Sunday, March 2, 2008

How People Learn from the Press

Every time a newspaper lays out a front page, or a TV station puts together a broadcast, it is doing more than determining where and how stories should be played. It is in some ways expressing a theory about how people interact and learn from the news. Story slots and lengths are generally picked to reflect the many aspects of the community and the larger world, not just a narrow set of interests. And in effect, while the journalists may not think of them this way, these decisions are expressions of theories of democracy.

The questions at issue are much bigger than the newsroom. How do citizens affect public debate, government and other institutions? What do they need to know? What do they want to know?

Scholars have debated these issues for years. In the 1920s, a debate of sorts broke out between writer Walter Lippman and educator/philosopher John Dewey. Lippman argued that whatever the news media did, the public was too concerned with the activities of daily of life and too undermined by bias and stereotype to be effective at self-governance. Dewey countered that despite its inherent limitations, with the media's aid the public was capable of setting the broad outlines of the national debate and was equipped to serve as an umpire of last resort when large issues arose.

After years of talking to journalists and citizens and looking at the news media, however, we see a much more complicated and fluid interaction between the media and the public. In fact, the population is better understood when thought of as more than a single thing. In geography, age, occupation and interests the public is not a monolith but rather a mix of several interlocking publics.

Dave Burgin, who has edited newspapers from Florida to California and taught scores of young journalists, took this idea to heart in the way he laid out the pages of his papers. Imagine, he would say, that no more than roughly 15 percent of your readers would want to read any one story on the page. The editor's job, he says is to make sure each page had a sufficient variety of stories that every member of the audience would want to read one of them. Implicit in Burgin's theory of a diverse page is the idea that everyone is interested and even expert in something.

We call this the Theory of the Interlocking Public.

For the sake of argument let's say there are three broad levels of public engagement on every issue, each with even subtler gradations. There is an involved public, with a personal stake in an issue and a strong understanding. There is an interested public, with no direct role in the issue but which is affected and responds with some firsthand experience. And there is an uninterested public, which pays little attention and will join, if at all, after the contours of the discourse have been laid out by others. In the Interlocking Public, we are all members of all three groups, depending on the issue.

An autoworker in suburban Detroit, for instance, may care little about agriculture policy or foreign affairs, and may only sporadically buy a newspaper or watch TV news. But he will have lived through many collective bargaining debates, know a good deal about corporate bureaucracy and workplace safety. He may have kids in the local schools and friends on welfare, and know how pollution has affected the rivers where he fishes. To these and all other concerns he brings a range of knowledge and experience. On some matters he is the involved public; on others, the interested; and on still others, remote, unknowledgeable, and unengaged.

A partner in a Washington law firm will similarly defy generalization. She is a grandmother, avid gardener, and news junkie who look from a distance like a classic member of the involved "elite." A leading expert on constitutional law, who is quoted often in the press, she is also fearful of technology, bored by and ignorant of investing and business. Her children grown, she no longer pays attention to news about local schools, or even local government.

Or imagine a housewife in California with a high school education who considers her husband's career her own. Her volunteer work at children's schools gives her keen ideas about why the local paper is wrong in its education coverage, and she has an intuitive sense from her own life about people.

These sketches are obviously made up, but they bring the complex notion of public down to earth. The sheer magnitude and diversity of the people is its strength. The involved expert on one issue is the ignorant and unconcerned member of the public on another. The three groups - which themselves are only crude generalizations - work as a check on one another so that no debate becomes merely a fevered exchange between active interest groups. And together, this mix of publics makes the Democracy the comprise wiser than the involved public alone.

The job of the news media then is not to give the citizenry a complete "whole truth," but to supply this more complex and dynamic public what it needs to sort out the truth for itself over time.

Yet implicit in this understanding of the public is a burden on journalism not to focus the expert elite - the special interests. This may lead to disillusionment. Such a press does not reflect the world as most people live and experience it. Political coverage that focuses on tactical considerations for the political junkie and leaves the merely interested and the uninterested behind is failing in the responsibilities of journalism. A journalism in which every story is aimed at the largest possible audience - au O.J. all the time - leaves most of the audience behind.

In short, this vision of the Interlocking Public suggests that the requirements of the old press, of serving the interests of the widest community possible, remain as strong as ever. In doing so, the Theory of the Interlocking Public casts a shadow over the concept of niche marketing in journalism, too. Many of these so-called niches are much harder to define than the artificial categories defined by marketing research may imply. Television aimed at women 18 to 34, or Generation X, or soccer moms, or football fans is likely to alienate larger numbers of the very group at which it is aimed. People are simply more complex than the categories and stereotypes journalists and marketers create for them.

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