Agner Fog: Cultural selection © 1999

9. Mass media

The mass media have an important role in modern democratic society as the main channel of communication. The population relies on the news media as the main source of information and the basis on which they form their opinions and voting decisions. According to cultural selection theory, any selection of messages in the mass media will thus have a profound effect on the entire society. This chapter investigates the selective forces that govern the mass media in a free and unregulated market, and explains how these selection mechanisms may lead to regalization and the concentration of economic power.

Competition has become increasingly keen in the area of the mass media as they keep fighting for the attention of the readers, listeners, and TV-viewers. The life and death of each newspaper and TV station is at stake here when the income from advertising and sponsoring is proportional to the number of readers or viewers. The printed media have problems competing with the electronic media as sources of news. In order to survive, they are increasingly turning to other strategies such as entertainment, titillation, scandal mongering, and spreading fear - and spending fewer resources on serious researching of news. This is not only about the survival of the fittest of the news media, it is also about cultural selection and political selection. The news media are the most important channels for the propagation of culture, ideas, and opinions. Most opinion formation takes place when people sit and watch news and debates on television. Analyzing the cultural selection in the electronic information society, we find that an important part of the selection lies in the choice between TV channels. Millions of lazy viewers sit in their comfortable arm-chairs with remote controls in their hands zapping between action films, revivalist preachers, and commercials for a new fragrance, hardly realizing that by choosing which cultural and political influences they expose themselves to, they also chose the cultural and political evolution of their country.

It is very important to analyze which selection criteria are in effect here. The electronic media are first and foremost pacifying. It is a relaxation machine, and the viewer wants to be entertained. The faces on the screen are not chosen for their opinions but for their entertainment value. TV stations do not compete on ideologies but on sense impressions. An extreme example is music videos, satiated with fast changing sense impressions in sound as well as in pictures.

Media scientists have often discussed how much influence the media have on people's opinions. People tend to selectively read what they already agree with and to rationalize their preformed opinions in the face of contrary arguments. Experimental evidence seems to indicate that the mass media have little power to change people's opinions on issues for which they already have formed a strong opinion, but they have a profound influence when it comes to setting the agenda and priming people on new issues. The way an issue is framed determines how it is discussed, which causes a social problem is blamed on, and which of the possible remedies are entered into the discussion (Sasson 1995, Beckett 1994, Pan & Kosicki 1993, Wanta & Hu 1993, Iyengar 1991, Nelson 1984, Howitt 1982, Weimann & Winn 1994).

The production of news often goes through several steps: informants and sources, press agents, reporters, news agencies, journalists, and editors. Many media are citing other media or opinion leaders so that the complete chain of information flow becomes quite long. Selection and distortion may take place at every link in this chain of information transmission (Ericson et al. 1987, Howitt 1982). In the following I will discuss the main selective forces that shape the production of news.

Sources

The sources of news may be public institutions, politicians, private companies, police, courts, interviewees, etc. These all have an interest in providing information that portray themselves in a positive light and withhold compromising information. There is a trade going on between source and journalist. For example, the media rely heavily on the police for news about crimes and often report positively about the police in exchange for this information. Sources that are unsatisfied with the way they are portrayed in a certain newspaper or TV channel may retaliate by withholding information in the future (Ericson et al. 1989, Chermak 1995, Chibnall 1977, Crandon 1992).

Journalists and editors

Obviously, journalists may have political opinions that shape their selection and framing of news. They also have ethical principles about fairness and about reporting everything that is relevant, although they may depart from these principles when competition is fierce (Chermak 1995, Gans 1980). Their selection of news is mostly based on the concept of newsworthiness, i.e. what they believe the audience finds interesting (Gans 1980, Ericson et al. 1987).

Audience

News media depend very much on their audience for economic reasons. They have to publish whatever makes people buy their newspapers, listen to their radio programs, or tune in to their TV shows and stay tuned through the commercial breaks. This is what newsworthiness really is about: catching the attention of the audience by presenting something spectacular, unusual, emotionally touching, and something that people can identify with. The concept of psychological buttons (see chapt. 2.8 and chapt. 3.6) is really in place here. Topics like danger, food and sex make people pay attention. Keeping informed about dangers in the environment was of vital importance to our ancestors in primeval society, which is the reason why we have a surveillance instinct that make us hunger for news about possible dangers (Shoemaker 1996). News about deviance, crime, and disaster are particularly salient (Gans 1980; Graber, D. 1980; Chermak 1995). In fact, Ericson and coworkers found that stories about deviance and control constitute more than half of the news (Ericson et al. 1991). The media have often been criticized for publishing too much bad news, but the fact is that the audience actually pay more attention to stories about crime and disaster than to good news.

The bad news are not always very relevant. Horrific stories about some bizarre and morbid crime that has happened in a far away place may be more button pushing than reports about well known and trivial dangers like traffic accidents or unhealthy eating habits. The average TV viewer may pay more attention to the story about a bizarre crime although (s)he is extremely unlikely to be affected by a similar crime, at the same time ignoring warnings about the immensely higher risks of traffic accidents or unhealthy life style (Pritchard & Hughes 1997, Singer & Endreny 1993, Ericson et al. 1991).

Another pervasive psychological factor in the preferences of the audience is personal identification. A story is much more touching if presented in terms of personalities than if presented as abstract principles. A political conflict is perceived as much more interesting if it is framed as a personal battle between politicians than if framed as a clash between ideologies (Chibnall 1977, Sennett 1974), and a crime story is more touching if vulnerable victims voice their anger and grief (Chermak 1995).

Owners

The owners and shareholders of news media may have political opinions that shape their decisions, but with increasing professionalism they often prefer their media to be politically neutral in order to cover as large an audience as possible (Gaunt 1990). The present trend of concentration of business ownership means that many media owners also own other enterprises unrelated to news production. They may prevent their media from being too critical towards other firms that they own or towards business in general (Weis & Burke 1986).

The demand for economic efficiency and short time schedules means that journalists often have to print the messages from their sources with little or no editing. The thoroughgoing investigative journalism takes place more in myth than in reality (Ericson et al. 1987).

Advertisers

Newspapers get more than half of their revenues from advertisers, and most radio and TV stations get all their revenues from advertising and sponsoring (Weis & Burke 1986). Obviously, the advertisers have a strong influence on news contents. Such an influence is usually considered unethical, but is nevertheless difficult to avoid. In order to attract advertisers, the media often generate a "buying mood" by discussing topics of relevance to the advertised products and avoiding any criticism of commercial products or of consumerism in general (McManus 1995, Bagdikian 1983, Cirino 1973).

The influence of advertisers may be even more direct, although clandestine. Occasionally, advertisers have imposed economic sanctions against newspapers that have criticized their products (Weis & Burke 1986, Bagdikian 1983). Discussions of the health hazards of smoking are almost absent from magazines that carry tobacco advertisements, although less important health hazards are covered extensively (Warner et al. 1992, Weis & Burke 1986). The owners of tobacco factories can influence even magazines that do not allow tobacco advertisements because the same investors also own other companies that advertise in these magazines (Weis & Burke 1986).

Advertisers and sponsors are afraid of controversial programs unless this is exactly their niche. It is easy to observe that the more competition there is between the news media, the more entertaining and less serious becomes the news programs and political debates (Ericson et al. 1991, Gaunt 1990).

Economic selection

Economic selection can override other factors like ideology because economic selection can kill the news-producing company. Imagine a town where there are two newspapers, A and B. A is a quality newspaper where ethical principles of fairness and relevance are held in high regard, while B is a popular newspaper indulging in sensationalism, titillating sex scandals, and slander. Journalists prefer to work for A because it endorses the principles that they consider the hallmark of their trade. Many consumers, however, buy B because its sensational front-pages catch their attention. The advertisers, too, place more money in B than in A because B extols their products while A often criticizes poor products and unfair business methods. Soon A gets economic problems that forces it to reduce its journalistic staff, reduce the number of pages, and raise the price of the paper. The lowered quality of A now makes more readers turn to B. The vicious circle keeps turning and the economy of A keeps spiraling down until its total demise.

This example is not pure fiction. It can be observed everywhere. This proves that the overall economic selection can override selection processes that take place at a lower level and force the news producers to compromise their ethical principles. A study of the selection of news in major American TV stations and newsmagazines in the 1970'es concludes that economic factors had little influence on the journalists in their selection of stories. This was in a period where the media enjoyed the benefit of a rapid economic growth (Gans 1980). Apparently, the good economy permitted the media the luxury of setting idealistic principles higher than economic considerations. Gans supports his claim about the independence of journalists by citing the example of the Saturday Evening Post: even when this magazine was going under, the editors remained free from business-department intervention (Gans 1980). Unfamiliar with selection theory, Gans has overlooked the possibility that this newsmagazine may have gone under exactly because economic considerations were ignored. Anyway, the amount of sensationalism, scandals and titillation in the media is steadily increasing (Gans 1980, Soothill & Walby 1991).

The present trend is a homogenization of the news media: different media rely increasingly on the same sources, they may have the same owners, the same advertisers, and share the same market. The result is that the different news outlets often tell the same stories and in the same way, only blended with different kinds of entertainment. They avoid controversy and complicated background information and rely increasingly on the button pushing effect of sensationalism and personalizing (Gaunt 1990, McManus 1995, Soothill & Walby 1991, Chermak 1995).

Consequences for the quality of news

A further consequence of the abovementioned homogenization of news is that it becomes more and more difficult for the audience to evaluate whether news stories are true or distorted, and whether important information has been left out. Truth and relevance are not strong factors in the news selection process (McManus 1995). Journalists work under a tight time schedule and have little time to verify their stories. Therefore, obviously, they sometimes make errors. These errors are seldom corrected because retractions and disclaimers are unfit. The media tend to stick to the interpretive frame originally assigned to a story, even in the face of strong contrary evidence (Ericson et al. 1989). Misquoted sources and others who may be dissatisfied with inaccurate media stories have only very ineffective means for influencing the media to correct their stories (Ericson et al. 1989, Soothill & Walby 1991).

Political consequences

Politicians are very dependent on the news media because people mainly base their voting decisions on the presentation of politicians in the media. The media appeal of a politician may be more important than his/her political skills, and consequently we are seeing more and more media people and actors going into politics. The politicians have to adapt their messages to the media. The political debate becomes superficial and toothless. Political candidates resort to short slogans and entertainment and avoid controversial subjects and complicated issues. Favorite issues are the most button-pushing ones like crime and sex, and indeed these issues are among the most salient topics on the agenda of election campaigns (Sasson 1995, Soothill & Walby 1991). The need for personalization has often caused the private lives of politicians to figure more prominently on the public agenda than debates over complicated social issues.

The news media focus very much on deviance and, as explained in chapter 8, discussions of deviance is the arena where rules and moral boundaries are negotiated. Stories of crime and deviance therefore have a very important effect on social and political change, and we have to look at the selection mechanisms governing stories of deviance in order to understand the effect they have on social change (Chermak 1995, Ericson et al. 1987, Chibnall 1977).

As explained above, the news media focus very much on the unusual and bizarre, and on button pushing stories. Trivial crimes like shoplifting or speedy driving are not newsworthy and therefore seldom mentioned, even by the local media. But the rare, bizarre and spectacular crimes are given massive, lengthy, and often worldwide coverage. The amount of crime reported in the newsmedia is hardly related to actual crime rates. In areas where the crime rate is low, the media tend to report on less serious crimes or crimes that have taken place far away. In addition, the media may write about some unsolved crime that has happened long ago, or about people's fear of crimes that might happen in the future (Chermak 1995, Beckett 1994).

For example, the grotesque crimes committed by Jack the Ripper in London in 1888 are still remembered and talked about today, more than a hundred years later, while countless more simple crimes committed in the meantime have been totally forgotten. In fact, the story of Jack the Ripper has had a significant effect in shaping public conception of sex criminals (Walkowitz 1982, Soothill & Walby 1991). The result of this powerful selection of discourses is that the population gets a distorted conception of crime and dangers. Many women are afraid of sex monsters like Jack the Ripper lurking in the dark, although they are much more likely to be victimized by someone in their own circle of acquaintances.

In countries like USA, where economic competition between news media is fierce and there is little government regulation, the sensationalist focus on button pushing crimes in the news media have created a public sentiment that many commentators have characterized as obsession with crime (Sasson 1995, Adler 1983). Often the focus on particular types of crime has taken the shape of moral panic. In this case politicians are forced to show their commitment to the cause and "do something". Some politicians are emotionally affected by the moral panic and honestly want to combat the perceived evil. Others may realize that the situation is just a moral panic, but they are forced to react anyway. When an eager journalist asks a politician what he is going to do about some (perceived) menace, there is no way he can stand up and say: "This is not a serious problem. There is no need to do more about it than we already do". He has no other option than to find some laws that can be strictened, well knowing that it is wrong to make hasty legislation in a highly emotional climate. The press has more power than the politicians in this situation (Ericson et al. 1989).

The framing of crime stories in the media is just as important as the selection. Personal stories are more touching than abstract principles. Crime stories are therefore framed as individual personal stories rather than thematizised as general social problems (Ericson et al. 1991, Soothill & Walby 1991, Chibnall 1977). This framing affects the way people think about crimes and their causes. The main cause of crime is perceived to be moral defects in the individual and - in the case of reoffending - an ineffective penal system. Social and structural causes of crime are seldom discussed because they do not fit into this frame and because such discussions are less newsworthy and button pushing. This consequence of personalized framing is very important because it controls how crime-fighting resources are allocated (Sasson 1995, Brownstein 1991, Iyengar 1991). In USA, people's attitudes towards crime have become more punitive despite an increased liberalism in other matters, and this change of attitude cannot be adequately accounted for by increased crime rates or increased fear of crime (Stinchcombe et.al. 1980). Budgets for law enforcement and prisons have grown exponentially since world war II and the incarceration rate has risen to extreme levels (Sasson 1995). The crime rate has hardly been affected by this dramatic increase in crime-fighting efforts because the structural causes of crime have largely been ignored. In many cases, the money spent on law enforcement and prisons have been taken from social programs targeted at the social causes of crime (Herman 1991, Brownstein 1991). In conclusion, the selection and framing of crime news has caused an ever increasing allocation of resources to ineffective and perhaps even harmful measures and away from measures that target the criminogenic environment. Criminologists have often criticized this prioritizing, but their messages are not favored by the powerful selection mechanisms that control mass media.

Personalization

The fact that the political debate has become entertainment has had the consequence that attention is concentrated on the personality of the politician rather than his message. These tendencies are characteristic of the kind of society that sociologist Richard Sennett calls the intimate society (Sennett 1974). Humans have become isolated from one another due to urbanization and division of labor in modern society, and consequently they have created an illusion of fellowship by attributing to other people the same feelings as they have themselves in order to satisfy the frustrated need for intimacy. People do not talk to one another on the street, but nevertheless they feel that they have something in common. This feeling of a group identity or a collective personality is created by a common fantasy, not by common actions.

Society has become so impersonal, complex, and difficult to grasp, that it appears meaningless unless you interpret it as personal. People thereby become more interested in the personality of the politician than in his policy. The politician takes advantage of this situation and diverts attention away from controversial matters by exposing his private life and make people interested in his wife or his dog. Exposing the private personality of the politicians has become a hidden agenda in political life. Politicians began to compare their public performance with that of actors as early as the mid nineteenth century. The politician becomes a credible leader by simulating spontaneity and human feelings, but also self-control. People will rather be moved by a charismatic leader than take a stance for or against his policy, just like they go to a theater to be moved by the actors (Way & Masters 1996, Sennett 1974).

Sennett does not think that this situation is created by the electronic media, because the tendency to make public life personal began before these instruments were invented. They are just tools invented for covering a psychological need to retract from public life and feel more like a person (Sennett 1974). I do, nevertheless, believe that the sharpened competition between the mass media has contributed significantly to the transformation of political debate into a superficial play. Symptomatic of this situation is that politicians in their election campaigns sometimes concentrate on disclosing scandalous details about the private lives of their opponents, while the ideological messages are reduced to short clichés so general that nobody can disagree with them. Democratic election thereby becomes a competition about who can present the most exemplary private life, and the politicians have to put a conservative family policy on their program.

An obvious example is the USA. During the economic depression around 1980, the population felt a need for a confidence inspiring leader who could solve the complicated social problems that people could not themselves comprehend. It was no accident that it was a former actor and movie hero, Ronald Reagan, who was elected for US president at that time (McCann 1991). The outcome of the election is determined more by acting talent than by political talent in such a situation.

Regalization

The fact that crime and disaster are favorite topics of the media has the effect that people overestimate the dangers in their environment. They come to perceive the world as more dangerous and evil than it really is and demand ever stricter measures to fight the deviance (Brownstein 1991, Gerbner et al. 1980). This has a clear regalizing effect. The enemy may be internal to the society, but the perceived danger is a danger to society as a whole rather than to the individual, and therefore has a regalizing effect.

The regalizing effect of the media's "obsession with crime" is not evenly distributed on all r/k indicators. In the period where competition between news media in the USA has been most fierce, i.e. after the second world war, tolerance for crime has decreased while tolerance in other matters have increased (Stinchcombe et.al. 1980). Peace and improved economy has a kalyptic effect that counterbalances the regal effect of the mass media so that the net effect is near zero. Old scapegoats have disappeared and new scapegoats have been constructed.

The competition between newsmedia has a considerable effect as part of the cultural selection process, but it would be an exaggeration to regard this as an autonomous process able to push social evolution in any arbitrary direction. The producers, as well as the audience, have personal preferences which are highly influenced by the general social situation, and these personal preferences find expression in the selection of news. Jorgenson (1975) has shown that TV programs become more authoritarian in contents in times of economic crisis, which is in accordance with the psychological theories mentioned on page 96.

 

9.1 Advertising and sponsoring

Where I live, the highly advertised soft drinks cost three times as much as similar unadvertised drinks. Nevertheless, most consumers drink the expensive advertised brands. The extra money goes into advertising. Obviously, advertising has a strong effect when it can make consumers prefer the most expensive product.

Modern advertising relies more on psychology and button pushing than on providing factual information about price and quality. Many advertisements contain no information other than merely repeating a product name and associating it with attention-catching images and the portrayal of an attractive lifestyle. It thereby attempts to influence the audience to make less rational consumer choices than they otherwise would.

Advertising not only influences the consumers, but also the mass media. The media are not as autonomous as they purport to be, because most of their revenues come from advertisers, as mentioned above. Even state subsidized and license based news media are becoming increasingly dependent on advertisements and sponsoring. Advertisement-free state-subsidized TV stations are indirectly being influenced by sponsoring because the events they are reporting from are financed by sponsoring. In modern society today, almost all major cultural events depend on sponsor money. In big sports events, for example, the sponsors usually have the final say in every detail of the planning and staging of the event. Likewise, many films and other entertainment programs are influenced by sponsors having their products placed in the context of the film or show in exchange for their financial contribution.

It is therefore important to analyze which selection criteria are at work in the sponsoring of news media and cultural events. The answer is straightforward: maximizing the exposure of the sponsor's name in the media in a positive context. This, of course, means attracting the greatest possible audience. TV programs contain more and more entertainment and button pushing films, and still fewer debates over complicated or controversial issues. The boundaries between news, entertainment, and advertising become increasingly blurred (Ericson et al. 1991).

The political effects of advertising are mainly indirect. Commercial advertisers have no political agenda. They are very sensitive to political consumer choices and therefore reluctant to take any political stance. At most they might have a pseudo-agenda, i.e. a non-controversial political message that nobody can disagree with, such as environment protection, peace, or charity. This is to make people believe that they are idealistic do-gooders.

As explained on page 135, advertising benefits big companies more than small ones. This means that big companies grow still bigger whereby economic power is being concentrated on only a few hands. With the economic power also follows political power through the sponsoring of election campaigns and professional lobbyists.

 

9.2 The competition for attention

Organizations, firms, politicians, and advocacy groups of all kinds are constantly engaged in a fierce battle to win the attention of the population. Mass media lure with sensations and scandals to make people buy their stories. Politicians expose their private lives and engage in humorous media stunts to win the public's attention and confidence. Advertisers use emotional and arousing images for capturing the consumers' attention and make them remember the name of their product (Lang 1990). Advocacy groups use demonstrations and dramatic actions to make their cause interesting for the media to write about and thereby communicating their message to the public. Charity organizations use button-pushing images of starving children for soliciting donations. Religious groups campaign for winning new proselytes. Government and official organizations campaign to inform the public about certain important topics. Terrorists even go as far as to commit the most shocking crimes just to make the news media write about them and their political cause, and the journalists obey (Weimann & Winn 1994).

Several sociologists have studied how different topics compete for the attention of the mass media in what has been called the social problems marketplace (Best 1990) or the public attention market (McManus 1995). The abilities of different campaigners to dramatize their cause has crucial importance for their success in getting access to the mass media and the public's attention. Who take the lead in this competition? Obviously the ones that are able to dramatize their cause in the most newsworthy and button-pushing way, rather than the ones that have the most important message to tell. Charity organizations, for example, may need to use more money for campaigning than for their charitable cause in order to survive in this darwinistic competition (Brodie 1996).

The conclusion is that it is not always the most important topics that win in the competition for the attention of the media and the population.