical of the daily practices of their colleagues and their own organizations find this talk offensive. I have been at several conferences of journalists and social scientists where such language promptly pushed the journalists into a fierce defense of their work, on the familiar ground that they just report the world as they see it, the facts, the facts, and nothing but the facts, and yes, there’s occasional bias, occasional sensationalism, occasional inaccuracy, but a responsible journalist never, never, never fakes the news.
That’s not what we said, the hurt scholars respond. We didn’t say journalists fake the news, we said journalists make the news. … (Would you say that of science? the journalist might respond. Would you say that scientists ‘make’ science rather than ‘discover’ it or report it? Yes, the conscientious scholar must answer, we would say precisely that, and sociologists of science do say precisely that.)
Problems of Speed, Rapid Thought, and Emotional Manipulation
A really good source for further reading on the topic of news is the book form of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s television lecture On Television (1998), in which he discusses, among other things, how the pace and structure of TV news evades giving readers (and interviewees) chance to think. The result is an ever-increasing reliance on talking points and other “commonplaces,” by which little if any actual information is conveyed:
[O]ne of the major problems posed by television is that question of the relationships between time and speed. Is it possible to think fast? By giving the floor to thinkers who are considered able to think at high speed, isn’t television doomed to never have anything but fast-thinkers…? …
The answer, it seems to me, is that they think in cliches, in the “received ideas” that Flaubert talks about–banal, conventional, common ideas that are received generally. By the time they reach you, these ideas have already been received by everybody else, so reception is never a problem. …
When you transmit a “received idea,” it’s as if everything is set, and the problem solves itself. … The exchange of commonplaces is communication with no content other than the fact of communication itself.
The exchange of commonplaces invokes the image of the echo chamber: the viewer of such a program may learn nothing new about the external world, but rather participates in or reinforces their own already-established relationship to the discursive and content-less ideological framework of the speaker.
This phenomenon is definitely evident when it comes to talk-show style news commentary and the like, but for Bourdieu, it’s the human interest story that really exemplifies the potential problems in this structure:
[Human interest stories] depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote or scandal. This…is accomplished by fixing and keeping attention fixed on events without political consequences, but which are nonetheless dramatized so as to ‘draw a lesson’ or be transformed into illustrations of ‘social problems.’ This is where our TV philosophers are called into give meaning to the meaningless, anecdotal, or fortuitous event that has been artificially brought to stage center and given significance–a headscarf worn to school, an assault on a schoolteacher or any other ‘social fact’ tailor-made to arouse the pathos and indignation of some commentators or the tedious moralizing of others. This same search for sensational news, and hence market success, can also lead to the selection of stories that give free rein to the unbridled constructions of demagoguery (whether spontaneous or intentional) or can stir up great excitement by catering to the most primitive drives and emotions (with stories of kidnapped children and scandals likely to arouse public indignation). Purely sentimental and therapeutic forms of mobilizing feelings can come into play, but, with murders of children or incidents tied to stigmatized groups, other forms of mobilization can also take place, forms that are just as emotional but aggressive enough almost to qualify as symbolic lynching.
These kinds of stories, often played towards the end of TV segments in order to end on a light or sober note, depending on the day/time, do not even claim to “objectively” report on events, but actively serve up affective content, in order to engage affect in the reader.
Increasingly, this is an issue of prime concern when it comes to cable news, which since the mid-1980s, when the news landscape started fracturing into many networks, has had to try to retain and build audiences. Led primarily by the efforts of Fox News, it seems there is a structural incentive to go about this through “aesthetic-expressive” news performance, as Jeffrey P. Jones writes in his 2012 paper “Fox News and the Performance of Ideology.” Under this model, news has moved from the “journalistic representation of events” to something more akin to the “political representation of audiences.” The consequences of this shift from informational to affective content are significant (and even though Jones is rightly targeting Fox News for its hand in leading the charge on this new model, other cable networks perform similarly):
When Fox News programming—morning talk shows, midday and evening news formats, and prime-time talk shows—consistently dramatizes ideological threats (e.g., Muslims, immigrants, socialists, Black Panthers, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now [ACORN]), as well as “patriots” fighting those threats (e.g., Tea Party rallies, health-care town halls, a congressman shouting “You lie!” to the president, Sarah Palin discovering “death panels” within health-care legislation) through a variety of narratives, visuals, interviews, guests, sound bites, and so forth, viewers are linked to an ongoing struggle, one they can ritually participate in through their repeated viewing. What is more, such conflict—in ideological terms—leaves committed viewers with little choice but to care, to be concerned, to be outraged. …
In short, the aesthetic performance of social dramas based on ideological divisions within the genre of news is one important means of linking audiences to repeated viewing, not to mention commitment to the brand that is Fox News.
Now, aesthetic-expressive content is nothing to be shocked or dismayed about as long as its status as such is clear. But for Jones and Bourdieu, the problem is that it is tied to the authoritative givenness of news as a genre:
[P]erformativity [as a lens of analysis] points our attention to political speech not for its referentiality or relationship to truth or falsehood but for its potential to bring reality into being by the act of being spoken. But as [J.L.] Austin noted about the success of such utterances in establishing reality, context is everything. And this is where the genre of news is vitally important in making such statements real, believable, accessible, knowable, provable, and repeatable. Without news, such statements are little more than opinions. Within news, they become “facts“ (Jones).
Part of the important project of such authors as Fiske and Hall is to expose the transparency fallacy in news production and representation, and to remind readers of the news of their power to “play the text” and insist on the ability to negotiate meaning and read oppositionally.
Bourdieu, Pierre. On Television. Trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. New York: New, 1998. Print.
Fiske, John, and Henry Jenkins. “News Readings, News Readers.” Television Culture. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Brian Roberts. “The Social Production of News.” Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. 5th ed. London: Macmillan, 1982. 53-66. Print.
Jones, Jeffrey P. “Fox News and the Performance of Ideology.”Cinema Journal51.4 (2012): 178-85, 205. ProQuest Research Library. Web. 31 Dec. 2015.
Schudson, Michael. “The Sociology of News Production.” Media, Culture & Society 11.3 (1989): 263-82. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.