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Archive for April, 2017

The News Media Bubble

Posted by prof e on April 26, 2017

Politico, a left-leaning web magazine, just published an essay about the bubble in which journalists live. According to the authors the bubble is not just geographic, but also ideological. According to Politico, the media bubble served to insulate journalists from the people and issues that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. For most journalists it was not an issue of whether Hillary Clinton would win, but by how great a margin. Was it perhaps because they didn’t understand what was happening across the country? According to Politico,

Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.

Another essay, this one by pollster and statistician Nate Silver, (the golden boy of recent electoral race coverage), makes the argument that the national media were the victims of group think leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Silver’s essay spends some time reviewing a premise introduced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki’s thesis is that networking theory, applied to information flow, can yield superior results given certain conditions. Whether the crowd is professional journalists or citizen journalists, the idea is that collective wisdom is superior to the wisdom of any one member of the group. That is fine if the conditions are met. If not, group-think, an idea popularized in the 1970s by Irving Janis, leads to poor judgement and low-quality decision-making. According to Janis,

the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups. (https://web.archive.org/web/20100401033524/http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/macdonald/GroupThink.pdf)

Both articles point to a serious problem for national media coverage of politics. More than ever, national journalists are more highly educated, more liberal, less religious, richer, younger, more urban, and much more likely to live in communities with like-minded neighbors. The liberal, coastal, elite journalist is becoming the norm when it comes to national media coverage, and that is a problem for the future of the industry. Some have argued that this trend has led to an erosion of trust and created a credibility vacuum where fake news and lies can thrive.

This was not always the case. Journalists have not always been so out of touch with the audience that they serve. The failure of local and regional newspapers is a significant contributing factor. According to Politico, labor statistics are a clear indication of the trend.

In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them.

As news shifts from local newspapers and local reporters who reflected their communities’ values, to national news organizations located in major metropolitan centers on the coasts, it has becoming increasingly likely that the news that we’re consuming on social media and television is out of touch with mainstream values and main street sensibilities.

 

Another theory that may be useful to understand what is happening is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory. According to this theory, unpopular ideas are pushed to the margins, where they slowly lose favor and spiral downward to eventual silence. We’re fine with this if it’s a bad idea, one that does not deserve to be sustained. But what about when an unpopular idea is silenced because those in authority don’t want to give it a hearing? What about unpopular ideas that are banished to the margins because groupthink has created a hostile climate for those kinds of ideas? What if the lack of ideological diversity in our newsrooms creates an echo chamber that drowns out dissenting voices?

Conservatives have consistently accused the national media of having a liberal bias, and that appears to be supported by these essays. But I’ll close with this quote from the Politico article…

Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Something akin to the Times ethos thrives in most major national newsrooms found on the Clinton coasts—CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the rest. Their reporters, an admirable lot, can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.

 

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Survivors and Victims of Reality TV’s Deception

Posted by prof e on April 15, 2017

Reality TV is constantly inventing new ways to shock its viewers. This past week on Survivor it was the outing of transgender contestant Zach Smith by gay competitor Jeff Varner. In a side story (in real life), Varner was subsequently fired from his job as a real estate agent by a boss who was quoted as saying that Varner is “in the middle of a news story that we don’t want anything to do with.”

The uproar on social media was immediate and unforgiving. Some of the harshest criticism was for Varner and his use of the word “deception” to describe Smith’s secret. Others were harshly critical of CBS for deciding to include the scene after months of deliberation.

But it turns out that CBS and Smith worked closely to prepare for the episode’s airing this past week.

According to the New York Times,

From the moment the episode was filmed nearly 10 months ago, the “Survivor” producers had been consulting with Mr. Smith about how best to handle airing the incident, which included a strategic media rollout and working with Glaad, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights group, before the episode’s broadcast.

Jeff Probst, the show’s host and executive producer called it “one of the most raw and painful studies of human behavior that has ever happened on ‘Survivor.’ ”

But I’m left with a question that goes to the heart of reality TV as a programming genre. For the Survivor-type shows where contestants compete for a grand prize, deception, betrayal, and backstabbing are not only allowed, they are encouraged. Deception is how you play the game on reality TV…and, unfortunately, increasingly so in the world of politics and international relations. But I digress.

One viewer took to Twitter refusing to accept Varner’s apology saying, “Apologies only have meaning when they are expressing sincere regret for a mistake. What Varner did was no mistake. He intentionally humiliated Zeke and tried to justify it.” Exactly! That is how you play the game on Survivor. The drama created by conflict is why most people watch, and have been watching Survivor for more than 13 years. The business model for Survivor and CBS is based on people doing outrageous things in front of cameras and microphones. CBS will cash that check over and over again…or at least as long as the audience shows up asking for more.

But we’re still left with the question; why did this tactic by Varner elicit such a strong response from viewers? Just like the collective judgement directed at United Airlines, the moral outrage targeting Varner and CBS is indicative of society’s desire for justice. We know when something is over the line. But whose line is it, and where should it be drawn?

Some of the ugliest disagreements (on social media and elsewhere) are between people who want to draw the line in a different place than where others think it should be drawn.

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Bad PR for United

Posted by prof e on April 11, 2017

United Airline has experienced some self-inflicted wounds recently and the latest PR pratfall shows little sign of easing. The forcible removal of a man from a plane at the Chicago airport was video recorded and shared far and wide on social media, including in Asia where David Dao lived before immigrating to the USA.

Bumping passengers from over-booked flights is pretty standard practice. Nearly half a million passengers voluntarily gave up their seat last year, including 63,000 on United. My son took a bump this weekend and got a nice meal and a $500 voucher for his trouble. When not enough passengers volunteer their seats, airlines are allowed to bump passengers. However, they must give them compensation in the form of vouchers, gift cards or cash.

But the execution of the bump in this instance was anything but routine. Not only was the passenger forcibly removed but he was injured in the process. Adding insult to injury, the airline responded with
the kind of statement that gives PR a bad name. Social media lit up when the procedure was referred to as “having to ‘re-accommodate’ these customers” …customers who, we might add, were ejected to make room for United employees traveling to Louisville. That led to this meme by NFL player Joe Thomas………

 

And this tweet…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story is complicated by the passenger’s troubled history including the suspension of his license to practice medicine. But that doesn’t excuse United’s behavior and public outrage has been pronounced. According to USA Today, at its low point on April 11, United’s stock lost nearly $1 billion.

 

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