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11 Media, Politics, and Government: Talking Heads are Better than None The Whole China Charade How does one know if China really exists if one has never been there? The most common response is that there is too much evidence that there really is a China for all of it to have been faked.

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the whole china charade
The Whole China Charade
  • How does one know if China really exists if one has never been there?
  • The most common response is that there is too much evidence that there really is a China for all of it to have been faked.
  • If China is real, then what else is real? How can one be sure of what is real?
  • Most things people believe to be real are things that they have never directly experienced.
  • The distinction between what people have personally experienced—experiential reality—and the other things they take to be real—agreement reality—is useful for understanding politics.
the whole china charade3
The Whole China Charade
  • Most of people’s reality consists of things outside of their direct experience.
  • This is particularly true in the study of politics; there is almost nothing in government or politics that you experience directly.
  • Almost all of it is agreement reality.
  • People come to believe that one political thing or another is true by putting together bits and pieces of information, much like they do to understand that China exists.
  • As a result, how those bits and pieces of information are presented to people and how they are used to create an understanding of politics is critical.
your new brain and the creation of reality
Your New Brain and the Creation of Reality
  • While it is obvious how the things people directly experience become part of their reality, the creation of agreement reality is a bit more interesting.
  • For example, in his textbook on social science research methods, Earl Babbie[i] argues that science can be thought of in terms of a set of rules that people developed to help them decide when to accept something as agreement reality.
  • By conducting experiments according to certain rules, scientists convince others to accept their work as part of reality.
  • Babbie wants students to learn the rules of science so they can create new bits of reality by conducting research.
  • Science is an effort to create agreement reality.

[i] Babbie, Earl. The Practice of Social Research (10th Edition). Belmont: CA:Wadsworth Publishing Co., 2004..

your new brain and the creation of reality5
Your New Brain and the Creation of Reality
  • Science is not the only way people try to intentionally convince each other to accept something as part of reality.
  • In an educational environment, the teacher is intentionally trying to build a specific reality for students to accept.
  • In addition to the organization and details of the course, the teacher also uses the authority bestowed by the school and even the structure of the classroom to alter the way students understand reality.
  • People’s drive to find causes for the effects they see is a big part of what allows humans to make globe-transforming inventions
  • It also makes people prone to fooling themselves about reality and, it also makes them susceptible to manipulation by others.
your new brain and the creation of reality6
Your New Brain and the Creation of Reality
  • The way humans perceive the world around them is significant for the mediated reality of politics.
  • Political reality is a mediated reality; it comes to people through channels of information flow, primarily through the news media.
  • Understanding how the news media selects information and presents it to others is critical for developing an understanding of politics and government.
  • People constantly see, hear, and smell far more than their brains perceive.
  • People’s minds use a set of instinctual and learned filters—cognitive frameworks—to sort the mass of incoming information.
  • Every person has several unique sets of mental filters, and they use different ones in different situations.
your new brain and the creation of reality7
Your New Brain and the Creation of Reality
  • The diversity of ways that people make sense of the world is amazing, but there are a few common predispositions.
  • People tend to notice things that fit their existing beliefs and fail to notice things that do not.
  • This makes people prone to fooling themselves.
  • It also makes it possible for others, whether intentionally or accidentally, to manipulate people’s reality.
  • By using a speech to provide a cognitive framework for people to understand an issue, a policy, or a candidate, a politician can predispose others to interpret things in the way the politician desires.
  • By carefully choosing and building that framework, the politician can lead the public toward a desired conclusion.
  • Some people call this spin, and others call it framing.
your new brain and the creation of reality8
Your New Brain and the Creation of Reality
  • People can all see roughly the same information in the news.
  • However, the reality the information creates largely depends on the particular framework they initially choose and how that framework has been used to filter information.
  • That framework provides organization to the overwhelming mass of information, and it shapes their reality.
news media and politics
News Media and Politics
  • A vast proportion of the information people have about politics comes through the news.
  • In fact, modern politics is often discussed as mediated politics.
  • Some depict the very nature of politics as a process of strategic communication and social coordination that occurs through the content of the news media.
  • The news media provide an accessible, inexpensive, communal, and reliable source of information to form agreement reality about politics and government.
  • The way the news media filters and selects the information it prints or broadcasts and the way it presents the news as a story, can favor certain cognitive frameworks over others.
  • The processes and imperatives that operate in the news media can have a tremendous influence on how people understand the reality of politics.
news media and politics10
News Media and Politics
  • Ideally, the news media would perfectly reflect political reality.
  • Ideally, the news media would present reliable and accurate information.
  • The real is far from the ideal.
  • The image of politics presented by the media is dramatically distorted.
  • One must examine the ways in which the news distorts, emphasizes, or ignores information in order to fully appreciate how it might best be utilized to understand politics.
  • Knowing what the distortions better prepares one to deal with them in understanding politics or even acting politically.
the business of the news
The Business of the News
  • News is a business, a big business.
  • The demands and limitations that arise from the drive to make money have a major effect on the content of the news.
  • The subtle ways that business imperatives shape content may be more important than the dramatic bits in stories of the news.
  • The news makes money by selling a product.
  • It sells the audience’s attention.
the business of the news12
The Business of the News
  • The business side of the news focuses on the audience as a product and the cost of creating the audience.
  • These concerns must constantly be balanced against the size and value of the audience.
  • News outlets constantly try to find the story that will keep the audience’s eyes glued to the screen as cheaply as possible.
  • Much of the politics of the media builds on the tension between these two business imperatives.
the political soap opera
The Political Soap Opera
  • To meet the business imperative, reporters write news items into the dramatic structure of a story, regardless of whether it actually fits.
  • The coverage of a war, a large piece of legislation, an electoral campaign, a scandal, a debate, all take on the basic form of a television soap opera.
  • The same things that are ridiculously overdone in soap operas are essentially the same elements that guide the selection of news stories.
  • These things also get overemphasized in the effort to fit news into the dramatic story structure.
makes the world go round
Makes the World Go 'Round
  • The first law of the soap opera is that everybody is always fighting over everything.
  • The very premise of the dramatic story structure is that of action and change driven by conflict.
  • Thus, war is a better news story than peace, conflict on the campaign trail is sexier than covering how candidates stand on the issues, the trade dispute is more newsworthy than the thousands of other things that get sold from one place to another.
  • The emphasis on conflict even extends to the norms of fairness and objectivity by which journalists swear.
  • In order to be “objective” reporters often provide equal coverage of the arguments of opposing sides in a story, even if one side represents a near consensus.
  • This exaggerates the conflict by making it look like the disputants are locked in a debate, even if one position is ridiculous.
sex and the city
Sex and the City
  • The second universal law of soap operas is that sex sells; in every soap opera around the world, just about everyone is beautiful. I
  • Sex gets people’s attention and this obvious fact is not lost on the editors, reporters, and producers responsible for creating the news.
  • It also influences the content of newspaper and television news by shaping the very idea of what stories should be covered.
  • A sexual element adds to the presumed newsworthiness of a story, sometimes to the point that the media obsess over stories that are about little or nothing.
honey the dingo stole another baby
Honey, the Dingo Stole Another Baby
  • The third law of soap operas is that there is no such thing as a normal day.
  • The unusual is dramatic.
  • Newsworthiness is related to unusualness or the degree that an event deviates from the norm.
  • No one wants to read about the routine functions of government or other commonplace occurrences.
  • Even if it is important, if it is common, it is not news.
the tragically hip
The Tragically Hip
  • The final law of the soap opera is that stories must be tragic.
  • Human impact is one more aspect of newsworthiness.
  • A small fire that destroys a family’s home is far more newsworthy than a huge fire in the woods.
  • News is filled with world of war, death, and disaster.
  • People see the unusual events that have a large impact on people.
  • War is always newsworthy, peace seldom so; the newspapers make it seem like the whole world is at war all the time.
  • Since people base their understanding of the reality of politics on this distorted image; it is critical for understanding of politics.
  • The reality is that politicians often agree a great deal of work gets done, but this is lost behind the bickering presented on TV.
he brings balance to the force
He Brings Balance to the Force?
  • The journalistic norms of objectivity and fairness can make the distortions caused by the dramatic imperative (particularly conflict) even more problematic.
  • The best way to objectively cover an issue, even if it is one that is pervaded by cooperation, is to present both sides to the conflict on an equal and fair basis.
  • Because not all conflicts are made up of two reasonably equal sides, this. can lead to distortions.
  • This is particularly true when a journalist presents a vocal minority’s perspective on the same terms as a much larger majority.
  • The news makes it appear that there is almost always two roughly equal sides, but that is often not the case.
elite dominance of the sources of news
Elite Dominance of the Sources of News
  • Journalistic presumptions of newsworthiness also influence the coverage of politics by stressing elite voices.
  • Elites dominate the news because journalists presume that because they are already prominent points of societal focus, elites are newsworthy.
  • The president, pope, rock star, or athlete capture and hold people’s attention.
  • They contribute to an audience that can be sold to advertisers.
  • Elites are unusual by definition, and they often have tremendous effects on people’s lives because of their status.
  • Fighting elites are even more newsworthy; which actor broke up with which actor this week?
a vast conspiracy
A Vast Conspiracy?
  • Elites are motivated and have the necessary resources to pursue beneficial news coverage.
  • Actors may complain about the paparazzi, but being they benefit from public exposure.
  • Name recognition may be the most important resource in democratic elections, and it often does not matter from where that public recognition came.
  • Former actors have an easier time wining elections because voters recognize who they are.
  • The ability to gain news media coverage is tremendously valuable in democratic nations; it can be used to create wealth or influence politics.
  • To remain an elite public figure, public attention is essential, and news media coverage can help sustain that attention.
  • It should be no surprise that elites actively encourage news coverage by the news.
a vast conspiracy21
A Vast Conspiracy?
  • For political elites, news coverage is even more of a consideration.
  • In addition to being the focus of public interest, political elites make decisions and take actions that tremendously impact people’s lives.
  • Elites want coverage, and the media wants to cover elites.
  • The news media’s prominent focus on political elites combined with the importance of coverage to political elites makes it seem like a media conspiracy to ignore the average person’s concerns.
  • There is no conspiracy; it is self interest and the business imperative.
the mutual exploitation model
The Mutual Exploitation Model
  • The news media and elites have a tremendous coincidence of interests.
  • This is captured in the mutual exploitation model of the news-elite relationship.
  • The news media exploits elites as cheap sources of news that are of public interest.
  • The elites exploit the news media by using them to to present a public image that is helpful to their ambitions.
  • There is no need for a conspiracy; economic forces and self interest drive the media and elites to cater to each other’s needs.
  • Because journalists cover want to preserve their access to newsworthy individuals, they tend to present the image these politicians want.
  • Elites cater to the reporters’ and editors’ business needs by giving them newsworthy stories in order to get their ideas and words out to the public.
the mutual exploitation model23
The Mutual Exploitation Model
  • If given sufficient incentive, either side will turn on the other.
  • If elites perceive enough benefit or if they are upset enough, they will turn against the media.
  • The media quickly turns on elites if a story is sufficiently newsworthy.
  • Media coverage of scandals has tremendous costs for the elite who are at the center of the storm.
  • Elites always face the reality they will be caught in a newsworthy scandal and have to face a drama-obsessed media.
  • Coverage of scandals also provide insight into the democratic role of the press.
  • Journalists expose illegal activities, and they can make it difficult for politicians caught in a scandal to remain in office.
of cockroaches and politicians
Of Cockroaches and Politicians
  • Media coverage of scandals also influences the activities of other political actors and politics.
  • The modern democratic politician most fears getting caught in the middle of a media feeding frenzy over a scandal or disastrous policy.
  • The way the media can turn on a politician may be the most important role that the news plays in democratic politics; it is the cockroach theory of politics.
  • Like the beloved insects, politicians do not want to be spotted anyplace where they can be stomped on.
  • When the media rips the liver out of a politician caught in a scandal, it tells all other politicians they had better not do the same stupid thing.
protest and the disadvantaged voice
Protest and the Disadvantaged Voice
  • Another way to address the idea of a conspiracy between the media and elites is to examine the things that get into the news, despite the elites’ preferences.
  • Aside from scandals and the intense coverage of failed policies, there are plenty of other examples.
  • Elites cannot shut out other sources of coverage, e.g., protests.
  • Protests, en-mass or even the occasional dramatic individual action, are one way that non-elites can get their voices and opinions inserted into the news coverage.
protest and the disadvantaged voice26
Protest and the Disadvantaged Voice
  • The reality of protests is that even the biggest protests involve only a tiny portion of the public.
  • A protest involving thousands is huge, but the world is populated by billions.
  • The proportion of people protesting anything is miniscule, but when those thousands get on TV or get the front page, the media creates a separate political reality.
  • People perceive that the protests involve or represent a significant portion of the public, and politicians often treat that tiny minority as if they do represent the larger public.
  • A successful protest must gain significant media coverage to insert itself into the political reality of the population and political elites.
  • Few people or elites will actually see, hear, or otherwise directly experience the protest.
protest and the disadvantaged voice27
Protest and the Disadvantaged Voice
  • The media’s consistent distortions are not the only aspect of the news that is important.
  • The role of political commercials in elections, the coverage of war, the role of investigative journalism, how media creates our understanding of other places, how leaders act to manipulate their media image, how the media influences the public and political agenda, could all easily fill an entire undergraduate course.