Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sociology of News: Emerging Paradigms

Dharma Adhikari
News is a ubiquitous phenomenon in today’s world. It has become almost a natural landscape of an increasingly information-dominated way of life. The conventional informational view of news, however, has been under increasing pressure. News is more than bits and pieces of factual information transmitted across time and space; and, in essence, it is a form of culture, a construction of our experiences. It provides meaning to our diverse realities, lived or ideal. It shapes identities of what and who we are. This paper briefly examines the debates on the sociology of news and the emerging paradigms in the field.

Historically, in the West, news has been studied in terms of subject matter, content, or what journalists like to call “news values.” One wall of the history gallery at the newseum located at Arlington in Virginia, USA, bears this rhyme by an anonymous editor of the New London (Connecticut) Bee.

Here various news we tell of love and strife,
Of peace and war, health, sickness, death and life,
Of loss and gain, of famine and of store,
Of storms at sea, and travel on the shore,
Of prodigies, and portents seen in air,
Of fires, and plagues, and stars with blazing hair,
Of turns of fortune, changes in the state,
The falls of favorites, projects of the great,
Of old mismanagements, taxations new,
All neither wholly false nor wholly true.

The underlying assumptions on news values in this verse remain as valid today as the day it was published, March 26, 1800: Conflict, prominence, novelty, crisis, breakthroughs, money, power, etc. are recurrent themes in news. The conventional importance attached to values of relevance, usefulness and interest or more specifically to impact, novelty, oddity, prominence, proximity, and timeliness continue to be the criteria used by journalists to determine what news is (Brooks et al, 2002, p. 3-5).

Indeed, professionally, news has been categorized and described in a number of ways. Take, for instance, these typologies, based on emotional distance, attitude, sense of place, subject matter, content structure, and media format, respectively: Hope, absurdity and catastrophe. Negative, positive and neutral news. Local, domestic and international news. Economy, politics, science, technology, environment, entertainment, sports, life-style news. Profiles, feature, news releases, event news. Print, radio, television, and online news (Berkowitz 1990, p.83).

In other words, the emphasis is on nature and forms of news, rather than processes and meaning. Normative values also often recur in news discourse, such as objectivity, accuracy and fairness. Other regular content considerations include facts, credibility and sources. And much less frequent are topics associated with news practices, processes, usage, influences, response etc. How do Nepal’s numerous partisan tabloids continue to be operated at a time of increased commercial entrepreneurship and competition? How come some news outlets, such as Himal and Nepal magazines, took that revolutionary step to begin to refer to Shree Panch, his Majesty the King, with a pronoun traditionally reserved for the commoners? Is increased literacy a factor in the proliferation of news outlets? How do Indian news products affect Nepal’s newsroom decisions? Why does news hardly explain why Nepalis work hard and still earn little as opposed to the repeated assertion that they work hard and still earn little? How and to what extent does Nepali, Tibetan and Indian viewers’ comments to the O'Reilly Factor on FOX News influence viewership of the American channel in the Subcontinent? Such questions offer more analytical power to examine processes than the traditional descriptive queries. The textbook approach of news goes little beyond content and event level of analysis; and other approaches that explore news processes within the newsroom and their broader cultural and social implications have not received adequate attention in the mainstream media literature. This is largely true in the West as it is in Nepal.

Underemphasized in journalism courses or media studies, then, is how news media come to determine categories of news values, and more importantly, why.

Sociologists have pursued these questions further than journalists or students of media. They have challenged the naïve assumption (still pervasive among the general public) that a piece of information someone shared with you must be objective or true because he or she read that in a newspaper! Sociologists demystify the notion of media as mirrors of our societies. The body of literature on media sociology, rooted in the gatekeeping and newsroom socialization studies of the 1960s by David Maning White and Warren Breed, respectively, asserts that news is socially constructed: The process of news selection and production affects the “news product,” and news is influenced by professional or business norms, ideology and culture. Others focused on news production, newsrooms, deviance, and news making (Park 1923; Tuchman 1978; Gans 1979; Hall 1982; Gitlin 1988; Schudson 1996; Sumpter 2000). The sociological perspective has enough insight to offer into the questions such as “what is news?” or “why does news turn out like it does?”

In answering such questions, one must look at a variety of influencing, shaping and controlling factors coming to bear, in a number of ways and on a number of levels, on journalistic practice. Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese observe that news content is shaped and influenced by several hierarchical factors (1996, p. 183). These factors range from the micro level (e.g., the individual media worker, media routines, and media organization) to the macro level (e.g., extra-media and ideology), graphically illustrated through concentric circles of influences. These hierarchical circles illustrate that news content is produced by individual media workers but is influenced by the nature of the particular news organization and the national economic and ideological environment (Shoemaker and Reese 1996, p. 102).

Perhaps the most abstract and the more meaningful influence on news emanates from culture, or to borrow Richard Hoggart’s phrase, the very “cultural air which we breathe” (quoted in Schudson 1996, p. 154). The cultural air—shaped mostly by taken-for-granted values at all levels of influences— is recognized, for instance, by asking questions such as why Nepali news professionals are still less erudite than their Sri Lankan or Pakistani counterparts? Why the Nepali news media covered the royal massacre of 2001 the way they did? Why are the hills of Rolpa less newsworthy than the West Bank? Why Nepal’s English-language journalism still spares more column inches to Bollywood actors than to local stars despite a sizable growth of a domestic film industry over the decades? Why is foreign affairs reportage scanty? What makes translated reports from British and American news media more newsworthy than local reports? Why does a speech by an obscure American professor get a front-page treatment on the Kathmandu Post? How do people in Dadeldhura or Olangchung Gola or Pokhara consume news largely conceived and packaged in Kathmandu? Why is development news generally looked down upon by the mainstream media? What are the underpinnings of the pervasive negativism of our news media? What do they convey about us as a nation and as a people?

In other words, patterns of conception, production, distribution and consumption inherent in the news process combine to form what news is. Yet, the questions regarding the making of news or news production and its social or cultural implications cannot be understood in isolation from the functions and roles of the mass media, the producers of news. Hence, it makes sense to dwell on the perspectives on mass media and culture.

Culture, according to John R. Hall and Mary Jo Neitz (1993, p. 4-5), is a very broad topic, which may include diverse things, such as ideas and knowledge, ways of doing things, human artifacts, and products of social action. They see interdependence between both material (cultural objects) and ideal (cultural values) cultures. Their analytic frames for cultural sociology—institutional structures, history, production and distribution of culture, audience effects, and meaning and social action (p. 17-18)—provide the basis for this paper.

Michael Schudson writes that culture is not independent of other social constructs like politics, democracy, and audience. Hence, its relevance to both the micro and macro levels of analyses. The cultural perspective on news, thus, looks at culture in relation to these factors, and it emphasizes the constraining forces of broad cultural traditions and symbolic systems, regardless of the structure of economic organization or the character of occupational routines (Schudson, 1996, p.143). Both the early “mass culture” or “media effects” studies, and the recent “public sphere” perspectives offer us some insight into the cultural facets of news. For instance, studies on the mass culture, an output of mass media (which includes news), and its impact on democracy focuses on the various cultural changes in the mass public, such as lifestyle, ideology, consumption habits, and socialization.

Marxist and neo-Marxist perspectives on culture and mass media, where superstructure is seen to determine the base, emphasize the power of political culture in the formation of news (Schudson, 1996, 143-147). The vast body of literature on political economy of media or hegemony also stresses the structural cultural patterns at work in the formation of news. Here, the economy of media, private or public, is seen as an extension of the dominant economic system of a state (Schudson 1996, p. 143-147). The Marxist view of “cultural industry” also emphasizes on the formation and alteration of culture through the mass media, and news is the primary vehicle of this enterprise (Curren, 1996, p. 81-119). Noam Chomsky’s notion of propaganda model, which sees news media as perpetuating status quo, also fits this criterion.

Another macro perspective relates to the democratic theory of news media. In sharp contrast to “mass culture” approach, the liberal democratic perspective sees the mass media as essential to the development of pluralism, diversity and individual autonomy. The press constitutes a “public sphere” in which an open political debate can take place and “public opinion” can be formed. The concept of press freedom also provides for the free flowering of different cultural traditions. The three concepts emphasizing the call for freedom in the Western tradition include the Miltonian theology, which allows man to deduce between good and evil, the Lockean individual natural rights, in which the press is guaranteed liberty from the political elite, and Mill’s concept of the pursuit of “truth”, in which arguments, beliefs, or falsehood must be countered, and censorship opposed (Berger 2000, p. 81-84). This Anglo-American perspective has become increasingly popular in Nepal in recent decades, in spite of the country’s traditionally communitarian and restrictive news values.

At the organizational and routines level, news decision making, gatekeeping and agenda-setting studies continue to define the field, with a recent shift to studies on framing, production, source of control, organization, political role of news, the nature of content and its effects on audience. At the individual level, studies on newsworkers’ habits and mannerisms and their professional autonomy shed light into the making of news (Weaver and Wilhoit, 1996). The audience—the receiving end of the individual level of hierarchy— has received much focus in recent decades, with scholars like Stuart Hall and John Fiske discrediting the passive notion of readers and suggesting that people actively interpret or 'read' media messages in a variety of ways and derive diverse meanings from such readings. This perspective also sees self-recognition in media content. People want to recognize themselves, their ideas, their way of life in images of reality offered by the media. As Blumler (1985, p. 45-47) points out, people want to maintain and strengthen their social identities through what they see, hear, and read in the media, and reinforce group affiliation, values and identity as a consequence.

Amid such multiple readings, recent perspectives on globalization and information society have widened the horizons of news discourse and its cultural implications. In a borderless world of e-commerce and trade, the World Wide Web, and the expansion of trans-national companies (TNCs), culture has become increasingly fluid and commodified. The erstwhile national debates on, say, ownership, conglomeration and media imperialism have now assumed a global form, giving prominence to questions such as: Whose news it is, anyway, for whom, how and why? Does merely customizing Google news to your country make it an authentic local news source? How does the hybridization of global news on the Internet reflect native realities? What values and cultures do TNCs such as AOL Time Warner, News Corp, Zee TV, Aljazeera or the International Herald Tribune promote? What about the India-based television Nepal1 vis-à-vis Nepal’s own channels, operated by the government as well as the private sector?

Clearly, new paradigms are emerging in the sociology of news. Because of the unprecedented developments in technology, increasing powers of civil society (NGOs’ growing role in social and political activism and information dissemination, blogging), unipolar world politics, and global commerce, the changes in the news process have been remarkable. The emerging electronic nature of news today, the increasing use Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and cell phones to access news, have redefined the production, distribution and consumption of news. In some ways, to paraphrase the Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan, these new media have become the message of contemporary societies. Hence, there is a need for a shift of focus on the study of technological and societal changes on the processes of news in a globalizing world.

For decades, the Europeans concentrated on the macro levels of media hierarchies whereas the Americans focused on the micro levels. Nepal may do well to integrate both levels of analyses, specially because the impact of improved technologies and external media influences have been sudden and powerful in the country’s news process. Nepal, in deed, has the opportunity to learn from the West and avoid the pitfalls of over-theorizing media studies.

We not only need studies of individual journalists’ interests and values and attitudes as well as newsroom practices and professional routines and values but also analyses of structural and cultural norms. What are the cultural news values of Nepal? How do such norms affect the news process and the news product? How do they define journalists’ relationship with the sources, work efficiency regarding time, space or the selection of news, suitability of news topics, the image of and concern about the audience, news hierarchy, access, censorship, etc.? What organizational routines and professionals norms shape news? What intra-media and extra-media controls are exercised over the journalistic works? How do nature of content, space, resources and time constraints play a role in the news routine and selection of news? How does the broader culture affect news? These are questions pertinent to the field.

News judgment depends not only on professional values, but also on the cultural elements of a society. The former-Soviet journalists’ concept of news, determined by the party’s news judgment, emphasized on long-range political stories rather than immediate developments. American media “personify” news based, perhaps, on the belief in individualism. Likewise, a collective culture emerges in the Nepali media’s tendency to publish panoramic, wide-angled news photographs rather than cropped, individual-focused ones.

The cultural media paradigms have laid bare the complex processes of news production and consumption. Sociologists have studied news in occupational and organizational settings, identifying constraining factors in news production, thus, with a clearer notion of the news process. But many of these studies have done so solely with universalistic functionalist assumptions, i.e. institutional and organizational structures are common and solid to all cultures. However, as our discussion illustrates, this is not the case. Culture is a fluid category, susceptible to deeper structures than the organizations and professional routines. Most of the studies on sociology of news have originated in the U.S. and if they have anything to say about news culture it is that they capture the culture of newsrooms they concentrate on. But they do not necessarily explore the broad cultural symbols as they relate to global news.

There is a need to diversify studies on news culture across nations. A more clear elaboration is needed, for instance, on the role of marginal communities, minorities, language, nationality, ethnicity, literacy, technology in the evolution of cultural meanings and symbols and their bearing on the production of news and newsroom culture. One resounding question is how the digital divide affects news processes in the developing world in this age of information society?

Studying culture of news production across countries during these tumultuous times promises important insight into the neglected and marginalized human actions and associations. It is not enough to study the traditional news values, or the sociological constraints. It is equally important to explore the symbolic systems that have a bearing on the news, if one is to nurture tolerance among people and create cross-cultural understanding in the increasingly globalizing world, which appears to be headed towards more mutual suspicion, miscommunication, misunderstandings and conflicts.

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(Published in the journal Discourse, Vol. 6-7, 2006, pp. 120-26)