Emerging research issues in media

January 14, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

This post is one of a continuing series of summaries I am creating regarding the sessions I attended of the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis, Tennessee.  Much more information about the conference, including audio of all of the sessions (and video of many) can be found at Free Press.

The academics that spoke at this particular session (“Media Scholars’ Policy Research Review”) were proof that academics (the people and their topics) can be exciting. 

Mary Kaplan is the associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, as well as the founder and director of the Norman Lear Center.  Kaplan has focused his research on the content and regulation of local television news.

Marty Kaplan.jpg

The Lear Center studies “entertainment.”  Broadly defined, this is the “attention economy” which is no longer a separate economy from anything else.  Entertainment has expanded like an empire to consume all other activities.  Media and journalism are mere branches of entertainment.

Kaplan reports on research establishing that local TV news is, by far, the most important source of news and information for Americans. Almost unbelievably, 65% of Americans say that local television news is their number one source of information.

I write “unbelievably,” based on the widespread lack of serious news content. The fluff of local newscasts drives me to distraction.  See an earlier post on local TV news at this site.  Kaplan is troubled that most of the content of local news is “soft.”  News directors of TV stations have repeatedly told Kaplan that covering politics and public affairs is “ratings poison.”  As a result, “earned media” for politicians doesn’t exist anymore.  Almost all media covering politics is now “paid media.” 

In 1974 study showed that only 2.5% of election cycle local news concerned the California governor’s race.  In 1998, this amount of coverage fell to 0.45%.  When the news directors were asked why they didn’t cover these important issues, they told Kaplan “it’s too hard.”

In 2000, the Gore commission regarding the Digital Age (this commission included the chair of CBS) convinced stations to pledge to spend five minutes each day covering candidates for the 30 days prior to each election.  This pledge was voluntary and generally not monitored.  Kaplan’s group did monitor 58 markets to see what they were doing in the month prior to the election, however, and found that the stations averaged only 74 seconds of coverage per night.

Kaplan describes this as the “stick.”  The “carrot” is the Walter Cronkite Award, given by the Lear Center to stations that are doing an especially good job of reporting real news.

The statistics cited in this post are available at the Lear Center.

In 2002, the University of Wisconsin “Newslab” undertook an ambitious study.  The group studied 10,000 broadcasts in the top 50 markets of the United States.  The results showed that 6 out of 10 local television news programs in the top rated markets provided virtually no political coverage prior to the elections.  For those that did provide coverage, horse race politics (reporting the polls) dominated substantive coverage four to one.  Equally amazing for local “news” shows, 92% of broadcasts provided absolutely no coverage to the elections of state and local officials.

Susan Douglas teaches communications studies at the University of Michigan.  She is also the author of The Mommy Myth (2004) among other books.  Douglas argued that it is critical to know the history about how we got where we are in media.  Corporations have excelled in obliterating history.  Those that obliterate history have empowered themselves to create their own history (she jokingly referred to the history Channel as the “Hitler Channel”).

  susan douglas.jpg

When it comes to media issues, Douglas argues that we need to combat the word “inevitable.” The problems with our media do not have to be the way they are. Corporations constantly drone that the market is a giant all-knowing Buddha that knows best, as if the market is the only way to run things.

Here’s the history: an alternative model had been in place prior to the 1980s.  Corporations were seen as custodians of public airwaves.  They could retain custody if they gave equal time to opposing viewpoints and if they provided public service programming.  These obligations were enforced by the threat of license revocation (though licenses were not often revoked).

How did we get where we now are?  Prior to 1980, Radio stations needed to reapply for their licenses every three years.  Now they need we re-apply only every seven years.  Public service requirements have now been suspended, even though this requirement enabled and inspired local filmmakers to report on stories involving local communities. The deletion of this requirement was the brainchild of former FCC Commissioner Fowler.  The FCC also allows stations to increase the amount of commercials they ran per hour.

In 1985, cross-ownership started growing.  In 1985, a station could own 7 AM stations and seven FM stations.  TV station owners could not own newspapers in the same market. Those were the days. In 1992, a single owner could own 18 AM stations in 18 FM stations.  In 1996, thanks to the Communications Act, “all hell broke loose.”

Douglas advocates the need for increased study of mergers on the type of news we are getting and the type of public affairs programming.  We also need to study the effect of entertainment relative to news coverage.  She has noticed that shows such as Law and Order deal with many serious social issues better than news programmers.

With regard to book publishing, who gets to go on tour and to be promoted as a bestseller.  She indicates that the “mid-list “Sellers are being decimated.  You simply don’t see their products in Borders or Barnes & Noble.

We need to encourage students to study advertising.  There have been big changes since 1980 in niche advertising, “clutter,” and product placement.

Finally, Douglas asserts the need to reestablish the fairness doctrine.  Was it flawed?  Yes.  But what we have seen since its abrogation is “appalling.”  This needs to be studied to determine the effect of the abrogation of this doctrine on public discourse since that time.  Some in the media industry oppose the fairness doctrine, asserting that it will “squelch debate.”  This is absurd, according to Douglas, who would suggest that they simply sit down and watch a typical Sunday morning show to see the lack of perspective.

Additional participants included Eric Klinenberg, whose book, Fighting for Air (2007), was handed out to every participant at this conference (more than 3000 attended) because, according to the conference organizers, it is that important. 

 Eric Klinenberg.jpg

Klinenberg was invited to take the microphone from the audience.  He asked what one should respond when news directors assert that they would love to do more serious programming, but the viewers will turn off their televisions. 

Marty Kaplan cited research (done by Wally Behrer (sp?)) demonstrating that, as a result of real time analysis, people prefer hard to soft news.  They prefer public affairs to entertainment if the shows are well done.  He also mentioned that the winners of his organization’s Cronkite Award include some of the most popular news programs in their areas.  Susan Douglas recommended a book regarding the fluffing up newspapers, News About the News.  Adding fluff to the news brings short-term returns, Douglas asserts, but drives away news junkies, killing the core audience.  If you want to see whether real-facts-on-the-ground-reporting still works, look at the business press.  They report real news and they are also profitable.

One audience member expressed concern that journalists don’t have the depth of understanding to cover complicated issues.  For instance, when covering a labor strike, they merely show pictures of people walking around with signs–they don’t have the ability to present the core issues to the audience.  Why are these people really striking?  We will never know, based on much of what passes as “journalism.”  He asked the panel how we get real journalism back. 

Bob McChesney, who chaired the session (he is also a co-founder of Free Press), indicated that journalism schools are in a period of profound “self reflection.” 


McChesney is concerned that “they’d better get it together or will only have history departments and no more journalism departments.”

Another audience member was concerned that mass media only “oscillates between indifference and moral panic.”  He wanted know how we change this. 

Susan Douglas responded jointly to this question and to the previous question.  We often hear that we should blame the audience, she mentioned.  She is mindful that people acclimate to a specific news diet.  Unfortunately, they it is true that they can become happy consumers of fluffy news.

But then Douglas made a comment that I found to one of the most interesting yet disturbing comments of the entire conference.  She asserted that “Young people are the key.”  On the other hand, they are obsessed with celebrity culture presented by the mass media.  She reminded the audience that she teaches at a top public university (University of Michigan).  These are “really smart kids.”  But most of these smart kids “know nothing” except whether Jennifer Aniston is breaking up with someone.  Only a tiny percentage of her students “know who Harry Reid is.”  It is her experience that her students are gripped by fatalism, because, in their view, they “can’t do a damn thing.”  They are overwhelmed by the feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness.  The fun of entertainment news thus becomes a narcotic to them.  Given this context, why would they need to do anything other than be passive consumers of fluffy entertainment?

This comment is, indeed, the launching point for more posts on this compelling topic . . . later.


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Category: American Culture, Communication, Education, Entertainment, History, Language, Media, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    “…mass media only 'oscillates between indifference and moral panic.'”

    I'd say this one phrase nicely summarizes the past decade or two of American MSM "journalism." Either the "news" is about some banal triviality — some kid's cat stuck in a tree, some high school's bake sale, what each anchorperson did last weekend, etc. — or it's about the latest (irrelevant to most people) sensational story — a bombing, murder, fire, sex crime, political sex scandal, celebrity sex affair, etc. God forbid they discuss a topic that might actual impact peoples' lives — how to reduce credit card debt, how to eat a more healthy diet, how to perform CPR, how to save money for retirement, etc. These days, the sole purpose of televised content is to keep people glued to the set, so they'll stay seated through the commercials.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Actually, grumpy, I would throw many of those topics you just listed into the trivial category that local news often encompasses. Surely you've seen New Year's Resolution diet tips on the local news in recent weeks, and every now and again a viewer can catch a cursory bit of advice on buying a home, avoiding identity theft, or something of the like. Of course, you can certainly complain that these helpful hints lack any depth or merit, and often exist solely to promote a new book or television program on the network (especially if you look at programs such as The Today Show). However,I don't think news programming necessarily has the responsibility of educating us about issues that a responsible adult would look into themselves. The news should, I think deliver current events of actual merit, and focus on that responsibility as a priority- this would leave plenty of room for the latest findings in health and finance, of course.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erika has a good point. Certainly, most adults can investigate issues such as those I've mentioned, leaving journalists to investigate issues that individuals lack resources to pursue. I've simply been biased by recently seeing people I know make some bad choices with regard to basic health and money situations, elevating my perceived importance of those topics. Certainly there is room for all sorts of things: sure, finding hard evidence that Dick Cheney deliberately misled the American public about Iraq would be a big find, but, arguably, getting a few million people to practice better health and money management skills would also be a good thing.

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