By Nicole Blanchett Neheli
Media logic is an underutilized theory that examines content production—including news—and how the processes that support the creation of such content impact information sharing. Eventually I’m going to talk about a baby-goat disco…so keep reading if theory’s not your thing.
To give some context, media logic falls under the symbolic interactionism paradigm where “meanings of things arise out of the process of social interaction” (Denzin 2004, p.82). It’s a constructivist viewpoint:
“…what people know and believe to be true about the world is constructed or created and reinforced and supported as people interact with one another over time in specific social settings” (LeCompte and Schensul 2010).
So, as an example, something is a “news” story because an editorial team in a newsroom agrees that it is, and such a story is often recognized as news by others because of the way that it is formatted or packaged. The sometimes absurd, routinized structure of news stories has been mocked by Charlie Brooker and many others. But how do such structures manifest? Media logic.
What is Media Logic?
Altheide (2013) defines media logic as “a form of communication, and the process
through which media transmit and communicate information” (p.225). This can include, for example, the way journalists jam content into prescribed structures, such as a television reporter package. If you’re working in a newsroom, as I have, everyone you’re working with knows what a reporter package is, including how long it should be and the elements it should contain to make it “entertaining.” This is essential to the flow of production. Can you imagine the time it would take if there was a discussion to define the format for every story? This concept doesn’t just pertain to newsrooms, though—think of the structured narrative of a romcom, or even the systematized formats used by YouTubers like Phillip DeFranco (someone I learned about from my students).
However, the combination of designated formats and the required workflows to efficiently create them can lead to narrowed frames of reference. This is because rather than figuring out how best to share information, often the job is figuring out how best to put the information into the required format (Altheide and Snow 1979; 1991; Altheide 2004). With regards specifically to journalistic content, Altheide believes the production process itself decontextualizes events by recontextualizing them within “news formats.” This can significantly impact public discourse because, for the audience, media logic “becomes a way of seeing and interpreting social affairs” (2017, p.73).
Format over Function
Placing format over function fosters swift production of news content aimed at attracting eyeballs and advertisers. This has long been an issue because, often, “…news production is directed more by organization and commercialism than it is by an adequate epistemology” (Altheide & Snow 1979, p.101). Examples include the promotion of popular stories on news websites, or coverage of U.S. president Donald Trump that has been a boon to the bottom line for organizations of all stripes. Profit also impacted the practice of non-journalists creating bogus websites in Macedonia—their goal was using news formats to make money, not necessarily to support any political ideology (Altheide 2017).
In order to gain the attention of the collective audience, a variety of people take advantage of knowing how to manipulate or play the journalistic game. Bourdieu (1996) and Champagne (2005) both describe how demonstrations and events are “prepared and designed” (Champagne 2005, p.54) to accommodate media coverage and fit into Altheide’s (2017) description of news formatting that is “evocative, encapsulated, highly thematic, familiar to audiences, and easy to use” (p.16). So, for example, the better an event might look on TV, the better chance it has of getting on TV, or getting covered at all.
One study looking at the 2015 U.K. federal election found it was more “a political than media logic shaping coverage as parties were strategically trying to avoid opportunities where journalists could interrogate them about their policy agendas” (Cushion et al. 2016, p.480). However, by staging tightly controlled events that were good for television and the web, and making them the only place reporters could get information, political organizers were actually using media logic as a way to shape the political agenda, creating visually stimulating, sound bite engineered events that could easily fit within existing media formats for news agencies working with limited resources to fill space and time on a variety of platforms.
If media logic were not at play, it would be easier for journalists to refuse to cover such events and spend more time looking for ways to unearth the real issues. Unfortunately, for most newsrooms, as ad revenues/funding shrink, that is not a viable option—the show, or the page, must be filled with content formatted in a way perceived to attract the largest audience. And that audience must be quantified to attract advertisers, or, for non-profits, to use as a measure of relevance.
The Grammar of News
Heinderyckx (2015) suggests the web should have eased restrictions on formatting because of available space, but analytics are now determining story lengths based on how far readers, on average, scroll down a page and editors often choose formats that are popular, like lists or picture galleries, over informative. Formats themselves signify what is “credible news” to an audience. As Snow (1983) wrote,
“…believability of news is a consequence of the grammar of news” and “the form of communication affects the believability of the content” (p.226).
This idea was supported years later by Swasy et al. (2015) who found even amongst college students who are “known for their low traditional news media consumption” standardized news formats “triggered their old media heuristic that then influenced their credibility perception” (p.233)—in other words, standardized formats were seen as more credible. Hellmeuller (2015) believes recognized formats can help the audience identify real news and build audience trust.
However, advertorials can be mistaken for journalism (Carlson 2015), and news formats can be used to give credibility to messages with a specific agenda. This triggered debate during the 2018 provincial election in Ontario, when political advertisements were cut like news reports. These types of stories can be widely seen, and are often unintentionally given more credence by mainstream media trying to debunk them. As a result of such amplification, at best, misleading or out of context information can be rapidly spread, and, at worst, as seen in the U.S. 2016 election, blatant falsehoods can be embedded into everyday narratives. Format isn’t just an issue at the site of creation but where content is shared:
“…popular social networks make it difficult for people to judge the credibility of any message, because posts from publications as unlike as the New York Times and a conspiracy site look nearly identical. This means that people are increasingly reliant on friends and family members to guide them through the information ecosystem” (Wardle and Derakhshan 2017, p.12).
As Altheide identified, “Not all media will be accepted in the same way by all audiences, but even the divergence will be informed by a familiar logic. Social context is very important in shaping experiences, expectations, and standards” (Altheide 2013, p.234).
Money over Matter
There are many parallels in the views of Altheide and Bourdieu when it comes to the limitations created by the routinized, economically-driven production of cultural content, particularly news production. Bourdieu (1996) suggests that television creates rather than records reality, Altheide’s 1970’s ethnographic study on television newsrooms is titled Creating Reality. In Bourdieu’s On Television, he laments the selection of guests who must present viewpoints in “uncomplicated, clear, and striking terms” and “avoid the quagmire of intellectual complexity” (p.3). Expressing his frustration with the time limits on news segments, Bourdieu (2005) wrote,
“…it has happened to me countless times—‘Do you want to come on the evening news and talk about the crisis? You’ll have three minutes.’”
Although criticized that his reflections on journalism were more opinion-based, with no empirical component, having worked in television I found much of what Bourdieu wrote to be true to my own experience.
The pre-interview for guests to which he referred to above was part of my job and those qualities were the ones I sought in the guests I booked for interviews and to appear on live shows that I produced. Three minutes was and is a significant amount of time for a guest to be given to explain an issue. His concerns with media being too interested in what other media are creating is also not unfounded—another part of my job was to follow what other news organizations were working on to ensure that my own newsroom was not missing a story. We valued the scoop, and keeping it simple and short were ingrained practice. As noted by Bourdieu, “Blood, sex, melodrama and crime” were “big sellers” (p.17). Even while working as a show producer, when my job was to decide what went in the newscast, I was aware that, as Bourdieu wrote,
“So much emphasis on headlines and so much filling up of precious time with empty air with nothing or almost nothing-shunts aside relevant news, that is, the information that all citizens ought to have in order to exercise their democratic rights” (p.18).
As an example, I once got into an argument with a producer about having the Sports host live at Hooter’s because it had nothing to do with Sports and took away time from other stories in the newscast. I lost that argument. In a less blatant example, it’s why you’re more likely to see broader coverage and more promotion of stories regarding what Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family wear while visiting India than you are of critical issues like the dispute over a pipeline on First Nations’ land in Canada.
Altheide also decries what is not covered as much as what is. In his work, the primary issue is not how people interpret messages, but how the audience builds context for events based on the limited information they receive about limited subject matter. This is also an issue for scholars focused on gatekeeping, or the process of selecting which news stories will be covered. Shoemaker and Vos (2009) identified that “perhaps the most important aspect of gatekeeping is that issues and events that are not covered are absent from the worldviews of most audience members.”
The Far Reach of Media Logic
Altheide further developed media logic focusing on the ways in which media profit by playing off of people’s fears, creating sensationalistic, out of context content in order to draw advertisers (2004; 2007; 2013), part of a wider issue of mediated social control and construction he defines as “the politics of fear” (Altheide 2017, p.3). Again, Bourdieu (1996) parallels this concern with his assertion that news
“…increases xenophobic fears, just as the delusion that crime and violence are always and everywhere on the rise feeds anxieties and phobias about safety in the streets and at home” (p.8).
In line with Bourdieu’s concerns over the impact and infiltration of mass media on society, Altheide examined how the spread of media logic through social media and digital technologies not only impact content creation but “numerous everyday life activities” as “audiences-as-actors normalize these forms and use them as reality maintenance tools” (2013,p.225). Altheide (2017) says now, “all social institutions are media institutions” (p.72) and social institutions are altered by media logic: including simple acts like politicians wearing appropriate clothes for televised events; religious programs as entertainment; or changes in sports play, like, my example, commercial time-outs in hockey.
However, more disturbingly, Altheide (2017) identifies the need for socially mediated processes in crime and terror attacks, for example, when a two-person television crew was murdered live on air by a disgruntled former reporter who filmed his actions with a GoPro and uploaded the video to the internet, posting tweets and Facebook messages about his actions before killing himself. Or, in other examples, terrorists adopting “well-established formats” (p.177) incorporating social media into their plans, including posting video of beheadings and other terror attacks. This takes to an extreme Altheide’s posit that media logic “involves an implicit trust that we can communicate the events of our daily lives through the various formats of media” (Altheide 2017, p.73). In the age of social media, the influence of media logic helps shape every tweet and Facebook post.
Drawing on Carey, Wardle and Derakhshan suggest, “Rather than simply thinking about communication as the transmission of information from one person to another, we must recognize that communication plays a fundamental role in representing shared beliefs” (p.7). This echoes Altheide’s (1984) description of the ecology of communication, where
“…contemporary social life increasingly is conducted and evaluated on the basis of organizational and technological criteria that have contributed to the development of new communication formats which modify existing activities as well as help shape new activities” (p.666).
Because they are now so ingrained within contemporary culture, it’s easy to forget how relatively “new” activities such as posting, liking, and sharing are, along with the technological advances that make them possible.
The Baby-Goat Disco
Now for the baby goats. I recently saw an ad that shared warning signs of diabetes over adorable pictures of baby goats at a “disco.”Clearly, someone realized that a break in formatting from your average health PSA was required in order to get people’s attention. The format used was effective in both positioning the ad as containing relevant information while making it “entertaining” in order to hold attention.
Standardized formats can limit information sharing and stifle originality; however, formats can also be used in innovative ways to improve engagement, discourse, and understanding—or promote what I call positive media logic. In an age of fractured audiences and rapidly spread misinformation, this type of innovation is needed. All media producers should be conscious of how the processes they follow and the formats they choose might impact the context and reach of the information they share—and understanding media logic is critical to this process.
**Written with files from Metrics and Analytics in the newsroom: An ethnographic study exploring how audience data are changing journalistic practice
References linked to above or listed below:
Altheide, D.L., 1976. Creating reality: How television news distorts events. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Altheide, D.L., 2004. Media logic and political communication. Political Communication, 21, 293-296.
Altheide, D.L., 2006. Terrorism and the politics of fear. Critical Methodologies,6(4), 415-439.
Altheide, D.L., 2007. The mass media and terrorism. Discourse and Communication,1(3), 287-308.
Altheide, D.L., 2013. Media logic, social control, and fear. Communication Theory, 23(3), 223-238.
Altheide, D.L., 2017. Terrorism and the politics of fear. Lanham, ML: Rowman and Littlefield.
Altheide, D.L. and Snow, P., 1979. Media logic. BeverlyHills, CA: SagePublications.
Altheide, D.L. and Snow, P., 1991. Media worlds in the postjournalism era. New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter Inc.
Bourdieu, P., 1996. On television, trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. London: New Press.
Bourdieu, P., 2005. The political field, the social science field, and the journalistic field. In: Benson, R. and Neveu, E. eds. Bourdieu and the journalistic field. Polity, 29-47.
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Cushion, S., Thomas, R., Kilby, A., Morani, M. and Sambrook, R., 2016. Interpreting the media logic behind editorial decisions: Television news coverage of the 2015 UK general election campaign. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 21(4), 472-489.
Denzin, N. K., 2004. Symbolic Interactionism. In: Flick, U., von Kardoff, E. and Steinke, I. eds., A companion to qualitative research. Sage, 81-87.
Champagne, P., 2005. The “double dependency”: The journalistic field between politics and markets. Bourdieu and the journalistic field, 48-63.
Heinderyckx, F., 2015. Gatekeeping theory redux. In: Vos, T. and Heinderyckx, F., eds. Gatekeeping in Transition. New York, NY: Routledge, 85-102.
Hellmueller, L., 2015. Journalists’ truth justification in a transnational news environment. In T. Vos & F. Heinderyckx (Eds.), Gatekeeping in Transition. New York, NY: Routledge, 47-63.
LeCompte, M.D. and Schensul, J.J., 2010. Designing and Conducting Ethnographic Research: An Introduction, AltaMira Press, California. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [13 October 2017]. Created from bournemouth-ebooks on 2017-10-13 09:31:40.
Shoemaker, P.J. and Vos, T., 2009. Gatekeeping theory. Routledge.
Snow, R., 1983. Creating media culture. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
Swasy, A., Tandoc, E., Bhandari, M., and Davis, R., 2015. Traditional reporting more credible than citizen news. Newspaper Research Journal, 36(2), 225-236.