Posts Tagged ‘media theory’

Agenda setting

datePosted on 14:43, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

While I don’t intend to post on the substance of what has become known as the Napier siege, this sort of event happens rarely and has profound consequences for NZ’s political-media agenda. Maxwell McCombs’ view (based on a study of the 1968 US Presidential campaign) was that it wasn’t so much that the media tell you what to think as what to think about. Currently there’s only one game in town. How might stakeholders respond?

Under the radar: With wall-to-wall coverage (good commentary on its ghastly nature at Ethical Martini), now is the ideal time to sneak out news which must be released but which the releaser doesn’t want to receive wide coverage. Good comms managers will be instructing their minions to air all their dirty laundry this afternoon, before the black hole that is this weekend, and while the media agencies’ resources are stretched. Watch the Scoop wires; there might be some interesting releases.

Police image rehabilitation: Not that it’s intentional, and certainly not to imply that it’s somehow a beneficial thing to lose an officer in the line of duty, but this event and its coverage is manna from heaven for a police force beleaguered by public image problems and allegations of incompetence and corruption. From the facts which are available, it seems the police are 100% in the right here – they arrived unarmed and without intention to provoke any sort of conflict on a mundane policing matter and were met with deadly force. All their dealings with gunman, media and the public have been calm, patient and disciplined. If they succeed in their stated objective of ending this situation without further loss of life (including the life of Jan Molenaar) then they will rightly enjoy a huge resurgence of public sympathy.

Crime and punishment lobby: This looks to be a case which doesn’t tick too many hang’em-flog’em boxes, in that it’s a drug crime but (apparently) not a high-level drug crime; there is no gang involvement; committed by a middle-aged white man in a nice middle-class suburb. It may be difficult to turn this into an iconic crime case, although there are some ready angles: gun control for instance. That won’t stop the usual suspects from trying to make political capital of it – some commenters around the ‘sphere already are.

The future of NZ policing: This will undoubtedly have enormous implications for police doctrine and practice. It seems likely that, at a minimum, it will result in the Police Association calling for police to be better-armed and equipped, at least when conducting any sort of invasive operation. It will probably provide a basis for a more militaristic, less community-based approach to policing – in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture.

(Update 19:20: Stuff’s opinion poll has been updated to ask “Do you think all police should be armed?”, surprisingly not overwhelmingly in the affirmative (screenshot). Smart opportunistic stuff by the Fairfax Digital editors, in contrast to the Herald, who’re still asking for predictions on the Rugby League. Comments on the article are a fairly predictable mix of outrage, condolence, disbelief and armchair expertise.)

Whatever the case, we’re in for interesting times. I hope, as the police do, that the situation is resolved quickly, cleanly and without bloodshed.

There are plenty more possible issues in play here – feel free to discuss them in comments. But I won’t allow this to descend into ideological arguments about the specifics of the case, so please don’t try.

L

A useful press release generator, or three

datePosted on 22:32, March 5th, 2009 by Lew

DPF’s post mentioning MediaCom, which allows you to get/send press releases via NZPA feed, reminded me of this, which I’ve been meaning to post for awhile. The reason PR companies need to spam people with press releases is because at a basic level they’re so easy to write that almost any idiot can hack one out in half an hour, and so people do. If you’re someone who relies on them, by the time you’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs in order to figure out whether the press release has anything relevant for you, its writer has already won.

Not to say that writing good press releases is easy – far from it, writing genuinely good press releases is extremely hard; so hard that very few people actually can, and even for those people it can seem futile because nobody knows whether your press release is any better than all the rest of the guff which is clogging their intertubes until they’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs. If you’re a CommsTart,* this is a very important skill, however, because by writing good press releases you give the overworked, underpaid minions of the Corporate News Machine a labour-saving device, and if you can consistently write to spec they will gladly shortlist your releases for pre-publication, sight unseen, because they don’t have time to read the title and the first three paragraphs because … well …

That stuff in them there press releases ends up in your media. I don’t have it to hand (Kate, can I have it back?), but I seem to recall that very thorough Cardiff University research commissioned by Nick Davies’ for his excellent book Flat Earth News found that no more than 12% of articles published in major British papers were entirely free from material published by someone’s PR department or agency. In my work as a media analyst, if I actually want to find out about a major issue I go to Scoop and try to triangulate the facts from everyone’s press releases before I bother with the actual end-user media outlets. It’s rare they can tell me something the stakeholders’ CommsTarts haven’t already.

These facts – it’s easy to do badly, hard to do well, indispensable and ubiquitous – are not lost upon the wags of the media world, who have taken delight in lampooning this most cherished aspect of their craft. There are lots of press release generators out there. Most are good for a black bit of fun – this by one of our few remaining satirists Lyndon Hood only deals with the the one topic of child abuse, but it has good bones.

For the 80th birthday of AdNews, the Sydney office of Clemenger BBDO made this handy visual self-congratulatory press release generator:
adnews80thclem
(From commercial-archive.com.)
They know their stuff: this remains one of the best ways of quickly and efficiently putting together a quality press release – chop all the information up into bits of paper and arrange it so it flows, with just (barely) enough glue to keep people reading. Remember: the title and three paragraphs, and you win.

If you want industrial-strength, this one is made of much sterner stuff. Written by a computer programmer back in the Nineties and endlessly hacked on since, it and its variations will generate a dense blob of impressive verbiage – Bush-speak, web jargon, whatever you want. If fed the right source material, it would probably generate a halfway-competent press release.

It goes the other way, too – David Slack, in homage to George Orwell and Christopher Ketcham, created a DuckSpeak Translator which, if fed media-ready prose, would deliver you a lot of QUACKs and perhaps (if you were very fortunate or the author was very clever) a few actual words and even an idea. The DuckSpeak Translator is sadly no more, brought to its knees by the fact that David allowed any old idiot to add phrases to its vocabulary, so that by the time I got to using it sometime in 2006 it was so thoroughly clogged that you could put anything in and get nothing back but quacks – which may have been the intention after all. I think the project should be revived with a clean database, and phrases only admitted to its vocabulary if they have been taken cleanly from some rich source of such matter – such as the Hansard, or press releases. That’d be something worth quacking about.

L

* I use the term in gender-neutral reference to anyone whose work is tarting up their client’s self-interest so it can be mistaken for news.

Edit: Heh, the `or three’ on the end of the title was an afterthought added without reference to the previous post, which also contains it :)

Montage

datePosted on 17:47, March 3rd, 2009 by Lew

As a dedicated media geek, I wake up each morning to New Zealand’s broadcast news of record – the masterful Geoff Robinson, the muscular Sean Plunket, and the metronomically-consistent Nicola Wright on Radio NZ National’s Morning Report. These three I consider to be among the top talent in the NZ media industry, and we are fortunate to have them.

I also have a lot of time for Checkpoint‘s Mary Wilson – not quite so obdurate as Sean Plunket, but with as little patience for prevarication. It seems the producer who put together the advertising frob for Checkpoint which aired between the sport and weather segments of yesterday’s 0600 bulletin also has a good ear. You can listen to it here, but I’ve transcribed the good bits:

First speaker: We are not a country of whiners, we are not a country of slackers and we are not a country of selfish individuals. We are a gritty little country with the smarts and determination needed to weather this storm.

(Mary Wilson introduces Checkpoint)

Second speaker: You feel as though you’ve been marched out with a blindfold on and tied up to a pole, and your own army is there as the firing squad.

Now, neither of the speakers either side of Wilson is identified. That’s an important point – the first speaker is immediately recognisable as John Key, and his words are clearly to do with the recession and economically troubled times ahead (in fact, from his opening speech at the Job Summit); a bold bit of chin-up-what-what jingoism. Even if you don’t know who the second speaker was or what he’s talking about, his statement is so strongly worded and his tone so far removed from Key’s that they jar in relation to one another; and although the statements are topically different, their contrast and proximity to one another implies a relationship. Although they’re not obviously linked, a listener (in principle) goes away associating John Key’s upbeat jingoism with one’s own army as the firing squad – a hugely disturbing mental picture if you care to think about it. This is an example of the semiotic technique of associative montage, perfected by Soviet filmmakers, where parts of a text are contextualised and given affective weight by their relationship to other parts of the text (in this case, audio; in the classical case, still or moving images on film).

Because I failed to listen to Checkpoint last week when the story about the Army raincoats was in the news, it took a bit of research to find out it was Davey Hughes of Swazi who said the second bit. And it turns out that there is a link between the statements – but not the link you might expect; a real army but a metaphorical firing squad, and nothing to do with John Key. As a matter of reality, the government isn’t in a position to force the NZDF to choose one supplier over another mid-term, and to do so would set a dangerous precedent and open the government up to well-justified allegations of protectionism.*

Not that this makes any difference to the message as received by a naïve listener to this piece. Montage, like other semiotic grammars but perhaps to a greater extent because we’re unused to it, transmits its meaning subconsciously. Actual rational reality doesn’t necessarily get a look in. Now, I’m not arguing that there’s a wily frob-producer at NatRad who’s employing Soviet montage techniques to propagandise John Key in the minds of loyal public-service broadcasting listeners, though I suppose if you were especially paranoid you could argue that airing it at wake o’clock in the morning makes it easier to prey upon the weakened rationality of the half-asleep.

This is the stuff of which peoples’ impressions are made – people have a feeling about a leader, they can’t quite put a finger on it and haven’t necessarily given it any serious thought, but nevertheless it’s their opinion and they cling to it. Despite Labour’s technically excellent but somewhat nasty `Mary’ ads in the dying days before the election, there seem to be very few such impressions of John Key. But he’s a leader going into a long term of economic downturn, and he can look forward to more such as this.

L

* You could argue that the NZDF should choose NZ-made gear – and the All Blacks should use Canterbury rather than adidas – but the fact is that Key can’t simply make it so.

The department of made-up numbers

datePosted on 16:15, February 27th, 2009 by Lew

This excellent article did the rounds in my department at work today, about the methodological rigour (or lack thereof) in ratings, on which I’ve been meaning to write a post for a while.

I refer almost daily to such demographic information – ratings, audience/circulation, readership and particularly advertising value equivalents – as `the department of made-up numbers’ because, basically, that’s what they are. At best, they are a set of figures which, while deeply flawed, are horizontally and vertically consistent, and well-enough understood that their failings can be accounted for (this approximates a definition of any useful long-term demographic data). At worst, they are the patina of officious statistical rigour over a set of numbers tuned to tell people whatever the media outlet, its owners, or its PR company want people to know – and that means they’re designed to fool. Most often, a given dataset lies in between – in the murky liminal zone where it’s impossible to tell whether it’s the former or the latter or something else entirely without access to the raw data and its provenance, which is nearly always impossible to get, and would entail phenomenal amounts of very specialised, expensive, time-consuming work to make sense of even if you could get it.

Despite these dire problems, demographic data, ratings, audience/circulation and advertising value equivalent data are the mainstay of the media and communications industry’s performance measurement infrastructure, for two simple reasons: First, it gives you nice clear figures to prove your department is doing its job; and second, nothing else does, because media demographics is the art of measuring the unmeasurable. So people who are otherwise cautious and crafty and suspicious just accept the numbers at face value and trust them implicitly because the alternative is no data, and with apologies to the Bard, nothing will come of nothing.

This reliance on demographic figures is highly detrimental to the health of the media industry, because the data can’t be verified, and there exists an inflation imperative. I dislike comparisons to communism as a rule, but there’s a parallel in this sort of reporting in the media/PR/comms industry as it presently is to the problems of productivity reporting seen in the 20s in the USSR and the 50s in China. When both producers and their supposedly independent auditors are ranked according to the quantity – not the quality – of the figures they produce, there inevitably emerges a tendency to inflate those figures.

In the USSR and China, wheat and rice yields were inflated in this way, because the producers would be punished if their yields fell, and the municipal authorities didn’t look too closely at the production figures because they would be punished if their municipality’s yields fell. Central government assumed these figures were correct, and based budgets and food allocations and projections and such upon them, planning more than they could realistically achieve because there was in fact less food than they thought in the granaries.

If we substitute `food’ for `ratings, I think the parallel is pretty clear: the media are relying on bad data to demonstrate that their product has value to advertisers first and journalistic merit second and to boost the egos of their stable of opinion leaders third; internal communications departments use it to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns and initiatives; external PR firms use it to prove their worth to client companies; boards of directors rely on it to make decisions about what publicity campaigns to fund, which products to launch, and who to promote. All this is good money thrown after bad – frankly, it’s a miracle it hasn’t all come tumbling down sooner.

L

On blog conduct

datePosted on 10:48, February 13th, 2009 by Lew

Or, this is not a democracy, it’s a private residence, get used to it. But we need you, and you apparently need us, so let’s do what we can to get along.

Weblogs and online discussion forums are a type of feedback media, where the published content forms the opening chapter, not the entire story. In feedback media, there are broadly two groups of participants, who I’ll term proprietors and contributors; the former being those who operate the medium and provide its `official’ content, the latter those who participate in the medium by adding their own content. The nature of the relationship between these two groups is critical in determining how the medium functions. This post is a quick examination of how feedback media operate at a theoretical level, a survey of examples, and a rationale for dual-mode gatekeeping, with a view to creating an environment conducive to quality discourse which is largely free of personal feuds and partisan point-scoring.

The Dump Button
Though there are others, the canonical mainstream feedback media are the letters-to-the-editor page and talk radio. In either of those media, a proprietor has the unilateral ability to prevent or limit contributors’ participation – in the case of the newspaper editor, the mechanism is `points noted’; radio hosts have a button with which they can drop a caller between when she starts speaking and when she goes to air – traditionally, this timeframe is seven seconds. Blog proprietors have a range of similar devices at their disposal.

This has important implications when viewed in the light of one of the fundamental pieces of media theory – Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, which argues that a given text is encoded with meaning by its creator, and that meaning is decoded by the person reading it, who can accept, partially accept or wholly reject the encoder’s frame of reference (not the content; that’s a different matter with which Hall was not largely concerned). In principle, the presence of gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above means it’s virtually impossible to have a statement published which the proprietor doesn’t want to be there. The logical flipside of this is: if your comment gets published, it’s because the proprietor wants it to be published, and for their own reasons.

Symbiosis
Proprietors of feedback media generally have plenty of reasons for wanting to allow content to be published, the primary one of which is the symbiotic relationship they have with contributors. The nature of the content and the nature of the gatekeeping are the two primary factors which determine the tone of a medium; the former largely because of the contributors it attracts and the latter largely because of the contributors it drives away. When Lindsay Perigo took over from John Banks on his Radio Pacific talk show, many regular callers kept calling because the political content Perigo aired was quite similar. Banks was extremely tolerant of callers who took a while to get to the point – he rarely, if ever, cut people off, and he had a great deal of time for listening to peoples’ stories. Perigo was the opposite; he guided the show much more firmly and did not generally tolerate callers chatting about trivial or mundane matters, and that changed his audience and his contributors. Banks’ loyal callers became quite displeased when Perigo, for instance, dedicated an entire hour of his show to the songs of Mario Lanza, of whom they’d never heard, and became irate when he lost his temper with some of the more elderly callers and began to cut them off for not sticking to the programme or saying anything he considered meaningful. Gradually, the old callers stopped calling and were replaced by a new set: younger, less religious, sharper of tongue, etc.

Gatekeeping Models
Plenty of different gatekeeping models exist in practice. I’ll focus on four which are fairly archetypal. Each creates a different atmosphere.
1. Slashdot. The lunatic asylum model. Members control almost everything. This results in a community which is extremely tolerant of insults, memes, tomfoolery, and has an incredibly low signal to noise ratio.
2. Kiwiblog. The echo chamber model. Content is published by DPF, commented upon by members, who use a karma system and are subject to a demerit system (operated by DPF) which is more theoretical than anything. This results in a sort of groupthink; not because DPF enforces it, but because he allows his commentariat to do so, creating a recursive loop of abuse which deters dissenters from participating. There is an argument that DPF (who’s a thoroughly decent bloke, quite unlike his comment threads) keeps his blog this way in order to make himself look sensible and reasonable by comparison.
3. No Right Turn. The Holy Sepulchre model. Content is published by Idiot/Savant, and that’s what you get. Idiot/Savant took the opposite line to DPF and turned off comments altogether a good long while ago. The result is almost pure signal, very little noise. I/S is frequently referred to by and comments on other blogs to maintain the feedback aspect of his medium.
4. The Standard. The noisy tavern model. Content is posted and comments are moderated by a group of writers, and Lynn Prentice, who tolerates very little of the sort of abuse for which KB is known. In general this results in a more congenial atmosphere, with a wide range of dissenting voices who are usually treated with at least a modicum of respect. However, it still gets pretty heated because there is no clear delineation between content and conveyance.

The Living Room Model
Anita’s model for Kiwipolitico is of a living room in which robust and complex but civil and reasoned discussions take place. This implies rights and responsibilities, and although I’ve only recently moved in (as it were) I shall presume to list a few as I see them. These apply equally to proprietors and to contributors.

* You have a right to be treated as an honourable contributor and to be free from serious personal attacks, abuse or character assassination.
* You have a right to not have your personal or professional life dragged into a discussion unless you allow it, or it is somehow germane to a legitimate matter of debate.
* You have a responsibility to defend and substantiate your arguments and assertions, not to assume that because people here are civil you can get away with a weak argument or unproven claims.
* You have a responsibility to adhere to and enforce these standards of conduct to the extent you are able.

Sir Karl Popper (and others) argued that if a society is perfectly tolerant of any and all behaviour, it must tolerate behaviour which is destructive of toleration itself, eventually leading to a general absence of toleration. This is pretty clearly evident in the Slashdot and Kiwiblog examples above and to a lesser extent in The Standard example, where because of a greater or lesser lack of discipline, much worthwhile discussion is simply drowned out, and the signal to noise ratio drops. The problem is usually not with the arguments, which can be well-reasoned and supported; it is the attacks and epithets which accompany those arguments which deters dissent. Therefore, in order to privilege argument over attacks, the content to be argued and the means by which it is argued need to be treated separately. The living room model requires that there be little or no gatekeeping of argument itself, coupled with strict gatekeeping of the means by which that argument is conveyed – essentially: make what points you choose, but do so in good faith and in accordance with decent norms of conduct and reasoned debate.

The point and purpose of the model is to separate arguer and argument for the purpose of criticism. You should be vulnerable to critique only on the grounds of your arguments, your ideas, or your conduct. Good ideas and arguments, cleanly made and supported by evidence and logic, will thrive here regardless of their ideological bent, but arguments resorting to personal attacks, abuse, absurd hyperbole, rash generalisation or wilful misinterpretation to make a point will perish whether we agree with their premises or not, because these are the signs of a hollow argument which lacks a valid foundation. While you will be sheltered from personal attacks, don’t expect your argument to be sheltered or defended by the proprietors; indeed, we may take great glee in watching it be torn asunder, as long as the tearing is done in a civil, justified and reasoned fashion. Finally, toleration breeds toleration. If you consistently exhibit good character and careful arguments, occasional minor indiscretions may be overlooked. This is a privilege to be earned, and I hope everyone will earn it.

L

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