No. 041



Peter Dahlgren

Queens College, C.U.N.Y

April, 1979


This is a revised version of a paper presented at the 9th World Congress of the International Sociological Association in Uppsala, Sweden, in August, 1978.  Distributed as part of the Transforming Sociology Series of The Red Feather Institute, 8085 Essex, Weidman, Michigan, 48893.

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A hermeneutic analysis of the language of TV network news shows that the consciousness which the program constitutes for the viewer is essentially a non-reflexive one. Three dimensions of non-reflexive consciousness are discussed: subordination-dependence, efficacy, as well as ahistorical orientation. In sum, the non-reflexive quality of TV news hinders the interpretation of everyday life in a way which can be linked, in a "practical" manner, to the political economy of society. The method of analysis is illustrated by examples. Finally, it is argued that non-reflexive viewer consciousness is congruent with the corporate state's need for quiescent mass loyalty in a time of fiscal crisis and declining political legitimacy.

Network TV news
has emerged over the last two decades as the dominant vehicle for interpreting national politics to the U.S. citizenry. It is through TV news that the state makes itself visible to most people on a regular basis. TV news has become the major source of news for a majority of the population, and the only news source for many; moreover, it has become the medium most trusted by the public.

One of the basic notions of liberal democracy has been that news, societal information, discourse, and debate will enable people to form opinions on issues and to convey their political will to their leaders and, thus, constitute a public sphere. "Truth" would emerge in Mill's "marketplace" of ideas. Yet, as a central constituent of today's public opinion, TV news is not merely a neutral reflection of events or record of public debate. Recent research 1 underscores that TV news is a social production that results from human decisions--selecting, editing, presenting, etc.--made under specific organizational and institutional circumstances. The point here is not to introduce the issue of journalistic bias, but rather to emphasize that TV news is a socially constructed reality. Like other genres of mass mediated news, network TV news is a form of social knowledge, a way of defining and making sense of the world.

If TV news is a social production, it can be argued that one of its products is the public itself. In other words, TV news constitutes the viewing audience as members of a national public within the political arena. To view TV news is to be a member of the public and, however indirectly, to be a participant in the political process. Thus, the essential features of TV news' way of seeing the social world, and the relationship which it constitutes with its audience, is of crucial political import. The adequacy of the public sphere thus constituted is a measure of the degree with which a society organizes the political process.

TV News as Socialization. Most research on TV news content begins with the methodological premise that TV news is essentially information. This premise leads researchers to treat TV news as consisting of discrete and variable messages which may be analyzed for their subject matter, accuracy, potential bias, and so on. An alternative point of departure is to treat TV news as an agency of ongoing socialization. It is interesting to note that TV entertainment programming, as well as advertising, has often been dealt with from this perspective. But TV news, perhaps because it claims for itself the role of information dispenser, has generally not been studied from this angle.

To treat TV news as an agency of socialization means that we are concerned with its function as a "social teacher" across time; we are interested in its "curriculum." For purposes of such research, the most significant attributes of TV news lie in its constant, recurring features-its thematic content and textual structure--rather than in its day-today informational content. In other words, we assert that TV news has the capacity to create meaning independent of the specific events to which the stories refer. At the same time, we underscore the importance of the contextual location of TV news; the programming is produced and consumed under specific social and historical circumstances, and these are crucial for understanding the meaning being conveyed by the shows.

Analyzing TV News. If TV news is treated as an agency of socialization, and we wish to elucidate the "lessons" it teaches, a hermeneutic method of analysis is appropriate. Hermeneutics can be defined as the science of interpretation. 2 Traditionally, the object to be interpreted is a text. The hermeneutic approach posits that the meaning of a text cannot be located merely in the intentions of the author, but reside in the historical situation of the interpreter as well. The interpreter must actively "make sense" of the text to reveal the meaning and does so with ultimate reference to the contextual location of the text.

Procedurally, then, we assign to TV news the status of a discourse, a text, whose structure and thematic content create a coherent symbolic world of events, people, and objects. Moreover, like any text, TV news fosters a way of knowing the world which it presents; it creates a relationship between itself and the viewer. Phrased differently, we can say that TV news establishes the parameters of a certain mode of consciousness. As a discourse, TV news makes available certain possibilities of social and self-awareness, and, by extension, excludes other possibilities. The research task is to probe the likely possibilities as well as the distortions of viewer consciousness inherent in existing TV news formats.

A few words of clarification: to study what TV news teaches is not to be confused with what is actually being learned. This methodology attempts to delineate the pure or ideal viewer consciousness, that is, the product of totally successful TV news socialization. Obviously, actual viewer consciousness will always be tempered by social and biographical factors.

Another point: the focus is almost exclusively on the aural dimension of TV news here. This decision is motivated by practical limitations rather than theoretical commitment. A full analysis of TV news would not only have to incorporate the visual dimension, but also study its relationship to the aural. However, while the TV set is indeed a visual apparatus, we would claim that in the ecology of TV viewing, the aural dimension still remains the most fundamental in this medium's capacity to convey meaning. TV is still a didactic medium; it uses pictures to a considerable extent (though not exclusively) to demonstrate complementary instances of spoken language. This is especially the case with TV news programs. A recent study of TV news in Britain found that the visuals could only be understood in terms of the journalistic discourse. As that study points out, "There are indications that in terms of comprehension, the audience gains little from visuals. They understand almost everything from hearing the script alone." 3

Reflexivity and TV News Viewing. Initial research on TV news by the author 4 using the hermeneutic approach points to the usefulness and centrality of the concept of reflexivity (discussed below) as a means fm illuminating the data. We attempt to establish if, how, and to what extent the programs offer a viewer consciousness which is reflexive or non-reflexive. Such a dichotomy undeniably means a certain lack of nuance, but it also helps us to focus our attention on what appears to be the decisive feature of the broadcasts.

The concept of reflexivity is grounded in a view which takes the dialectic between society and the individual to be an ongoing process. 5 Human beings create themselves and society through their activities and practices. The use of symbols, especially language, is integral to this process of self- and social-creation if indeed, self and society are adequately constituted.

The presence of reflexivity in viewer consciousness would mean that TV news increases the possibility that the viewer can understand, or "see," him/herself to be an active participant in the construction of the social world depicted. The viewer-citizen could make sense of TV news in a way which would be of some practical relevance for his/her own life. 6 Experiences and conflicts in private life could be interpreted, in some manner, within the context of societal arrangements. In other words, the viewer citizen would be able to understand the basic aspects of his/her own social situation in a way which directly linked them to the structure and functioning of the political economic order.

Reflexivity would make it possible for the viewer to consider, in a practical and normative way, alternative possibilities to present social circumstances. The reflective consciousness is one which learns from its own shared social experiences--from its own history--to contemplate the present in a critical way. Reflexivity, in short, is not only the key element in human growth. It is also, from the standpoint of traditional democratic theory, the cognitive capacity required for the "good society" to function. As Habermas suggests, a genuine public discourse necessitates a public sphere in which the practical work of reflexive human beings addresses themselves to political issues not as isolated individuals but as persons contributing to collective discourse.

A non-reflexive consciousness, on the other hand, is conceptualized as an object of history. Such a consciousness does not see itself as a participant in the construction of the social world; it sees itself as merely acted upon by the social world. Non-reflexivity is not necessarily identical with passivity or lack of involvement. Rather, the absence of reflexivity describes the quality of the involvement under question: the exclusion of potential awareness of an "otherness" to the existing social relations from which it derives. Consciousness is solidified and frozen, structuring a relationship of domination. Some examples of this form of consciousness include unquestioned authority patterns within the family, reified social structures of hierarchy in bureaucracies, labor's acceptance of its subordinate to capital, and uncritical acquiescence to the legitimacy of "experts."

Three Sources of Non-Reflexivity. TV news discourse contributes to the socialization of a non-reflexive consciousness. Though it does not do so exclusively nor without a number of problems in the process, yet non-reflexivity emerges as the overwhelming thrust. We find it useful to distinguish three ways T.V. news generates this non-reflexive viewer consciousness:

1. Viewer consciousness is situated in a relationship of subordination and dependence vis-a-vis several social forces or categories depicted on TV news. These include "officialdom," the imperatives of technology and capital, and experts (including technical, scientific and administrative ones). Also, the viewer is situated in this manner to TV news itself. TV news, as a subject-in-the-world, presents an awesome display of technological capacity; its enterprise is global, seemingly unhampered by factors of geography or time. It never reveals the limits of its capacities or knowledge. The viewer is clearly demarcated as an outsider, and at the same time taught the need to be taught by TV news--i.e., dependence.

2. As a corollary, viewer consciousness is socialized to be essentially inefficacious. The public is rarely presented as social actors who shape the social world. The domain of acceptable citizen activity is extremely delimited. Collective behavior, as depicted on TV news is always a phenomenon to view skeptically; in it lurks the potential threat of unreason, the breakdown of the smooth rationality on which the portrayed social order rests. However, election campaigns and voting stand out as marked exceptions to this. (As does the consumption advocated by the commercials.) Voting, of course, is not an activity likely to restructure the fundamental constellations of wealth and power in society.

3. Finally, and perhaps most crucial for non-reflexivity, this consciousness is historically static. TV news discourse socializes consciousness to be incapable of learning from its own collective past experience. Thus, from TV news, the viewer learns neither how to transcend the consciousness of dependence and lack of efficacy (this must come from other sources and experience) nor how to interpret his/her present situation with a reference to the past or to a possible future.

Non-Reflexive TV News Discourse: Some Examples. These three dimensions of non-reflexive viewer consciousness are achieved by both the textual structure and the thematic content as well as by its contextual location, i.e., the "public" sphere of late capitalism. A variety of devices and elements, by no means systematic, constitute this non-reflexive quality within the news discourse. To attempt to provide an inventory of them lies beyond the scope of this paper, yet we do wish to point out that the three dimensions of non-reflexivity discussed above describes the possible consciousness which derives from TV network news as a whole. Thus, any one particular story may produce non-reflexivity in a limited way, as an instance of the qualities we attribute to the discourse in its entirety. And, it must be emphatically added, there are indeed occasional stories on TV news which at least make the reproduction of non-reflexive consciousness problematic in that instance. (We do want to stress that non-reflexivity is not an intentional goal on the part of newspeople as they follow their occupational routines). 7

Perhaps the most feasible way to show how this interpretive textual analysis of TV news proceeds is to illustrate the method with a few short examples. In this way we can suggestively highlight some of the more common features of TV news discourse which contribute to the suppression of the viewer's reflexivity.
Consider the following news story:

One can treat this story from the standpoint of the specific information it conveys, that is, elements of the content which are specific and unique to this story. However, if our interest is in TV news as socialization, our focus is largely on those features which are recurring and contribute to the construction of the ongoing world of TV news. Thus we turn our attention to thematic content. Of course, familiarity with themes, in the sense of categories of actors, settings, conflicts, and so on within the narrative, emerge through viewing TV news regularly. Gradually, despite the daily informational content, one begins to perceive recognizable themes which unquestionably define the TV news world.

Thus, in this story, not only do we recognize the narrative as news language which produces the world of TV news and offers an instance of that world, but also we find a number of themes which reveal definitive attributes about that world. In this story, the setting and the entire progression of action are entirely within the bureaucratic confines of governmental activity, with some reference to the domain of the military and its technological activity. The GAO is described as the "investigating arm" of Congress, conveying a sense of that body's initiative as a fact-finding institution; Congress is not passive in this regard. Officialdom is appropriately in motion; indeed, this display reiterates a common theme, namely that the world of TV news is to a great extent shaped by the activities of officials.

The dramatic conflict within the narrative has three basic components: the Pentagon has apparently misled Congress (though this violation is not underscored in a manner which evokes any reflection on the basic nature of the relationship between the military and the interests of advanced transnational capital; the Pentagon is merely reported here to have been "naughty"); there are technical problems in some new weapons systems (the question of their necessity is left untouched); and the taxpayer may be paying for these problems (though this is but mentioned in passing--the spending of tax revenues, and the public's control over them is not part of the drama).

None of these points are developed or even given any form of dramatic resolution within the confines of the narrative. They are presented, but then left hanging. Instead, the story makes an abrupt shift, and becomes an inventory of some of the technical problems, deploying some specialized jargon. The final half of the story is a dwelling on technical detail, which evokes the need for expertise--not only to solve the problems but even just to understand them.

At all possible points for a dramatic development which could invite viewer involvement in a critical way, there is a clear deflection. The viewer is left with an account which disturbs nothing within the world presented. The magnitude of the Pentagon budget, the necessity for expensive weapons like the ones named, the fiscal policies of tax structure itself as well as federal spending, accountability for mismanagement, and other potentially troubling topics which could emerge from the story are all avoided. At no point is there the slightest suggestion that an agent external to officialdom could or should become involved. While taxpayers might have been ripped off, they are now in good hands with the GAO of Congress. The viewer is essentially irrelevant to the events described or to any events likely to follow from this news story. If there is any further action to be taken, the viewer can only anticipate that they will come from the appropriate state authority.

The story, while pointing to a problem within the domain of officialdom, nevertheless constitutes an affirmation, both of the primacy of this domain within the world of TV news. as well as of its unchanging character. The striving toward technical and administrative improvement is the only history suggested in this social order. The textual structure of the story, by discouraging normative involvement and separating the events from any practical considerations by the viewer, situates the viewer as a spectator to that history. By discouraging any thought of the political implications of the story, this domain of officialdom becomes further defined precisely by its insularity from any input by the public.

This news item, like so many others, simply displays officialdom exercising its routine functions. The importance of these displays lies in their cumulative reiteration of the "normal," that the range of activities and the power of officialdom are such that it has consequences for virtually all domains of the social world. In short, social life becomes cast as dependent upon, even made possible by, the activities of officialdom. Let us look at two other very short news items:

The first story was augmented by numerical stockmarket data, superimposed over the visual presentation of the newscaster. Both stories are brief, but terseness is not the key to the analysis. Despite their brevity, these stories accomplish a number of things and contribute, in their own way, to the suppression of reflexivity.

That industrial production "increased," that the stock market is "up today," and that personal income "rose" are elements of thematic content which serve to depict the economy as a mythic force. The movements of this force reflect the motions of Nature, not human action in History. This is not a political economy, or even a social economy, but virtually a natural economy, abstracted from its social origins and settings, and from human experience. The economy becomes a reified spectacle whose fluctuations are recorded and reported as aggregate figures and tabular statistics. The record-keeping celebrates the spectacle, becoming a barometric reading which is to be indicative of the level of social well being. The technical talk and measurement remind the viewer of the experts equipped to do such work. Hierarchy and dependence are also obvious implications, for the viewer is at the same time reminded of his/her own relative incompetence in these matters.

The viewer is invited to share in the knowledge of the experts who monitor, and at times, intercede in attempts to modify the movements of the spectacle, but not to reflect on his/her relationship, as an active subject, to the economy. The spectacle absorbs interest in itself, but points nowhere: it requires no praxis. The viewer is merely enjoined to wait for the next official reading or action, hoping that it will bring good news. The reification at work here alters the sense of potential efficacy with which the viewer attends the story. That which appears to be a manifestation of Nature will simply be perceived as less amenable to social intervention, and hence less likely to become a topic for critical reflection and collective action.

The language of these two stories is technical and ritualistic, and, like bureaucratic language, keeps the viewer's involvement at a distance. 8 Alternatively, other stories, using personification as a structural element, can invite involvement with a media person (politician, entertainer, and so on) and thereby deflect attention from politically more substantial issues. In either case, however, that which is circumvented is viewer reflexivity.

Perhaps one of the more central features of the TV news show as a whole is that the thematic contents of one story often bear little obvious relationship to another, nor to any larger totality. As several writers have suggested, this results in a view of the world which is highly fragmented. 9 The social order seemingly consists of sequences of decontextualized events, mitigating the development of a holistic understanding of society. Crime, poverty, war, child abuse, pollution,,'inflation, labor unrest and other themes are separated from each other by the basic organization of the format.

The textual structure of the three stories transcribed here, as well as most news stories, locates social knowledge as emanating from high placed sources within the encapsulated world described by the narratives. The knowledge then flows to the viewer, who learns the need to be taught about a world in which he/she plays no part in shaping, The tendency to exclude references to the viewer's own lived experiences diminishes the possibility that knowledge about the social order would result, for the viewer, from a synthesis of external information and the interpretation of one's everyday life. The viewer is rendered subordinate and inefficacious, and is situated outside of History.

Viewer Consciousness and Social Structure. We mentioned at the outset that the contextual location of TV news is crucial for understanding its meaning. That context is the relationship between the citizens and the corporate state which TV news mediates. Following Hall (1974) we claim that while TV news does at times have genuine conflicts with the state, it is institutionally situated within the orbital sphere of the dominant classes and groups. It may at times experience a "double bind" (Hall's term) between its attempt to appear as an independent, critical agent, and its commitment to the prevailing social arrangements. Yet TV news must be understood as serving an integrative function by its ongoing socialization of viewer consciousness.

In fact, from a systemic point of view, the features of non-reflexive consciousness appear as logical expression of what the vested interests of the social order require. As a vast body of literature has pointed out, the various crises of advanced capitalism has given rise to an increasingly interventionist state to manage and regulate not only the economy but also many domains of everyday life. 10 Such state activity is difficult to legitimize in terms of traditional liberal norms, especially given the class bias of the intervention (much state activity is geared toward providing a climate suitable for capital accumulation). 11 Yet the state needs a minimal level of popular support and legitimacy. The optimal solution is to evoke a generalized (non-policy specific) popular acclaim, and severely constrict true political discussion. That is, certain kinds of state policies and options simply do not become topics of political conflict in the public sphere.

What the corporate state needs from the populace we can call quiescent mass loyalty. This is characterized by: moderate levels of formal political participation; non-intrusion with the political and administrative activities at the state; non-interference with the power of capital to shape the basic contours of society; cooperative involvement in the economic sphere as a docile labor force and predictable consumers; acceptance of the prevailing social ideology to interpret their experiences and define their needs; and lack of genuine political power to challenge the dominant social arrangements. Quiescent mass loyalty, in short, would permit the state to mobilize the populace in a stance of uncritical support while separating it from the centers of economic and political command.

Non-reflexive viewer consciousness is congruent with the corporate state's need for quiescent mass loyalty. In fact, we would go so far as to say that at present, TV news is one of the core agencies in the production and reproduction of present levels of quiescent mass loyalty. Whether TV news will continue to function in this way remains to be seen. (We suspect that TV's role in the upheavals of the 1960's, albeit unintentional, was a significant one.) The larger question, of course, concerns the continuation of quiescent mass loyalty--or even minimal acquiescence--to the corporate state. For the corporate state, as well as those who would transform it, the present always remains precarious.

If the various news media are to contribute to fostering genuinely democratic tendencies in society, they must actively orient themselves to the production of a transformed public sphere. A truly democratic society requires a populace informed on the significant issues of the day in the context of the continuing history of the social order. TV news would have to offer a reflexive consciousness to the audience; only this would enable the public to develop critical self-knowledge of their society and of TV news as well. At present, TV news mystifies rather than clarifies; political thinking based on TV news becomes paralyzed rather than mobilized. As such, TV news helps reduce the public sphere while, falsely, presenting itself as a public resource.

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Altheide, David 1976 Creating Reality: How TV News Distorts Events. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Dahlgren, Peter 1977 "Network TV News and the Corporate State." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York.

Edelman, Murray 1977 Political Language. New York: Academic Press.

Epstein, Howard 1973 News From Nowhere. New York: Vintage.

Freire, Paulo 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed? New York: Seabury Press.

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Habermas, Jurgen 1975 Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, Jurgen 1979 Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon Press.

Hall, Stuart 1974 "Media Power: The Double Bind." Journal of Communication (Autumn).

Gadamer, Hans-George 1975a "Hermeneutics and Social Science." Cultural Hermeneutics 4(4).

Gadamer, Hans-George 1975b Truth and Method. New York: Seabury Press.

Gadamer, Hans-George 1976 "The Historicity of Understanding." In Paul Connerton, ed., Critical Sociology. New York: Penguin.

Glasgow Media Group 1976 "Bad News." Theory and Society (Fall).

Mead, George Herbert 1964 Mind, Self and Society. Edited by A. Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morley, David 1976 "Industrial Conflict and the Media." The Sociological Review (May).

Mueller, Claus 1973 The Politics of Communication- New York: Oxford University Press.

Offe, Claus 1976 "Political Authority and Class Structure." In Paul Connerton, ed., Critical Sociology. New York: Penguin.

O'Connor, James 1973 The Fiscal Crisis of the State. New York: St. Martin's.

Pateman, Trevor 1975 Language, Truth, and Politics. Reading, U.K.: Jean Stroud and Trevor Pateman.

Schiller, Herbert 1973 The Mind Managers. Boston: Beacon Press.

Tuchman, Gaye 1978a Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality. New York: Free Press.

Tuchman, Gaye 1978b "Professionalism as an Agent of Legitimation." Journal of Communication 28(2).

Wolfe, Alan 1977 The Limits of Legitimacy. New York: Free Press.

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For example, Epstein (1973), Altheide (1976), and Tuchman (1978). Return
Hermeneutics, a "cultural science," has a long intellectual history. For a contemporary statement, see Gadamer (1975a, 1975b, 1976). Return
The Glasgow Media Group (1976). Return
Dahlgren (1977). Return
Versions of the concept of reflexivity are given theoretical grounding in the works of Hegel, with his notion of consciousness learning from itself, and in Mead's (-1964) dialectic of the "I" and the "me." Habermas' (1971, 1972, 1979) concept of "communicative competence" is relevant here, too. Other applications of the basic idea of reflexivity can be found in Freire (1970) and Pateman (1975). Morley (1976) and Mueller (1973) incorporate related versions in their media studies. Return
Practical" here has the sense of praxis or activity grounded in the human interest concerning questions of the "good" and the "should." Return
While research on news production emphasizes organizational imperatives and newspeople's concept of professionalism, organizations operate within a particular social structure, and, moreover, profes-sionalism itself can well embody a legitimating ideology. Return
The work of Murray Edelman stresses the quiescent consequences of bureaucratic language. See, for example, his most recent work (1977). Return
For instance, Schiller (1973). Return
Offe (1976) provides a concise overview and interpretation of these developments. Return
O'Connor (1973), Habermas (1975) and Wolfe (1977) elaborate on this theme. Return

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