Provocative Thoughts from an Outsider  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2003

Provocative Thoughts from an Outsider   

Democracy and the News
By Herbert J. Gans
Oxford University Press
184 pages; $26

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


The biggest surprise in Herbert Gans' new book isn't his blunt diagnosis of what ails journalism or his fresh, often funky suggestions for reform. The biggest surprise is his challenge to basic assumptions about news and democracy.

To begin with, Gans argues, journalists inflate their influence on audiences and politics.

"Most of the time," he counters, "most of the news audience pays too little attention to the news for it to have much effect on them....

"Because the news media are so visible...it is easy to exaggerate their political effects. It is also easy to forget that politics and government are not about communication but about money and power.... [T]he news media are an always visible but a rarely influential player."

He builds his case through further unconventional assertions:

"Despite much disingenuous talk about citizen empowerment...citizens have never had much clout. Countries as big as America operate largely through organizations, including corporations, public agencies, and nonprofits, that can virtually function without citizens, and that citizens have a hard time challenging."

"Citizens tend to be realistic about their lack of power in the world of organizations, and...may not even want power."

"Most people do not need the news to live their lives.... [M]any citizens do not much want to be informed."

As Gans sees it, the news media exaggerate their own role and idealize the myth of an informed citizenry's power. Instead, he writes, both citizens and journalists find themselves in a "disempowerment spiral" that frustrates the best-intended efforts to reform.

Gans is an eminent Columbia University sociologist, best known to journalists for his excellent 1979 book, "Deciding What's News," which critically examined the underlying conventions and procedures of the news media.

He brings to his new book an outsider perspective unrestrained by the received wisdom and groupthink of journalists themselves. This can lead to original insights and to strange, seemingly nave departures (as when he recommends more "news fiction" or suggests government funding for the media).

Whereas Gans based "Deciding What's News" on direct observations inside newsrooms, the newer book is an extended essay without much documentation. But Gans is still an informed, keen observer. In a time of journalistic uncertainty, his kind of thinking is stimulating and needed.

Perhaps his most penetrating criticism of contemporary journalism concerns what he calls "top-down news."

"From the perspective of their audience," he writes, "journalists...are outsiders who are often seen, rightly or wrongly, as representatives of the elite and the world of money and power in which they travel. These outsiders deliver news that deals mostly with people of power and high rank.... [P]olitical news comes...from the top down."

This ill-serves the audience, he suggests, because it glorifies the top echelon, neglects midlevel bureaucracies where so much action takes place, overcovers government at the expense of business and other institutions, and shortchanges ordinary citizens' interests and perspectives.

It is little wonder, he concludes, that people don't see much difference between media and government. To the extent the media devote so much attention "to the exploits and pronouncements of the leaders in which people lack trust," journalists risk forfeiting public trust as well.

The press, Gans says, needs "to reduce the emphasis on top-down news and the publicizing of the powerful."

So he offers a series of wide-ranging recommendations. News, he writes, must become more user-friendly, rebuilt around "a serious attempt to discover what audiences think they need to know" through surveys, in-depth interviews and " 'living with the audience' experiences." He calls for stronger localizing of national and international news, more "participatory news...designed to provide direct or indirect aid to citizens who wish to participate" and better explanatory journalism focused on the " 'why' questions."

More controversially, he urges an increase in what he calls "news-opinions," informed opinion offered by beat reporters. He suggests that more "news fiction," by which he seems to mean carefully labeled docudramas or series, can help persuade audiences "to start paying attention to real news." As for government funding, which he slyly calls "respectable bribery," he mentions such possibilities as tax write-offs to encourage media corporations to invest more heavily in the news.

"Despite all the dangers and other downsides that...government monies spell for the freedom and autonomy of the news media," he says, "there are other dangers and downsides when the monies come from the private sector."

Interestingly, Gans dismisses public journalism, which would seem to be his logical ally. Public journalism, he writes, "privileges mainstream issues, prefers mild controversies, and is unlikely to go beyond the ideological margins of conventional journalism. In contrast, I see participatory journalism as more citizen oriented, taking a political, and when necessary, adversarial, view of the citizen-official relationship."

On this point and others Gans is seldom forthcoming with examples. Reading this slender book tends to be like listening to a brainy but contrarian elder statesman think out loud. Its virtue is not that it convinces you but that it makes you think.

Gans is most provocative when challenging our articles of faith, particularly the view that if the press just better informs citizens, then they will become more involved in civic life and democracy will benefit. Gans argues that lack of power is more debilitating to citizens than lack of information.

Part of his argument is purely political. But Gans' assessment of why audiences and journalists seem estranged is perceptive and pertinent, and at least one of his conclusions seems indisputable: "Journalists cannot function as messengers," he reasons, "unless the recipients want and need them."

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