This is not a blog about politics. It’s a blog to mentor people about media.
One of the courses I teach at the university is about the processes and effects of mediated communication. I feel this is an important course for students who will become future radio and television journalists. Journalism is a critical component of our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson on Newspapers
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and our third President felt that newspapers were that important to our democracy.
Warning: Long-term TV Exposure Could Be Hazardous to Your Reality
Researchers Morgan, Shanahan, Signorielli said their research found that long-term exposure to television tends to cultivate the image of a relatively mean and dangerous world. This area of media research is called “Cultivation.”
People have long feared powerful and harmful media effects, especially on children.
National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence
The 1960s were tumultuous times. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed on live TV by Jack Ruby. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on the balcony of his hotel and Bobby Kennedy, President’s Kennedy’s brother, was assassinated at a political rally in California. This is why President Lyndon Johnson formed the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence to conduct the first study on the effects of mediated violence on TV.
George Gerbner, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and later Temple University, developed his “cultivation theory” to explain the effects television was having on heavy viewers. His theory says that people who watch a lot of TV tend to develop or cultivate views of the world similar to what they see on television, generally a “mean” world filled with crime and violence.
In a given week of TV, more than half of all leading characters on television are involved in some kind of violent act. Heavy viewers see more than 50% of the stars in their favorite shows engaged in some kind of violent activity. But what’s the reality?
Violent crime in America is at 30-year lows. However Americans’ concern for violent crime is at a 15-year high. In fact 7 out 10 Americans said crime was rising in America. Gun sales have surged 40% this year and are on track for another record breaking year.
Can you see how television is cultivating its viewers and skewing their reality of the world around them?
Social Construction of Reality
Research shows that heavy viewers of television tend to cultivate the same distorted view of the real world as the one they see on TV. They over-estimate the amount of crime on their streets, become more fearful and seek out ways to protect themselves from this perceived violence. Resonance with TV’s dramatic stories occurs when real world events occur that reinforce the fictional world of television.
Network television’s corporate leaders are always striving to produce programs that will garner the most eyeballs watching them for the least amount of money to produce them. Why not, its good business and stakeholders reward a great financial performance by TV executives.
Reality TV shows were a dream come true. Production costs were low and audience viewing levels were high. The only real problem with reality television is it’s not reality; it’s faux reality.
Reality TV Stars
This new form of prime time programming would produce new stars. Jersey Shore produced Snooki to the world. Seaside Heights might compare that televised devastation to Hurricane Sandy in terms of the damage caused to this wonderful ocean resort community.
The Apprentice would produce a New York billionaire as its star.
Between the original Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump would command prime time television on NBC for 14 seasons. For some voters in this 2016 Presidential election, that’s almost their entire life. For heavy TV viewers, their reality of Trump has been formed from this television program. Their social construction of reality of Trump has been formed by up to 14 years of faux reality.
24-Hour News vs. ESPN
The advent of 24-hour news channels created an insatiable appetite for content. To keep viewers tuned in, the once rarely seen “Breaking News” slide now is exploding on people’s HDTV screens out of every commercial break.
The coverage of politics is almost indistinguishable from the way ESPN covers sports. Many of the descriptors used come directly from the lingo of play-by-play announcers.
TV The Great Storyteller
Television is the great storyteller of our time. Much in the way researchers have measured the impact TV has had on people’s view of crime versus reality, should we now be concerned about people’s view of our politics in much the same way?
Radio also has a toe in these waters. Talk radio, after the repeal of The Fairness Doctrine, took off. Rush Limbaugh was the first – and still reported to be the biggest – benefactor of this new kind of talk radio.
Radio operators, like television operators, also look for programming that will produce the largest audience for the least amount of dollars to produce. Talk radio was incredibly successful for accomplishing this.
The last election showed the power of social media in terms of influencing voter opinion during the Presidential election in 2012. This election cycle appears to be reaching a new apex for social media’s influence.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
Professor Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was published in 1985. Postman passed away in October 2003. His book looked at whether the future would be more like George Orwell had predicted in “1984” or more like Aldous Huxley predicted in his book “Brave New World.”
Orwell predicted that a “big brother” government would control the world and Huxley felt that entertainment would totally distract us from what was really going on with our world.
This book is as relevant today as when it was published, maybe even more so, as many of the predictions made are now on internet steroids.
Television and social media have replaced the written word. Mass media continues to move in the direction of entertainment which challenges it to share serious ideas. One candidate’s coughing fit obscures serious talking points delivered later to an audience in the room but not to the audience on television. Another candidate captures TV coverage by early morning “tweet storms.” The casualty is serious issues get no air time, complex issues are bumped for superficial ones. News we need to know is replaced by news that entertains.
ABC – NBC – CBS
For the past seven years, my students have done a comparative analysis of the three major evening newscasts to study their “agenda setting” for America’s news viewers. The general conclusion by my students is that none of them give you everything you need to know to be an informed citizen in a democracy.
What I’ve witnessed over the time I’ve been doing this exercise with my students is how totally entertainment oriented all three of them have become.
Saturday Night Live
The new season of SNL opened on Saturday, October 1, 2016. Alec Baldwin was cast in the role of Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon was cast in the role of Hillary Clinton. Based on the reviews of what every news channel was calling “Must See TV” McKinnon won the night by putting Ms. Clinton in a positive light and Baldwin turned Mr. Trump into a pathetic caricature of “@realDonaldTrump”.
McKinnon’s line probably said it best; when as Ms. Clinton she said “I think I’m going to be President.”
If what researchers have learned about television and the study of its influence on people’s perception of violence carries over to people’s candidate voting preferences, then SNL may have just influenced the outcome of the 2016 United States Presidential election.