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March 21, 2011, 2 p.m.

“News media are targeted but audiences are not”: Herbert Gans on multiperspectival journalism

Herbert Gans, a professor emeritus in Sociology at Columbia University, wrote perhaps the seminal book about news organizations. In Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time, first published in 1979, he provided one of the best accounts of how journalists actually do their work. In 2003, Gans published Democracy and the News, criticizing our current news outlets but offering hope that with some changes, we might improve both journalism and democracy along with it.

Journalism is not all he writes about, but when he does, it’s pretty powerful. Gans has inspired a new legion of would-be ethnographers to take up studying the news from inside newsrooms themselves, including myself and fellow Lab contributor C.W. Anderson. In Deciding What’s News, Gans made a powerful argument about the role of source power, audience power, and the need for efficiency as a motivating force driving the production of the news. But he also introduced an idea that he is revisiting today in an article in the journal Journalism. That idea is “multiperspectival journalism,” and I’ll let him define it below in his own words.

What follows is an interview I conducted with Gans. In addition to a discussion of multiperspectival journalism, it includes some of his ideas about how journalists could better serve as representatives for the people whom they cover, better reflecting the diversity of American experiences in their work.

NU: I’d like to begin by asking about what many people in the journalism world know you for: Deciding What’s News. In that work, you looked at CBS, NBC, Newsweek, and Time from a multi-year, ethnographic perspective. If you were to approach a restudy, what would you change — and what would you keep intact — from the original?
HG: I wish someone would do such a study, because both [network TV news and newsmagazines] now have smaller audiences and smaller budgets, but the network evening news has barely changed in format or content in the last 40 years, while the newsmagazines are changing drastically. I would want to study how they decide how and what to change — and what to keep — and what direct and indirect roles news organizations’ budgets and news audiences play in these changes and in the shape of national news generally.
NU: You defined “multiperspectival news” in 1979. And you bring it up again now. Could you explain it for us, and explain why you think it is still a relevant need? Is it more relevant today, given the challenges facing legacy news outlets?
HG: When I did my original research, national news was limited mostly to what I might now call monoperspectival news, sometimes also called stenographic news. I oversimplify somewhat here, but national news was dominated by journalists reporting what authoritative sources, especially top government officials, told them — or, when these disagreed, what “both sides” (usually Republican and Democratic) were claiming.

Multiperspectival news reporting is more diverse. It seeks news about other subjects that are newsworthy for the variety of audiences in the total news audience; it obtains news from many other sources, including ordinary citizens, and it reports a variety of political, ideological, and social viewpoints (or perspectives).

Here’s my favorite example. Poor audiences need business news like everyone else, but not about investing in the stock market or the latest newsworthy acts, legal or illegal, by corporate bigwigs. They need to know about the businesses in which they can afford to shop and the ones that will hire them, as well as the charitable and public agencies that can help them when they are jobless and in need.

Today, thanks to cable news and the Internet, the news is much more multiperspectival than it was in the past, but it reaches a far smaller news audience than traditional legacy news.

NU: You offer the following different perspectives that news could cover: national, less Washington-centered and more bottom-up news about ordinary people affected by the decisions and acts of politics; output news, or how policies (both public and private) affect people; representative news, or news about Americans in their great expanse of diversity writ large; and service news, or news that’s meaningfully relevant about how the government and other institutions can get things done.

Where would all of this news go? And who would you have writing it? Do you think newsrooms as they function today can shift to adapt to make these changes in perspective?

HG: When I published Deciding What’s News in 1979, I suggested increasing the number and variety of news media. Today, cable, the web, and other new technologies have made that happen, and we are at a stage in the innovation process in which further new journalistic formats and ideas are being tried out all the time. What can be monetized and what can be supplied free of charge remains to be seen, but if the needed monies and audiences are there, the journalists and the newsrooms will come to stay.
NU: You talk about the idea of journalists working more as representatives of people than they currently are, even though, of course, journalists are not elected. At the same time, journalists are, as you have argued, stuck in the box of their own worldviews, which often reflect their own social status and the ensuing beliefs about nation and society. How do we get around that?
HG: I find the idea of journalists as representatives intriguing, in part because the U.S. is an upscale democracy, the politics of which is dominated by corporate campaign funders and the upper-middle-income population that votes and participates more actively than the rest.

As a result, U.S. politics does a poor job of representing the remainder of the citizenry, especially those earning below the median income and various numerical minorities.

Journalists are not elected officials and they cannot be political representatives or advocates but they can represent people in a variety of other ways, for example by turning their experiences and problems into news, and by asking politicians and other authoritative sources questions to which unrepresented and poorly represented citizens need answers.

Journalists can also pay more attention to (now) poorly represented political and other ideas.

I think j-schools and news organizations can either recruit journalists who can get journalists unstuck from their own boxes or teach them to do so. Moreover, multiperspectival news — and representative journalism — would require a greater diversity of journalists, especially those coming from and familiar with the lives of poorly represented citizens and ideas.

NU: Today, the idea of “who is a journalist” has changed since your book in 1979. Who do you see as today’s journalists?
HG: I don’t think professional journalists have changed all that much since the book came out, other than that they are more educated and professionally better trained. Newsrooms have changed, as have all other workplaces, but I don’t see a big difference in today’s news judgments. Even the inverted pyramid has not yet been torn down.

True, there are amateurs who supply photos, videos, and even news stories to supplement what is gathered by professional journalists — but the latter still provide most of the actually-consumed news. It’s just that much of the news and opinion we once told each other face to face and in small groups is now visible to so many other people in the web’s so-called social media. However, even if it is visible does not necessarily mean that it is seen. One must always remember that ordinary people do not pay the same kind of attention to news as do journalists and media researchers, whether it is Facebook’s personal news or the TV networks’ professional news.

NU: You speak about citizen news, which would help people be more educated politically. Where do changes such as the citizen journalism movement and hyperlocal news fit into this vision of citizen news?
HG: Journalists need to pay more attention to what citizens are doing politically, and what their elected representatives do and don’t do for them. Conversely, elected representatives should know more about their constituents, especially the silent ones.

Reporting more such citizen news would incorporate the citizenry a little more into the political process, and would also offer citizens seeking to be more active examples of citizen activity. Since such news will probably always be of lower priority to professional journalists, help from the citizen journalism movement and supporters of local news would be desirable.

NU: One thing you alluded to in 1979 and bring forth more clearly now is the idea of targeted news. In 1979, you talked about having a two-tier system of a general news audience (first-tier) and then more specific (second-tier) audiences that were more homogeneous. I see this idea as taking shape in your current idea of targeted news coverage — what some would call niche content. Can you explain a little bit about the relationship between the general news audience and this targeted audience? Is there enough overlap to create a common conversation?
HG: News media are targeted but audiences are not. There are news media which seek to communicate with a particular audience, which may be targeted by gender, education, race, etc., and there are other news media — most, in fact — which try to attract everyone. However, audiences head for where they want to go, and many people turn to both general and targeted media. But I wouldn’t imagine much overlap or a common conversation. I am not even sure that many people converse very often about what’s in the news media, other than journalists and media researchers.
NU: All of this is going to take a lot of money, and you acknowledge that some of your calls for changes are not particularly practical. For example, you talked about having a national endowment for the news. Why is it, do you think, that the idea hasn’t been taken up? How could such an idea exist absent from the debates over public media funding?
HG: I didn’t try to be realistic or practical then, nor am I trying now, though I hope some of my ideas and proposals catch on. Even so, when I proposed the national endowment for news, its purpose was to fund some of these proposals on an experimental basis, not to provide general public media funding.

However, some public subsidy of the news media may become necessary in this day and age, and I am sorry that it seems to scare too many professional journalists. I think most of their fears are groundless but in any case, we should be discussing safeguards against possible threats to press freedom from government funders instead of scaring ourselves about what government might do to censor or chill journalists. Politicians and others making money or otherwise benefitting from fear are already scaring us too much about too many things.

POSTED     March 21, 2011, 2 p.m.
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