W. Joseph Campbell

Puncturing media myths: A case for modest media influence

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Jessica Lynch, Media myths, Murrow-McCarthy myth, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 7, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism punctures prominent media-driven myths—false, dubious, and improbable stories about the news media that masquerade as factual.

The 10 tales debunked in Getting It Wrong often ascribe power, significance, and sometimes great courage to the news media and their practitioners. The book dismantles the legend of Edward R. Murrow’s crushing the menace of McCarthyism, of Walter Cronkite’s effectively ending a faraway and unpopular war, and of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s toppling Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency.

Those stories, I write, “are compelling and exert an enduring allure; to expose them as exaggerated or untrue is to take aim at the self-importance of American journalism.”

I further write:

“To identify these tales as media myths is to confront the reality that the news media are not the powerful agents they, and many others, assume them to be.”

Indeed, it is quite rare for any news report to trigger a powerful, immediate, and decisive reaction akin to President Lyndon Johnson’s purported woe-is-me response to Cronkite’s televised assessment about Vietnam in 1968: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” (Or words to that effect.)

Researchers long ago dismissed the notion that the news media can create profound and immediate effects, as if absorbing media messages were akin to receiving potent drugs via a hypodermic needle.

Debunking media-driven myths thus enhances the case for modest or limited media effects. Getting It Wrong points out that “too often the ubiquitous presence of the news media is mistaken for power and influence.” Robert J. Samuelson, a columnist who writes on economics issues for Newsweek and the Washington Post, has described this fallacy notably well.

“Because the media are everywhere—and inspire much resentment—their influence is routinely exaggerated,” Samuelson wrote in Newsweek in 2003. “The mistake is in confusing visibility with power, and the media are often complicit in the confusion. We [in the news media] embrace the mythology, because it flatters our self-importance.”

What’s more, the news media nowadays are too diverse and too splintered—into print, broadcast, cable, satellite, and online options—to exert much collective or sustained influence on policymakers and broader audiences.

And as Herbert Gans, a sociologist who has written widely about the news media, once noted:

“If news audiences had to respond to all the news to which they are exposed, they would not have time to live their own lives. In fact, people screen out many things, including news, that could interfere with their own lives.”

That’s for sure. Large numbers of Americans ignore the news altogether: They are beyond media influence in any case. Nearly 20 percent of American adults go newsless on a typical day, according to a study conducted in 2008 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The newsless option is particularly striking among young adults, 18-to-24-years-old. Thirty-four percent of that cohort goes newsless, according to Pew Research. (That proportion represents a substantial increase from 1998 when 25 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old cohort shunned the news.)

Media power tends to be modest, nuanced, diffused, and situational. And overstated.

Debunking media-driven myths helps place media influence in a more coherent, more rational context.

WJC

A version of this post first appeared at the University of California Press blog.

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