The cause/effect relationship between media presentations of news and public perceptions of what is or is not important has long been debated and researched in communication studies. Various theorists and scholars, as well as media agencies, have proposed a variety of relationships between news media and public sentiment. Media agents and organizations most commonly claim that they provide viewers with what they want. They use ratings numbers and viewership statistics to prove that we “like” entertainment news, reality programming, seeing the failures in the lives of others, etc. Some theorists, such as Stuart Hall, argue that the media are a powerful force that supports and sustains an ideology held by those in power. Thus, the media give us messages that support the needs and desires of some segments of the culture, while silencing other voices. Some scholars, like Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, indicate that the media may not tell us what to think, but they certainly tell us what to think about (so, when the breakup of Jon and Kate is one of the top stories on CNN for several weeks running, it seems important to us and thus we spend our mental and communicative energy on it).
Whatever the case, it seems clear that there is some connection between our understandings of the world and what is represented in media messages, particularly with regard to “things” with which we have no direct experience. Given the upheaval of the media landscape in recent years, we now have to reconsider the connections between the wants/needs/beliefs of viewers and the dominant media messages.
In a spring section of an upper level communication course, I asked students how many of them had read a print newspaper in the preceding week. One or two hands were raised. I asked how many had looked at CNN or another corporate news site online in that same period and over half of the class raised their hands. As we then began to discuss participant “news” sites (blogs, twitter, etc.), it was clear that most of the students in the class had visited more than one participant “news” venue – not simply in the preceding week, but in the day prior to our discussion. This is an intriguing, and potentially powerful, change to the way news is accomplished.
Even in more traditional media formats, like television or newspapers, the media landscape seems to be changing to a more participatory model. Online version of print papers contain options for submission of news stories, debates about issues of public concern, and comments on paper content. CurrentTV, a television “news” network, offers viewers the opportunity to create news “pods,” responses, reviews, and ads – thus bringing more interactivity into broadcast television than has ever been seen before.
So, what does all of this mean for us as media consumers and participants and as cultural and world citizens? That remains to be seen. If our interactive media forms are simply another venue to discuss the same issues (last weekend, in Philadelphia, the story of the Eagles signing Michael Vick was top news in traditional formats, and was also one of the most common subjects in Twitter’s news feed), maybe the changes won’t be particularly startling. But, if these interactive media forms create an avenue for us to bring issues to the forefront that might not otherwise gain public attention, or if they provide us with insight into experiences we cannot access directly or through traditional media, the whole future of how we learn and what we “know” may undergo a seismic change.
In any case, it’s all very exciting for a communication scholar, student, or fan. So, get “out there” and check it out. Read some blogs, tune in to CurrentTV, check out the Twitter feed… see what people are saying and make some comparisons between that and what you see in your mainstream media outlets. What do you think the future of “news media” holds for us?