Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Public Opinion

Standing on the Edge of the World

Although the term “public opinion” has primarily been paired with politics over these past weeks, I tend to enter the conversation through the machinations of celebrity; if fame represents the phenomenon in question (i.e., the “what”), then Walter Lippman provides a “how” while Walter Benjamin chimes in with a “why.” The explanations of Lippman and Benjamin, are, of course, not the only ways in which one might endeavor to explain complex phenomenon of things like celebrity or political attitudes, but, for me, they represent a way.

In “How the News Shapes Our Civic Agenda” Maxwell McCombs and Amy Renyolds mention how Lippman’s seminal work Public Opinion outlines some of the ideas of what would later be called agenda-setting theory (generally, the idea that the relative attention given to articles by the mass media is correlated with the relative importance of those articles’ content by audiences) but this model, although likely valid, seems incomplete as it forwards a passive and reactionary position on behalf of audiences—although agenda-setting may certainly represent an influence on salience, it seems unlikely to represent the only factor at work.

Indirectly, agenda-setting speaks to some of the ways in which audiences can work to inscribe particular things (be they news items or celebrities) but here, the work of Benjamin sheds some light on why researchers may have observed the patterns that they did with regard to agenda-setting theory. Although admittedly more complex than is outlined here, one of the arguments made in Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is society’s rationalization that, in a world with limited resources, replicated images are worth reproducing. Applying this concept to news media, which  also suffers its own set of constraints (e.g., space in print media or time in broadcast media), we understand that particular items are not only newsworthy because of the focus placed upon them, but also because they are covered at the expense of other things which were not mentioned.

But here I would suggest that the mere amount of exposure cannot fully account for the totality of the effects observed. Recalling earlier class discussions on the nature of advertising, it seems fair to argue that the messages put forth by outside agencies like news media outlets must be rendered meaningful by individuals and be available for recall. In order to support this notion (and introducing a bit of Social Psychology), we might refer to Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers’ concept of the “knowledge store,” which is itself reminiscent of the availability heuristic (i.e, the mental shortcut that describes the process whereby we assign additional importance to information that we can most readily recall, creating a correlation between memorable qualities and importance). What Price, Tewksbury, and Powers suggest is that it is not enough merely to have representation, but that these representations must be vivid and able to be recalled by individuals in order to have an effect. While one might be tempted to relegate this finding to sensationalist media, I believe that the work of Price, Tewksbury, and Powers also helps us to explain the processes described in agenda-setting theory.

(O)pining Lovers

In contrast to some of the material that we read previously (broadly speaking to the Horkheimer and Adorno position) “The Spiral of Science” points to other factors in conformity—this is something that we can do to ourselves (for a particular reason) and not always something that is necessarily imposed upon us by media.

Invoking the authority/conformity studies of Milgram and Asch, Noelle-Neumann argues for a process that is more complex than might have originally been thought. Although the situation posed by Asch in his laboratory might not seem incredibly relevant to everyday activities, one might readily extrapolate the idea that social cohesion offered benefits to humans that transcended the value of being “right.” (Which also brings up the notion of objective/subjective truth because in the case of Asch’s experiment the group consensus did form a kind of localized truth and the absolute truth would be somewhat irrelevant if the group chose to act based on relative truth.) Expanded upon in the Glynn et al. chapter on social reality, I find that the space bounded by individuals’ perceptions of their environments and each other to be quite interesting.

The potential danger of mass media, then, is that it can amplify the effects that we demonstrate in society (it’s not solely about the tech) as we attempt to control or manipulate public opinion. Mass media gives people the ability to make their message more visible, which in turn factors into the spiraling effect noted by Noelle-Neumann. And although Christopher Simpson argues that Noelle-Neumann’s writings might be biased, his work also speaks to the ways in which socio-cultural factors influence the social sciences, even when they are not explicitly acknowledged.

But perhaps the most interesting concept in this week’s readings was, for me, the notion of public opinion stemming from references groups—although the idea that we define a sense of self in relationship to others (who are either similar to or different from us) does not seem incredibly revolutionary, I wonder about how such a position might inform our understanding of public opinion. If public opinion represents a coalescing of individuals, does it necessarily do so in contrast to a minority opinion (even if such a position isn’t articulated)? Expressed another way, when we align ourselves with a dominant position in public opinion, are we taking a stand with the majority or against the minority (or both)? Is to be one of us necessarily to be against one of them? And which way of configuring your message is most effective (allowing, of course, that this answer might change depending on the topic)?