The End of the Evening News
Andrea Press and Bruce Williams
Posted September 19, 2008, 4:07 PM EST
Photo by Tom Cogill
When the 20th century began, people looked to books and newspapers for entertainment and edification. As the century progressed, their options gradually increased, as radio and then television appeared on the scene. In the 1980s, if you wanted to know what happened in the world on a given day, you read the morning paper and watched the network news at night.
In the last 20 years, the primacy of the old media has, in turn, been challenged by a dramatic proliferation of new sources, from 24-hour cable channels to the Internet—all of which have diminished the power of newspapers and news anchors to serve as gatekeepers for knowledge of public events. In this new media environment, individuals not only have more choices but also the ability to act on those choices with unprecedented immediacy. With funding from the National Science Foundation, media studies professors Andrea Press and Bruce Williams have produced a snapshot of America’s developing relationship with new media a decade into the digital age.
With their backgrounds in political science and sociology, Williams and Press, who is chair of the Department of Media Studies, are interested in how the new media are changing everyday life and, in particular, how they affect people’s engagement with politics. They tracked 40 subjects over a four-month period, starting at the beginning of September 2004, to determine how people construct their own personal media environment in their overlapping roles as consumers and citizens. The study deliberately bracketed the 2004 U.S. presidential election to enable a comparison of activity during months of heightened attention to public issues with months in which private concerns predominate.
The subjects were asked to keep media diaries, which were submitted weekly. Any time they turned to media, they were asked to note whether they did so for a public or private purpose, what they looked at, and what they drew from the contact. The subjects were also interviewed several times during the study. The content of both the diaries and the interviews was carefully coded.
The results upended old assumptions. “There is a tendency among commentators to see the onset of the new media as a utopian or dystopian event, depending on their point of view,” notes Press. “In fact, we found that it didn’t necessarily involve a break with older forms. People tended to move back and forth from old to new, creating a rich and diverse media environment.” For instance, the study revealed that most people still turned to network television for specific tasks, such as following election returns.
At the same time, Press and Williams found that their subjects were more likely to accept information sourced in the new media at face value. “Because they had less experience with it, our subjects were less cautious in accepting the stories they encountered on the Internet than those they found in newspapers or on TV,” notes Williams. This less discriminating view can be harnessed for partisan ends. One reason, he feels, that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth succeeded in discrediting John Kerry’s Vietnam War record in 2004 was that its attack relied heavily on the Internet.
As time goes on and our familiarity with the new media grows, our approach is likely to become more nuanced. “In 2008, having an African American and a woman running for office is helping to make people more conscious of their sources of information and more reflective about media issues,” says Press.