Further Thoughts and Reflections About Media Narratives

I just have a few other things to comment on concerning the recent forum, “Exploring Othering and Disillusion in Media Narratives,” by way of analyzing another campus media outlet that missed the mark in its essential representation of the event. There’s quite a tangled web of intersections in this exploration, so if you’re interested in reading it through, be prepared to take your time.

It’s almost (though, not actually) shocking just how directly news media or journalistic reporting is structured through the lens of the prevailing cultural ideology that I spoke about during the forum. It’s as if the person writing the article is unable to represent the event without first categorically generalizing its components.

The misrepresentation we see in these stories (and many other media narratives) is indicative of how important it is in our world today to encourage people to slow down, to stop being so sure of themselves (in a fundamental sense), to think more deeply, and to allow the dynamic interpretation of data to inform their ideas (as opposed to form their ideas based on authoritative, positional modes of truth and falsehood). Facts are built by evidence. Truth is discovered through collaboratively exploring evidence. The prevailing authoritative ideology instead discourages these explorations in favor of categorical reductions of truth as a binary opposition to falsehood, and facts as unquestionable beliefs.

The write up of the forum that took place here in the Tropolitan gives us an example of such a reductive, vague, and categorical representation of events. Much of the structure of the article as a whole likely stems from the standard practices in journalism–those that boil events down into their perceived “nuts-and-bolts” or “just the facts” imaginations. The standard imagined methodology of “journalism” that I hear exchanged most often is this one: that people tend to think of journalism as a discipline committed to telling the story in a biased-free way, to relaying just “the information.” I have heard in the academic world that journalism is the only field dedicated to “the truth” and to “keeping people informed.”

These are all beautiful ideas; the problem is, there is not an actual universal framework, in the disciplinary or ontological sense, that makes these ideas practically useful (or authoritatively understood). There is no one standard academic methodology that is utilized and critiqued as such in the field of journalism; rather, the “discipline” is constructed as informed by many methodological aspects of business, history, political science, and the humanities (journalism is certainly not alone in this regard). Of course, this in and of itself is not a bad thing, nor should the response to this critique be to assume I’m simply saying journalism requires a universal framework in order to be legitimate. Rather, when coupled with the prevailing ideology that treats a “field” like journalism as one “thing” to imagine (instead of the way it actually, dynamically functions), treating it as an authoritative discipline with practitioners, experts, researchers, reporters, editors, etc., we begin to see how that ideology attempts to obscure what is actually happening within the construction of narratives. Journalism’s own adoption of an authoritative mode to create legitimacy is a thin veil, since there is clearly so much happening beneath this categorical assumption.

In an article by Stephen Lamble, published in Australian Journalism Review in 2004, the author localizes “Research Journalism” and tries to articulate a methodology for what journalism is, based (very “journalistically”) on a dialogue with ten varied sources. There’s a lot of telling information in this lengthy exploration, so even though it’s geared toward journalism broadly imagined as a discipline, it’s worth a read. Particularly it is in the candid findings of Betty Medsger, former head of journalism at San Francisco State University, that stand out to me. In 1996, she reported that:

Though its roots in American universities are more than a century old, journalism education has the characteristics of an experiment – not a dynamic, evolving experiment, but a fragile, unsure, endangered experiment (Medsger, 1996).

Then Lamble notes that, “in 2002, Medsger reported that non-journalism graduates in her nation were often better journalists than those who did study journalism, and that a majority of prize- and fellowship-winning journalists had never studied journalism (Medsger, 2002, p. I).” This did not seem surprising to me. But looking at the actual data helped solidify something for me:

• 59 per cent of print journalists who won Pulitzer Prizes had never studied journalism;
• 75 per cent of broadcast journalists who won DuPont Awards had never studied journalism:
• 58 per cent of journalists awarded Nieman Fellowships had never studied journalism, and;
• 51 per cent of journalists awarded Knight Fellowships at Stanford University had never studied journalism (Medsger, 2002, p. 1).

That no majority group of journalists came from institutionalized education in that “field” suggests to me that the discipline is far more dynamic than most institutionally canonized studies. Mostly this is exciting, from my perspective, but clearly a challenge for students who wish to explore journalism as a major. And from an authoritative need for legitimacy, this makes journalism especially vulnerable to delegitimization. The fact that there is no common methodology or framework to embody and critique means that only those students already with a mind toward deconstructive, interdisciplinary synthesis will truly put forward a lasting challenge or expectation to the academic discipline. We’re feeling the reality of this all too palpably right now in our mainstream narrative, where people in positions of authority can ignore whatever journalism narratives they wish, with no consequences. There’s no primarily authoritative way to look at a narrative as envisioned through that journalistic lens.

The perverse reality is that if not for the hegemony of the prevailing ideology, investigative journalism would be the most trustworthy common narrative we share in our society. Journalists would present detailed accounts with as much evidence as possible, openly admitting their own bias as a part of the story. Reporters would spend extended amounts of time in the field, feeling what it was like to be around others experiencing the same events. No one person would be able to claim that a news source is fundamentally “fake,” because the free press would need to be transparent and accountable, and the concept of falsehood would be something that all people could openly discuss and find common ground. Of course, in our current social climate, we experience quite the opposite. Journalism seems to think it has to adopt the authoritative model to legitimize itself, which ultimately backfires because of how dynamically mutable any narrative that obscures details can be. In other words, if you boil a story down to its basic components and report it as if “from the outside,” you’re missing the vital way a story is truly and dynamically representative.

I want to focus an analysis toward just a few particular statements in the Tropolitan article. Early in the article we get a choice statement from an interviewee, without any context. The statement itself, for its part, is probably gleaned from a much longer response, but at least gives a complete thought that–with more information–the reader might be able to benefit from:

“(The speakers) basically talked about ‘alternative facts,’ ” said forum attendee Holly Scott, a sophomore multimedia journalism major from Panama City, Florida, “and how your mind perceives facts and beliefs as one thing sometimes.”

This statement is almost a direct reduction of one passage in my portion of the forum, in which I said:

Just as readily as we value evidence when it suits our narratives, we sometimes treat facts as irrefutable things to believe in, irrespective of evidence, and when taking positional stances we tend to polarize ourselves from other imagined subjects. I claim there is a tendency for our ideological modes of expression to obscure facts and information behind an authoritative front.

The next part of the article shifts gears abruptly, reducing another forum member’s statement:

Patricia Waters, assistant professor of English, said the forum was important for professors to teach students how to navigate a large variety of news sources.

“To my mind, the purpose of this forum is to bring together these people to discuss very contemporary issues that impact our teaching and our scholarship,” Waters said. “How do we go out and teach students to discriminate between sources that are legitimate and sources that are not?”

The use of words here is fascinating regarding how ideology manipulates meaning. Patricia did not say anything in this quote about what makes the forum important. She was clear with her words that in her mind, the purpose of this forum was a discussion with people about issues that “impact our teaching and scholarship.” These types of manipulations have become so prevalent in media narratives, that I think people have just become accustomed to ignoring the voice of the reporter (whether in writing or in an audiovisual recording). It’s a bland sort of reduction that invites the reader to reduce, essentialize, move along, nothing to see.

Also disheartening, of course, is to see my own analysis reduced in similar forms. The article writes:

Bret Woods, assistant professor of ethnomusicology, told the audience that information from people in power cannot always be trusted.

So, okay, I accept that. Of course, once again, I never said the words “information from people in power cannot always be trusted,” but of course I agree with that essentialization, insomuch as I had communicated in my discussion point (if I can similarly be reductive about my own words) that it is healthy to question even the most classic stories and assumptions that seem to establish an authoritative reality. It took me like five minutes to nuance this thought, but of course–move along, nothing to see here.

“In many cases, authority alone is used to legitimatize facts,” Woods said. “This creates a culture… that promotes authority rather than ideology.”

Several record scratching sounds later I think I’ve wrapped my head around this one. It looks like a clerical error, coupled with a misunderstanding of basic terminology, in addition to a reductive assumption about my general meaning.

First of all, this is all noted as a direct quote. I did not say the second part of this sentence. Like, at all. The actual quote is:

In many cases, authority alone is used to legitimize facts or source material, which skews or eliminates the shared public understanding of evidence-based discoveries.

Mine is a radically different statement than the one they reported in that article. Primarily, it’s what I actually said, so that’s something. But also it cuts through the ideological assumptions that is encouraging the author of the article to reduce the representative awareness of the forum into their own categorical assumptions of “importance” and binary oppositions.

Then the Tropolitan article essentializes my talking point, eliding it with the presenter who followed me in the forum:

Speaking after Woods was Richard Ledet, assistant professor of political science. He echoed Woods’ statements and contributed his thoughts on the media. “We can’t even trust our president to tell us the truth,” Ledet said. Ledet offered the topic of tolerance in his speech, saying that tolerance, along with participating in voting and being educated, was crucial in being a democratic citizen [sic].

Ledet’s freestyle way of exploring the notion of what comprises a democratic citizen, with respect to what he was doing, had no actual similarities to my statements about disillusion and the exploration of truth in media narratives. He appropriated my words out of context a couple of times, but his focus and mine were not intertwined. For example, he made a point to introduce political tolerance as a key factor in one’s duty as a citizen, stating:

“The thing about political tolerance is: I don’t have to like you, I don’t have to appreciate you, I don’t have to want to hang out with you, but what I have to understand is that the very same rights and privileges I have also have to pertain to you. Because my rights and liberties mean nothing if they aren’t protected for someone else.”

A strange development, in that it is a concept that immediately contradicts itself. It should seem obvious that one does not have to appreciate or like others; but tolerance does not at all mitigate or challenge that, it reinforces it. Perhaps he sensed this, because he soon followed with this statement:

“I think for our purposes here, as we’re having this discussion about disillusionment in media narratives, we’ve got to be concerned about what our role is as a citizen, and I think for our purposes here the most important thing is to tolerate other points of view. That being said, there’s a paradox within tolerance: are you supposed to tolerate the very thing that will destroy you? Should we be tolerant of Nazis? Should we be tolerant of “socialists?” Any Bernie Sanders fans out there? Should we be tolerant of the very things that would destroy our society? Again, the burden is placed upon the consumer–ah, the citizen. The burden is placed on the citizen–to figure out how to engage in society, how to become educated about the other, but also to tolerate other people’s space.”

Okay, so there’s a lot to unpack here–contradictions, divisive inferences, misguided assumptions–way more than I think is necessary to address at this juncture. But to say the least, there’s a twisting thought exercise at work here that in the Tropolitan’s reporting of our forum is reduced to “we’ve got to extend our civil rights to others,” and “tolerance [is] crucial in being a democratic citizen.” There’s so much that needs clarification in Ledet’s statement that can contribute to the overall flow of the forum, but the reduction of which seems to ignore this. Also, the “paradox” that Ledet introduces (which is really just a Yoda-esque aphorism), without any nuance, is similarly never reported on. I think about if I were writing this story, this “tolerate the very thing that will destroy you” statement is the one that would have stood out to me as in the need of the most nuance, critique, and exploration (as is clear in the forum where I proceeded to challenge the notion of tolerance and its ideological assumptions). The Tropolitan would have been better off simply linking readers to the YouTube forum. Why didn’t they? Why essentialize things? Out of a historical need to continue “being journalists?”

And here we see ideology at work. Our “network culture” gives us the tools to explore and scrutinize evidence, talk about it with others, and entertain a brilliantly complex simultaneity of nuanced narratives, yet the predominant ideology tows the line of the authoritative, reductive, referential voice. Tropolitan, like many news outlets, reduces narratives in order to make them consumable for people, when really they would better serve public discourse as a hypertextual index of links.

And the same ideology informs how many consumers gather information: in expected, authoritative, repeatable forms, ones that require little analysis on their own part. Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why we continue to let that take form? It paints an intricate picture of the power that periodical writers had in their communities in the days before the internet, and of the mutability of that power in the world of network culture. The Internet has fundamentally changed our ability to access information, and many media narratives generally speaking flounder to legitimize their authority in a transforming world.

When technology and public discourse experience transformations, there are a lot of political negotiations in tension between abandoning the authoritative mode and reinforcing it. Why is it that part of this negotiation involves dismissing the challenges to our ideology by stating, as Medsger did in 1996,

Though its roots in American universities are more than a century old, journalism education has the characteristics of an experiment – not a dynamic, evolving experiment, but a fragile, unsure, endangered experiment (Medsger, 1996).

It’s telling to me (though perhaps a bit of decontextualization on my part), that Ledet in the forum used this same exact logic when addressing the tenuous nature of being a democratic citizen:

“Remember: this is all an experiment. We’re just trying out this system of governance. We’re just trying out a democratic way of ordering society. So if you think about it–in the abstract, I think I heard someone say; we’re all capable of imagining here–there’s no guarantee that this is all going to last, if we don’t make sure it lasts. There’s no guarantee that the United States as we know it, our awesome, great constitution… there’s no guarantee. This is an experiment. It is up to us.”

What is it about ideology that, above all, it seems to be preoccupied with narratives? I think this is evidence that the narratives are inherently subjective and thus impossible to reduce without appropriate affirmation of biased representation. Since the growth of literacy and globalism in the late eighteenth century, whenever society becomes publicly aware of the complexity of a particular intersection of subjects, the narrative becomes particularly manipulated and polarized. Authority manipulates narratives to enforce its own legitimacy. The prevailing ideology is the invisible framework that envelops the understanding of most ontological and empirical realities, which are negotiated by our interpretive narratives. In current public discourse, these manipulations call into question the validity of truth, but only because the predominant ideological assumptions force a monolithic and authoritative definition of truth.

Doesn’t it make sense to recognize this pattern (which is only about as old as the United States is), and then participate in some combination of: A) Stop blindly deferring to authoritative positional debates, stop getting mired in binaries such as “truth vs. falsehood,” B) Question everything, even our most classic stories; be more accepting of uncertainty, C) Explore evidence in more rigorous but less rigidly assumptive ways, D) Be more willing to find insight in narratives; resist tolerance for tolerance’s sake.

Perhaps Russell Brand said it best in a recent interview, where he and the interviewer used the word “truth” in different, telling forms:

Sean Evans: “At what point is the truth so devalued that it’s not even worth searching for?”

Russell Brand: “Never. Because, what do we have other than our own essential experience of the world. But, there are challenges with concepts such as “the truth,” because there are, what, 14 people in this room, and each of us are having a different experience. And the people in the crew have their imperatives and objectives. For all we know one of these people had their heart broken today, so even in a confined social system such as this room there are numerous truths and numerous realities, and our job as human beings is to be sympathetic, empathetic, and bridge-building with other people’s truths, not damning, condemning, and maliciously and deliberately confused. So, truth is more important than it has ever been. The profligacy and availability of information means that we have to be responsible with information, and responsible with truth.”

We live in a time of increased rage, discontent, disillusion, especially among people who actively study the world and its intricacies and collect the data and information that provides us collectively with a body of facts we can use to build our narratives. But there is no productive outlet for the discontent that people feel as they learn more intricately about the imbalances of the world, because there is no ideology equipped to inform this existence. And more importantly there seems to be at the moment no viable solution to this, since people use the same ideological framework to try to imagine an alternative. The logic that reduces complex imbalances by calling them “an experiment” does little other than articulate the obvious without revealing its ideology. The opposite side of this polarity is the equally inert rhetoric that dismisses the value of media narratives altogether. 

My thought is this is why power continues to collect and sustain itself in large part as it has done since the late eighteenth century, and likewise it is why people in positions of power maintain their position at the expense of those they marginalize and oppress. Our network culture has given more people the voice to speak out and fact check in the face of that authoritative hegemony, but no tools to shift the scope of the ideological framework. Perhaps it’s time we begin to trust that the social transformations we are seeing are evidence that we are fundamentally redefining how we imagine our role in public discourse, even if that means abandoning certain established modes of social expression. 

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