May 23, 2013

Ideologies in the News: How Powerful Ideas Become Common Sense

Wayne mellingerBy Wayne Mellinger

Instructor, Antioch University

A “dominant ideology is a way of looking at and understanding the social world that reflects the perspectives of the rich and powerful.  British sociologist John B. Thompson  aptly describes ideology as “meaning in the service of power.”

Because dominant ideologies are meaning-laden events, social scientists have developed approaches to studying them that are highly attuned to the details of discourse and the interpretation of texts—that is, how ordinary people make sense of these symbolic events in everyday life.

Today media scholars have uncovered four essential ways to research ideologies-as-texts and how they pervade our background understandings, practical reasoning and generally accepted truths—“what everybody knows to be the case”.

First, the political economy  of news organizations greatly shapes the “angle” of news contents.  As more and more media sources become in the hands of fewer and fewer massive corporations and conglomerates, this has greatly impacted what becomes news and the perspective taken on recent occurrences. In his 2004 book The New Media Monopoly , UC-Berkeley media critic Ben Bagdikian  documents the corporatization of news organizations.

The “propaganda model of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky posits that because mainstream media outlets are large corporations or part of conglomerates, the news that is presented is biased with respect to these interests.  Consider how Westinghouse or General Electrics have extensive financial interests in numerous economic sectors and how these interests might shape their reporting. If you think that there is no censorship of news articles by American corporate media, check out the yearly list of the 25 most important news article censored by the press and collected by Project Censored at Sonoma State University.

The second way media scholars research how dominant ideologies become common sense is through close observation of the work routines of professional journalists.  Ethnographers  such as Gaye Tuchman and Mark Fishman have gone under cover to examine the specific occupational practices of news workers in the everyday work lives.

For example, many news departments have specified “beats” in which official bureaucratic information from various “trustworthy” official sources provides the basis for the news.  A crime beat depends upon information provided by law enforcement agencies, which typically already has a law-and-order spin to it.

Or consider the routine journalistic practice of seeking to balance opposing viewpoints in the news by giving equal space to divergent ideas, thereby achieving “objectivity.”  In the case of news concerning climate change, this resulted in Americans believing that there was no widespread consensus among climate scientists, when, in fact there is.

A third way media scholars have investigated ideology in the news is by studying the language of news stories as found on television, in traditional newspapers, or in online news reports.  Ideologies are often subtly inserted into news stories in nuanced ways.

Scholars, such as Dutch discourse analyst Teun van Dijk, have examined the details of talk and text in news stories, including the use of narrative structure, lexical choices, metaphors and rhetoric.  At each point in the news story, these scholars ask Why that now? Why this descriptive term and now some other?  What this verb and not some other?

Detailed analysis of the words, images and sounds contained in published and broadcast news stories highlights how the persuasive use of language and symbols is used by journalists to achieve specific ends, namely to advance the perspective of rich and powerful players.

The sequential unfolding of any particular story necessitates that some elements are included and others are excluded.  The choices about what to incorporate always involve a point of view.  The assemblage of words used to describe people, places and activities equally represent strategic choices, as things could always have been presented otherwise.  Persuasive rhetorical flourishes, emotional appeals, and misleading logic are as much a part of modern journalism as they were of ancient Roman oratory.

For example, in studying the word choices involved in news stories about the “gang problem” in the Los Angeles Times, I found that innocent victims were frequently portrayed as though they had angelic qualities, like the story of the “church-going Little League baseball player” who was to testify in a gang-related murder trial.  In contrast, journalists often drew attention to specific features of the victimizers, including describing them as “youth,” released convicts, non-white people, refugees and immigrants.

The fourth major way media scholars research ideology in the news, and how it becomes common sense, concerns studying the interpretive practices actual readers and audiences of news stories draw upon to make sense of the news.  Clearly, the messages that ‘senders’ of news stories intend are not always the same as the messages that are received.

For example, the documentary method of interpretation, made famous by sociologists Karl Mannheim   and Harold Garfinkel , means that consumers of the news make sense of things by treating their actual appearance as revealing an underlying pattern.

Journalists draw upon pre-existing narratives and maps of meaning taken from our cultural myths and then assign them to a new reality so that the new reality conforms to that cultural myth.  For example, people draw upon background knowledge about the “gang problem” to make sense of any particular gang murder.  The new “reality” is pasted onto the cultural myth so that we do not forget that myth.

The Italian cultural theorists and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci  referred to the social processes through which dominant ideologies become common sense as hegemony, emphasizing how cultural domination happens through these practices. As persuasive ideas become accepted as simply “the way things really are”, ruling elites gain the consent of the populace. 

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